If it's beautiful, is it still modern dance?
In 1995, a piece of dance criticism appeared in The New Yor ker that received just as much attention as any of Tina Brown's intentionally sensationalistic gimmicks. The piece, written by Arlene Croce, was about "Still/Here," a work by choreographer Bill T. Jones. In the dance, Jones, who had been recently diagnosed as HIV positive, presented video clips of people talking about their life-threatening illnesses. Croce wrote that "by putting dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. … I can't review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about." She didn't even go to see the show. A firestorm ensued, in which you had the likes of Joyce Carol Oates attacking Croce and Susan Sontag attacking Oates. The Croce piece became a bellwether on where one stood not just on modern dance but on the broader issue of "victim art." As with other mediums, dance was being judged not by any sort of formal standards, but by the ideas, often political, that the choreographer was trying to express.
Six years later, Bill T. Jones says he's now "far more interested in raising this arm to the music of Beethoven in a way that will make you cry" than in using dance to make any sort of political statement. He doesn't regret "Still/Here"—"It was a piece the time needed"—but he now has little patience with belligerence for the sake of belligerence. "When the dust settles, do artists of whatever medium have enough craft to infuse others with their enthusiasm?" he asked recently. Fortunately, Jones is not the only modern choreographer to realize that innovation doesn't have to be shocking, craft is not embarrassing, and beauty is not aesthetically incorrect.
Modern dance was born in the early 20th century, created by choreographers who felt stifled by traditional ballet. With its increasing emphasis on technical virtuosity and visual spectacle, ballet had become inauthentic and undemanding. Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, the two central pioneers of modern dance, aimed instead to provoke, stimulate, and inform; they saw dance as a form of communication, not just entertainment, and their dances addressed concerns about things like psychology and sex. Graham and her ilk dispensed with the point shoes and the tutus, the stilted movements and the fake smiles; the replacements included emotional intensity, sensual contractions, dramatic lighting, and stillness.
The second stage in the evolution of modern dance came in the '50s and '60s. Up to this point, modern choreographers had been innovative in subject matter and technique, but they tended to retain the formalistic properties of ballet: Dancers should be trained, dance should take place on a stage, choreographers should dictate all movements, dance should tell a story, dance should be done to music, dance should involve dancelike movements. Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and others decided to get rid of all of these undemocratic restraints, to break dance down to its most unelitist elements. As in the other arts, "conceptualism" replaced illusion. "The result was cleansing, but it was also a dead end," writes Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker piece on Twyla Tharp. "Once you knew what the art was made up of, what did you have apart from a knowledge of what the art was made up of? Nothing, and you still wanted a show." Acocella gives Tharp all the credit for showing choreographers the way back to dance, but Taylor, Mark Morris, and none other than Bill T. Jones certainly deserve much of it.
In his performance last month at Aaron Davis Hall in Manhattan, Jones' company moved not just arms but legs, heads, and fingers in ways that induced enthusiasm, even passion. The dances were both aesthetically delightful and filled with ideas about love, loss, dependence, and purity. They weren't annoyingly sentimental or overrun by ideas, which had been precisely the problem with "Still/Here," Jones' work that caused all the controversy. If Croce had actually gone to see the dance, she could have explained that the fact that Jones had used dying people in his performance was not the problem; death and mortality have always been legitimate artistic fodder. The problem was that he hit us over the head with them. She could have explained that throughout history—from the Nazis to the Soviet Realists—whenever artists have tried to create "utilitarian art," art that serves some sort of purpose other than its own, it has failed miserably.
No matter. Jones seems to have come to these realizations on his own. What Jones also proves is that the quality of a dance—as the quality of any art—is enhanced when working with or against certain constraints; in the case of dance, logical phrasing, balance, composition. These elements soothe the soul and please the eye while the mind is trying to figure out what the hell the choreographer is trying to say. Without these elements, modern dance can seem senseless, random, and ultimately boring.
To me, that would describe much of the work of the "master" of modern dance, Merce Cunningham, whose latest repertoire is now on tour. Cunningham's pieces often lack a central focus—dancers wander around the stage in a robotic, spacey way, bumping into each other, the scenery, themselves. The randomness is intentional: He flips a coin to decide how the dancers should move, and one movement is rarely related to the next. The music is also unrelated: He doesn't allow the dancers to even hear it until the première performance. (While Cunningham's over-intellectualizing and under-creating may just be boring, disciples of his genre can be downright unwatchable; click to survey some recent damage.)
Cunningham, now 82, is considered the intellectual's choreographer and is widely acclaimed for expanding our notions of dance. And it's true that he has. When you see Cunningham within a couple of days of seeing Fosse, the Broadway show that rounds up all of Bob Fosse's best show dances, you are certainly thankful for something to sink your mind into. The same desire for more substance, I have to admit, also struck me while watching today's other dance "legend"—Paul Taylor. Considered the most popular choreographer working today, Taylor, 70, is certainly fun and entertaining, but whereas his dances used to mine the dark side of human nature, I found him today to be a bit too neat, safe, almost precious. Taylor's dancers form pretty patterns, whether the subject is spring or the Depression. The overly stylized costumes and sets don't help, making his dances too close to Fosse for comfort.
And even the current touring show of Mark Morris, the enfant terrible of the dance world, feels like it's gotten a bit too commercial. His work can still be hauntingly beautiful, and it's probably the perfect introduction to modern dance for the novice. But his desire to be a showman now seems to have taken slight preference over his desire to be an innovative craftsman.
Nevertheless, Morris and even Taylor still prove the Jones point: You can experiment all you want, but never lose sight of what makes a good dance. As with any type of liberation, it often takes a while before the revolutionaries realize that certain structures can promote rather than inhibit freedom and purity. And unlike traditional ballet, which is basically soulless, or jazz, which has lost its soul to Broadway, modern dance has always had the potential to be one of the purest of art forms. Using no other tools except the body, it can create searing beauty or express searing emotion. It's reassuring to see that dance, which has historically been underappreciated artistically, may now be at the forefront of a movement back to valuing craft and vision over message.
Karen Lehrman is writing a book on the substance of style.
Photographs of: Bill T. Jones © Robbie Jack/Corbis; Martha Graham © Bettmann/Corbis; Merce Cunningham © Charles E. Rotkin/Corbis; ballet dancers © Bettmann/Corbis; Mark Morris © Robbie Jack/Corbis. All rights reserved.