Dancing the Body Electric
A look back at New Yorks 1970s dance boom
New York City in the seventies was its own circle of hell. A deep recession came in like a night tide. Welfare cases in the city tripled during the early years of the decade. By 1973, as Andreas Killen writes in his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, social engineering had miserably failed to improve inner cities, and New Yorks South Bronx was held up as emblematic of a national crisis. It wasnt just the Bronx. In Manhattan, the theater district was the den of pornography, prostitution, felony crimes, drug dealing, you name it, says Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, in the documentary Broadway: The American Musical. Times Square was dangerous, filthy, recalls my husband, the writer James Wolcott. The Port Authority Bus Terminal was like Dantes Infernobeggars and junkies and pimps and runaways, and nearly everyone hustling. It was a city of hustlers.
But there was another species of hustler in 1970s New York City, and this one was fit and disciplined. Its brand of hustling was walking, running, turning, and jumping from class to audition to rehearsal to performance. New York had always been a destination for dancers; traditionally, it was where they came to put the finish on their training. But in the seventies, as if they were the incandescent flip side to those Port Authority burnouts, aspiring Pavlovas, Isadoras, and Astaires positively streamed into the city. Dance was suddenly the most vital performing art in Americathe medium with the messageand the dance boom of the 1970s was on.
If you want to pin a year to it, 1972 is as good as any. Thats when Liza with a Z, a one-hour special filmed in the Lyceum Theatre in New York, was broadcast on NBC. I well remember what an event it was in my neighborhood, a suburb of Chicago. As if she were a cousin, everyone rushed home to watch Liza Minnelli. The day after, everyone was singing that tongue-twisty song with the unforgettable refrainIts Liza with a Z not Lisa with an S cause Lisa with an S goes ssss not zzzz. America thought of Liza as a singerthe gifted, needy, quirky daughter of Judy Garland, who was the queen of gifted-needy-quirky. But Liza wasnt just a singer. She could dance. And not just some faux tapping or a climactic kick. She could dance the work of Bob Fosse. She could isolate a hip, a shoulder. She could send a shiver from head to toe with a fleshy little seal-like frissonthe hot mama on an Arctic ice floe. And in Liza with a Z she did dance Fosse because he directed and choreographed the show (and later won an Emmy for it). She kept up with the Fosse corps, adding her own feints and flourishes, not to mention one clearly improvised and delicately lascivious hip shimmy. Poured into an ivory halter top by Halston and apparently braless, Liza was a sinful innocent à la Sally Bowles, creamily full-bodied.
The body was what the decade was about, beginning with where a body was. The Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova defected from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1970. Also in 1970, the American ballerina Suzanne Farrell defected from choreographer George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet (NYCB) and joined Maurice Béjart and his Ballet of the Twentieth Century in Brussels. Four years later, in 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union to Canada, then made his way to New York and the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The same year, the young star Gelsey Kirkland defected from NYCB to ABT in order to begin a partnership with Baryshnikov.
Theres a book to be written about these four defections and the impact that they had on the art form. The international ones, obviously, were front-page news that put ballet on the map for citizens who would not otherwise have thought about classical dance. They harked back to 1961, when Rudolf Nureyevs sensational defection from the Soviet Union made the dancer a global symbol of political liberty. For the West, defecting Russians were a black mark on Communism and a high-five for freedom. They were also intensely exciting. A defecting Soviet dancer, more than a musician or artist or writer, embodied a particular traditionof training, poetics, and performance valuesunfamiliar to the West. Soviet music, art, and literature were forms that could get past the Iron Curtain via records, tapes, photographs, and books. Dance, which means bodies, could not be spirited out. Even if videotape of ballet had been common in those days, which it wasnt, it wouldnt begin to capture the culture of a companyits musicality, its esprit de corps, the way it breathed, how feet connected to floor. To have this culture in ones midst was to shed new light on the art. Baryshnikovs coolly contained and perfectly plumb classical articulation set a new standard for technical perfection. Makarovas ability to slow the music and wander within it, to reach further into classicisms bending and bowing shapes, spelled epiphany for American ballerinas.
The domestic defectionsand domestic is the right word, for Farrell in a sense left Balanchine, and Kirkland in a sense remarried when she went to ABT and Baryshnikovwere quieter phenomena. They focused on a different kind of liberty and reflected a pervasive change in the culture. In the seventies, divorce came into common currency. It was happening not across town but across the street. Suddenly, bodies were lawless, or rather, they could leave. Sexual liberation and gay liberation added momentum to the dance boom, and you sometimes got the feeling that audiences were turning out because they were curious about bodies, remembers New York Times writer and cultural historian Holly Brubach, who moved to New York in the mid-seventies to be a dancer. Youd see a lot of couples on dates in the audience, as if watching dance were a kind of prelude to sex.
At the same time, the question of who owned a body became a national flash point. One of the zeitgeist books of the decade, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was published in 1970. And in 1973, Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. You could say that this was the last decade in which both innocence and sin had a respected place in the countrys moral imagination.
There has always been a sense of the exotic about dancers. Nineteenth-century ballerinas were often pets of the court, protected or kept by royalty and the rich. For Vivien Leigh, in the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge, it was a small skip from ballet dancer to streetwalker, the Exotic disturbingly close to the wrong kind of Erotic. Dancers creaturely physical prowess and anatomical perfection set them apart as something akin to animals or angels. The choreographer Martha Graham called dancers acrobats of god. Lincoln Kirstein, NYCBs cofounder, likened them to Amazons. All these Asas if dance were the seminal or Alpha art, with something of the seed about it (Walk like you carry the seed, Graham intoned to her male dancers). My own father, when I told him I wanted to be a dancer, was shocked because he thought it just one step up from the oldest profession.
The ice-and-fire partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, begun in the 1960s, reflected these primordial oppositions. In 1967, Roland Petit choreographed Paradise Lost for the pair, and in 1975, Graham choreographed roles for them as Light and Night in a work called Lucifer. Rudi and Margot were Adam and Eve, the fallen angel and the temptress moonthe original couple and original sin. When Nureyev appeared on Johnny Carsons Tonight Show, he wore a snakeskin suitan insinuation.
And yet, starting in 1970 and despite his baiting sexuality, Rudi also presented himself as mainstream, appearing on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, This Is Tom Jones, and The Muppet Show. Dance was in the air. In 1972, the house of Nina Ricci chose none other than Farrell to be its LAir du Temps girl. The indelible image of Farrellwhirling in white chiffon, her ethereal reach longer than her pinwheeling skirtran in magazines for years. You saw dance everywhere, says Joel Lobenthal, associate editor of Ballet Review, who came of age in the seventies in New York. The visual iconography of itit was something that was integrated into society. In the fall of 75, Gelsey [Kirkland] was in a huge Richard Avedon layout in Voguepages of full-page bleed images. Dancers were pervasive in the whole print and glamour media.
Which meant that theirs was an image to emulate. Leotards, leg warmers, and rehearsal-room layering became seventies fashion statements, and on Seventh Avenue, stretch fabric came to the fore in wool, cotton, and new synthetics like Qiana. The message of all this, says dance historian Elizabeth Kendall, was to relax and be a body. Pantyhose versus girdles. Physicalities were being reborn. Dance was the art in which the body woke up. Ascendant design stars Geoffrey Beene and Halston created flowing dresses that had skinny belts much like the circle of elastic that dancers wore around their waists in morning class. In the sixties, life was a cabaret; in the seventies, A Chorus Line.
That show premiered smack in the middle of the decadeon May 21, 1975and it marked a change in the paradigm. There was, of course, a formidable film genre about the young hopeful who, plucked from the line or the wings or the lunch counter at Schraffts, was destined for stardom42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Morning Glory, Stage Door, All About Eve. But A Chorus Line, conceived and choreographed by Michael Bennett, was different. It contained not one hopeful but many. And they werent plucked from the line for stardom; they were auditioning for an unsung place in the corps. In fact, one of them, Cassie, was previously plucked and did not make it as a star. So each dancer had a story, which made this musical a codependence of case studies and mini-memoirs, each character a troubled cog in the collective. We are all dancers, A Chorus Line seemed to sayall of us hurt and hopeful faces in the mirror, seeking our place on the line.
The show did monster box office, already a success while still in previews. As Walter Kerr wrote in his essay Spontaneous Combustion, A Chorus Line was a hit that was made by the public . . . selling out before any sales pitch had been made by anybody, a theatrical event [that] gained momentum on word-of-mouth alone. In other words, it struck a nerve. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, it won nine, and in 1976 it took the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Running for 6,137 performances, it became the longest-running production in Broadway history up to that time. A Chorus Line is today the fourth-longest-running show in history. It saved the financial fortunes of the Shubert Organization, says Gerald Schoenfeld. And it was the beginning of Broadways recovery.
By comparison, the Kander and Ebb / Bob Fosse musical Chicagowhich had its premiere two weeks after A Chorus Lines and was a sophisticated vaudeville about the fabled murderess Roxie Hartran for only 936 performances. It was revived on Broadway in 1996, however, and is currently a star vehicle in perpetual motion, racking up, as of November 2010, more than 5,800 performances on Broadwaystill fewer than A Chorus Lines original run did. The two musicals are structurally similar while existentially opposed. They both employ soliloquy-like songs and flashback solo turns. But where Chicago is cold, hard, and cynical about ambition and successwitness the insincerity of All I Care About (Is Love)A Chorus Line is warm, soft, and sentimental about sacrifice. Its penultimate number, What I Did for Love, is an earnest and elegiac ballad, a long good-bye strangely buoyant with loss.
Chicago, we now know, was a nineties musical born prematurely in the seventies, a time when audiences didnt comfortably embrace such unbuttoned gallows humor. Only weeks before both shows premiered, in the spring of 1975, the world watched as Saigon fella failure for America no matter how you looked at it. One could argue that Chicago, with songs like We Both Reached for the Gun, spoke more directly to Americans bitter about the secrecies and expediencies of the Vietnam War. But the sweetness and the sorrow of A Chorus Line trumped bitterness. This was the show that gave audiences a metaphor they could work with: life as a precarious and continuous audition. The same metaphor was at the heart of one of the biggest film hits of the decade, 1977s Saturday Night Fever, the movie that made the dancing actor John Travolta a star. Even today, we see the marathon audition of A Chorus Line in reality shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.
A Chorus Line was the beacon light atop a structure that had slowly been built across America. Assessing the dance boom of the seventies, Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, authors of No Fixed Points, a sweeping history of twentieth-century dance, write: In the broadest sense, it was a matter of the middle classes accepting high culture in generalattendance at museums and concerts exploded at the same time that a large new audience was discovering dance. Reynolds and McCormick discern no ideological basis for the boom, though certainly the Kennedy administration, with First Lady Jackie Kennedy planning the parties and paying special attention to dancers, did much to get the ball rolling. Her first guest in the White House was George Balanchine, who visited in January 1961. Also key was education: middle-class baby boomers, the first of whom were well into their twenties in the 1970s, were increasingly college-educated and thus ready to see arts-going not as a frill but as a necessary facet of a well-lived and open-minded life.
Consequently, the country was becoming amenable to the idea of government funding for the arts, which began in 1960, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller established the New York State Council on the Arts. With the U.S. and the USSR locked in the Cold War, art constituted another plane on which America could compete with the Soviet Union. So there was a political dimension to arts funding as well as a social good. In 1965, Congress passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts, from which dance companies began to receive funding. By 1975, there was an arts council in every state.
And by 1976, a Swan Lake on every television. Great Performances, produced by WNET in New York City, premiered in 1972, broadcasting productions from all the disciplinesmusic, theater, opera, dance. In 1976, tellingly, dance won its own spin-off, and Great Performances: Dance in America became a PBS institution. The same year, an institution with an even greater impact first aired: Live from Lincoln Center. The ABT Swan Lake of June 30, 1976, starring Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy, was billed as the first-ever live telecast of an evening-length ballet. It remains an unforgettable experience for all who saw it. It was tremendously exciting, recalls Lobenthal. I was 16 and I didnt really know what was going on, but I was piecing it together and it was mesmerizing. And it was upsetting, a disruptive thing, because you wanted to instantly drop everything and go to ABT. You suddenly realized that you had this unexplored world out there.
The following year, Live from Lincoln Center presented Giselle with Makarova and Baryshnikov. I was in college at the time, and I watched it with a roomful of sorority sisters, all of us caught in the spell of Act Two, its otherworldly energy exerting a telegenic undertow. We were the same age as the Wilis, the ghostly spirits of the ballet, and, like them, unmarried; we were grouped on the floor, leaning into the screen, not unlike the Wilis in their white tulle. Only now do I see the unconscious physical correspondence that knit us to them.
In 1978, Live from Lincoln Center gave us Kirkland and Baryshnikov in Balanchines Theme and Variations. It was a performance that embodied the spirit of the decade, and more than 30 years later, the video remains so requested at Lincoln Centers library that every time you go there, someone is watching it. The Kirkland-Baryshnikov partnership was the seventies answer to the sixties coupling of Fonteyn and Nureyev, and it inspired similarly heightened and often hysterical expectations. This partnership was not charged with the complicated eros of Margot and Rudi, in which she, of a certain age, protected his Saint Sebastian beauty, while he, sexually available and possibly doomed, bowed to her magisterial purity. Instead, Gelsey and Misha brought a kind of objective technical intensity to the stage, a classicism that hovered just beyond gravity. She was all transparency; he was all opacity; but they were equals, each reaching for euclidean perfection, she heartfelt and intimate, he distant and grand. We later learned that they were lovers offstage, but onstage they gave us, wordlessly, the transitional seventies relationship: the searching female coming on strong and the entitled male banking his power. Watch this tape today, and youll see that Kirkland, completely brilliant, is outdancing Baryshnikov, who is also brilliant.
This is a fascinating dynamic, and it suggests an idea crucial to the seventies, nascent, fraught, yet brought to fruition in the decades that followed: one cannot be free artistically or emotionally if ones body is not free. I realized circa 1969, says Kendall, that I knew nothing about my own body; that some kind of vague shamepart of many womens psyches thenhad meant zero information was getting to me from body to head. I think I wasnt alone in realizing that. If dance taught me one thing above all, it was that different kinds of intelligences exist in the world, not just the cerebral kind. My expensive education had educated me from the neck up. From the neck down I was illiterate.
The relationship between Kirkland and Baryshnikov was such a touchstone that it was placed at the center of another hit dance movie of 1977, a remake of 1943s Old Acquaintance, titled The Turning Point. Set in the ballet world and starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in the roles of competitive best friends, the film focuses on the latters daughter, Emilia, a rising star in an ABT-like company. She becomes the partneronstage and in bedof Yuri, a Baryshnikov-type Soviet defector. Kirkland and Baryshnikov were cast in the roles, but in the end Kirkland did not play Emilia. She was put off by the script, by what she felt was a soap opera, a superficial fairy tale, an artistic fraud. Did they really think, she asked in her autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, that I was Emilia, that little twit? She allowed herself to become too thin for filming and was replaced by her understudy, the dancer Leslie Browne.
I would venture that the rebellious Kirklandwho had no interest in Hollywoods clichés and who refused to kowtow to Baryshnikov when it came to performance aesthetics and interpretations, just as she had earlier challenged Balanchine on such issueswas recalibrating the scales. She had reached, in fact, a turning point: she belonged to no one but herself. Farrell, too, having returned to Balanchine and NYCB in 1975, was dancing with a self-possession that inspired one of New Yorker critic Arlene Croces most famous passages: Farrell perfects the act of balance/imbalance as a constant feature of dancing. It is not equilibrium as stasis, it is equilibrium as continuity that she excels in. . . . She doesnt stop, doesnt wait, doesnt depend, and she cant fall. Croces essay was titled Free and More Than Equal.
Indeed, you could say that the seventies was the womens decade. Balanchine, always ahead of the game, premiered a strange little ballet in 1974 called Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir (Variations for a Door and a Sigh)a work that seems to attest to a change in scale between the sexes or is perhaps saying that it was thus all along. Lincoln Kirstein described it as a visual poem in a big frame and wrote that it was never a candidate for success. At its premiere, critics held it at arms length, calling it repulsive, predatory, and, in the words of one critic, blacker humor than I would wish to acknowledge. And yet, revived at NYCB in 1987, it proved a stunning bit of mischief, something between expressionism, surrealism, and science fiction. The music is an experimental score by Pierre Henri, a dialogue between a creaking door and the sound of heavy breathing. Balanchine presents us with a woman fixed center stage, wearing a trapeze artists leotard and, attached to her belt, a black skirt as big as a circus tent, the voluminous silk fanning out into the wings and billowing up into the rafters, manipulated by strings offstage. Her hair is a sharp black bob, and she moves as if hinged. She is the Door. The man, placed at her feet, writhing and wormlike, is the Sigh. They never dance together, yet he is eventually absorbed into the catacombs of her skirt.
Viewing the dance after Balanchines death, with his lifelong mantra in mindballet is womanand the knowledge of his long list of marriages and muses, one finds it hard not to see the Door as the matriarchal universe through which the artist must make his way. Balanchine worked best when he was in thrall to a womanhe was the first to admit itbut just as there is light through a door, there can also be a devouring darkness. Five years later, in 1979, mainstream America would have its own version of Variations with the release of the film Alien, its voracious, entombing monster the matriarch from hell. Karin von Aroldingen, the German dancer who was the Door, said, People say its odd that a woman is the door and a man the sigh, but both in French and in my own language, its that way. And, in a sense, women are stronger, at least on the inside.
In the seventies, not to put too fine a point on it, everyone was still alive. Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille were no longer making great work, but they were vivid, high-profile totems. Antony Tudor had one more great ballet in him: 1974s The Leaves Are Fading. Robert Joffrey and his Joffrey Ballet were going full speed ahead, an audience-friendly ballet troupe that toured the country like a young, hip, and sometimes hippie version of the old Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Alvin Ailey, Eliot Feld, and Arthur Mitchell had companies that brought different demographics to the theater, and Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor finally had national stature and repertoires that placed them in the pantheon. Twyla Tharp was coming into her own, bringing her melting-pot style and antagonistic syntax to the mainstream when she choreographed Push Comes to Shove in 1974 for ABT and Baryshnikov. Meanwhile, at NYCB, Jerome Robbins was experimenting with different forms of narrative (Watermill, Dybbuk), and Balanchine was deep into the late phase of his genius, putting on festivalsStravinsky in 1972, Ravel in 1975and tossing off blockbuster ballets like Union Jack in 1976 and Vienna Waltzes in 1977. Vienna Waltzes, according to Kirstein, would rank as the companys most successful ballet. For four seasons every performance scheduled was sold out, he wrote. It brought into the theater a new public, many of whom had certainly never been in the State Theater before.
Couple all this creative energy with cheap rentsfor no artistic discipline needs as much space, from class to rehearsal to performance, as dance doesand you had yet another reason for the dance boom. The awful economy and the high crime that came with it had left whole swaths of the city underpopulated, with empty pockets in the East Village, Tribeca, and Hells Kitchen. In the seventies, the proverbial starving artist could still move to Manhattan and, if he or she didnt mind a scuzzy landscape and unsavory street people, find a space for a song. Merce occupied the top floor at Westbeth, a building in the West Village, Holly Brubach recalls. There were lots of cheap studios in Soho and Tribeca, and ex-Cunningham dancers as well as lesser-known choreographers who were sort of Cunningham satellites would rent a studio for a few months, make some work, then do a solo or group concert at any one of a number of venues: St. Marks Church, the Cubiculo, DTW, the Kitchen. Every weekend, there were four or five concerts of new work. It was the real estate that made it all possible, as was also true with the art of the time.
In fact, the environment in which Cunningham created his work was deeply influential, a kind of concrete poetry with an Eastern atmosphere. It was a place where life and art walked the same wood floors and breathed the same air, where dances felt borderlessmore like movement-as-thought than thought-out movementand left you wondering whether you were looking at a map of the world or a view through a microscope. The uncluttered, open feel of the Cunningham studio in Westbeth was somehow very important to this whole thing, Kendall recalls. The doors of dance opened wide at the plebeian back doorthe Judson Dance Theater to Cunninghammoving forward through the house. From there we could proceed, from the inside, to the front parlor, where dwelled NYCB.
That parlor would be draped in black on April 30, 1983, the day Balanchine died at 79. Still worse, a new, unnamed, and terminal illness had recently been reported in the New York Times. Between the natural mortality of the older generation and the unnaturally young casualties of AIDS, dance was hit hard in the eighties. Add to this a new generation of Wall Street rich who wanted to live in the downtown lofts and spaces that had been birth chambers for art, and you had a perfect storm from which dance in New York City has never recovered. Interestingly, the forbidding art of operathe sister of classical dancehas surged forward in this new century. Armed with supertitles since the eighties, it has been able, with words, to bring a whole new flock to its majestic bosom. There are no such translations for dance. It will always require a leap of faith from those who watch it.
But perhaps the perfect storm was actually the dance boom itself, the singular sensation of New York and America coming together, in the words of Walt Whitman, to sing the body electric. One of the sublime masterpieces of the decade, premiered in that brimming year of 1975, was a dance by Paul Taylor that speaks to every last person in the audience and never fails to bring down the house. It is made of steps that anyone can dohopscotches, skips, jumps, leaps, dashes, crawls, jogs, and just plain walking. It is set to the music of J. S. Bach, and dressed in summer clothes in shades of sherbet. Its pacing is masterly and its structure simple but intricate; it fuses the unembellished, quotidian ethic of the Judson postmodernistslife is a dancewith the formal agenda and ascending impulse of classicism. The dance builds to a climax, the women bounding across the stage into the waiting arms of men, who then swing them up into the sky. Its a spontaneous combustion, a prelapsarian playground, bodies going zzzz not ssss. The dance is called Esplanade, a word that means a long, open, level area, typically by the sea, along which people may walk for pleasure.
And theres the message of the medium: pleasure.
Laura Jacobs is the dance critic for The New Criterion and a staff writer at Vanity Fair. Her second novel, The Bird Catcher, was recently published in paperback by Picador.