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Dancing the Body Electric « Back to Story
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Great article! I hope all of the performances referenced are available on video, DVD or archived on youtube or via the internet. Thanks for bringing together history, culture and helping me to reminisce on my own New York City dance days in the 1970's!
A great summary of the time, I know, I was there
Outstanding essay, I remember the times well. Nicely done.
Laura, what a beautiful essay....an evocation of a time that was truly exceptional in the history of culture in New York City...and a formative period in my own personal cultural education. It brought tears to my eyes.
I was in high school at the start of the decade, and a young college graduate with a first copywriting job at the end. I was surrounded by music growing up (violin, piano lessons, choral singing), imitated, with my brother and sister, Gene Kelly & Fred Astaire dance routines from old movies we saw on T.V., but only had had glimpses of "serious" dance from T.V. (the Bolshoi and Nureyev & Fonteyn on Ed Sullivan, an excerpt from Rodeo somewhere else). An English teacher at my Bronx High School organized an after-school "Performing Arts Club" and fortunately dance was his second love after theater. My first exposure to live dance was with those trips into Manahttan: The Joffrey, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, ABT, Feld, the Paris Opera Ballet at the Met. It was a revelation! I was completely hooked. Balanchine took a bit more time to absorb and understand, but then, an epiphany, and no turning back. All the "touchstones" you mentioned were mine as well. Even on a modest salary, tickets were affordable (althought it helped that I lived at home for a while after college, traveling into Manhattan for work). Waiting on long box office lines when a Baryshnikov/Kirkland performance was announced. Rushing home to catch "Dance in America." Subscriptions with friends and family followed. Voracious reading about the art form and the artists, too. All of this would lead some years later to my first job promotiong the performing arts.
Thank you for your eloquent words about an amazing time.
I was in the audience for the 1978 Live from Lincoln Center ABT performance. That was a memorable night. I was 24 then, and dance was everywhere in NYC. Thanks for the memories!
A gorgeously written poem in prose fit for the glorious dancing Jacobs evokes. Thank you Laura Jacobs.
Kansas Klutz No More
What a wonderful article. I had the great fortune of living in and near New York city in the seventies and was captivated by the dance world. The sense of wonder and excitement I experienced every time I watched a live dance performance was thrilling. I didn't know that I was participating in a "birth", I only knew I felt graced to be there, to be young, to be alive.
What a wonderful piece of writing!
Ballet Trockadero also started during that marvelous time; taking classical dance down from its Lincoln Center pedestal, yukking it up and staging it during midnight shows in the East Village, and then reincarnating a new and funny version back again to its Uptown roots. It remains, to this day, one of the most popular dance companies around.
Mike (Tatiana Youbetchabootskaya) McKinley
An ex-Trock in Austin, TX
But back to "scuzzy landscapes" and "unsavory street people." You endured them because you were of them and unable to afford better, or because you were, in fact, better...and you were slumming, hoping to pick up nothing worse than a souvenir, so that, when you presented (for money and applause) your copies of scuzzy landscapes and unsavory people, you could testify that you had been there, done that?
It's a good thing that ballet, unlike opera, is not of words. If it were of words, you'd be expected to acknowledge I.B. Singer, who wrote, If you want to be it, act it.
I think, Ms Jacobs, you are less of ballet, more of contortion.
This is a delightful piece, but Jacobs, given her passionate expertise, is perhaps necessarily too quick to focus her attention so narrowly on the 1970s as America's "Dance Decade" without locating these same years within a broader context.
Jacobs is quite clever, and astute, to cite sheer physical pleasure as the emphasis responsible for the assertion of dance as a popular American interest.
But this enthusiasm was grounded in a far-reaching and generalized movement that likely owed a great deal to the "healthy living" and "natural healing" valorized during the 1960s.
The 1970s were not only the "Dance Decade," but were also the "Tennis Decade" (Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs, Jimmy Connors v. Martina Navratilova, "The Battle of the Sexes," 1973), and, even more importantly, the "Running Decade" ("Runner's World" and "The Runner" won hundreds of thousands of subscribers at this time).
Americans responded to the sheer physical pleasure of dance because they, too, were largely engaged in the sheer physical pleasure of vigorous exercise.
A public that jogs many miles, or plays tennis, many times a week, is a public well-prepared to admire and enjoy the spectacle, self-discipline, and physical endurance, of ballet and other professional forms of dance.
Please consider how this momentum was carried into 1982 with the frankly erotic track-and-field film "Personal Best," and, in 1985, with the Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta vehicle, "Perfect," which was in fact based on a series of articles about Los Angeles health clubs and aerobics work-out fanatics that "Rolling Stone" ran in the late 1970s.
In other words, Americans in the 1970s were willing to spend their money and/or free time to watch dance because they could understand dance in a deeply and immediately physical way.
The intense physical engagement of dance accurately reflected what they themselves were experiencing daily, on a regular basis, in their own lives.
splendid, superbly written. thank you!
"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 you’ll see that Kirkland, completely brilliant, is outdancing Baryshnikov, who is also brilliant."
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this, Ms. Jacobs. Although I was born just as Baryshnikov and Kirkland's partnership was dissolving, they remain the most powerful artistic influences in my life. Your reflections on how and why they are forever bracketed together in history just made my day. That electric performance of Theme and Variations (which I have seen on VHS a gazillion times) is an example of why it is a crime that there is not a hell of a lot more of Misha-Gelsey available on DVD.
Ballet has never been the same since...
Beautifull article. I lived in NY those years and I am still there. I agree with most of the things written here.
Only one thing missing. For me and many others the greatest inspiration and emotion in ballet was Cynthia Gregory. She was great and her stage presence unique. My husband and I dicovered ballet through her.
Very interesting, Ms. Jacobs, especially since I am re-reading Ms. Farrell's autobiography, "Holding on to The Air." I think you have braided nearly all the strands together very effectively. Thank you!!
Let's remember that there was also the avant-garde, off-off-off Broadway theater (e.g. the Living Theater and beginnings of La Mama etc). All of these were cross-pollinating with the mainstream AND the very active post-modern dance scene at the New Dance Group, Judson Church, in addition to St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. It was "happening," churning up the ground and the air.
But wouldn't it be wonderful if dance, other than that hysterical horror of a botched "Swan Lake," were as omni-present now as Baryshnikov et al were back then.
Interesting article. Dance is a way of bringing people together. Oddly enough dance, for (most of) the masses anyway, for those doing it, not watching it, has never been more...well...dead. Last night we watched an old screwball comedy with Irene Dunn and Douglas Fairbanks - can't recall the name. The film showed Doug and Irene at various New York City nightclubs - each club had dance floors where men and women of all ages would dance to LIVE music. Even the rather out of place roller rink scene showed people skating together in a long train. Today clubs where people dance - where they exist, are for the young, and rarely, if ever, offer live music.
In fact, we seem to live in a culture premised on separation - by age, ethnicity, race, religion, wealth you name it. The television separated household from household - front porches, from which neighbor could talk to neighbor are a thing of the past. Today, the television is collects dust while the computer in its various forms separates person from person.
I know, I know - this comment is a very long way from this article, which is about a different kind of dance. And the older members of each generation pine for the 'good old days' which are a figment of the imagination....and heck, let's face it, the 70's really weren't that great. Dance was, however, one way to forget about the gas lines, the lack of jobs, the war, and the general feeling of society falling apart (much like today, minus the gas lines - thus far).
For us Neanderthals, it comes down to the chorus girls' lament; the men dancers are either married or gay.
Where's Judith Jamison's _Cry_, not to mention the Ailey company's _Revelations_? Jamison was a glorious dancer--to go from the Kirkland Giselle one evening to the Jamison Cry the next was one of the great, great experiences of the seventies that this lovely article captures.
Just wish you'd done a bit more with Jamison, Ailey, and remember that Arthur Mitchell _Giselle_ set in the bayou?
Great stuff, Laura Jacobs.
I was a pimply kid in 1980 and just a wee kindergartner in 1970, so although I was aware of fantastic ballet (my family didn't miss performances by the greats on PBS), I was totally unaware of the singular moment New York and the rest of the nation were witnessing, with so much talent in one place at one time.
For my siblings, the forced regime was the piano and any other instrument of our choice. I chose the guitar; the instrument forever set the course of my life. When I went to live in Rio in 1985, I brought with me my prized Les Paul Custom. By the time I returned to the U.S. in 1987, the Gibson was gone and in its place was a handmade special by a master luthier from Rio, in the classic Afro-Portuguese style that makes bossanova possible: half Iberian fado gutstring and half Brazilian wood that retards projection somewhat but enhances sustain, making for a subdued, contemplative tone that by itself suggests the music that came from it.
I still have that guitar and when a bossa is called for, that is the guitar in my hands.
The eighties, far from an artistic downfall, were my time of artistic awakening. I met the 'everybody' that was still alive in my movement, from Lionel Hampton and Stan Getz to Benny Golson and Count Basie. We were the young kids the old greats were trying so hard to nurture lest their art form be lost.
Safe to say that jazz isn't going to be lost, but it has also hit the development wall. There are no new sounds out there, just combinations of old ones. The great players out there now are artisans rather than artists, putting their spin on Dizzy and Duke, Bird and Miles.
I see my own playing as creative within its sphere, but I've broken no new ground. I find joy in improvisation within traditional forms pioneered by those who went before, but new forms do not seem to be coming. Or rather, they are there--but unlistenable. So our ear and our brain fall back to the forms we comprehend.
It is rare that this music brings me to tears.
Dance does so on a regular basis. Perhaps that is the nature of things; we are inured to the feeling of the art we practice, while the art of others retains power to move us.
I count some of my most deeply satisfying experiences the many dance performances I've been privileged to witness, although I myself can't dance a step.
Keep on moving, sister.
Thank you for a magnificent essay.