Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing

Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing

by Sally Banes, Andrea Harris, Joan Acocella, Lynn Garafola

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     Sally Banes has been a preeminent critic and scholar of American contemporary dance, and Before, Between, Beyond spans more than thirty years of her prolific work. Beginning with her first published review and including previously unpublished papers, this collection presents some of her finest works on dance and other artistic forms.


     Sally Banes has been a preeminent critic and scholar of American contemporary dance, and Before, Between, Beyond spans more than thirty years of her prolific work. Beginning with her first published review and including previously unpublished papers, this collection presents some of her finest works on dance and other artistic forms. It concludes with her most recent research on Geroge Balanchine's dancing elephants. In each piece, Banes's detailed eye and sensual prose strike a rare balance between description, context, and opinion, delineating the American artistic scene with remarkable grace. With contextualizing essays by dance scholars Andrea Harris, Joan Acocella, and Lynn Garafola, this is a compelling, insightful indispensable summation of Banes's critical career.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Veteran dance critic and scholar Banes (Terpsichore in Sneakers) is best known for her postmodern take on modern dance and women onstage. This new collection of essays showcases the best of her 30 years in the field, starting with her first-ever published piece (on the dance company Pilobolus) and ending with her most recent work (on George Balanchine's 1942 choreography for elephants in Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus). The essays in between cover Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, Meredith Monk and even Madonna and disco dancing. Clear, incisive and personable, Banes is in fine form in all these pieces (some published for the first time). She brings a historical perspective to her observations, then links them to the larger worlds of politics, economics, religion and sexuality. That she's able to express such sophisticated ideas in plain, even conversational, English results in what feels like a witty and exuberant postperformance conversation in a small West Village cafe over a steaming cups of espresso. This collection—tragically Banes's last due to an incapacitating stroke—will make a welcome addition to any dance and performing arts library. (May 25)

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From the Publisher

"Banes is one of the major dance critics and historians of our time. She explores a wide range of artistic and cultural issues—from experimental art to disco dancing to ballet dancing for elephants—in prose as engaging as it is erudite. Experiencing her mind, as many serious lovers of dance will agree, is a heady experience."—Deborah Jowitt, New York University, author of Time and the Dancing Image

"Before, Between, Beyond maps two paths simultaneously: that of Sally Banes's personal evolution from a young reporter covering contemporary dance at the start of the dance boom of the early 1970s through the full establishment of contemporary dance late in the twentieth century, teamed with her transition into the pioneering dance historian of postmodern dance."—Janice Ross, Stanford University, author of Moving Lessons

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Before, Between, and Beyond

Three Decades of Dance Writing

Copyright © 2007

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22154-6

Chapter One Substanceless Brutality

An interesting sequence of events happened last week that's been on my mind ever since. I haven't figured them out yet, make of them what you will.

I went to see the Pilobolus dance concert at the University of Chicago. The concert promised to be new and revolutionary dancing, anyway that's how they were billed. Male dancing. Nice, I thought. It's so rare to see male dancers, rarer still to see a whole group of them. And what would make a dance particularly male, I wondered. Is there a difference between genderless, androgynous, feminine, masculine dancing? Hasn't most dancing until recently been masculine dancing, been about a masculine world, whether it was danced by men or women? Even Martha Graham with her goddesses, her arch-bitches.

OK, here we are in Mandel Hall, watching dances made collectively by a group of four young Dartmouth graduates and two women friends (one the dance teacher who inspired the troupe). Ciona is the first dance. Ciona (it says on the back of the program) is the name of "a light-sensitive marine creature that has the unique ability to turn itself completely inside out." There is some very pretty dancing on stage, watery and mineralish, eddies and whorls of movement, and some eye-openers too: acrobatics, people throwing themselves-wham!-across someone else's torso and sticking there; people suspended from parts of other people's bodies, people upside down and such. Very snazzy lighting, the resilient-bodied fresh-faced white-tighted dancers painted turquoise and pink as they circle round the stage. Geological forms. Symmetrical poses. Strange inhuman organisms. The eeriness of all these people dancing about other systems of life. This fascination with forms could lead to some very beautiful dances.

And next is Syzygy ("the immovable union and partial concrescence of two joints of an arm of a crinoid to form a single segment. Also the segment so formed. Or, temporary union of certain protozoans, as gregarines"). It's a small formal dance (with all the appearances of something quite informal), Lee Harris comes out on stage in silence, cigarette in hand, shaken with spasms that travel all over his body. Well yeah, OK.

After Syzygy my interest lagged considerably, so I won't describe the next six dances which were strangely alike even though unlike. They all had to do with virtuosity, achieving magnificent near-impossible positions, standing on people's shoulders and heads, crouching with one leg completely straight, handstands, flips, girls picking up boys, a lot of impact between bodies. OK. On another level they looked like dances about this and that, viral organisms, a day in the park, cells dividing, greetings, gems, Victorian women, social relations.

But on some other level they weren't about much at all and that's why early on in the evening I felt saturated and remained unimpressed with all this impressiveness.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I didn't admire the technical skill of these athletes, it's not that I didn't gasp and wish I were that strong, that focused, that daring. It's not that I didn't find them breezy and blooming. And it's not even that I ask that a dance have any kind of literal meaning. But a little substance, is that asking too much? Pure pablum is such a drag, no matter how candied it is with stunts and feats.

It was especially disappointing since I'd read a lovely statement made for the collective by Robert Pendleton: "We were not concerned with technique as such but rather with the making of the dance. The choreography and the performance of these pieces were essential. In short, the choreography came first and we would spend months on developing our technique in order to execute and perform the dance ... At times we work on stunts which by themselves are merely stunts. The excitement and of course the difficulty is providing a logical flow from one stunt to another, which moves through time and space and could be viewed as dance." So what happened? Good intentions are not the same thing as a good dance.

To get on with the story: a lot of people in the audience reacted as you might expect at a circus. Cheers, yells, a standing ovation. Well, yeah, uh-huh, OK. I for one was not thrilled but I could understand where that response was coming from.

Afterwards some friends lingered in Mandel corridor, trying to figure out this phenomenon. Why was a serious audience getting so turned on by showmanship? Another thing that is not the same as a good dance is good technique. This of course is true of all the arts but in dance it becomes a tangled issue to unravel.

The peculiarity of the medium complicates matters. It's happening in the human body. The human body is something a little more mysterious, unpredictable, complex, and variable than, say, film, a violin, paints, a script. Dancing is the most fleeting of all the performance arts because there is no decent way to notate it; so a dance really only exists at the moment it is experienced; in the dancer's body and in the dancemaker's head. When the dancemaker and the dancer are one and the same person (or collective) you can see how confusions begin to arise.

So was it the dancers themselves or the hard technical work that the audience was acclaiming? That's what we were standing around wondering ...

Suddenly, a young clean-cut man who was standing nearby and had overheard the discussion kicked one of my friends. Hard. In the ass. The friend he kicked was not the burly over six-foot tall man who had engaged in this discussion but the much smaller woman. When she, hurt and horrified, asked why, the guy said, "How dare you criticize? Do you know how hard those people work? Who have you studied with?"

Now it just so happens that my friend is a dancer and knows exactly how hard the Piloboli have to work to do their stunts. And she appreciated it too. But that doesn't mean that she has to like the dances. This was the first time I ever saw someone assaulted for voicing an opinion about a performance and it was difficult to understand.

Still is difficult to understand. Was the guy simply psychotic? Maybe. Was he a friend of the troupe who felt personally insulted and couldn't find any other expression for his anger? Maybe. Someone who doesn't bother to sort out what kind of impact a dance has on him and what kind of impact it has on other people? Or was the incident perhaps a residue of the brutality underlying the apparently innocent male physicality of the whole evening?

I looked on the back of the program for a definition of Pilobolus. "A phototropic fungus notable for the forcible ejection of its ripe sporangium." It's derivation: from the Greek, throwing balls.

Chapter Two Bizarre Newborn Universe

Inside Jim Self 's improvisation at MoMing: Friday evening, and people are gathering in the lounge of the four-story ex-church. Jim goes upstairs to turn on the tape and his two sets of instructions are passed out to the spectator/participants, half receive instructions No. 1, half get No. 2. They're dancers and students and neighborhood people, a grey-haired man, someone from the church up the street, someone's friends from out of town, a dog.

My instructions request that I try not to talk or comment during the session; they explain that "there are no impossible feats; most things we do every day. Nevertheless, you may find some things challenging and unfamiliar. Don't let this bother you, just try to do each step ... watch out and be aware."

The first thing I have to do is go upstairs to the performance space, take a seat, and watch for fifteen minutes. "Red Sails in the Sunset," and then a Joplin rag ... and meanwhile people (all silent now) file into the room. Some take seats, some start to walk around the edge of the huge dance floor in the middle of the auditorium. The grey-haired man is pacing back and forth across the little proscenium stage at the other end of the room. Some people have walked onto the dance floor, executing strange turns with one arm in the air, slowly or quickly, but all with the same quiet task-fulfilling concentration. Sets of instructions are folded and clutched in a mouth or hand; from time to time the papers are consulted and then replaced.

More people walk into the room, sitting down to watch or starting their course around the floor. Even the balconies do not escape this gradual ant-like activity: figures pace above purposively while an over-alled, braided woman rushes, muttering, from side to side of the little stage. And now a whole muttering chorus crosses the stage in various tempi, but others are lining up facing the bleachers, humming and inching backwards randomly. The dog is doing this and that, investigating the floor, the movers, the sitters. It is all part of someone's master plan.

So, itching to move I decided fifteen minutes must be up, and (as instructed) I walk up to the edge of the floor, touch my toes, enter the space, and start crawling slowly among the people who are now boogying gently. Some rush away, and back, and away. The floor is getting rather swarmy, and presently I run into the eastern balcony, taking my place facing west against the railing, becoming one in a whole line of sentry-like figures. I'm humming and swaying, hearing faintly-above the music-a generalized low hum emanating from my neighbors, watching various quirky movements going on above and below. Check the directions: go to the stage and perform a repetitive action that you do not usually do in public. I take off my glasses and then a sock and start to crack my toes; someone else is walking around buttoning up his fly; someone else is beating his head against the wall; someone else is slowly traversing the stage with a rocking step; someone else is flicking her head around, flicking her arm around.

Focusing my eyes on one spot while moving "in an appropriate way to the music that is playing"-some dreamy romantic song-I can see everything else only peripherally. I know that weird things are happening to my body as I keep shifting directions while my head stays still, my eyes fastened to the radiator. I see equally weird things going on all around me, out of the corners of my eyes.

"You Are the Sunshine of My Life" ... finally walking to the stage to sit as myself, but myself as the opposite sex. Looking at people quietly sitting down near me: everyone looking not so different, just some kind of heightened awareness, a certain tension wrapped curiously around each crossing of a leg, each lifting and placing of an arm. Across the huge room from us, most of those who were moving at first are now watching. On the floor, a woman is walking backwards slowly, slowly, her face to the ceiling, her long hair swinging behind her. Someone is turning with her arm in the air. Another woman rushes around and around the edges of the room. Spurts of activity, while most of us-in two groups facing each other at the ends of the room-watch and watch. Until there is only one figure standing still on stage; the music has ended; this bizarre newborn universe of taskmaking has evaporated; we put on our coats and go home.

Chapter Three About Quarry, about Meredith Monk

Ladies & Gentlemen, Meredith Monk will attempt the death-defying feat of presenting history as both a circle and a line in the opera Quarry, a four-ring circus of the Holocaust, at Brooklyn Academy of Music, beginning December 15.

It's terrifying. It's hilarious. It's gigantic and it's tiny. It's a person; it's the world. It's a grotesque reflection and a prayer.

Like most Monk works, Quarry looks like a narrative but refuses to act like one. Events occur, but their meanings shift and are wiped away. Time and space become shattered and rearranged; in newly constructed frameworks, individual lives and objects become metaphors for larger systems, and theatrical relationships symbolize real situations.

Quarry begins with a child's complaint: "I don't feel well. I don't feel well. I don't feel well. It's my eyes. It's my eyes. It's my eyes. It's my hand, it's my hand, it's my hand. It's my skin, it's my skin, it's my skin." Little Meredith? A child's memory of World War II, hopelessly entangled with Biblical mythology and Freudian fears of parents? In the four corners of the performing area, four households function simultaneously: ordinary people eat dinner, rehearse their lines, discuss their research. But among these twentieth-century people, whose world is permeated with radio broadcasts, lives an Old Testament couple. Later, people from all the different households will become dictators. Later still, they will become victims. And will the child survive?

Juxtaposed against the possibilities of individuals are the actions of the chorus of thirty. They appear three times: once to neutrally wash away the past, once to rally in support of the mesmerizing dictator, once to sing a requiem. The changing scale is reiterated in a film. Among what at first looks like a pile of tiny pebbles, even tinier people emerge, and we realize that the stones are enormous. History can change its scope as well as its shape. Will the child survive, will the nation survive, will the world survive?


1. (from the Latin quadrus, a square) A flat, square or diamond-shaped piece of glass or tile.

2. (from the Medieval Latin quarreia, place where stones are squared) A place where stone is excavated for building purposes. To excavate.

3. (from the Middle English querre, parts of a slain animal placed on the hide and given to dogs) An animal, or anything, that is being hunted down.

Is it autobiographical? I ask Meredith. Her mother was a radio singer, as is one of the dictators; Meredith was born during the War; her great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia. Is she excavating the history of a people by digging into her own past?

Of course, the answer is yes and no. She says it's not, though there are a few details from her own life. In the Monk lexicon, anyway, personal references are only a jumping-off place. She hadn't even wanted to cast herself as the child, Monk explains. She had auditioned children for the part, but they didn't have the necessary vocal stamina; she'd auditioned other people but finally decided she'd have to do it herself. She'd originally wanted to play the dictator. Or the radio singer.

But actually, her role as a child in Quarry is a fitting inversion of her real-life role as director (dictator, mother). Everyone has it in them to become a dictator, she says. It's something she's struggled with for a long time as a director, and that's why it was much more interesting to see the material unearthed when six different people played dictators in the piece.

And now, writing this, I remember that during the performance at LaMama Annex last spring, I had wanted to be shown more clearly how a dictator comes to exercise power. What's the relationship between the comic, banal, and evil dictators and the chorus with its beautiful rituals? Are they dances of complicity? The leader and the led don't simply exist side by side; there is a political relationship that the dictator manipulates to his/her advantage.

It was frustrating to have so much going on at once in the four corners scenes, I complain. I never knew where to look. I was afraid I'd miss something.

Oh no, Meredith protests. All of that activity was timed and manipulated perfectly so that your eye would be drawn first to one place and then to another.

How often are we really choosing freely at circuses, sideshows, theaters, supermarkets, in elections and wars? For Monk, spectacle is a metaphor for freedom, its possibilities and its frustrations. Monk's use of sound, for instance, shows us how subtly we can be controlled. The radio is the central image in the opera: a means to power, a source of information, both true and distorted. So many people can be reached via radio; yet we see the radio announcer in the sound booth, lonely and insulated. Listening to songs and speeches without words, we realize that content is only part of meaning. We don't understand the dictator's words, but we understand his tone and we are terrified. We hear a weather report that has all the wrong words, but we know it must be a weather report because formally it resembles one.


Excerpted from Before, Between, and Beyond by SALLY BANES Copyright © 2007 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sally Banes is the Marian Hannah Winter Professor Emerita of Theater History and Dance Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her many books include Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, Terpsichore in Sneakers, Dancing Women, Democracy’s Body, and Greenwich Village 1963. Andrea Harris is assistant professor of dance at the UW-Madison. A former student of Sally Banes, she contributed to Banes’s earlier book, Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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