Unreal Nature

July 17, 2016

I Smell a Führer Somewhere

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… they don’t even look as if they enjoyed dancing.

This is from ‘Argentinita; Some Musicals; Graham’s “American Document” ‘ [1939] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

… Even when she [Argentinita] hardly moves, there is in the air that extra sense of well-being all over that is dancing. And especially her waist; if you haven’t noticed how beautiful the middle of a dancer is, you can learn from her.

argentinita01
La Argentinita

It’s the bearing of any Spanish gypsy dancer that makes me feel so good, the lift of the waist, the expressive stretch from the pit of the stomach to the small of the back. It’s the bearing of a bullfighter too, when he makes his passes. It lifts the hips and lightens the feet, it settles the shoulder, eases the arm, and frees the head. And it seems to heighten the dancer’s visibility. Perhaps expression in dancing, the sense of an impulse, comes from the diaphragm, as Isadora said.

[line break added] A flamenco dancer always seems to have more expressiveness than he needs for a gesture, a kind of reserve of it that gives him an independent distinction — or dignity, as I have heard Spaniards say, who are very sensitive to this quality. Perhaps, looking at it technically, it is the strictness of this fundamental position that gives coherence and point to everything within the flamenco range; that gives the dancer the freedom to shift from serious to funny; that keeps the male dancer from getting all wet with stagey glamor.

[line break added] You see, these are all problems that the modern dancer is puzzled by. Another thing that a gypsy dancer can do is go into or come out of a dance without embarrassment. She walks up to the guitarist and stands there clapping her hands a few times and then starts, or she stops dancing and sings a little, or she stops and lets someone else dance while she merely stands around or walks. This change between heightened movement and ordinary movement is a wonderful contrast on the stage; it puts the performer on an equal footing with the audience, it makes him a casual human being and his big moment all the more interesting.

[ … ]

Martha Graham’s American Document is a major work, as everybody knows, with a moral to which everyone subscribes, stated by a narrator. It wants “to capture the feeling of America.” I see Miss Graham’s sincerity, her fine technique, her intensity. But I am troubled by the monotony of equal thrusts, the unrelaxed determinations. There is something too constantly solemn, too unhumorous, too stiff about it; something sectarian.

The following is from Denby’s essay ‘Modern Dancers as Human Beings’ [1939]:

… When you see six of them on the stage, all you can do is count six, you can’t tell six what. They don’t seem to be girls combining with other girls, they don’t seem to have any human relation to one another. They seem artificially depersonalized, and their bodies operated from offstage. I smell a Führer somewhere, and I get uncomfortable. I wish our dance groups would look as if they were free agents. I wish they would look as if they liked being together, at least as much as folk dancers do, or lindy-hoppers.

Well, another thing that makes me uncomfortable with modern groups is that they don’t even look as if they enjoyed dancing. We all know that expression of sobriety they wear not only on their face but on their body, too. It covers a group of them like an unattractvie army blanket. From their programs, from their choreographies, they mean to express all sorts of things; but they don’t show them. They seem to be thinking of the next movement as though they were afraid they’d forget it. When I think of the natural kind of dancing, or folk dancing, I notice it doesn’t express anything but the pleasure of being in a dance.

My most recent previous post from Denby’s book is here.

-Julie

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