“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” the musician Elvis Costello famously said, expressing the ineffable nature of art, and how its special powers resist translation.
Linda Murray, The New York Public Library’s curator of its dance division, said writers who make dance their subject are still “trying to define a language” that captures the specificity and physicality of the art form. And yet a number of books about dance have changed how we understand it, she said.
The library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division is currently celebrating 75 years. The division contains a remarkable treasure trove of material, including: a copy of every known book about dance ever published; dance films of productions from around the world; the shoes of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, whose feet were famously high-arched; the diary of dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who had schizophrenia; and many more ephemera of dance.
In honor of the anniversary, the library is showing an exhibit called “Archive in Motion: 75 Years of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division,” and Murray has shared nine books for readers who want to see dance in a new way. In her words:
1. “Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage” by Sally Banes
Banes is a touchstone for many researchers today and was one of the first academics to apply critical theory to dance. She wrote several great volumes on the subject and many consider her analysis of postmodern dance, “Terpsichore in Sneakers,” to be her definitive work. But [“Dancing Women”], which looks at dance through the lens of feminism, helped to redefine how to read seminal dance performances, particularly from the world of ballet. Anyone wanting to understand the conversations pervading the ballet world right now around the topics of gender and representation in the #MeToo era would do well to read this book.
2. “Marmalade Me” by Jill Johnston
Jill Johnston was a poet, philosopher, personality and feminist, and the Dance Division is proud to claim her as a former staff member. Provocative and perceptive, her writing as the dance critic of the “Village Voice” came to define the downtown New York scene of the 1960s. Sometimes her column “Dance Journal” [now archived in large part in the book “Marmalade Me”] would neglect to mention dance at all, and instead often served as the setting for hilarious vignettes from Johnston’s own life, which in its own way often said more about the ideas propelling the postmodern dance scene than any critique could. That said, Johnston completely understood dance and was deeply insightful in her assessment of the experimental work she championed, with many of those articles collected in this volume.
3. “Alien Bodies: Representations of Modernity, ‘Race’ and Nation in Early Modern Dance” by Ramsay Burt
A book from 1998 that introduced a lot of the themes that permeate current conversation around dance, specifically race, gender and immigration, and an important text for repositioning the modern dance canon. Burt demonstrates how dance in the 1920s and 1930s was a powerful agent in shaping cultural opinion and tracks how it was alternately manipulated for political ends and conversely how it subverted and protested against various regimes. Although many titles have followed that have either countered some of the premises that Burt puts forth or have developed his ideas further, “Alien Bodies” remains an essential read for anyone wanting to understand the development of modern dance and ballet in the 20th century.
4. “Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture” by Thomas DeFrantz
A book that is not only a biography of a dance company, but that also contextualizes that company against the larger background of gay rights, civil rights and women’s liberation. DeFrantz uses the story of Alvin Ailey to chart the story of African Americans in 20th-century America. The book takes you deep into some of the most iconic pieces in the Ailey Company’s repertory, including “Revelations,” and traces the influences of jazz and blues that permeate Ailey’s work. But DeFrantz also takes the time to introduce his reader to Ailey as a man, weaving together his personal life and choreographic achievements with his work in social activism, demonstrating how all these strands came together to make the Ailey canon one of the touchstones for black culture.
5. “Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance” by Tomie Hahn
A universal truth in dance is that that knowledge is passed from body to body. Although various notational forms exist and dancers now regularly consult recordings to learn roles, the real work still happens in a studio with one body teaching another how to move. Hahn’s volume is radical because it demonstrates how that kinetic transmission not only imparts technique and style, but how it actually transfers ideas about cultural identity that permeate everyday life. The book is a case study of Hahn’s own journey to master the classical Japanese dance style of nihon buyo, as well as stories of other dancers to discover how dance takes us to the “boundaries of existence,” and how our kinetic learning can discourage or encourage us to trespass beyond those edges.
6. “The Natyasastra,” attributed to Bharata Muni, and the “Gita Govinda” by the poet Jayadeva
Two volumes are crucial for anyone wanting to gain an appreciation of Indian classical dance, the “Natyasastra” and the “Gita Govinda” by the poet Jayadeva. The “Natyasastra” is the oldest known Indian text to exist on the performing arts and is considered a bible for dancers and musicians. It provides guidance on everything from body movements and make-up, to the intention of the dance itself. Understanding that spiritual enlightenment is the primary objective for the audience invites a different approach when you witness a performance. Meanwhile, the “Gita Govinda” recounts the relationship of the god Krishna and the milkmaid Radha, with many of the stories from this text serving as the narrative of Indian dance performances.
7. Mindy Aloff’s “Leaps in the Dark” and “Dance in America”
Mindy Aloff’s volume of American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille’s writings, “Leaps in the Dark” is an excellent demonstration of a dancer and choreographer writing about their own practice, and it displays de Mille’s rare gift for capturing in words what it feels like to witness and perform dance. And Aloff’s most recent primer, “Dance in America,” features a wide array of voices from some of the most influential people in the field, waxing lyrical on everything from Balanchine to Michael Jackson.