A Game For Dancers, Performing Modernism in the Postwar Years, 19451960

A Game For Dancers:

Performing Modernism in the Postwar Years, 1945–1960

By Gay Morris

Wesleyan University Press, 2006

A Review

Is this a “book for all dancers,” or is it that I found it intoxicating because it covers the years of my young adulthood?

A Game For Dancers talks of dancers and dances, and critics and ideas that filled my dance-formative years. However, the book is much more than a wandering in the past. It is a clear, scholarly treatise on those years, following, in organized fashion, the roiling ideas of the era. Bringing into orderly focus the inherited prejudices, the daring innovators, the debating critics, it presents the agenda of choreographers, the technique and muscle of performance, the minds of creators and critics alike.

The book is contemporary to the time it explores; that is, it invokes performance and cites criticism before setting same in historic context. It sets forth the animosity modern dancers felt toward ballet (which we all perceived as a strangulating anathema) and the shift in ballet itself away from the pro forma rearranging of formed “steps,” toward the inclusion of motion that invited the kinetic senses, and it does this largely through detailing the growth and change in George Balanchine’s productions.

A Game For Dancers deals squarely with political agenda, citing most in particular the work of Anna Sokolow. There is a chapter on race, for this was an issue for every choreographer. (I can recall Nikolais saying (in 1955), “I don’t want the audience to look at my company and see race. I want them to see dance.” We had in the company at the time Coral Martindale and Bill Frank, both African-Americans, both real “movers” in Nikolais’ aesthetic, so he colored everyone, with costume and light and face paint, “green and pink” or “blue and yellow.”) This volume deals with the struggle of major black artists (Katharine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Talley Beatty, in particular) to be seen as artists, not just entertainers—and the struggle for good, black ballet dancers to be employed in major companies.

Each of Ms. Morris’s statements is supported by citing the choreographer’s words, by detailed description of the dance, and by criticism contemporary to the work. In the final chapter, which she titles “Objectivism’s Consonance,” she deals with objectivism and Cunningham and Nikolais, giving their backgrounds as students and detailing the content of their classes and choreographic processes. (Her paragraphs on technique classes are the most cogent I have read.) She cites John Martin’s assessment of Nikolais: “He does not teach technique but rather improvisation in line with the Laban ancestry.” She cites and quotes the writings of both Nikolais and Cunningham, and notes that both “thwarted competition from commercial media and ballet by adopting extreme forms that neither was eager to co-opt.” These included improvisation and the exploration of the element of chance, for example.

The concluding statements refer back to Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism as “the use of characteristic methods of discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Modern dance used self -examination to avoid “leveling down” to avoid giving in to entrenched power, to commercial and political influences, and to the “high-art” ballet—in order to keep its art “pure.”

Morris concludes “. . . modernists were not free of contradictions . . . [however,] their faith in their . . . [particular aesthetic] demonstrates the power they felt existed in their medium and in how it could be exercised even in the face of oppression.”

—Ruth E. Grauert, October 2007