A response to Joan Acocella’s 6/24/19 “Can Modern Dance Be Preserved? In safeguarding the legacies of innovators like Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, we risk losing their spirit.”
The ever-evolving world of concert dance is one of the great riches of New York City. Writing about its triumphs and challenges, supports the field by expanding its audience. I was thrilled when my father, who lives in the Midwest, brought this article to my attention. It stimulated an excellent conversation about the complex issues that surround the preservation of an ephemeral art form. That said, due to the impressive reach of the New Yorker, this particular article exposed several problematic biases and outdated perspectives that I feel need to be addressed.
First of all, to write an article about modern dance legacy that does not include Alvin Ailey, is highly problematic. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most successful dance companies in the United States based on a wide variety of metrics. It has out lived its founder by 30 years. Though it has had two different artistic directors since Ailey’s passing, the company never experienced the kind of defining drama that haunts the Graham legacy, and that is described in this article as common to modern dance. Perhaps he was excluded from the article’s trajectory because his legacy disrupts the convenient narrative the author was after, but given that only white artists are included in this article as pioneers worthy of note, I suspect that racism, conscious or unconscious, is actually what is at play here.
During his lifetime, Ailey invited other choreographers to create work on his company. This sets him in staunch contrast to the ego-maniacal single choreographer company model. In her article, Acocella suggests that Paul Taylor and Steven Petronio’s recent moves to becoming repertory companies are ground breaking, when in fact this model has been around, in the large scale of the Ailey company, since the 1980s. By including his community in his vision, Ailey showed a generosity of spirit in his lifetime, that not only supported fellow choreographers and trained versatile dancers, but also made the question of legacy infinitely less precarious than what is framed by Acocella’s writing. The stability and power of Ailey’s legacy suggests that perhaps Acocella is constructing a story, rather than reporting one, when she claims that repertory companies that showcase the work of multiple choreographers, “violates what was supposed to be the mission of modern-dance companies: to present the vision of one artist.” While Graham and other certainly painted themselves into a corner by insisting on an ego-based conception of their work as being the product of a singular genius, much of dance history can be told through collaborations and collectives surrounding political and aesthetic declarations. From Denishawn (est 1915), to the New Dance Group (est 1932), to the first ‘Negro Dance Recital’ in 1931, to the Grand Union improvisational dance group of the 1970s, choreographers have long chosen to work together rather than against each other.
Acocella states that, “Almost as a matter of integrity, modern-dance people cannot do So-and-So’s style on Tuesday, then another choreographer’s style on Wednesday.” While I certainly know dancers, who have chosen to dedicate themselves to a singular technique and vision, those dancers are in the minority. Most dancers work for multiple choreographers throughout their careers, and train in ways that support that performative versatility.
I am a part of the Graham legacy. I trained in the technique in the 90s; 3 classes a day, 6 days a week for two years, and I danced with the student ensemble… right before being hired by the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. My dedication to Graham technique allowed me to deeply understand the organization of my body, its expressive potential, AND to work for a choreographer whose style is quite different from Graham’s. Studying a historic technique, even through full immersion, never caused me to feel that my integrity was based on staying in that lane. In fact, I think it speaks to the brilliance of the Martha Graham technique that it can prepare a dancer for a career in a wide variety of dance styles. This however, is not Martha Graham’s brilliance. Her technique was created over decades through the embodied consciousness and wisdom of numerous dancers. This is why Ron Protas lost the law suits over Graham’s intellectual property in the end. It was found that Graham’s work belonged to her company, to the entire organization that had created it, not to a singular person. My integrity as a modern dancer has to do with being a part of a multi-faceted tradition that continues to evolve through the myriad people who engage with it, not being a follower or devotee.
I now teach Graham technique as an Assistant Professor at Marymount Manhattan College, where the curriculum is literally, Graham on M/W, Horton on T/Th and Taylor on Fridays. Alumni of MMC are dancing with the Graham and Taylor companies among others, which shows the efficacy of this approach in training classical Modern dancers, but it also teaches young dancers to be critical thinkers; to find both the common threads and the contrasts among different choreographer’s visions, and to be able to access different kinds of physicality in their own creative expression.
In addition, Acocella’shistoric view that, “When the founder got old or fat or tired, she usually just went home, and the dancers moved on to other companies or got married or whatever.” Reeks of outdated prejudice. The statement starts out with body-shaming, ageism, and a lack of respect for rest/self-care, which has no place in contemporary conversations about dance makers. Brilliant choreographers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and they have every right to take rest when needed, and then return to choreographing when their life calls for it. Acocella’s statement ends completely dismissing dancers, “or whatever” and the role they play in the creation of every dance “masterpiece.” She spends quite a bit of time describing what she calls,“Older dancer syndrome.” She blames dancers and the authority they claim over work that they had a large role in creating, for causing discord in companies under new direction. Perhaps if seasoned dancer were more often recognized as the wells of knowledge they are, and less often treated like broken inanimate objects, they would take more kindly to new direction. Dancers aren’t dogmatic sheep. They are sensitive, intelligent people who are wildly disciplined. Certainly, there are cycles of abuse in classical dance training that cause some dancers to wield different amounts of agency than others (that is the subject of another essay), but to think that dancers are passive in a choreographic creative process is as ignorant as it is offensive.
Lastly, I am very confused by the following passage from Acocella’s writing, “… it became clear that the workshop is more than a licensing tool. It is a sort of conjuring, a ceremony through which the Cunningham style is brought back to life. Dance historians are fond of proclaiming that dance, alone among the Western arts, is passed down hand to hand, like folk arts in traditional societies. The artists involved don’t necessarily like hearing about this from non-practitioners. It makes them feel like anthropological curiosities.” I have been a repetiteur for the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company since 2005. I have reconstructed works created by Bill, who is still alive, and by Arnie Zane who passed in 1988. In either case, workshops surround the reconstruction of historic work that give the new dancers embodied and intellectual access to the time in which the work was made as well as its movement vocabulary. You can call it a conjuring if you want to. I call it education. Dance is very often passed down “hand to hand” and for me, this is one of the great beauties of the field. Reconstructing historic dances through oral histories makes dance incredibly rich, nuanced and textured. It’s not that dance artists dislike being connected to folk arts or traditional societies. The problem is that folk arts and traditional societies are looked down upon by colonizing art critics, creating a value judgement about them among non-practitioners. Perhaps when modern dance is recognized as more of a movement that sprang from culture and community and less as the product of singular, “genius” then we will be less in danger of losing its spirit.