Fancy Footwork

Looking over some of my favorite dance books this year, I’m struck by the fact that most of them aren’t really about dance. That is, dance is where these writers start thinking, but it’s not where they end up; in one way or another, they’re all writing about life. The exception is No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press; $50), a narrative account of Western dancing and choreography in the last century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick. Their incredible journey starts with Loie Fuller (whose New York debut in 1891 was a piece about a woman imperiled by a medical quack—won’t somebody please reconstruct this?) and ends with Billy Elliot, but though it’s encyclopedic in size and scope, this is a book to read, not just to consult. Within the thematic sections are essays on choreography, style, dancers, and companies, each flowing easily into the next without the slightest sense of textbookery. The writing is graceful and lucid, the critical stance open-minded but judicious, and the overall intelligence truly a marvel.

Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (Simon & Schuster; $25) isn’t a dance book at all: It’s a self-help book for the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of reading self-help books. But only a dancer—in fact, only Tharp—could have written it. She’s always believed that movement is key to our very being, and though Proust gets high marks for a capacity she terms “sensual memory,” I suspect Tharp would be a lot happier with him if he’d get out of that bed.

Tharp has never had a scrap of patience with the La Bohème view of art, in which rapturous suffering in an attic is the necessary precursor to inspiration. She’s not even impressed by the notion of inspiration—and she’s certainly not going to sit around waiting for it. What she writes about here is how to get going, whether you’re making quilts, skyscrapers, stories, or panna cotta. The importance of rituals and routines (she does two hours in the gym at dawn without fail), techniques for what she calls “scratching” for ideas, even exercises to help crank the mental engines are included. Everyone has “creative DNA,” Tharp believes; the challenge is to discover its nature. Go out and watch people on the street, she advises in one exercise. Write down every single thing a couple does—then narrow it to everything a couple does that interests you. After a while, you’ll see patterns emerging in such lists. “The world will not be revealed to you,” she says. “You will be revealed.”

To read Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s new book is to march with her right across some of the most controversial terrain in dance. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography From Coon to Cool (Palgrave Macmillan; $29.95) is about the aesthetics of race—a subject even touchier than racism. For decades, black performers in every style of dance have demonstrated over and over that whatever the distinction between good dancers and inadequate dancers, it isn’t skin color. So why is most of the downtown dance scene multiracial and most of Lincoln Center white? Blacks are often said to have the wrong feet and the wrong line for classical ballet, but Gottschild finds more culture than physiology in that view. “It’s really more about what we like to see than what the dancing body can be taught to do,” she writes.

Dance forms have specific aesthetic criteria, to be sure, but there’s nothing immutable about many of them. Petipa wasn’t choreographing for dancers who looked like bobby pins on stilts, and some of his favorites wouldn’t get past the first call at an audition today. At one point, Gottschild describes a film sequence in which a doctor is shown examining and commenting on a woman patient: “Nostrils arched … Lower lip fleshy … Hair thick, oily … Skin swarthy. Hips naturally large and flaccid. Soles of the feet flat.” It’s a movie about Nazi-occupied France (Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein), and the woman has been accused of being Semitic. “When we want to identify someone as Other,” Gottschild notes, “we go to the body.”

Extended interviews with dancers both black and white (among them Bill T. Jones, Savion Glover, Francesca Harper, and Meredith Monk) allow Gottschild to pepper her analysis with experiences and opinions from many sides of the issue. She also retrieves legendary black performers and puts them before us all over again, giving special attention to James Brown and Josephine Baker as masters of the art of what she calls “working the stereotype.” For anyone who’s ever sat in an audience wondering why the folks onstage look so very unlike the folks outside, this invigorating, argumentative, and highly personable book is a must.

Clearly, Jennifer Fisher has been obsessed with The Nutcracker for years: She danced in it as a child, wrote her doctoral dissertation on it, and and now she’s produced Nutcracker Nation (Yale University Press; $27), a well-written reflection on the question, What is it about The Nutcracker anyway? While she doesn’t ignore the history of The Nutcracker and its crucial role in the economics of ballet, she’s more interested in figuring out why this particular dance event has had such an extraordinary social and cultural impact across North America. Ritual, celebration, symbol, local landmark—this is one ballet that’s never just a night at the theater. “Hulas were added in Hawaii, cowboys in Arizona, hockey players in Winnipeg, Cajun food in Louisiana,” she writes. Clara “might be a jazz dancer, or a student of ballet folklórico or bharata natyam … an illegal alien or a cross-dresser.” In Santa Barbara, there’s a Hollywood Nutcracker (Clara is a would-be movie star at a wrap party), and in Alma, Michigan, the local production is set in 1905 Edinburgh and features bagpipes.

Fisher approaches The Nutcracker as an anthropologist, studying the ballet in terms of the dancers, audience members, backstage crew, and volunteers who assemble around it each year. Much of her research time was spent with two very different Nutcracker “villages”—the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto, and an amateur company called the Loudoun Ballet, in Leesburg, Virginia. Under normal circumstances, nobody could fairly compare these two companies, but as Fisher points out, “In the Nutcracker world, it’s only steps from one Land of the Sweets to another.” Summing up the ideals that pervade the ballet no matter where it’s staged—“the innocence of children, dreams coming true, multicultural sharing, and safe returns from utopian adventures”—she acknowledges that communities may not achieve these heights any more than most performances do. “But if it doesn’t work perfectly, there is always next year,” she remarks. That in itself may be a source of The Nutcracker’s power: its sure return.

Fancy Footwork