Dance with an Oxford Accent

Article excerpt

Once, someone very unkindly suggested that my own highly distinguished alma mater in England was chiefly proficient at sending its students out into the world with a totally unjustifiable arrogance and a certain proficiency at handling reference books and simple research material. Well, for myself, you couldn't meet a less arrogant person in a day's march--I will in front of a shrinking violet!--but I think I am rather good with basic reference material. I learned very early on--yes, perhaps it was at university--that shameless skill which all journalists shamefully need to acquire, of becoming an instant expert on almost any subject within, say, twenty minutes of entering an appropriate library. It's admittedly a small skill, and, yes, perhaps a rather arrogant one, but it has served me generously over the years.

Now in dance and theater I have my own pretty complete library. I am assured that in these days of the World Wide Web, such personal reference sources are unnecessary, even redundant. Maybe. But simply by knowing where to look and, quite often, remembering my alphabet, I can find out or confirm most dance facts before your average Internet provider could get you online. There is still some terrain where donkeys travel faster than racing cars. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, there is no CD-ROM of an encyclopedia as easy, fast and efficient to use and manipulate as the basic encyclopedia itself. On the other hand, the CD-ROM is cheaper and takes up less shell' space.

In any case, for reference sources on dance there is no CD-ROM available, and while you can certainly browse and research the Web for specific purposes in the way of articles and various background material, there is no quick fix for dance knowledge, except in the most general sense. Yes, you can almost instantly find out how old Merce Cunningham is, where he was born, where he started to dance, etc. But try to do the same for James Cunningham and you would find it much more difficult. Which is why we need the specialist dance shelf.

Recently, a few large-scale dance reference books have been published. Most people, apart from dance journalists, would not own them but refer to them in libraries, notably the six-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Dance, published in 1998, and the slightly earlier two-volume International Dictionary of Ballet and the one-volume International Dictionary of Modern Dance, both published by the St. James Press. In these pages we have already belabored, rightly I think, the inadequacies and infelicities of the big Oxford Encyclopedia, and I find I use it surprisingly little and then with not overmuch confidence. The St. James so-called dictionaries (they are far from comprehensive, but do deal with the included subjects most comprehensively) are, I find, far more useful, although these too are also far from infallibly accurate.

But there is also a need for a popular readers' dictionary or encyclopedia, a need first recognized by Anatole Chujoy when he brought out his own Dance Encyclopedia in 1949. It was a remarkable achievement--the whole world of dance alphabetized from "abaisser" to "Zullig, Hans." It had fairly lengthy articles spread between the reference items, some written by the likes of Edwin Denby, John Martin and Walter Terry, but the body of the book was Chujoy's own long labor of love.

Other reference books followed. In 1957, G.B.L Wilson wrote a very useful Penguin paperback, Dictionary of Dance, later extended, first in 1961 and then in 1974, into two hardcover editions, unfortunately only readily available in Britain. Then in 1959 came the very attractive and useful French Hazan Dictionary, with lovely color illustrations. This was also produced in slightly different English, American and German versions. Like the Wilson, all four are very much worth having, not only for the facts, but also for the many ballet set and costume designs reproduced in full color. …