Back with the Avant-Garde
Barnes, Clive, Dance Magazine
I often recall an old Foreign Legion movie which I think was satirically inclined, although by now I'm not quite sure, in which a sweaty and despairing officer turns to his equally sweaty and despairing Legionnaires, surveys the limitless sands around them, and announces, in confident tones: "Legion of the Lost--we're lost!" Sometimes I rather feel that way about the avant-garde, whether it's in dance, in drama, music, painting, or gardening.
Avant-garde is a curious term. It implies progress, movement, of course, and the very phrase ("advance guard") is obviously of some military origin or connotation, implying perhaps an enemy such as those very Philistines that old Robert Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze was so concerned about. When was the phrase first used? Well, J. A. Cuddon's invaluable Dictionary of Literary Terms cites Gabriel-Desire Laverdant's 1845 work, De la mission de l'art et du role des artistes, a treatise with which I am not familiar but which sounds pretty comprehensive. Now, according to Cuddon, Laverdant wrote: "Art, the expression of society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer. Therefore, to know whether art worthily fulfills its proper mission as initiator, whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, what the destiny of the human race is...." Personally, I often have difficulty in, knowing where dance is going, let alone Humanity and the human race--so perhaps in considering the dance avant-garde I am operating under disadvantages amounting to double jeopardy.
However, at first the term avant-garde was used more politically than artistically, and it was only toward the end of the last century, possibly with the rise of the French symbolist poets, such as Rimbaud and Mallarme, that the phrase slowly became slanted toward the arts, and finally, in this century, virtually annexed. Today it is a term of cultural description, so let us forget what it means and concentrate on what it implies, particularly what it implies in dance.
Critics are modestly good at describing the present, modestly better at describing the past, but moderately useless in describing the future. Kenneth Tynan, whose field was theater, put it aptly enough in describing the critic as a backseat driver facing the wrong way. Which is why, when faced with quite a goodly amount of contemporary dancing--barefoot, toe-shoed, or hobnail-booted--I feel very much like that Legion officer, facing my readers, you honest, adventurous Legionnaires, and confessing to you: "Legion of the Lost, we're lost in the sands of time in the desert of the avant-garde. Somewhere lies the way to the oasis, but you, my dear Legionnaires, can probably guess it, or not guess it, as well as I can. Only our eventually slaked thirst or blanched bones can render the answer." Of course, I don't actually say this. Like every critic on earth, I fake it.
As I write this, looking back over the past few weeks of my dance-going experience, I realize that I have been touched by what we might call the dance avant-garde on quite a few occasions. But I intend to pick just two choreographers--Stephen Petronio and George Balanchine. I select Petronio because, rightly or wrongly, I came to view his work rather more favorably than in the past, and Balanchine because here I can look at history and pat myself on the head, if not on the back, as having been at least fugitively right. …