Dance and Its Meanings. (Attitudes)
Barnes, Clive, Dance Magazine
LIKE SO MANY OF THE BEST STORIES, IT'S PROBABLY APOCRYPHAL. BUT IF IT IS, IT HAS NO RIGHT TO BE. IT'S JUST TOO GOOD NOT TO BE TRUE. ANYWAY, IT HAS BEEN SAID (A REMARK NOT UNLIKE "ONCE UPON A TIME") THAT when Gertrude Stein was on her deathbed, she said in a hushed, frail, sepulchral voice: "What is the answer?" An awkward silence enveloped those reverently gathered around her. After a pause, Stein once again broke the silence: "Well, then what is the question?" Then with a great artist's instinct for leaving well enough alone, she lapsed into silence--for hours. And then finally died. I guess she realized she couldn't better her final sally, and wisely never tried.
What is the answer; what is the question? Great thoughts. They can be applied to anything from life to art and back. For some perhaps reasonable reason, the other night I found myself applying them to dance. What does it all mean? What does dance mean? Does it mean anything? Should it mean anything? So--pace Ms. Stein--that is the question. But what on earth is the answer?
I had these thoughts just days before my seventy-fifth birthday. It's a sombering thought, seventy-five. At least it is when applied to a birthday. Especially your own birthday! I always remember a surprising call from Martha Graham. Martha, for some reason, for we were never on especially close terms, had found out it was my fortieth birthday and took the trouble to telephone. After congratulating me, she said: "Clive, you have lived longer now than you are likely to live." (Martha, incidentally, was a singularly spry 73 at the time.) "So think of Death every day," she continued cheerily, "so when he comes he will not come as a stranger." She hung up. Well, yes, I tried, but here I was, a few days short of 75, tumbling riotously out of the Joyce Theater having just seen Philadanco and full of the joys of spring and dance. Were it not for my generalized and vague senescence, I could have swung round lampposts like Gene Kelly--and it wasn't even raining.
Is that the meaning of dance? Swinging round lampposts as if there were no tomorrow and the whole world was blithely and sexily in love? Yes, all that. But all that and more, much more. It is also leaving George Balanchine's Episodes or Graham's Dark Meadow with those feelings, equally elusive and pervasive, of disquiet, not quite of fear but still streets away from lamppost swinging. It is leaving Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free grinning, perhaps with nostalgia; it's the unlocated mystery of Paul Taylor's Aureole or the equally unlocated but sweet-scented pain of Antony Tudor's Jardin aux lilas; the pictorial enchantment of an Alwin Nikolais spectacular or the gymnastic contortions of a Pilobolus unlikelihood; it's the Shakespearean joy of Frederick Ashton's The Dream. It's ... well, you get the picture, you get the dance. Many things to many moods.
Over my seventy-five years--well, the sixty dance-going and certainly the fifty-two dance-writing years--my views on meaning in dance have changed and developed. First I loved the purely physical, that magical fusion of movement and music; then I moved, briefly I suspect, to symbolism and story. …