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Edwin Denby

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Edwin Denby is considered by many America's greatest dance critic; he's certainly the Patron Saint of many. I just found an extensive collection of articles in Jacket (February-March 2003) about him:

Edwin Denby

Feature: Edwin Denby, 1903–1983

— edited by Karlien van den Beukel

Rudy Burckhardt: ‘And then I met Edwin...’: Rudy Burckhardt talks to Simon Pettet

Yvonne Jacquette Burckhardt: Edwin Denby

Jacob Burckhardt: Martens Bar (with photo of Martens Bar and MP3 audio file of Edwin Denby reading ‘Disorder, mental, strikes, me; I’)

‘The Cinema of Looking’: Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby in conversation with Joe Giordano

Lynne Hjelmgaard: Ten poems

Vincent Katz: Poem: Edwin Sitting

Nicole Mauro: Ode: To Edwin Denby

Alice Notley: Intersections with Edwin's Lines

Simon Pettet: poem: ‘Fortunate proximity of lives...’

Noel Sheridan: Remembering Edwin Denby

Simon Smith and Ron Padgett: A conversation about Edwin Denby

Brian Kim Stefans: poem: A california submerged

Anne Waldman interviews Edwin Denby, 1981

Edwin Denby interviews artist Neil Welliver

Audio links: Edwin Denby reads five of his poems

Vincent Katz’s site curated for the New York Studio School on ‘Rudy Burckhardt’s Maine’ contains eight sonnets by Edwin Denby: ‘The sonnets he wrote later in life, in Maine, where he spent summers with Burckhardt’s family, show his characteristic compression and opacity taken to new extremes.’

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Denby was a poet (and gymnast, in his early life) in addition to being a dance critic. Most of the pieces in the post above refer to his poetry, and his role in New York's artistic and intellectual life.

But this long interview with Anne Waldman is a lot about dancing, too:

Anne Waldman interviews Edwin Denby

[Editing to add:]

Much of the conversation is about Davidsbundlertanze (and, later, the Tchaikovsky Festival). It's especially valuable because this was after Denby had stopped writing dance criticism.

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Thank you so much for finding and posting this site, Alexanda --t's a WONDERFUL sourceo f information, and of tributes to him and memoirs of him by people who knew him well/

But BA readers, if you don't know Denby already, this may not give yu any idea why people like me care so much about him. Read his BOOKS --Dancers Buildings and People in he Street, for one, and then you'll probably understand. He really cared about dancing, and he really looked at ballets and at daners and saw what they were dong.... he is an astringent writer as a poet, but his dance essays are only made clearer by his fidelity to what was really going on on hte stage, in hte ballet.

He wrote for hte New Yourk Herald Tribune during WOrld aWar II, and so he had to write in 'ordinary" language -- his poetry, I'll say it again, can be cryptic, but his criticism is really lucid, I read it all hte time, for pleasure. Hope you like him too.

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Good point, Paul -- his essays are exceptionally clear. I think he knew he was a missionary. He loved dancing, but loved Balanchine especially and was the first to really explain Balanchine to us. And he loved DANCING for its own sake, not as a means of expression, but as art for its own sake. "When you watch ballet dancers dancing" one essay begins, and it is, I think, the clearest description of what one might see doing so.

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My favorite essay of Denby's was the one on Balanchine's Nutcracker. He described how a mother at the performance said something like, "oh, look, she's lost her shoe" at the end of Act I, and her daughter replied that Marie lost it when she threw it at the Mouse King to save the Nutcracker. I don't remember Denby's exact comment, but it was something like, "she saw, and she understood." Which always seemed to me to sum up Denby. At my best, I could say, "he wrote, and I finally understood."

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Denby's description of Ulanova is one of the finest things I've ever read. Well, then there's his description of NYC vistas, that famous description of a lost moment from Barocco "deliberate plunge into an open wound..." or just about anything he ever wrote.

I remember rather enjoying Moira Shearer's breezy biography of Balanchine until she decided to use Denby as an example of all that's wrong with dance writing, citing what seemed to me to be a brilliant passage on Apollo as an example of bad writing. Excuse me? Good thing for the people on the sidewalk I wasn't near an open window at the time. Then when Shearer ventured to give her opinion of Balanchine's style, and his strengths and weaknesses, I realized her big problem: she had no idea what she was talking about.

Hmm. I wonder what Denby had to say about Shearer?

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As I recall, Denby was less than enthusiastic about Shearer's Cinderella but I doubt her comments were payback, although her book has its problems, to say the least. She's no dummy, though. But dancers in general don't always use quotes from critics very well in their books even when their view of them is positive, IMO. It's not a question of intelligence or grasp of the subject, however -- I think other factors come into play.

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I believe Looking at the Dance is one of the most comprehensive critiques of Balanchine's ballets on the market. It has been a while since I have read his literature, but I ran into someone at one of the NYCB performances of Raymonda Variations, who said that he sat next to Denby, and that it completely changed his outlook on ballet in general. I was in awe. I would kill to sit amongst such a critic! Does anyone have any other good bootleg, or other recommendations on Denby's writings?

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I'm not sure what you mean by "comprehensive", Figurante, because, as has been noted, Denby stopped writing criticism before Balanchine stopped making ballets, although he continued to watch them, but I too consider his our best ballet criticism, and Looking at the Dance is the first book I recommend to anyone who wants written help in getting more from watching ballet. Looking at the Dance first, and not one of the other collections, because of the arrangement of the essays, putting first what such a reader needs first, in particular that little essay called "How to Judge a Dancer" which begins, "When you look at ballet dancers dancing you are observing a young woman or a young man in fancy dress, and you like it if they look attractive, if they are well built and have what seems to be an open face. You notice the youthful spring in starting, the grace of carriage, the strength in stopping. You like it if they know what to do and where to go...

"But you are ready too for other qualities besides charm. The audience soon notices if the dancer has unusual control over her movements, if what she is doing is unusually clear to the eye... Now you are not only watching a charming dancer, she is also showing you a dance." [ellipses mine]

This is better than a great gallery lecturer pointing out elements of composition in a painting, say, because Denby lets the reader supply the painting: You can apply the lessons of these four pages to any and all the ballets you watch. Denby died soon after Balanchine did, but he - like Balanchine - is with us still.

I'm not sure what you mean by "bootleg" either, but if it's a little gossip you mean, then I can testify that Bernard ("B.H.") Haggin told me that Denby took little interest in assembling the book and went to Europe while Haggin did the work. There are other, more complete collections of Denby's writings, including the poetry, in chronological order, but if they're available and Looking is not, then I suggest to people to use a photocopy of the Table of Contents in Looking when they start to read his dance criticism. I think that ought to be included as an appendix. Haggin did a good job, as far as he went; Denby wrote more after 1949, of course.

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I just thought I'd alert BTers to a recent article on Denby's writing--it focuses on his poetry, but it's quite an extensive and richly contextualized piece. "Edwin Denby's New York School," by Mary Maxwell, appears in the Yale Review Vol. 95 Issue 4 (Oct. 2007), pp. 64-96. While the Yale Review is a scholarly journal Maxwell's piece is entirely readable. You can access it for free (for only a limited time, I think, although you'll be able to download the pdf) by going to http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/toc/yrev/95/4 (scroll down to the category "Original Articles").

Here's a representative quotation:

"Dance by its nature is about impermanence," writes Robert Cornfield in his introduction to Denby's dance writings; "it is an emblem of life's poignant glory." In the late fifties and sixties Denby continued to spend much of his time watching, talking, and writing about dance, especially Lincoln Kirstein's New York City Ballet. For though he wrote about every form of dance and all styles of choreography, Denby's discussions of George Balanchine have a distinct quality of self-description: "He has shown our dancers how to be natural in classicism, and he has shown them how to become unaffectedly brilliant in their own natural terms." In an interview with Anne Waldman, Denby noted, "As a poet, some days one feels like writing severely classic things, and some days one feels like writing shapeless romantic things. Just as [balanchine] does--in his case, as a choreographer. "Denby's high opinion of Balanchine was well known among the New York School. There was even a certain disparagement of Denby's aesthetic infatuation (and influence) by some of his friends. A Schuyler letter to Ashbery relates this anecdote: Schuyler told Anne Porter and the Porters' daughter Katie that he had found a performance of The Nutcracker "lou-zay." "Anne: 'But I was taught at my mother's knee that Balanchine could do no wrong.' Katie: 'Who was your mother?' Anne: 'In this case, Edwin Denby.'" (p. 82)

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Thank you for letting us know about the article, Ray. I enjoyed reading it.

Denby’s high opinion of Balanchine was well known among the New York

School. There was even a certain disparagement of Denby’s aesthetic

infatuation (and influence) by some of his friends. A Schuyler

letter to Ashbery relates this anecdote: Schuyler told Anne

Porter and the Porters’ daughter Katie that he had found a performance

of The Nutcracker ‘‘lou-zay.’’ ‘‘Anne: ‘But I was taught at my

mother’s knee that Balanchine could do no wrong.’ Katie: ‘Who

was your mother?’ Anne: ‘In this case, Edwin Denby.’ ’’

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