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Robert Gottlieb, Reading Dance


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I'm almost ashamed to admit it because it sounds facetious, but I read this book in the bathtub. It takes me to my happy place and relaxes me.

I identify completely. I tried Gottlieb in the bath, but found it a little too unwieldy. Product warning: it takes a LONG time for a book of 1300-plus pages to dry out after it's been accidentally dunked in water ... even if you manage to snatch it out after only a second or two.

Perky, you got me to turn to Goldner's piece on the Bolshoi. Like all first-rate critics, she has the skill of making you SEE what she is describing. This is especially when she is sharpening and wielding a knife. For example:

With the woman rarely touching ground in the duets, Grigorovich's pas de deux are actually pas d'un.

As soon as the Khachaturian score for Spartacus or the Prokofiev conglomerate for Ivan the Terrible hits adagio, one knows that the man is going to lift the lady across his shoulder blades, slide her down the side of his leg, and then flip her head first over one shoulder so as to block her face and chest from view. (How telling that we rarely see the woman full-face and upside up at those very moments supposedly most expressive of the characters' feelings.) Then, for the grand finale, he boosts her straight up into the air, as if she were the prize trophy of a turkey shoot.

The woman, besides needing an infant's cast-iron stomach to weather her upside-down state of being, must play dead so that we may admire the man's strength in maneuvering her body so easily around his own; in the last duet of Ivan the Terrible, Anastasia actually is dead.

Necrophiliac duets hae long been tempting to the many choreographers who have done Romeo and Juliet, but Grigorovich does not need the excuse of plot to indulge his fancy. Necrophilia is the subject of all his duets, and the only confusion in the metaphor is that what looks corpse-like to me stands for passion in Grigorovich's eyes. (*)

I'll never look at Spartacus again without thinking of that.

My most recent foray into Gottlieb: Alastair Macaulay, "Sex, Violence and Kenneth MacMillan" (Times Literary Supplement, 2003). Macaulay gives us company history, performance reports, and artistic evaluation, including glimpses into the dark side of MacMillan's vision. A very useful and fascinating piece.

(*) Note: I broke up the Goldner selection into shorter paragraphs for easier on-line reading.

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Slightly :off topic:

Product warning: it takes a LONG time for a book of 1300-plus pages to dry out after it's been accidentally dunked in water ... even if you manage to snatch it out after only a second or two.
Again, BT is a source of indispensible practical advice. Thanks, bart!
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Charlie Rose's website has a 28-minute interview with Gottlieb, the first 18 minutes of which are largely on dance and "Reading Dance."

I grew up in New York and I came of age, if I ever did come of age, at the moment when dance became crucial to this city [. . .] in 1948. [. . .] George Balanchine. So suddenly you're in the presence of Shakespeare. [ . . .]

Rose: "What's the Shakespeare in Balanchine?"

Gottlieb: "It's the vast variety of understanding. He could do everything. You feel that Shakespeare, if he hadn't written King Lear, Twelfth Night and 20 other great masterpieces, he would have written 20 other great masterpieces. [. . .] There was nothing that he [balanchine like Shakespeare] couldn't turn to and make the best of."

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Thanks, kfw. Gottlieb is one of those cultural figures I've always admired. I identified with a couple of his statements.

-- He says that there are people (including his friend Antonia Fraser) who are "dance deaf," though they may love something like opera. And there are others (including himself) who knew the first time they attended a dance performance that it spoke to them directly and in an important way. All of us who follow Ballet Talk are in that second group. We need a catchy label for ourselves. What's the opposite of "dance deaf"?

-- He recognizes that his own love of dance was partly a "function of history" -- the fortuitous experience of growing up in New York City at a time when it just about to become the most creative place for dance and dancers. For Gottlieb this was 1948, when he was 17, the year Balanchine and Kirstein formed NY City Ballet. Gottlieb attended the first City Center seasons. I first started going to City Center a decade later. All of us who were in that place at that time were fortunate indeed.

I also like his emphasis on good writing, which was his first criterion. Thinking about it, this is the special qualitiyof this anthology as compared to many. It does not try to cover everything. Covering a lot of ground may be one of the goals, but only if the writing is good. Gottlieb mentions only two "good" dancer-writers: Allegra Kent ("you can tell after reading the first three sentences") and Serge Lifar (someone he otherwise does not like). I've read Kent's book, but now I'm curious about investigating the two selections from Lifar's memoirs: one about Diaghilev and the other about Goebbels.

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What's the opposite of "dance deaf"?

It's been over 30 years since I last saw Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," but the first phrase that comes to mind is "polymorphously perverse." :) Accurate? Of course not. But at least it gets at the way some dance observers feel and respond to the movement on stage in their own bodies.

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