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Dance Writings and Poetry Paperback – September 10, 1998
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Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Frank O'Hara wrote of dancewriter Edwin Denby in his poem 'Edwin's Hand', that he was 'Easy to love, but/difficult to please,he/walks densely as a child/in the midst of spectacular/needs to understand.' A glimpse of Denby the man and the myth peek through in a new book of his prose DANCE WRITINGS AND POETRY, Edited by Robert Cornfield, (Yale University Press, $40 hard, $18 soft). Cornfield notes in an introductory short-bio, that Denby had a background in art history, music, gymnastics, theater and began his career in the 20s as a dancer. This is the only book now in print of Denby's influencial dance articles. For almost thiry years Denby's eye was deftly focused on the evolution of dance in this century.
Denby's ability as a dance interpreter has a dramatic authority, if dated abstractness. His encylopedic knowledge of the history and connotations of every type of dance is always evident in his essays. This spectrum, as presented in the uneven 'Dance Writings', builds as a symposia on the world of dance, invovling complete aspects of academic, physical and aesthetic interrogation. And, to credit his anti-eliteism, his work, even at it most studied, has a conversational lightness. It is obvious that his evaluative powers were distinctive and unique. But you cannot help but wonder why he doesn't employ the economy in his writing that he would expect on the dance stage. Or red flag his own indulgences of style, something that he was obviously fond of doing when critiquing other artists.
Denby's mission was to define the terms of dancewriting and make it vital to the art form. To achieve "disentangling the pretensions of a ballet from it achievements." as he put in the essay 'Dance Criticism'. Often his method of dissection reads as too accurate and overstated, like that of a sharpshooter killing a faun and mounting it on the hood of his car. Denby himself sites a great reason for choreographers to be concise in a review of the first mounting of Balanchine's Apollo where he cites lines by Richard Howard on poetry, that advise, "...Always halve the line so that a rest is heard." But frequently fails to apply the tenet himself.
In his time and now, Denby enjoys a reputation as 'the final word' as a dance-theater historian. He was no doubt given broad licence by his editors at his reviewing posts for The Times Herald and Modern Music, among other publications. More theoretical in approach than descriptive, Denby often veers from dance reporting to his own conceptual impressions and emotional responses. Now, completely detached from the performances, his analysis is comes off as obtuse, sometimes even funny. Take for example a description of Martha Graham's company in her piece 'Chronicle', Denby writes, "Even her so-called angularity springs partly from a feat that the eye will be confused unless every muscle is given a definite job. The eye will be confused. But our bodily sense would not. Our bodily sense needs the rebound from a gesture, the variation of hard and soft muscle, of exact and general." Etc. Etc. Etc. I'll attempt to translate- Graham's pained looks and overwrought extentions detracted from her artistry. Denby gets so carried away with his themes that he can't resist stating the obvious, as in this observation, .."the musician exists not only as an instrument but also as a person." Deep.
Still, there is no doubt that Denby is a journalist with potent instincts. You get the sense that he is engaging in a broad discussion of dance as a vital human condition. In Brad Gooch's biography of O'Hara ('City Poet'), he is described as, "soft spoken, reserved and gentlemanly" and "that sitting next to Denby at the ballet felt like sitting next to a lightning rod."
The poetry section of the book is a curious and frustrating inclusion- intriguing, but decorative. Denby's character peeks through in his poems, with at times, a diarist's intimacy. In an introductory essay titled 'The Thrities', Denby describes his process in interpreting painting academically and emotionally. He speaks of the immediacy of a canvas and its after-image- the lingering affect. This quality can be said of many of his poems. In between frequent casualness, forced imagery and veiled homoerotica, unexpected clarity and lyrcism appear, particularly in his 'Mediterrean Cities' poems, demonstrated hauntingly in the sharp-faceted 'Delos'- Glistens a vivid phallus; marsh-born here before At a palm, cleft-suckled, a god he first came Who hurts and heals unlike love, and whom I fear; Will he return here? quickly we pluck dry flowers The sailor blows his conch; Delos disappears
With all of its faults 'Dance Writing and Poetry' still has great value as a reference for dance students, artists and writers. Read selectively, Denby can render a kinetic reality to the performance and performers with provocative imagery. And the essays about ballet history, neoclassicism, Nijinski and, most pointedly, the Balanchine revolution, remain invaluable contributions.