BOOK REVIEW: The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practice in Dance Training

By Ann Murphy


Twenty years ago dance was declared dead by more than a few New York dance critics who had watched both modern dance and ballet flower and, they believed, collapse. The geniuses were gone, the movement innovations had dried up, and the big audiences had moved on to home videos and jogging in the city park. All along the dancers in the studios and on stage knew better: Dance might not be the same as it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or early ‘80s but it certainly wasn’t dead. It was in transition.

What was less clear is what we meant and when it began. Did it start when Tharp stormed Lincoln Center with her boundary-breaking Deuce Coupe? Or is it the day Judson Dance separated dance virtues from traditional notions of movement virtuosity? Perhaps it actually began with the debut of the New Dance Group in the early 1930s, when the band of lefties assaulted the racial and class divide that kept concert dance white and highbrow. Or was it Wigman’s premiere in New York, which shook the dance world to its core? Perhaps it was even more fundamental—the Ballets Russes tour in 1916.

While much could be written about the profound changes in and changeability of dance over the course of the 20th century, Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol in their new and somewhat uneven, but valuable compendium, The Body Eclectic, assert that the evolution of the form since Judson Dance Theater represents a paradigmatic shift in dance that distinguishes it from other periods of change. The two University of Illinois dancer-scholars set out to support this position by documenting Judson-driven shifts which are still reverberating today on the practical and conceptual level. The result is itself an eclectic body of information, and the book’s format reflects the diverse and molten activity it sets out to document. Body blends theory, practicality, personal opinion and story in a volume that can be read selectively or plowed through from beginning to end.

Bales, professor in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign dance department, is a Laban Movement Analyst and former ballerina. Nettl-Fiol, associate professor of dance, is a choreographer and Alexander teacher who specializes in kinesiology and somatics. Together, they contribute a large number of the articles to the anthology without seeming to dominate it. Part of this many-voices feel of Body is the result of the collection of highly readable interviews with a total of 17 practitioners. These include the venerable Martha Myers of Connecticut College and the American Dance Festival, and Cecchetti teacher Janet Panetta, who became ballet mistress at Tanztheater Wuppertal after the beloved ballet master Alfredo Corvino died. This weave of opinions creates a rich tapestry that eschews the uptight tone that can overtake some academic dance writing. For the reader it provides a rare experience of reading a dance text that, as a whole, offers a real and impassioned sense of the praxis of contemporary dance.

Some of the contributions are downright beautiful. Wendell Beavers, who began dancing with Mary Overlie and continued with the Judsonites, later helped found Movement Research and now directs a new MFA program at Naropa. He writes:

“It is possible that, in its present manifestation, dance is both the last repository of the truth in human history and a place where we can continue our evolutionary journey. Conversely, not dance could mean an evolutionary dead end … By dancing we range freely through prehistory to the forward edge of the future.”

Beaver is eloquent on the subject of the role of technique, which he renders with zen-like transparency as the “necessity of knowing how to do something.” In an art that can either fetishize or dismiss technique, it is refreshing to come across the wise voice that says it is the means by which we discover how to do something. If the method works over time, it is likely to be codified and handed on to others.

Debates brew in Body Eclectic about the nature of alignment and its mechanical versus cultural significance. There is refreshing physicality to the discourse as the authors plumb the subject of the Cartesian “substantial body” versus the post-modern “relational” body.

The editors insist on an existential facticity of dance, letting the practice itself call the conceptual shots, and then allowing the theory to have its say. This makes for no shortage of abstract thinking, and opens the door for the richly personable interviewees—dance figures like Shelley Senter, Tere O’Connor, Shelley Washington, Janet Panetta, Ralph Lemon and Anne Bluethenthal—to wrestle eloquently with the conceptual roots of the work they do.

Putting into context what so many of us know intuitively, Bales says that although “some dancers today may still practice only one ‘pure’ style, such as Graham technique, or take classes derived directly from some other style originated in the period before Judson, this phenomenon is becoming rare. In fact, there is just about any kind of ‘training package’ you could imagine going on these days, and therein can be found one of the major descriptors of contemporary dance training.”

Dismantling traditional dance training has become for some a sign of the art’s dangerous decline. For others, including a vast number of young dancers, it heralds a new, liberated expression stripped of the stylistic artifice that has calcified traditional ballet and modern dance for years. What is incontrovertible is the fact that it is economically impossible for many dancers to pay for daily classes. Regardless of philosophical proclivities, dancers increasingly have to find creative ways to develop and tune their bodies outside historic channels of training.

Body Eclectic delves capably into the revolution in body-mind studies that spurred the new physical practice, as well as into the deep aesthetic changes that arose alongside of and as a result of these innovations. Through accumulation worthy of Judson-era dance, Nettl-Fiol and Banes give substance and contour to the post-Judson era, making Body Eclectic a persuasive and important guide to contemporary dance.

The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practice in Dance Training, edited by Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2008.

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.