CRITIC’S CHOICE: Dance Reading Worthy Of Catching Up On

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Looking for a break from that pent-up feeling of make-shift home studio class and workouts, not to mention giving your eyes a break from internet screen time?  As live performing arts remain in a virtual lockdown, it could be the perfect time to catch up on the dance books you haven’t had time to read. Here are some notable titles to recommend.


In 1975 photographer James Klosty published the first-ever book on the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. It was republished in 1986 and more recently in commemoration of Cunningham’s 100th birthday. It contains previously unpublished photographs of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in rehearsal, on the road, on tours, backstage, and onstage in some of the world’s most vaulted dance stages, and just as compelling alternate venues of the 60s and 70s, when he created many of his most celebrated, daring, and innovative works.

This beautifully designed volume features full-page prints and exquisite transfers in dimensional duotone process. Klosty had full access on and backstage to shoot performance images and pages of collective portraiture of dancers, musicians, painters, and artists and the often gritty environs they traveled to practice their art. Klosty is just as much a photojournalist as a dance-arts photographer and this is, indeed, one of the most stunning dance photography books in memory.

Throughout the beautiful layout of this volume, there are personal remembrances of Cunningham and commentary by artists, dancers, and musicians who collaborated with the choreographer including dancers Carolyn Brown, Yvonne Rainer, artist Jasper Johns, of course, Cunningham’s life partner, John Cage.  Klosty closes the book with the text of an interview he conducted with Cunningham while his company was touring the world. Merce is spontaneous and playful about his life, his dancers, and the Zen of his artistry. Indeed, we all can take this master’s class.


A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back | David Hallberg

Professional dancers are notorious for keeping pain and injuries to themselves, lest they miss out on dancing a coveted role.  One of the most candid accounts of dancing with injury is David Hallberg’s A Body of Work. Hallberg’s meteoric rise on the international dance stage is the stuff of legends. Just five years ago, he was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater and the first American to be a principal member at the Bolshoi Ballet. During his triumphal season that had him starring on ballet stages all over the world, his body was literally falling apart from dance injuries. Hallberg was dealing with debilitating foot and knee trauma so serious that all conventional surgeries were ineffective. Hallberg left dance and moved to Australia where he worked with the Australian Ballet team of vanguard dance therapists who utilized innovative methods to rebuild Hallberg’s whole dancing body (mind and spirit), not just his injuries. It was hard and often defeating. He repeatedly gave up but managed to hang in with his team down under and return to the stage with a new dancing body.  In addition to being completely honest about his mental collapse over losing his career, Hallberg is also frank about being an “out dancer”, even though he keeps the detail of his private life off the page.


MARTHA: The Life and Work of Martha Graham | by Agnes DeMille

Agnes DeMille changed dancing on Broadway with her ‘Dream Ballet’ in the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. DeMille was among the vanguard of modern dance-theater choreographers as well as being a lifelong friend of Martha Graham.  DeMille, who was also a prolific writer, published the biography Martha a year after Graham’s death in 1991. It is a meticulous text that she had been working on for 30 years. Despite or because of their friendship, DeMille’s portrait of Martha is unsentimental and honest revealing Graham’s personal and professional life, her ballets and dancers, her triumphs, and defeats.  DeMille’s journalistic clarity leaves nothing off the table, including Graham’s artistic breakdown when she could no longer dance and her triumphant return as a dance master-choreographer. DeMille’s Martha is truly a stunning portrait of the earth mother of American modern dance.


A Dance Against Time, the life of Edward Stierle | by Diane Solway

Diane Solway’s moving A Dance Against Time is about the life of Edward Stierle, a rising star at the Joffrey Ballet who died at age of twenty-three in 1992. It is an unforgettable portrait of a dancer cut down at the height of his career, but spending every moment left to him being committed to practicing his art. Stierle was one of the many gay male dancer-choreographers lost to AIDS. Solway’s biography of Stierle charts his path from a star student at a mall dance studio in Hollywood, Florida with limited training in ballet to winning international competitions and eventually training at the School of American Ballet.  Initially discouraged as being too short for principal classical roles, he was hired on at the Joffrey. His meteoric rise coincided with his HIV-AIDS diagnosis. Stierle danced until the last year of his life, fighting off every infection that racked his body. He also poured the time he had left into choreography.  His ballets Lacrymosa and the epic Empyrean Dances are in the Joffrey repertory and since has been reconstructed by other ballet companies.   Solway writes of Stierle’s unwavering courage in the face of death with unflinching honesty. The book is one of the most moving testaments to the dance-warrior spirit.


Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and a Memoir in Progress | by Jerome Robbins & Amanda Vaill

Part of the legendary lore about choreographer Jerome Robbins is his non-communicative directorial style. As co-director with George Balanchine at New York City Ballet and as the visionary architect of dance narrative on the Broadway stage with such hits as West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, et al, he was both admired and feared in the industry. His reputation was marked for its often contentious relationship with dancers, actors, designers, directors, producers, and writers. One infamous story has him walking backward onstage and crashing into the orchestra pit without anyone in the cast onstage warning him that he was close to falling off.

Amanda Vaill’s 2008 biography Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins is among the best of these chronicles of Robbins’ career. Vaill with her newest release has now followed up as literary curator of thousands of pages of Robbins’ private papers and records that would have otherwise remained vaulted away at the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins archive.  Vaill has collated and contextualized Robbin’s vast archive of private correspondence, daily journals, production notes, his artwork, and dance librettos into an engrossing self-portrait

Robbins may have been circumspect and icy with performers in rehearsals but as his letters reveal he just as often tried to settle things privately with his colleagues. He was a prolific diarist from his days as a star gypsy on Broadway to his achievements as a peerless American architect of American musical-theater and dance. His reserved style in public is belied by his ongoing autobiographical writings which bristle with wit, integrity, self-doubt, and sharp critical thinking about all things personal and professional.

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