writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

3 May 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff

Philip Hamburger died the other day. He was 89 and had enjoyed an exclusive career as a writer at The New Yorker: he landed there in his 20s, it was love at first sight, and he never left. Phil’s tenure at the magazine went back to the founding editor, Harold Ross, who had hired Phil in 1939 as a reporter for Talk of the Town. As Phil used to tell it, he and several other up-and-coming scribes were stuffed into a small office. They’d get an assignment to go out and cover this or that or the other thing—like the presence of four Basenjis at a Kennel Club show or the appearance of a bagpiper in Central Park—would don their topcoats and seize their hats, and run onto the streets of Manhattan to track down the story, then return to the office, fling off their outerwear, and wrestle their findings into a communicable form that would satisfy Ross. Maybe “satiate” is the word, as Ross was rarely satisfied, but he had pages to fill every week and someone had to do it, and those someones might as well be the staff he was paying. If you page through Friends Talking in the Night, the handsome selection of Phil’s six decades as a New Yorker reporter, critic, observer of statesmen, and wry literary charmer, which was published in 1999 and is dedicated to Ross’s memory, you won’t find very much about dance, although you’ll find plenty of reading sufficiently wonderful as to make you miss your stop on the subway, including this passage about Agnes de Mille’s 1949 staging of Benjamin Britten’s “music drama,” The Rape of Lucretia:

“A mimeographed handout sent to me before the opening hinted that in order to understand fully what was about to occur at the Ziegfeld, I should visit the Etruscan Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Agnes de Mille, the director, apparently visited the Wing and got trapped there. All through the first scene, in front of a tent outside Rome, the actors kept slapping at their faces and waving their arms, and I was puzzled until I realized that Miss de Mille’s researches had uncovered the presence of mosquitoes in the Pontine Marshes some twenty-four hundred years before Mussolini. Only Miss Piazza, as Lucia; Mr. Tozzi, as Tarquinius; and the elegant and striking sets of John Piper—true masterpieces of art in the theatre—achieved the high level toward which the entire production groaned and struggled.”

On at least one occasion, though, Phil did devote an entire story to a dancer: Peg-Leg Bates, the great hoofer who, because he had been run over by a streetcar as a boy, enjoyed a leg up in the rhythm department by being able to affix taps to the shoe on his real foot, taps to the shoe on his false leg, and a third set of taps to his crutch. Phil’s interview with Bates appeared in Talk during the 1940’s, and, with Janet Flanner’s reports on Josephine Baker from the 20’s, it stands as one of the magazine’s rare yet marvelous gestures toward the art of dance prior to William Shawn’s inauguration of the Dancing column for Arlene Croce in 1973. Phil didn’t include the interview in Friends. To find it, you’ll have to go to the library, which isn’t such a bad thing. As Phil wrote in “Searching for Gregorian,” his 1986 profile of Vartan Gregorian, then the President and C.E.O. of the New York Public Library:

“A few days ago, I walked over to the library. It was the middle of the day and the middle of the week, and the library was crowded. Room 315 had been reopened, after being restored to its original appearance, as designed by Carrère and Hastings. It is a dignified room with big windows. The card catalogue was gone, of course, and I missed it. Some people were pulling the huge printed catalogue volumes from the shelves; others were standing in front of the thirty-two computer terminals. I tried my luck at one of them, hitting the keyboard of the terminal with my own name, which had been in the card catalogue. Green letters instantly flashed on the terminal screen. “Type HELP,” they said. I realized that I was in the grip of technology and needed patience, perseverance, and an open mind. I felt blue about this until I walked into one of the enormous reading rooms behind the catalogue room. There sat hundreds of people, quietly reading. There was a slight murmur in the room, almost a whisper, and it sounded like low music of the spheres. As long as there is this reading room, these people, this murmur, I thought, we are safe. Perhaps.”


Lots of contemporary artists admire the work of Ovid, Tintoretto, Poussin, Bellini, and Matisse. Natalie Charkow Hollander takes a drill in her hand and registers her admiration in stone: limestone, sandstone, for a lark the odd slab of Carrara marble. Imagine writing letters to art in stone: you can’t blot any lines. Sometimes Hollander has a plan in advance, and sometimes she just digs in and out pops an astounding little tableau of what one might see oneself in the raw material, if one had vision. She makes windows on art, literally: most of the works she displayed in April at the Lohin-Geduld Gallery in Chelsea were set flush with the wall. They can be thought of as friezes, except that the scenes within them open out to deep space behind the tiny figures of Paris considering the three goddesses or the satyr lunging for the nymph in the dark wood. And because the space behind these scenes has various degrees of depth, the play of light on the sculpture is intrinsic to its effect as miniature theaters of aesthetic reflection, as in Plato’s Cave, a tour de force of inside-out illumination. Balletgoers would find Hollander’s art of intense interest, if they could find it. Even though in this week’s New York Observer Hilton Kramer—a critic not well known for throwing around superlatives—declared the works in her show to be masterpieces of 20th-century sculpture, it still closed right on time this past Saturday. Natalie Charkow Hollander: a name to remember the next time you read a lament that no one makes real sculpture anymore.

Another riveting show around the corner at Gagosian is still up: a retrospective of big, choice abstract paintings by Willem de Kooning, made between the 1940’s and the 1970’s. Dancegoers would pleasure in many of these, too, with their great spurts of embedded energy; their swiping gestures represented by paint that, in some places, is so thickly laid on it’s almost sculpture; and the impression they convey of spontaneous organization. In the first two rooms, especially, the sense of the creative moment seems so strong that one expects to turn around and find the artist in paint-daubed overalls and, behind him, Edwin Denby, who has walked 20 blocks through New York to get there because he believes so fervently in the merit of the moments represented on those walls.


Visiting a gallery, attending the theater: to most New Yorkers, these activities are second nature. Imagine, though, being a member of a quasi-aboriginal tribe of dancers and musicians who are “discovered” in your home in the forests of Bengal. A nice lady from New York plucks you out of your mud hut, packs you into a plane, and has you driven straight to a hotel in midtown Manhattan, where you and your tribal colleagues are being put up during your performances at Carnegie Hall. The nice lady thinks that, in your free time, you’ll want to see the Empire State Building and Ellis Island. Nah. What you really want to do is to stay in your hotel, watch tv, and cook curry in the bathroom. Now, imagine being the nice lady, who has gone to Bengal, been knocked out by the masked dances of the Chhau, brought them to perform in New York, and, at their insistence, invited them to her home to make dinner for her and her family on an evening when they aren’t wowing the Carnegie Hall crowds who, on leaving the theater after the Chhau rain dance, find that it actually started to rain. Imagine walking into your kitchen where you see the entire troupe preparing potatoes, 30 pounds of them, by peeling and stamping them to just the right consistency on your once-immaculate kitchen floor. Hmm: it may not be wise to interfere with people whose rain dance really works. Did Sol Hurok ever have days like this, you wonder?

Well, but there’s a lot that Sol Hurok missed: Burmese court dancers, Korean shamans, Kabuki and Gagaku dancers from Japan, the majestically painted and revolving Kathakali dancers of Southern India. Or, perhaps you remember the masked deer dance of Bhutan, the most poignant of all the world’s deer dances, where the “deer” kneels and shakes its hooves—in grief? in blessing?—to the corners of the universe, in this case represented by Carnegie Hall’s balconies? Or you may have heard the Inuit throat singers from Siberia, who, closely positioned face to face, throw their songs into one another’s mouths, with an effect somewhere between a child humming on a Kleenex-covered comb and a wind keening over vast Arctic distances? The year they came to New York, they were the most rad offering to be seen at Dance Theater Workshop. How about the early, jawdropping performances of Eiko and Koma, who recreate the passage of glaciers, the metamorphoses of insects, and the formation of tears in micromovement of astonishing beauty and tenderness?

In other words, if you saw a first-rate traditional dance troupe or unforgettable contemporary dancing from anywhere in Asia at Carnegie Hall, Japan Society, Asia Society, and other select venues in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, then you were probably touched by Beate Sirota Gordon, one of New York’s outstanding scholars, discoverers, nurturers, and impresarios of high-caliber performing arts from around the world. Last Wednesday, at age 80, Gordon was the honored 2004 Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecturer on Japanese Culture at Columbia University, where, in the soaring rotunda of Low Library—a citadel to Western thought and civilization—she discussed some of the artists she had traveled the ends of the earth to find and present to New York audiences. As several art restorers worked on cleaning a bust of Athena in the adjacent lobby, Gordon—who, the daughter of pianist Leo Sirota, grew up in Japan—went to bat for informed tolerance. She reminded her audience that prior to World War II, the Japanese bought more classical music from Columbia Records than music lovers from any other country in the world, including the U.S. As for the Chhau dancers of Bengal, even they, sheltered as they were, knew the significance of where they were dancing. As Gordon put it, “There isn’t a soul in the world who doesn’t know Carnegie Hall.”

One of the groups that Gordon brought to Japan Society was the Awaji Bunraku Puppet Theater, the only bunraku company in Japan whose puppeteers comprise women as well as men. (Bunraku puppets are rod puppets, capable of tremendous expressivity, and each is worked by two or three puppeteers, hooded in black, whose actions are choreography in itself.) Gordon explained that she settled on them, rather than the more famous Bunraku Puppet Theater of Osaka, because the Awaji puppets are larger and so more communicative in Western theaters. However, the choice was also in keeping with Gordon’s principled views on life from her earliest years. As Carol Gluck, Columbia’s George Sansom Professor of History, observed, Gordon is venerated in Japan for something besides her artistic accomplishments. In 1946, as a translator attached to the committee appointed by General Douglas MacArthur to draw up a constitution for the country, the 20-something Beate Sirota formulated, in Gluck’s words, “the longest and most liberal series of rights for women ever drafted in a constitution.” Two of her equal-rights articles, based on the 1919 Weimar constitution, were accepted into the final version for Japan and remain today. Gordon recalls the moment of their acceptance by the Japanese officials in her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room (1995), whose title refers to her presence in that constitutional committee:

“It was not until 2:00 a.m. that the civil rights section came under consideration. Everyone was tired. Nevertheless, to my great surprise, the Japanese started to argue against the article guaranteeing women’s rights as fiercely as they had argued earlier on behalf of the Emperor. This article, they felt, was ‘inappropriate’ for the Japanese. Although I had been fighting sleep, I snapped awake when I heard these arguments.

“The Japanese had taken a liking to me, probably because I was a fast interpreter. Col. Kades, ever sensitive to nuances in people’s feelings, thought to take advantage of this to forestall further argument.

“‘This article was written by Miss Sirota,’ he announced. ‘She was brought up in Japan, knows the country well, and appreciates the point of view and feelings of Japanese women. There is no way in which the article can be faulted. She has her heart set on this issue. Why don’t we just pass it?’

“There was a stunned silence from the Japanese, who had known me only as an interpreter. But to my delight the ploy succeeded.
“‘All right,’ they said, ‘we’ll do it your way.’”
--Mindy Aloff

Photo: Natalie Charkow Hollander's Homage to Matisse II, 2002-2003, limestone, 28 x 22 x 5 inches. Image courtesy of the Lohin-Geduld Gallery.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 16
May 3, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on March 22, 2004