NO FIXED POINTS:  Dance in the Twentieth Century

by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick

Review by Leland Windreich

November 2003

Former dancers Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick have put together a remarkable, generously illustrated survey of theatrical dance, which covers a century that began with Loie Fuller and ended with Billy Elliot. They have limited their geographical territory to North America, Western Europe, Russia, and - as a small digression - Japan (for coverage of Butoh and related forms that have become popular in the West). “No Fixed Points” is not a history but an account of the major developments, idioms, styles and artists that have shaped and transformed dance in the West.

It is, moreover, a critical survey, reflected in the choices made for examination, the facts selected from a multitude of printed sources, and in opinions expressed throughout. In discussing Mikhail Baryshnikov’s artistic policies during his nine-year stint as director of American Ballet Theatre, the authors make no bones about their feelings that he made poor choices in “Sovietizing” familiar versions of the classics and in hiring post-modern dance-makers instead of choreographers with strong classical backgrounds. In discussing the prime celebrities of Canadian ballet, they refer to the “idiosyncratic but arresting” Evelyn Hart.

There is no indication anywhere in the text as to how the two authors shared the work in organizing and producing the study. Both had significant if not spectacular performing careers-Reynolds as a dancer for five years with New York City Ballet, and McCormick as an eclectic artist in musicals, opera, ballet, concert dance and television. He later concentrated on costume design, an activity which brought him in contact with modern dance companies, ballet troupes and university dance programs. Both authors have written extensively. She served as an editor of the International Encyclopedia of Dance and has authored such landmark studies as “Repertory in Review,” a magnificently documented account of the artistic products of the first forty years of New York City Ballet. Since 1994 she has been in charge of research for the George Balanchine Foundation and directs its video archives program. Both are avid readers, dutiful scholars, and passionate consumers of the dance offerings in their worlds. The reader must presume that both authors are in agreement when any opinions are expressed.

The 17 chapters unfold in a basically chronological order. Those dealing with the evolution of American dance and the emergence of modern ballet in Russia dip into materials touching on their roots in the 19th century. As the development of both forms is examined in later chapters, key figures are discussed in the context of new times. The career of George Balanchine, for example, can be traced serially as he is introduced as a participant in the Russian Imperial Ballet, his emergence as a choreographer in the West (chapter 2), his arrival in America and the ultimate establishment of the New York City Ballet (chapter 4) and in two concluding studies as a director of dances for the musical stage and the films (chapters 16 and 17). Television, by the way, is bypassed in this account.

Over 100 pages of notes are appended to the text. These contain both citations of consulted texts and commentaries-some quite meaty and detailed-on issues touched upon in the body of the work. There are also bibliographies appended to the notes for each chapter. And while this wealth of information substantiates the high level of scholarship that went into the book, it does not provide direct links to printed sources which might complement some of the sketchy data offered in the texts. For example, the regional American ballets and the companies currently thriving in Canada are dealt with only superficially in a survey of this kind, and readers wishing to know more about them must go unguided to outside sources for a full history.

This is the only failing I found in the work, which supplies in one large volume information that one would have to consult twenty other works to ascertain. It’s a must for libraries and will be a joy for readers, from the naïve to the sophisticated. In an era which boasts so few significant works in print on the dance arts, it’s surely a long-awaited answer to a prayer.

No Fixed Points:  Dance in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick.  New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2003.  907 pp. illus.  ISBN 0-300-09366-7. $50.

Edited by Jeff.

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