The history of an art form as it let loose

In the 20th century, choreographers challenged old ideas about what is beautiful and what is dance

Broad-based reference books on the field of contemporary dance that are both valuable resources and reader friendly are rare. For that reason alone, "No Fixed Points: Dance in the 20th Century" is cause for great celebration. But this work is not just reader friendly, it's downright compelling in its chronicle of the most explosively revolutionary century the art form of dance has ever experienced.

Written by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, both former dance professionals as well as scholars, the book traces the development of ballet and modern dance through stories about seminal dancers and choreographers as well as the evolution of theatrical movement.

Encyclopedic in scope, the book also features quotes from the artists themselves and captivating descriptions by critics and dancers who performed the century's landmark works. Complemented by 200 black and white illustrations, many original cast photographs, this is a major achievement that should stand as a lasting tribute to dance in the 20th century.

The authors use innovative choreography as the story's spine. They delineate the century's gradual appreciation of a wider kinesthetic range - not just beautiful, graceful movement but pedestrian, even ugly and awkward movement - as a means for greater expressive range. The book shows how the experimentalists took this aesthetic a step further, challenging notions of what could be considered dance.

As a variety of movement languages began to exist side by side, often cross-pollinating to create multilayered works of unprecedented depth, dance evolved from strictly diversionary entertainment into an art form capable of great emotional expression, probity, and intellectualism.

For the most part, "No Fixed Points" traces this evolution chronologically (although the book's final chapters examine a century's worth of development in two slightly separate areas: "Musical Theatre in America" and "Dance in the Movies.")

The first chapter is one of the most compelling. It places the innovations of Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, widely hailed as the earliest pioneers of modern dance, in a historical context that acknowledges the slowly burgeoning freedoms of women in general.

All three dancer/choreographers helped liberate dance from the strictures of ballet by embracing a more naturalistic style and finding new motivations for movement. Fuller, who was not even a dancer by training, was instrumental in expanding the concept of dance. Shedding shoes and corset to don fantastical flowing costumes, she created a vivid stage magic with colored lights and billowing fabric.

Duncan found dance "a medium for the mind and the spirit," taking inspiration from the art of the ancient Greeks as well as the beauty and rhythms of nature. She believed dance could and should "evoke movement out of the well-springs of experience." She reclaimed dance as a serious art form, shunning escapist narrative in favor of personal expression.

St. Denis believed "dance begins in consciousness, not in the body." Her works mixed spiritualism with exoticism (with a little dash of showbiz thrown in) to "give physical substance to sounds." She and Ted Shawn (her partner, husband, and manager) gave rise to the heady intellectualism and social/psychological conscience that informed the work of the three choreographers considered the true founders of American modern dance: Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, and Charles Weidman.

"No Fixed Point" also chronicles experimentalism in ballet, with the Russian legacy of Diaghilev and the extraordinary collaborations of the Ballets Russes leading directly to the genius of Balanchine and ballet in America.

Subsequent chapters cover the "Dance of Expression" in Central Europe, the nationalism of dance in Western Europe, and the socialist realism of dance in the former Soviet Union.

The last half of the book deals primarily with the development of dance in America after 1950 - from the second generation of modern masters, such as Sokolow, Limón, and Horton, through the postmodern pluralism of the last 40 years.

Several chapters deal with the continuing development and redefinition of ballet as a classical art form, exploring its evolution within traditional contexts, while illuminating the extraordinary degree with which the discipline has merged with modern dance in major works by an international array of choreographers. And don't ignore the copious footnotes (a whopping 104 pages of them). Not only do they give scholarly heft and insight into the authors' research, they provide some of the book's most intriguing reading.

Those encountering some of the material for the first time may find themselves wishing occasionally for a more directly informative layout, but it shouldn't bother the average dance lover, who will be captivated by this compelling narrative.

Karen Campbell is a freelance arts writer in Boston.

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