The History of Dance

A new exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center traces the history of dance in America. WNYC’s Alicia Zuckerman went to the show and filed this report.

(“Challenge Dance” scene from the movie Tap)

REPORTER: That’s Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. in the “Challenge Dance” scene from the 1988 movie, Tap.

(Sound is drumming and chanting: Native American dance)

REPORTER: There’s also the earliest-known Native American dance footage filmed by Thomas Edison in 1894. The sound was added later.

(Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

REPORTER: Bronislava Nijinska choreographed Max Reinhardt's 1935 Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nijinkska is widely considered the most important female ballet choreographer of the 20th century—she was also Vaslav Nijinksy’s sister.

These excerpts come from one of the exhibition’s centerpieces, an hour-long video presentation running on a 42-inch plasma screen, and on interactive kiosks so you can see various clips on demand. Wendy Perron is editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine.

WENDY PERRON: One of the great things in watching the films is the seam of one thing up against another. Like you might see Pavlova in this incredibly ethereal film clip where she seems to be floating up there must be some wire there, cause she really floats inhumanly high and long. And you might see that up against José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane, which is so majestic in this earthy way. And you see Lucas Hoving as Iago, just sort of slithering through, this wormy, snaky king of guy that’s wrecking everything for everybody.

REPORTER: The exhibition is based on a list called “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the First 100.” It was winnowed down from 900 nominations by the Dance Heritage Coalition in Washington. The library’s own Jerome Robbins Dance Division was named one of the treasures. So was Jerome Robbins. In this clip shot at the library by the documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, the Broadway and New York City Ballet choreographer talks about his first and only formal choreography teacher—Bessie Schönberg.

JEROME ROBBINS: I had to bring in a dance the next day, or the next week, and I did that. And showed it to her, I don’t know if you remember it or not.

SCHONBERG: It had a Spanish flavor.

ROBBINS: I think so (hearty laughter all around) … anyway, it was my first attempt, and when I got through with it, she said, “Well, that was very good.” And it was like an angel putting her hand on my shoulder and giving me a nudge, and saying, “go on with it.” And I went on with it.

REPORTER: The dance world is so interconnected, the exhibition plays out like a game of “Six Degrees of Separation.” Martha Graham leads you to Erick Hawkins and then George Balanchine and then Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Another Graham link, Martha Hill was director of Juilliard’s dance department for more than 30 years. Here, she talks to students at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, in 1985.

MARTHA HILL: Fifty years ago I was dancing in Martha Graham’s company and Martha did a dance that she opened every program with that was called Dance. Period. Dance—to music of Honegger, who was a modern composer who people didn’t like very much.

REPORTER: People didn’t like the dance either.

HILL: She said they thought it was ugly, it was angular. Martha said, “I will open every program with this dance until it is accepted.” (Students react.) Well as I think back I say it was finally grudgingly accepted so that she could leave off doing it. (Students laugh hard.)

REPORTER: The Dance Heritage Coalition hopes to put together a second list of treasures, but first it needs to raise a lot more money. In the meantime, “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” is on display the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through August 20th.

For WNYC, I’m Alicia Zuckerman.