This is the first of a series of dance book reviews I will add to.
In Pursuit of Dance, Looking Back at Deborah Jowitt’s Time and the Dancing Image
As a teenager, one of the very first books that I felt truly moved by was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The reason for this bond had a lot to do with the character of Josephine March. Jo wrote late into the night, wore her hair long and unkempt, and aspired to be a writer because of the fire that burned inside of her. I knew I had a writer’s fire inside of me as well, but I was groomed to believe that I could only focus on writing fiction and poetry; no one in my high school even knew people wrote volumes of books about dance. As I turned into an adult in community college, my “Jo-aspirations” shifted from fiction and poetry writing to dance writing. And equally as inspiring to me as Little Women, Deborah Jowitt’s 1988 collection of dance essays, Time and the Dancing Image, moved me immensely.
I found my copy of this book in a small independent bookstore (Unnameable Books shout-out!) in Brooklyn, New York during the summer heat wave of 2013. I can remember the shock and awe of gazing upon this relatively humble cover while sweat leaked off my forehead. Before I had my own copy, I had been bogarting my public library’s copy for months on end, a scattered cycle of renewals. I didn’t want to give up my library copy, the many bookmarked pages and loose-leaf notes, but now I have my own copy to bind myself to. That is the kind of fire that burns inside of me, the fire of a reader and writer searching for the wisdom and voices of others before but also exploring ways to expand on the past.
The first section of essays of Time and the Dancing Image was what grabbed me when I first discovered the book, primarily because I am a hardcore Romantic era follower. “Flesh and Spirit: The Uneasy Balance” was exactly what I needed during my historical Romantic ballet phase, and it wisely begins the entire book. Jowitt defined Romantic ballet in such a straight forward and literary way: “Dancers of the nineteenth-century supernatural ballets were among the first to embody abstract qualities, which not all of the spectators who flocked to adore them recognized.” Many of the previous books on the Romantic era tip-toed around this fact, stating that the audience was much more in charge of ballet than the dancers and choreographers of the day, and Romantic ideals were less influential than the power of the prima ballerina.
Jowitt’s essay “In Pursuit of the Sylph” provides a critical literary look at how Romantic ballet “is passion darkened by the Romantic preoccupation with the dichotomy of flesh and spirit.” The supernatural and the realistic are both equally important parts of the ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide, and others. And that is one area of the Romantic ballet era that I feel is understated in dance history classes. Today, teachers overstress the ethereal and unworldly characters which takes away from the notion that, yes, those ballet dancers were still human and the choreographers did consciously create with realism.
If I were to use one essay to compliment a course on the Romantic era as a whole it would be this essay, followed by other brilliant essays within Time and the Dancing Image. Readers who are already interested in Romanticism will enjoy the ties Jowitt makes with dance to literature and paintings of that era. The other included essays leap off from the Romantic era of ballet that Jowitt starts with, and they evolve from the previous era with “The Search for Motion” and “Sphinxes, Slaves, and Goddesses.”
But Jowitt does not limit herself to Romanticism and ballet. “The Heroines Within” is one of my personal favorites because Jowitt has dissected and described the ever influential Martha Graham with dignity to the characters she created: “Before Graham, few defined the female dancer as passion-driven, yet intellectually complex; fated, yet capable of choice.” Another area which teachers forget to mention to dance students, Graham gave choice and intricacy to her female characters, even with the intensity of archetypes.
Jowitt moves onwards in time to discuss the dancers of the 1960s in “Everyday Bodies.” Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown; these were names that I had only heard through the grape vine during high school and my personal dance research. I was never motivated to read on and know these people; sadly, post-modern dance became a negative space, surrounded by the histories of many other dance forms in the world. But with Time and the Dancing Image and after my initial Romantic era interest, I began to learn and look into the lives of the post-modern era.
This book, with its contemporary writer and dedicated research, is not the average heavy and dull historical text. Dancers will be wrapped into the world of the past while staying mindful of what we still see in dance today. Time and the Dancing Image helps the fire of anyone who is interested in the history of dance to understand the deeper truths behind the facade of perfection in ballet or predictability of choreography. This is another point that Jowitt has passionately infused into each essay of Time and the Dancing Image; dance is alive and always transforming, and we must be mindful, critical, and true to these changes.
Below are two links to reading this book. But as a library enthusiast, I suggest you try and find a copy at your local library first. Enjoy and stay mindful of your dancing past, present, and future!