Invitation to the Dance

November 15, 2013

by Elisa Lichtenbaum, Senior Writer, Communications, WNET

HOLY TRINITY: A still from the Joffrey Ballet’s signature work “Trinity,” featured in the American Masters film Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. (Photo by Herbert Migdoll)

I recently watched American Masters’ 1994 documentary, Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed. Within the first five minutes of the film, I learned three things: 1) Martha Graham was the first dancer to perform at The White House; 2) Graham performed in The Greenwich Village Follies in the early 1920s; and 3) the Denishawn School, founded by Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn, was the first professional dance school in the United States.

These are just a few of the many fascinating facts I learned from the documentary.

Watching the film made me think about all the “dance lessons” I’ve learned from THIRTEEN over the years. My earliest memory is of watching the Mark Morris Dance Company on Dance in America in the late 80s. The repertoire was wildly eclectic, ranging from his signature piece to Vivaldi’s “Gloria” to “Dogtown” by Yoko Ono, which had the dancers crawling on all fours. I had no idea who Mark Morris was at the time, but his choreography was so passionate and gorgeous it made me weep. I fell in love with him instantly and have been a fan ever since.

Baryshnikov by Tharp, another Great Performances/Dance in America favorite from the 80s, featured Mikhail Baryshnikov and dancers from American Ballet Theatre performing works by Twyla Tharp. As director Don Mischer says in Pioneers of THIRTEEN: The 80’s – Trusted Voices, it revolutionized the way dance was filmed for television. But I wasn’t thinking about revolution when I watched the program. I was too busy falling under the spell of “Sinatra Suite,” a breezy duet in which a dashing, young Baryshnikov and ABT’s Elaine Kudo fall in and out of love amidst twinkling stars, glamorous evening wear, and the occasional doobie-doobie-doo. It was my favorite piece in the program. What could be dreamier than having Misha sweep you off your feet – even if he ultimately breaks up with you and then steals the spotlight with a heartwrenching solo to “One for My Baby”?

FROM TAP TO THARP: Mikhail Baryshnikov dazzles in Baryshnikov by Tharp, and Gregory Hines and a young Savion Glover tap it out in Tap Dance in America. Excerpted from Pioneers of THIRTEEN: The 80’s – Trusted Voices.
And of course, there were Nutcrackers galore: the Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, to name a few. Purists may cringe, but my favorite remains Morris’s version, set in the 1970s and bursting with a vibrant pop art sensibility – not to mention Barbies, G.I. Joes, unisex snowflakes, an outlandish set by Adrianne Lobel, and to-die-for costumes by the late Broadway designer Martin Pakledinaz. It’s a neon Nutcracker for those who like to take a grand jeté on the wild side, a Nutcracker where bell bottoms and cocktails are free flowing. Sign me up!

The list goes on: Balanchine and Ailey and Paul Taylor, oh my!  And perhaps this is a stretch, but could my current obsession with jazz hands be traced back to a viewing of the Broadway musical Fosse on Great Performances? More importantly, how did I miss the amazing Tap Dance in America featuring Gregory Hines and a 15-year-old Savion Glover? (Does anyone have a DVD I can borrow?)

Erica Essner Performance Co-Op performs “Moon Uprising,” as seen in Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow: Never Stand Still on Great Performances.
(Photo: Christopher Duggan; courtesy of First Run Features/THIRTEEN)

Thankfully, the dance lessons continue today with programs like Great PerformancesDancing at Jacob’s Pillow: Never Stand Still and American MastersJoffrey: Mavericks of American Dance – and Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is just around the corner, ready to be awakened on Great Performances in 2014.

Thanks for the wonderful dance memories, THIRTEEN. Here’s to many more years of leaps, twirls – and of course, jazz hands.