Performing Arts

1. Balanchine and Kirstein’s American enterprise
Steichen, James. Oxford, 2019

Steichen (San Francisco Conservatory of Music) was trained as a musicologist, but he has long been a lover of the choreography of George Balanchine. In this extremely well-researched book, he looks at Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein—who came together in 1934 to found the School of American Ballet (SAB) and, in 1948, the New York City Ballet (NYCB). Bernard Taper’s biography Balanchine (1963) set the stage for understanding Balanchine, but Taper did not explore the fascinating Balanchine-Kirstein relationship in depth. Steichen tracks the early period, from 1933 to 1940, looking at the contradictory character and yet convergence of the two men’s contrasting efforts. This was a disorganized time, and the period did not foretell the future prominence of SAB and NYCB. When SAB performed Balachine’s Serenade in 1934, no one envisioned that in 2019 it would still resonate strongly with ballet goers. Steichen examines modernism by looking closely at Kirstein’s role in the development of the NYCB. Philosophically, the time was ripe for the acceptance of neoclassic ballet in the US and Balanchine and Kirstein made it happen, but over the years the institutions they created were enhanced and enriched.
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2. Big deal: Bob Fosse and dance in the American musical
Winkler, Kevin. Oxford, 2018

Winkler began as a dancer and then, for more than 20 years, worked as curator, archivist, and library administrator at the New York Public Library. His published articles and book contributions range from performing arts libraries and archives to queer performance, film, dance, and the websites TheaterMania and Broadway World. A huge Fosse fan, Winkler was coached by Fosse for a revival, so he speaks with personal authority. In Big Deal Winkler explores the progression of Fosse’s career over four decades in the Broadway musical theater, his early dance years, the importance of mentors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins to his work, and how each woman in his life, all dancers, influenced his dance aesthetic, including his trademark style of hunched shoulders, turned-in stance, and staccato jazz movements. Winkler concludes by investigating how Fosse’s evolution as both artist and individual echoed the social and political climate of his era. Winkler stresses Fosse’s need to take total control of basically all elements of his work, making clear how his rehearsal mantra—”una más”—was consistent with his personality and huge success.
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3. David Garrick and the mediation of celebrity
Ritchie, Leslie. Cambridge, 2019

Ritchie (Queen’s Univ., Ontario) provides a learned, entertaining exploration of actor David Garrick’s “unparalleled imbrication within the mediascape” (p. 71) of 18th-century London. So studied was Garrick’s curation of his image, so abundant his promotion of Garrickiana—which included not only unprecedented issues of theatrical prints but also “branded” merchandise including cough drops—so vigorous his “collusion” (the word his enemies used) with theater owners and newspaper publishers (Garrick himself was both owner and publisher) that “in a spectacular foreshadowing of today’s media convergences” Garrick stands “as a plausible candidate for the position of the first modern celebrity” (from the introduction). Garrick’s puffery (the 18th-century term for selling oneself) included creating and recycling “fake news.” Everything was done to support the performer’s “brand equity.” Famously on good terms with cultural figures on the Left and the Right, Garrick made a practice of upstaging his fellow actors; he did the same with the main theater competing with his own, misleadingly inflating his repertory as culturally exalted while disparaging theirs as base popular fare. In fact, the two could barely be distinguished.
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4. Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master
Meisner, Nadine. Oxford, 2019

Petipa’s service to the imperial court pervades every page, since Petipa (1818–1910) is one of the most important choreographers of all time. The structure of Russia’s imperial theater system, along with the successive personages who filled various posts, is lucidly portrayed by Meisner, the better to comprehend the often-volatile interface of administration and artistic creation. In addition to Petipa’s more than six Russian decades, Meisner traces the evolution of Russian ballet from its indigenous and foreign sources and looks ahead to Petipa’s influence on Soviet and post-Soviet Russian and Western ballet. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker are but three of Petipa’s accomplishments, and Meisner renders all aspects of the ballets—genre, plot, scene/costume design, casting, and of course choreography—in exquisite detail, always within the broader cultural context. The inevitable intertwining of Petipa’s personal biography—as son, brother, husband, and father of dancers—with his professional trajectory is elucidated in Meisner’s apt citation of primary sources: journal, letters, reviews, contracts, photographs, and designs.
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5. Rehearsing revolutions: the labor drama experiment and radical activism in the early twentieth century
McAvoy, Mary. Iowa, 2019

McAvoy’s fascinating book documents the brief but vibrant history of “labor drama,” a means of teaching labor activism via dramatic techniques that flourished at workers’ education institutions in the US between the two world wars. These institutions―which are experimental colleges designed to educate largely uneducated workers and reinvigorate trade unionism, embraced the new pedagogy of experiential “learning by doing” that promoted students’ deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Drama studies, with its dual emphases on process and product, fulfilled the multiple goals of education, engagement, and recreation that helped popularize these colleges for participants and audiences alike. McAvoy (Arizona State Univ.) chose five institutions as case studies to demonstrate that labor drama evolved differently in different locales, from an emphasis on populist entertainments that may or may not have had labor themes at Portland Labor College (Oregon) and Brookwood Labor College (Katonah, New York) to radical left-wing pedagogy and production of original labor dramas that promoted social justice at Highlander Folk School (Tennessee) and Commonwealth College (Arkansas).
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