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The Arts: Beyond Reviews and Revenues

"Dance boom" is the phrase most readily associated with the closing decade. Until the 1970s dance was the vaguely known cousin within the performing arts family. The most modest claim one can make for dance's growth is that it entered the consciousness of the American public at large.

A more spectacular but no less judicious claim is that dance became the most glamorous sister of the family.

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While sociologists have seen dance coming in on the coat- tails of the physical fitness movement, there are more tangible explanations for the discovery of dance. Just as the accidental defection of Serge Diaghilev from Russia to Paris in 1909 reawakened Europe to ballet, so have recent defections of Soviet dancers galvanized attention to the art form.

Rudolf Nureyev paved the way in the 1960s. In this decade Natalia Marakova revived the concept of ballerinadom while Mikhail Baryshnikov became a symbol of both superhuman prowess and down-home charm. His ability to be the champion who lives next door is what made the movie "The Turning Point" possible in 1977. That movie, the combination of backstage gossip and on-stage virtuosity, can stand as one aspect of the dance boom.

Television's Public Broadcasting Service spread the word as only television can. By re-creating as faithfully as possible the works of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, the Dance in America series brought the finest example of American choreography to the masses.

Statistically, live performance cannot compete with television and movies, but government funding of touring programs also contributed to public awareness of dance.

Although masters like Balanchine and Cunningham still make new dances, the dance boom applies more to the dissemination of the art than its artistic growth.

In terms of new activity, it was in the '60s that dance really took off. The '70s was a period of fragmentation in some cases and consolidation in others. The collective voice of Greenwich Village's Judson Church iconoclasts disintegrated, and their rebellious insurrection against theatricality and formal technique lost force as the '70s progressed. Some of the choreographers stimulated by that revolution are making better dances now than before -- Twyla Tharp is the supreme example.

Yet the feeling of being on the threshhold of new possibility was absent. Dance in the '70s was more professional; in the '60s it was more fun.

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As ballet companies became big business, they tended to become more conservative in repertory. With the exception of George Balanchine's New York City Ballet -- which somehow maintained its forward-looking policy while steadily deepening its hold on the public -- ballet management found that revivals of full-length story ballets were a necessity if the boom was going to keep booming. Thus every troop from Arizona to Wyoming had to have its "Nutcracker." Companies in areas of new wealth, such as the Houston Ballet, could enter the cultural marketplace through the "Sleeping Beauty," while a long-established group such as American Ballet Theater could pull itself out of the doldrums via a bevy of Russian classics.

As a corollary to this return to Imperial Russia, modern dance began to look at its own roots. A new interest in the early works of Martha Graham surfaced, and attempts to reconstruct dances by Doris Humphrey, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St.-Denis aroused much curiosity. This backward look was not financially motivated. It indicated a maturing historical perspective. Dance did not boom in the '70s, this trend implied. It had been booming all along.


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