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California Literary Review

The Dancer Within: Intimate Conversations with Great Dancers by Rose Eichenbaum

Non-Fiction Reviews

The Dancer Within: Intimate Conversations with Great Dancers by Rose Eichenbaum

The Dancer Within by Rose Eichenbaum
The Dancer Within: Intimate Conversations with Great Dancers
by Rose Eichenbaum
Wesleyan, 264 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

The Beat Goes On

There is only one black and white photograph not accompanied by an interview in Rose Eichenbaum’s intriguing The Dancer Within: Intimate Conversations with Great Dancers. The photograph shows Mikhail Baryshnikov mid-performance – his sleeves rolled up, his head turned, his arms casually extended. Minus the famous face, he could be any graceful man in mid-stride. He is the everyman of movement, the representative of our deep-seated instinct to dance… and he is completely still on our two-dimensional page.

Herein lies the paradox of The Dancer Within. While there is much in this compilation that readers will find fascinating, we are lacking a key ingredient. We are lacking the dance.

Baryshnikov knows it, which is why he refuses the interview. So, to her credit, does Eichenbaum – “I recalled hearing him once say, ‘I hate to explain what I do because dance is about philosophy and action'” – though this doesn’t deter her from asking others about their motivations.

Yet even those who give her an unfettered glimpse into a dancer’s life run into the same problem. Donna McKechnie, the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway star, for instance:

Dance is something that you do – not something you talk about. It’s abstract and emotional. Art comes from a private, hidden, never fully understood place…To talk about it is to trespass in a restricted zone.

After all, how do you describe instinct? How do you put into words what you are accustomed to showing with your body? For many of the interviewees, their most fully alive moments occur when they are mute. They dance not because of any lofty philosophical aim, but because they have to.

This remains true right up to the end. A glowing career requires years of craft, and this is a book that rewards those who have endured. From the past arise ballet, tap, jazz and modern maestros (Cynthia Gregory, Joe Tremaine), disciples of Alvin Ailey (Dudley Williams), Martha Graham (Yuriko) and Isadora Duncan (Gemze de Lappe), Hollywood and Broadway hoofers (Shirley MacLaine, Joel Grey, Rita Moreno) and the occasional non-establishment interloper (Mr. Wiggles, Marine Jahan from Flashdance).

Though there are some in The Dancer Within at the top of their game, for the most part the faces that gaze back at us from Eichenbaum’s photos are a little more wrinkled, a little softer and saggier than we might remember.

Their bodies, however, have not forgotten their lines. The cover image of Chita Rivera in silhouette – high heeled, leg cocked, hand on hip, head back – seems to crystallize all the parts we love her for into one defining image. Similarly, it is hard to resist an arched and black-clad Paula Kelly, her smile euphoric under her jaunty bowler.

As beautiful as many of her pictures are, Eichenbaum has a couple of misses. It is hard to take the staginess out of the performer, and there are times when she simply cannot crack through the shiny enamel of white teeth and tails. That she managed to get so many to relinquish the façade, however, is a testament to her skill.

For the interviews themselves, Eichenbaum follows a fairly strict pattern of questions. Childhood dreams and training are covered, as well as the first big break and the subsequent ups and downs. Some interviewees choose to recap their standard PR mantras; others, such as Fernando Bujones, use it as a chance to cement their public image.

The best conversations are with those who can set aside their pre-rehearsed answers and really go for the guts of a thing. In the case of Mr. Wiggles, guts could almost be taken literally:

Dancing meant fighting. Dancing was a way to survive. I learned most of the dances from stickup kids – kids who committed stickups, you know, robbing people. This was the mind-set of a B-boy (hip hop dancer). And it looked as violent as it was.

More sedately, what starts out as a question about how dance training informs acting becomes, in the case of Leslie Caron, a glimpse into classic cinema:

You build your character using the whole of you – not just in your brain…In Gigi, for example, I became physically awkward, my feet turned in like this [standing and demonstrating], and I stood more on one side – sort of off center.

Then there are the collaborators. It was Balanchine who said, “dancers are instruments, like a piano the choreographer plays,” and many of the interviewees say the same. Unlike Eichenbaum’s previous book on choreographers, for example, dancers cannot talk to a grand idea. Their art lies in interpretation.

Instead, they often explain how they learned to mold their bodies to another’s will. Jack Cole’s tyrannical genius is contrasted with Jerome Robbins’s sly skill in adapting his work to mask a dancer’s weakness. Martha Graham’s personal problems (drinking, unpredictability) are tempered with gratitude for the purity of her training.

Plus, scattered amongst all these lofty conversations, are some startling tidbits. Who knew that Marge Champion was the dancer hired by Disney animators to provide the movements for Snow White? Who would believe that Natalia Makarova could say, “I killed the dancer inside of me” and be dead serious?

And when it is over? Then there is often a bittersweet taste left in the mouth, especially for those in ballet. All that discipline and training – poof, suddenly gone – and they must look for other ways to fill the many years left to them. Unlike actors or musicians, the clock ticks a little faster for dancers.

With such a diverse group, it’s a wonder there is any unifying thread to be found. But there is. Whether on film or on stage, the interviewees chorus in unison, the audience is all. The performance is a sacred thing. Dance, they insist, must be shared:

‘Give, Give, Give.’ Even today when I rehearse, I give it everything that I’ve got. If I’m in a performance and the lights go out – I glow in the dark. When you’re working before an audience, you have to make them feel like they can touch you.

Unsurprisingly, these are the words of Mitzi Gaynor, the sunshine Nellie from South Pacific.

In fact, the only one who doesn’t fall in with this uplifting sentiment is, God bless her, Shirley MacLaine. With a fabulous display of grande dame orneriness, she even takes Eichenbaum to task for trying to make something monumental out of the whole idea. Exploring the dancer within? Bah humbug.

I hate to admit it, but I’m kind of with Shirley. Much as I enjoyed the photos and interviews in The Dancer Within, I’m not sure any of the interviewees ever truly explains what dance means to them.

For that knowledge, we must pay up, sit up, and shut up. That way, without words, we can watch Jacques d’Amboise glance like a bird, light and joyous, through the ballet of Carousel. Or revel in Brenda Bufalino gleefully attacking the floor with her loose-limbed, low down tap routines. Or hold our breaths while Dudley Williams, as elegant and tightly strung as a cello, tenses his muscles to leap.

Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.

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