Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the third in a series of examinations of legends related to the world of dancing.
This week, all the legends specifically relate to the world of modern dance!
DANCING LEGEND: George Bernard Shaw had a particularly witty rebuke to a comment by Isadora Duncan.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Isadora Duncan was one of the first “modern” dancers, beginning at the turn of the 20th Century.
In the first 30 years of the 20th Century, Duncan was one of the most celebrated figures in the world.
Meanwhile, during this same period, one of the most celebrated intellectuals (due to his long life, he remained famed until the 1950s, when he died at the age of 94) was the writer George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw is most well known for his play Pygmalion, which was adapted into the classic musical, My Fair Lady.
In any event, as the story goes, one day when the pair met while at a party, Duncan suggested to Shaw that the two should have a child together:
Think of it! With your brains and my body, what a wonder it would be.
According to the story, Shaw thinks for a moment before replying:
Yes, but what if it had my body and your brains?
It’s a great line, and that’s likely why the story has lasted so long.
It was eventually reconfigured to be about Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe (who actually never met, making their version ESPECIALLY false)…
It’s VERY much the type of thing Shaw was known to say.
However, I just don’t believe he actually said it to Duncan (if he said it all).
Other versions of the story have Shaw saying it to other famous people, including famed Italian actress Eleonora Duse…
…while the best source on this particular topic, one of Shaw’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson (who allowed Shaw to re-write sections of his biography on Shaw where Shaw found it inaccurate), says that it happened, but through postal correspondence (where Shaw would have more time to come up with such a clever response) with a wealthy Swiss woman.
I have not seen the story told by Duncan biographers – it usuallly comes up on Shaw’s end, where there tends to be a proclivity of writers to attribute good quotes to Shaw. You know, the ol’ routine that goes on with all famous wits where “It sounds like something Shaw would have said” turns into “Shaw said it” Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, among others, have similar problems.
So with no reputable sources saying the story really DID happen, and one fairly reputable source (Pearson) Saying it DIDN’T happen (at least not with Duncan), I’m going with false.
Duncan, by the way, ended up having a very tragic future with her ACTUAL children – her first two children died in a tragic car accident (they were in the backseat of a car with their governess in the when the driver of the car but forgot to put the parking brake on – the car rolled backwards down a hill and into the ocean, drowning the children and their nanny) and later, she had a child who died soon after childbirth.
And of course, if we’re talking car accidents, Duncan had one of the most famous car accidents of all time when she was driving in an open top car while wearing a long flowing scarf. The scarf got wrapped around the spokes of the tires, pulling Duncan from the car and either killing her by strangulation or simply killing her from the force of being thrown by the car.
Geez, I’m sorry, that took a turn for the macabre!
On to the next legend!
Thanks to Ralph Keyes’ great book, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, for his information on the issue (he leans false – I think I lean a bit more strongly than he does).
DANCING LEGEND: Unexpected acceptances by two major rock bands led to Merce Cunningham developing a brand new dance routine.
Mercier “Merce” Cunninghamn (pronounced like terse) just passed on in July of this year, at the age of 90 years old. He died as one of the most prominent dance figures of the 20th Century.
Cunningham began working with Martha Graham (one of the early leaders in the modern dance movement) during the 1930s, and by 1944 he was doing his own shows.
He soon began working with John Cage, the avant garde musician (I discussed Cage in this installment of Music Legends Revealed).
The pair would become partners both on the stage and off, working (and living) together for nearly 40 years until Cage passed away in the early 1990s.
Cunningham continued working (in fact, he was doing podcasts about dance just last year, at the age of 89!) and his dance studio continued to be one of the most well respected modern dance studios out there.
However, as Cunningham got older, a problem was to get people still interested in going to see the dances that Cunningham was choreographing – also, more specifically to get a NEW crowd interested as Cunningham’s Dance Company reached its FIFTIETH year of existence in 2002.
So Trevor Carlson, the general manager of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, came up with a novel idea for the Company’s 50th season – instead of having Cunningham’s dances alongside the music of Cage – the avant garde, post-modern style of music (Cage’s most famous piece of music was four minutes and thirty three seconds of ambient crowd noise), Carlson would ask a major contemporary rock ‘n’ roll band to work alongside Cunningham!
Carlson sent off requests to two separate hip bands…
and Sigur Rós…
Carlson’s plan was that if he sent out two invitations, PERHAPS one of them would say yes.
However, surprisingly (to Carlson, at least), while neither group had ever actually seen a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, they both agreed to do the show!
So now, just like a sitcom character, Carlson had basically TWO dates!
This being Merce Cunningham, though, weird situations were nothing strange to him.
Each band were given 20 minutes to record music. Surprisingly enough, both groups must have thought that this was their opportunity to do Cage-esque music, as that was what they basically came up with.
However, the split band situation led Cunningham to devise a special performance!
Cunningham had long been experimenting with the idea of chance, in terms of approaching the choregraphy of a show. For instance, he will let chance (via coin flipping or dice rolling) determine the order of dances, how long the dances last, etc.
So given two ostensibly equal bands, Cunningham actually used the situation to come up with a routine!
He decided to take chance on step further – on top of the two bands, Cunningham designed two lighting designs, two backdrops and two sets of costumes!! He then went to announce to the audience before the show that all of the show would be determined by chance – when all was said and done, there were 32 possible variations on what the show possibly COULD have been. He was able to interchange the music because he designed the dances independently from the music (as it turned out, Cunningham had no idea who either of the bands were before Carlson told him about the promotion).
One grouping of the sets, costumes, song, etc. was released on DVD, titled Split Sides…
It’s always cool to see someone actually make the best out of a possibly awkward situation (unlike sitcoms, where the show’s protagonist would surely pretend that both bands were the only bands performing for the show and come up with elaborate ruses to keep each band from finding out about the other band)!
DANCING LEGEND: Louis Horst had a stinging review of an early Paul Taylor choreographed performance.
Louis Horst was one of the VERY earliest proponents of modern dance.
He was around for so long that Martha Graham was HIS student!!
Besides being a prominent dance teacher, Horst was also a notable dance critic.
In 1934, he debuted a new magazine called the Dance Observer to get across his particular views and theories about the world of modern dance.
The magazine lasted until 1964, when it ended upon Horst’s death.
In any event, one of Graham’s students was a man named Paul Taylor.
Taylor began performing in the early 1950s in a special dance performance joint choreographed by Graham and the famous ballet choreographer, George Balanchine (you might recall Balanchine from the first installment of Ballet Legends Revealed). Balanchine developed a solo that was so unique that they had to drop it from the show when Taylor left the show.
Within two years, Taylor was choreographing his own shows!
When Taylor started out, he was all about the ideas and theories of what one could accomplish with modern dance – what different kinds of expression you could make.
As a result, some of his dances were not exactly audience friendly.
In 1957, just three years after making his professional dance debut, Taylor debuted his choreographed work, “Seven New Dances.”
Mixed in throughout the dances were dances that, well, did not appear to the naked eye to BE dances. Much like how John Cage felt that his four minutes and thirty three seconds of “silence” showed you how silence was not ACTUALLY silent, so, too, did Taylor feel that, depending on how you handle it, NOT moving could be as dramatic as moving.
He played with that idea throughout the show, but one dance, in particular, stood out – in this dance, Taylor and a fellow dancer basically stand/sit still for four minutes.
Horst, the modern dance pioneer, was especially put off by this dance, and he made that clear with one of the more brilliant critiques you’ll get a chance to see.
In the Dance Observer, he began his review by stating that Taylor debuted a new show the night before, he then gave the location of the performance – he then followed with four paragraphs of blank space, followed by his (Horst’s) sign-off.
Isn’t that something?
If someone could find me a scan of that review, I’d be quite grateful!
Eventually, Taylor took the hint (or just decided on his own to change things up), as his work since then has long been one of the MORE accessible modern (or is he post-modern?) choreographers. As the 20th Century went by and the 21st Century began, he also slowly became one of the most prominent living choreographers there was PERIOD.
To get an idea of how his style has changed, just note that Twyla Tharp is one of his most prominent former students – Tharp, who is perhaps best known for her choreography on the Billy Joel jukebox musical, Moving Out.
Four Minutes of no Movement to Moving Out?
That’s quite a journey.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com