On February 4, 1903, something lucky happened to Edwin Denby: He was born.
Lucky, because having that birthday meant that his life would parallel that of George Balanchine, who was born almost exactly a year later.
He and Balanchine were both lucky in that they came of age at a time when the American ballet scene was ready for—and needed—each of them.
In the early 1930s, as Balanchine found his way to America and Denby began his critical career, American dance consisted of the decadent glitz of Broadway and the Puritan austerity of Martha Graham—and little else. Balanchine arrived in 1933 and began to develop a ballet style that reflected America’s distinct character, then Balanchine’s dancing needed a style of criticism that reflected its distinct character, and Denby was there to provide it. In turn, Balanchine and Denby both came to epitomize the spirit of the country that ultimately inspired them: Balanchine created democratic dances, and Denby wrote about them democratically.
Denby insists, in his dance criticism, that he’s “not a balletomane,” that he just finds “dancing that makes sense”—i.e., Balanchine’s ballet—“so rare that it’s worth being serious about.” Whether his claim is true or not (I think that by the end of Denby’s career, his love for Balanchine had made an honest balletomane of him), that statement embodies the egalitarian simplicity of Denby’s critical persona. Writing as the everyman, he ends up writing for the everyman. But to describe Denby’s writing as simple doesn’t imply that it is banal; it implies a lack of pretension. Denby created a language that made Balanchine’s dances completely accessible, just as Balanchine’s “sensible” dances made ballet completely accessible—and their successive chain of translation resulted in a kind of artistic transparency.
If Denby was deliberately shaping his critical mode to reflect Balanchine’s new “American” style, he never said so. But Denby’s writing, in its characteristically uncalculated way, is just as “American.” It not only describes Balanchine’s work, but has all the characteristics of that work: ease, directness, invention. Indeed, the terms Denby uses to describe a Balanchine ballet can quite literally be applied to his own writing. Reviewing Ballet Imperial in 1943, Denby says that Balanchine has given his principal dancer “an indefinable grace in dancing that seems to come naturally, that seems extemporaneous. She looks not so much like a professional but like a girl who is dancing.” Substitute “writing” for “dancing” and swap a few pronouns, and this passage could be self-referential. Or again, describing a performance of Concerto Barocco that same year: “It is straight dancing [writing], animated, complex, and completely clear.”
Perhaps Denby could so eloquently explain Balanchine’s ability to bring a fresh “American-ness” to the classical framework of ballet because Denby was simultaneously doing much the same thing to another classical form: poetry. Inspired by the other “rebel” poets of the post-war generation, Denby wrote, in a gracefully approachable vernacular, about the subway, the grocery store, scenes of everyday American life. Writing poetry was the way he created art; it was the art form that he knew best. And that is why his eulogy to Balanchine, in an interview he gave a few months after Balanchine’s death in 1983, was a discussion of the poetics of his work. It’s the highest compliment Denby could pay him:
In The Divine Comedy Dante creates an image in only a few clear sharp lines and then changes the subject before you lose the image. The ability to do that in dance is just as extraordinary as achieving the same effect in poetry—to change the whole look of the stage…without making the viewer painfully aware of what is happening. Balanchine does this constantly, and seeing his skill at work is a source of considerable pleasure.
Sadly, Denby took his own life shortly after this interview was published.
I wonder, as I write this, what choreographer’s American “poetics” Denby would write about today. And I wonder, as I struggle for names, if there’s a bit of truth in my melodramatic first thought: Maybe Denby’s suicide, like his birth, was luckily timed.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of dance critic Edwin Denby’s death.
Margaret Fuhrer is a dancer, choreographer, and graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.