Oxford Dictionary of Dance
Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell
Many reviews of reference works - whatever the subject matter – always seem to incorporate a list of errors, slips, mistakes, misattributions, or what have you, if only to demonstrate the thoroughness of the reviewer. This isn’t going to be one of those. This is a huge dictionary, over 500 pages, covering a very broad subject range. It tackles all manner of dance related topics: dancers, choreographers, steps, ballets, companies, composers, countries, teachers, schools and so on. To give an idea of the richness of the mix, on one page we have entries on: hip-hop, Hindemith, the tap dancer Gregory Hines, and the English ballerina Paula Hinton. It’s a very eclectic mix. Any work on this scale is bound to have some glitches in it - it’s an enormous undertaking.
But if you already know what all those errors and omission are, then perhaps you don’t need this Dictionary. The broadness of the scope seems to indicate that it is directed towards a wider audience, rather than a more specialised. But if you haven’t got a reference work, and would like one compact volume covering both dance and ballet, in which you can look up NDT as well as Swan Lake, and find out a bit more about a dance company coming your way, then this might be for you.
It isn’t going to give you huge amounts of analysis or detail: entries on most ballets for instance give the facts about choreographer, music, design, date of first performance and a very brief indication of plot or subject matter, and details of subsequent performances by other companies. The scope is concerned with both ballet and dance, mainly in the western world. There are gestures towards dance from other cultures, but not in depth coverage. If you want to know more about Balinese dance, then you won’t find much detail here.
The authors write in a studiedly neutral tone in most entries, concerned to give facts rather than opinions. This is both the strength and weakness of any dictionary: it seems quite right and proper, if not a particularly thrilling read in consequence.
But I think dance is a particularly difficult subject to deal with in this way. The detached and cool view is appropriate for say, giving factual details about a dancer, and their roles, and the history of a ballet company. But describing the essence of a ballet is harder. It’s difficult enough to give this in a full review, so the challenge of getting across its particular qualities in a single sentence is considerable.
Every now and then a more personal view creeps through. For instance, Manon is described as ‘one of the most enduring full length ballets of the latter half of the twentieth century…the passion and danger…have proved irresistible to audiences’. This sounds a much more personal and passionate note than many entries. By contrast the entry on Monotones describes it as ‘a fine piece of classical adagio writing’. Accurate, but it doesn’t give you the particular flavour of the piece.
There’s a certain amount of fun to be had to see who’s in and who’s not and the level of coverage, and by implication, he significance afforded to different individuals. Fonteyn gets just over half a page: Nureyev a whole one, Nijinsky something in between. You can play the same game with choreographers: Christopher Bruce gets a few more lines than Mathew Bourne. The scope is fairly broad: in UK terms a number of the smaller dance companies and choreographers are included (Arc Dance co, Mark Baldwin) but some rather surprisingly don’t make it (Candoco, Jeremy James).
There is only one illustration in the book, to explain dance notation. This is something of a shame, as there are many points where illustrations would have helped considerably. (A family tree for all those Taglionis would have been helpful). However, I‘m sure there would be a heavy cost implication. In the future, one can imagine an electronic version of this dictionary being created, which could incorporate pictures as well as text. Certainly the definition of steps would be much easier to follow if you could click on something and see a demonstration. Text just isn’t the most sensible medium for this. And it would be good to see images of dancers or productions. Nice, yes, but not easy to put together. For now the print version will do very nicely.