Monday, November 19, 2007

Henning Kronstam: Portrait of a Danish Dancer

Part of my ongoing learning-about-dance project. How I decided I was going to read a rather lengthy biography of Kronstam as opposed to a dancer I had actually heard of--there admittedly aren't many--I don't actually remember but I somehow came to the conclusion that this would be the thing to do so off I went the Library of the Performing Arts to borrow it. Of course I took it out just before I went to Japan and I couldn't take it with me because, I'm telling you, it's like a brick, so I had to put off reading it. Then I got home and was in the middle of a bunch of other stuff. Long story short, I only finished it just now. So as usual I "saved" money by getting something from the library only to undermine myself by keeping it forever while forgetting that I could renew it online. Ladies and gentlemen, I am nothing short of a genius.

So, about the book itself . . . I think that you can very often tell how a biographer feels about their subject and it seems clear that Tomalonis liked and respected Kronstam as both an artist and as a person. This is not particularly surprising given that the book was written with his cooperation. Unlike some biographers working with the subject's assent, Tomalonis traffics in neither rumors nor outright lies: she makes clear when she or someone else is speculating, when there is not enough evidence to support an assertion, and when something is simply unknowable. There are other ways too in which she is clearly a writer motivated by what is moral. There are times where she could have pushed Kronstam to talk about or explain things and it would have been better for the biography but also, it seems, unkind. Likewise, Tomalonis shows a respect for her subject's privacy than many biographers do not. This isn't actually something I have much of an opinion on. If someone wants to cross the boundaries of good taste--and Tomalonis doesn't even approach those boundaries in my opinion--that's their business. The only place where I thought more elaboration would have helped was when it came to his life with Gerstenberg. Not because I'm nosy and want personal details, because I don't, but because it seems to me that this man who lived with Kronstam for so many years might have interesting things to say about him as an artist or opinions on how his life and experiences effected his art. Perhaps not though. It could be that there was nothing to write in that direction and that's why Tomalonis doesn't go there. Beyond that, I didn't love the I'm-a-doctor-who-never-met-the-man-but-I'll-give-my-medical-opinion-based-on-the-book note at the end, but I can live with that. So anyway, it's a lovely biography.

As I see it, the biography had two main purposes: first to provide an accurate picture of Kronstam as a dancer and second to defend his reputation against various misconceptions that were--are?--prevalent. I'm glad she undertook the second--though at times her treatment of him approaches hagiography--but it was the first that I was more interested in.

What particularly struck me was that the focus for him always seemed to be "why" of the movement, not on the "how." While a dancer obviously needs to know how to move in the proper way, what concerned him was that he or, when he was teaching, they, understood why they were moving in that way--what they were trying to convey. And by understanding this why he--or they--could communicate emotion and story to the audience. Hmm . . . needless to say this is more clearly expressed in the book, often through extensive quoting. Tomalonis writes:
Nearly every dancer had an example of how Kronstam would insist on finding the meaning behind the movement: "You should feel that you are at one with the part you are doing. With Henning, I never felt that I should be trying to do the steps and do a character, " asid Alexander Kolpin. "He would always make you understand that this character is not dancing a variation to show off his beats. He is showing the love for the slyph--or whatever. He felt that when you are a dancer, you are a human being, and the steps are your tool to express feelings. Henning was always good at encouraging people to feel emotionally involved with what they're doing. The whole atmosphere makes the character. It's not that everyone can do James the same way."
Obviously here Kolpin is talking about the development of a specific character but the approach isn't exclusive to the one character. It was really quite fascinating.

Aside from presenting Kronstam's view of dance, Tomalonis is wonderful at describing dance in a way that's thankfully un-flowery while being quite clear. Reading the book, you could actually see the movement being described. And perhaps more importantly, the qualities of the movement. Good stuff.

I'm not convinced that this is going to suddenly make me a better observer of dance in general, but I do think that if I were to see one of the ballets that's actually discussed I would notice things that I would otherwise miss. Which is good because I need all the help I can get. And frankly, the little program notes explaining the story--if there is a story--don't do much of anything. They tell you what is going on but they don't explain how the movement is related to what's going on. And that's what Kronstam, through the interviews Tomalonis conducted, does. That seems to me to be a very valuable service indeed.


tonya said...

This is interesting -- thanks for the review. I'll have to look at it sometime, if I ever finish Kavanagh's Nureyev!

Meg said...

Oh, I saw that in the bookstore--it looks fascinating but I think I need a break before I take on another book that big!