A likely highlight of this year's Dance on Camera bash at Lincoln Center (January 27-31) will be the screening on January 28 at 6:15 p.m., a triple bill of shorts culminating in a new documentary on the ceaselessly mutating dance-athletics collective Pilobolus, often imitated yet still sui generis on the eve of its 40th birthday. By way of setup, the docket also includes an interview from 1987, when Moses Pendleton and Jonathan Wolken, two of the troupe's cofounders, sat down after a five-year rift for a segment of the long-running talk show Eye on Dance. In an alignment of the planets that is rarer than it ought to be, Celia Ipiotis, creator and host of the series, will present the film. And in celebration of Eye on Dance in the year of its 30th anniversary, a 23-minute loop of highlights will be running continuously in the lobby of the Walter Reade Theater for the duration of the Dance on Camera festival, with Celia on hand at scheduled times to speak and take questions.
As creatures of the Information Age, we dwell in a cultural limbo between imaginary omniscience and real amnesia. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as dinosaurs may recall, New York reigned as the uncontested dance capital of the world. Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Arthur Mitchell, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Tommy Tune all lived and worked there, producing dazzlements and inspiring performers who, in their multifarious ways, were second to none. From Harlem to Brooklyn by way of Lincoln Center, City Center, Broadway, and downtown hot spots like Dance Theater Workshop and The Kitchen, the profusion of ballet, ballroom, modern, and yet-to-be-named was unending. No season was complete without residencies by a défilé of the flagship ensembles from London, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Sydney. The Royal Ballet, it was said, danced better at Lincoln Center than at home at Covent Garden. It was probably true. There were worlds elsewhere; there always are. Yet to be seen in New York was to be seen indeed. Overnight critics spread the buzz daily. In The New Yorker, Arlene Croce elevated the weekly dance review to an art form.
Celia was among the liveliest, best-informed, and most enlightening witnesses to the historic dance boom and its attendant hoopla. Eye on Dance, which she invented, produced, and moderated, launched in 1981, made possible by the footloose new technology of videotape. A widespread prejudice would have it that dancers should be seen and not heard, that their intelligence, such as it is, lives in their sinew, nerve, and muscle. Brisk yet inquisitive, Celia knew better. Having risen swiftly as a professional dancer herself in her teens, she was also a natural at the thrust-and-parry of high-wire Q-&-A. Often, she would arrive on the set like Alice in Wonderland, full of ginger and spice, her dark eyes quizzical, black tresses tied in a bow of ribbon six inches wide. Her questions typically went straight to the heart of a guest's concerns, neither fixating on nor tiptoeing around touchy subjects like race and sexual politics. The dialogue seldom faltered. And there was levity, too, as when John Taras, a ballet master for Balanchine, shared his earliest memories of modern dance: "I always hated all those dirty feet!"
Of course, it was not all talk. Between the chat came video clips, which transposed the subjects of conversation into action, from apartheid or the reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's thunderclap Le Sacre de Printemps to some jitterbug that was really the real thing. If some of the footage was stock, much was not. On the spot, William (then "Billy") Forsythe epitomized the essence of his machine-tooled style of swivels, snaps, and glides in a matter of mesmerizing seconds.
Filmed in New York through 2004, Eye on Dance racked up some 400 episodes, which aired on not one but two local PBS stations and outlets coast to coast well into 2006. Targeting a niche audience of professionals and aficionados, the series attracted a who's who of some 800 luminaries, running the gamut from Abbott, Loretta, the trailblazing African-American singer, dancer, and actress, to Zummo, Peter, a multifaceted instrumentalist and composer of commissioned scores for Trisha Brown and other choreographers.
Who's missing? Balanchine, who in any case preferred to let his dances do the talking and was in fragile health. Graham, who was kept away by meddling handler who shall remain nameless. Robbins, who never spoke to the media and made no exception in this case. Tharp, who (true to form) had dissected her work in a documentary of her own and was therefore never asked. Tune, who would have been happy to play, except that the timing was never right. The great troika of Russian defectors, Rudolf Nureyev (who canceled when travel plans changed), Natalia Makarova (bad luck), and Mikhail Baryshnikov (whose staff pleaded overwork and his then-halting English). Antony Tudor, ever elusive and aloof, miraculously did consent to a rare interview. Then death silenced him.
But for every fish who eluded Celia's net, there were other prize catches galore: Ailey, Cunningham, Mitchell, and Taylor, and let's not forget the likes of Alicia Alonso, Lucinda Childs, Jacques d'Amboise and his talented children, Katherine Dunham, Louis Falco, Frederic Franklin, Cynthia Gregory, Bill Irwin, Bill T. Jones, Andris Liepa, Meredith Monk, Alwin Nikolais, David Parsons, Maya Plisetskaya (accompanied by an interpreter), David Salle, and Gwen Verdon, not to mention the silken vaudeville veteran Charles (Honi) Coles and Alexandra Danilova, the second Mrs. Balanchine in all but the marriage license.
"To be clear, to be concise, to do one thing at a time, and to do it on the musical phrase," said Agnes deMille—choreographer of landmarks like Oklahoma! and Rodeo, as sibylline in her way as Martha herself—summing up for Celia the aesthetic she had honed for a lifetime. "Technique is boring," declared the ballet master Edward Villella, in his time unsurpassed in the fireworks of Balanchine's Prodigal Son and Rubies. "I want to see what someone's mind is doing." Compilations of highlights from Eye on Dance on YouTube and vimeo feature the marquee names and eye-popping surprises. Hot tip: Wiggles, Fabel, and D'Incredible, a trio of street dancers who say their inspiration comes from comic strips—and go on to prove it.
As scholarship and oral history, Celia's archive is a treasure trove. Individual episodes have long been available for purchase at the Eye on Dance website. Ohio State University laid the foundation for its doctoral program in dance history by investing in a complete set, and another resides at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where it ranks with the most-consulted material in the collection. But the years are hard on videotape, and there are materials in Celia's vault—outtakes, unaired episodes—that the public has never seen.
Wholesale digitization is urgently needed, and happily, the process has begun. Where the Eye on Dance mother lode will end up is still up in the air. The New York Library of Performing Arts and the Library of Congress have been mentioned. Both are logical contenders; the answer will depend partly on funding yet to be secured. Contributions to Eye on Dance, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, are tax-deductible as provided by law; direct any inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, Celia's live gigs—the January event is her fifth in the past 12 months—serve the general cause. Audience response to date has been enthusiastic. New York is no longer the dance capital of the world. But is there any such place? With Celia as one's guide, time travel is never academic, and the dances of the dance boom spring to life anew.