In Memoriam: Sally Banes (1950-2020)
Monday, August 10, 2020
"An Early Dynamo of Dance Studies"
By Andrea Harris and Wendy Perron
Sally Banes—performer, dance critic, historian, producer and a pioneer in the field of dance studies—died on June 14, 2020, in Philadelphia, at the age of 69. The cause of death was complications from advanced ovarian cancer.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in arts criticism at the University of Chicago in 1972, Banes began writing restaurant, book, and theatre reviews for Chicago’s The Reader and the Chicago Tribune. When a colleague asked her if she would be interested in taking over a book he was writing on modern dance (he had severe claustrophobia and couldn’t sit in a theatre), she agreed. That serendipitous moment led to some of the most essential books on dance of the late twentieth century. Her new assignment took her to New York City in October 1973 to take classes and interview dance artists. That project would grow into her master’s thesis at New York University, and then become her first book on dance: Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance (Houghton-Mifflin, 1980; then Wesleyan University Press, 1987).
Terpsichore in Sneakers was her scintillating study of the group of avant-garde choreographers and dancers who revolutionized dance in downtown New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Banes’ research brought theoretical shape to Judson Dance Theater, canonizing it as “post-modern dance” (a term first used by Yvonne Rainer to distinguish the movement from its predecessor, modern dance). When the book was reprinted in 1987, Banes’ new introduction launched a controversy over theoretical and historical definitions of modernism and postmodernism in dance. This in itself was evidence of the important role the book played in establishing dance’s place in academe as an object of scholarly study, finally on equal footing with peer disciplines like art history, theater history, or musicology (1). Banes was a central figure in the generation of dance scholars in the 1980s who created the field known today as dance studies. Terpsichore in Sneakers remains a significant work on 1960s–70s post-modern dance. It has also been one of the few American dance books to be translated into many languages: French, Hebrew, Korean, Polish, and Russian, with editions in Mandarin and Portuguese in progress. In 2003, it won a prize for the best dance book of the year in France.
While working on her doctorate at New York University, Banes cultivated an active career writing about dance and performance: at the SoHo Weekly News from 1976-1980, the Village Voice from 1976-1986, and Dance Magazine from 1977-1986. The best way to learn to write about performance, she once told me (Andrea), was “to do it in public.” Many of these reviews are reprinted in three collections: Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism (Wesleyan University Press, 1994); Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York, 1976-1985 (University of Michigan Press, 1998); and Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007). Her PhD dissertation turned into her second book on dance, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964 (UMI Research Press, 1983, then Duke University Press, 1993), which sharpened her earlier work on the SoHo avant-garde with a thorough account of the evolution of this ground-breaking collective and a brilliant examination of dance and politics in the 1960s. Her other books on this period were Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Duke University Press, 1993), and Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), which she edited.
In 1978, her interest in the 1960s led her to film Yvonne Rainer’s landmark work, Trio A (1966). In this solo Rainer never repeated a phrase, never spiked (or spiced) the choreography with dynamics, and never looked at the audience. In producing this film, now accessible on YouTube, Banes gave future generations evidence of Rainer’s radical break from accepted choreographic structures.
Banes was also the author of Dancing Women: Female Bodies Onstage (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). This book made a crucial contribution to studies of identity, agency, and feminist politics in dance. It offered a counter-argument to contemporaneous criticism that cast certain dance forms, particularly ballet, as inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women. In response, Banes argued that dancing itself is an act of agency, in which women continually negotiate between representation and authorship. Through a rigorous historical examination of a selection of iconic ballet and modern dance works, beginning in the Romantic period of the 1830s, Dancing Women showed how dance generates complex meanings within its unique social circumstances.
In the early 1980s, Banes was the first dance critic to seek out the new urban dance form happening on the streets and in the clubs of the Bronx and Brooklyn. Break dancing was little known outside of the Black and Latin@ communities at that time, and Banes’ article, “To the Beat Y’All: Breaking Is Hard to Do,” appearing in the Village Voice in April 1981, introduced the form to the mass media. As Lynn Garafola noted, her writing on break dancing opened onto “a broad-ranging investigation of the impact of African American vernacular dance forms on both elite and mainstream social dance practices" (2). She was one of the first dance scholars to reveal the central role of Black dance movements and rhythms in the neoclassical style of George Balanchine (“Balanchine and Black Dance,” 1993). In 1995, she worked with anthropologist John F. Szwed to trace the dissemination of the dance instruction song from its roots in African American social dance and music through American popular culture (3). Her 2001 essay, “Our Hybrid Tradition,” showed that “what we call ‘the Western tradition’ in dance has always been a cultural mélange,” particularly of borrowings from Asian and African forms (4).
Another interest was the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. She edited Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s, a book by Moscow’s preeminent dance historian, Elizabeth Souritz (Duke University Press, 1990). She wrote or co-wrote about choreographers Kasyan Goleizovsky and Fedor Lopukhov, film director Sergei Eisenstein, and Russian Formalism (5). On one of her trips to Russia in the 1990s, she returned with a series of sketches of a miniature ballet created by Eisenstein in 1947, based on the last scene of the opera Carmen and titled The Last Conversation, about a year before the filmmaker’s death and at the height of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union. Working at the University of Madison-Wisconsin with James Sutton, a professor of ballet, and Galina Zakrutkina, a former character dancer in the Maryinsky Ballet living in Madison at the time, Banes reconstructed Eisenstein’s ballet from copies of the sketches. “They were line drawings, very simple,” Sutton told me (Andrea). “It was like putting together an animated film and filling in the pieces. The process was about reaching into the archives and trying to see what Eisenstein was trying to do, to bring the research alive. She was finding links between Russian film and theater and dance in Eisenstein’s work—that was a very Sally thing to do, to make connections.”
It was indeed. Before a debilitating stroke in May 2002 cut short her career, Banes had turned to the history of scent in performance. In “Olfactory Performances,” she drew on C.S. Peirce’s semiotic structure—icon, index, symbol—to categorize various “meanings conveyed by aroma design in the theatre" (6). She was also expanding her feminist inquiry into how the action of dancing could challenge norms of gender, sexuality, and representation in articles such as “’A New Kind of Beauty’: From Classicism to Karole Armitage’s Early Ballets,” and “TV-Dancing Women: Music Videos, Camera-Choreography, and Feminist Theory.” In one of her last projects before her stroke, Banes analyzed George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s 1942 The Ballet of the Elephants, commissioned by the Ringling Brothers Circus for “fifty elephants and fifty beautiful girls.” “Only she would have taken on these subjects, or taken them on seriously,” notes Joan Acocella (7). Indeed, Banes probed Balanchine’s ballet for elephants in depth, illuminating how its images of women allayed wartime anxieties about women’s social and sexual empowerment, even as she showed simultaneously, in true Sally form, how the dancing “created a multidimensional view of the capacities of women’s bodies—and metaphorically, of the range of women’s powers" (8). Several of these last essays are printed in Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing which I (Andrea) edited with her after her stroke. This book was a project that we hoped would help bring Sally back to us in some capacity. It did not. She remained cognitively and physically severely handicapped. She spent the last several years of her life in Philadelphia, where she lived with her husband, Noël Carroll, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and had 24-hour care.
In the renown that Banes achieved for her dance scholarship, her own work as a performer and creator in the 1970s has tended to be forgotten. But it was fascinating. After graduating the University of Chicago in 1972, she started her own collaborative group called the Community Discount Players. In 1974, she was one of seven co-founders of MoMing Collection, which presented both local and out of town avant-garde artists in Chicago. She performed there with the avant-garde choreographer Kenneth King. It was at MoMing, after a 1975 performance of the improvisational group Grand Union, that she met then-fellow critic Carroll. Banes and Carroll often collaborated, first as critics in New York, and later as professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In January 1974, Banes joined a group of Oberlin students taking a three-week workshop with Meredith Monk. She was chosen to work with Monk and her core group to collaborate on the making of Chacon (1974). She was doing double duty, simultaneously writing about the experience for Dance Chronicle. Monk led the dancers through breathing exercises, imagining a landscape, transmitting your landscape silently to a partner, then amplifying it to the rest of the cast. After the first day, Banes wrote a letter to her friend and Community Discount Player collaborator Ellen Mazer: “All this communication about visual image and thoughts and processes of learning and teaching, all of it without speaking one word.” When Monk broke the silence, Sally wrote in her Dance Chronicle essay, it was to “sit and talk about stereotypes and archetypes, how they differ, when to use them, how to transcend them, how to avoid them.” Banes was inspired by the organic nature of the process. “It’s amazing how naturally all this flows,” she enthused. “MM directs the currents of our material, rather than telling us precisely what to do.”
After the first day, Banes decided to produce her own “mammoth performance event” that spring. Excited, she wrote to Mazer about her ideas. It was to take the form of a three-day treasure hunt sprawling throughout the University of Chicago. The audience would be given clue sheets to help them find where and when the performances were. A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 2, subtitled “a series of performance exhibits,” turned out to be a single six-hour event. (Part 1 was an unrelated photography exhibit.) Rather Monkian in its dreamlike images, it also suggested influences from Anna Halprin (in its mingling of performers and audience) and Deborah Hay (in its circle dances).
Many of the elements that characterized Banes’s prolific scholarship were foreshadowed in the performances she made in her 20s: her attraction to the avant-garde, her simultaneous attention to small details and big-picture contexts, her tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, her nonconformist spirit. A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 2 started with Banes and Mazer emerging from the campus lagoon, arms around each other’s waists, wearing white dresses adorned with long strands of seaweed. Other characters included a man chirping on a tree branch, another doing tai chi, surfer girls in short shorts, a couple whispering salaciously to each other under an umbrella, and a visit to Banes’s apartment with her grandmother seated in a roped off area like a museum display. The day ended with dancers in separate windows on five stories of the Regenstein Library, multi-level figures in motion while someone was singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as the sun set. In a review in the Chicago Reader, Meredith Anthony called it “Chicago’s greatest theatrical event.” After describing the last scene, she wrote, “There was something indescribably ravishing about the sight. The monumental nature, the audacity of the entire concept, was nearly overwhelming” (June 14, 1974).
Banes and Mazer’s next collaboration, in February 1975, was Sophie, also called A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 3, in which the audience sipped mint tea and lounged on pillows. Mazer, who had a dance background but majored in philosophical psychology, told me (Wendy) they were focusing on collaborative process, ordinary movements like walking, and women’s friendships. In one section Banes and Mazer recited Kant’s “Antinomies of Pure Reason” to each other. In another, they appeared nude with four-inch glittery platform heels, moving slowly. It’s possible that Sally had heard about Anna Halprin’s ritualistic slow-motion dressing and undressing in Parades and Changes (1965). After they slowly bent down and smashed glasses underfoot, Banes and Mazer, along with other “Sophies,” joined in a circle dance that was attributed to Deborah Hay.
Another escapade, called Sophie Eats Shrimp, was more of a work dance. Mazer, who took the lead on this event, rounded up fruit crates that the performers stacked up and knocked down during the performance. Her mode was “giving instructions to dancers and letting them make their own decisions.” It took place in a vacant lot where, as dancer Carter Frank remembered, most of the audience was homeless men.
In 1983, after she had been living in New York City for seven years, Banes revived the Sophie idea by writing a script of historical fiction called Sophie Heightens the Contradictions. Sophie was a 17-year old “red virgin” of Paris Opera Ballet who fought on the side of the Communards. She helped Marx write the Communist Manifesto, organized the ballet dancers to be pro-commune, and got killed during the Paris uprising. And then—Sophie was casually reincarnated as an anti-war activist in the 1980s. I (Wendy) played Sophie. The six-page script was chock-full of historical information—for instance, in one scene, the Paris Opera dancers snuck in some steps from the Can-Can, violating their contract. My role involved executing a standard ballet barre and throwing party snaps at the floor. We performed it only once as a work in progress.
In the course of her career, Banes taught at Florida State University, the State University of New York at Purchase, Wesleyan, and Cornell. She joined the dance faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991, serving as chair from 1992-1996. When her excellent record at UW-Madison was rewarded with the honor of a named professorship of her choosing, Banes named her position after Marian Hannah Winter, the dance historian known for her pioneering work on Black American minstrelsy. Banes later moved to the Department of Theatre and Drama at UW-Madison, where she chaired the doctoral program in Dance Studies. From 2001-2002, she was the Director of the UW-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities. In 2020, Professor Li Chiao-Ping named her own position after Banes, becoming the Sally Banes Professor of Dance in the UW-Madison Dance Department.
Banes is lovingly remembered by those who worked with her as a remarkable colleague with an infectious energy, a sparkling sense of humor, and a gracious intelligence. “She had a way of making everyone in the room smarter, without for a moment trying to be the smartest one in the room,” said Michael Vanden Heuvel, her colleague at UW-Madison. No matter how busy she was with her own research, she always had time to mentor students, and never took that responsibility casually. Her students recall her enthusiasm for learning new things and the delight she so obviously took in her teaching, research, and advising. Kristen Hunt, her former graduate student at UW-Madison and now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University, said, “I could tell her a project idea that I thought might be stupid and she would get excited about it and help me make it better, which I now try to do with my students.”
We have all been missing Sally for eighteen years, since her stroke. She is memorialized in her indelible influence embedded in the research, writing, and teaching of the generation of scholars she mentored, the many dedications and acknowledgments to her in the books written by her students, and in her remarkable and groundbreaking body of dance literature.
Andrea Harris is Associate Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at UW-Madison; a former graduate student of Banes’, she is the editor of Before, Between, Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing, and the author of Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine (OUP, 2017).
Wendy Perron, a former dancer/choreographer and Dance Magazine editor in chief, is author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer: Selected Writings; she is now an adjunct professor at Juilliard and NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
(1) Susan Manning, “Review: Modernist Dogma and Post-Modern Rhetoric: A Response to Sally Banes’ ‘Terpsichore in Sneakers’,” TDR 32, no. 4 (Winter, 1988): 32-39. Also Sally Banes and Susan Manning, “Terpsichore in Combat Boots,” TDR 33, no. 1 (Spring, 1989): 13-16.
(2) Lynn Garafola, “Voice of the Zeitgeist: Sally Banes and Her Times,” introduction to Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), xii.
(3) Sally Banes and John F. Szwed, “From ‘Messin’ Arount’ to ‘Funky Western Civilization,” New Formations 27 (Winter 1995-96): 59-79, reprinted in Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing, 119-147.
(4) Sally Banes, “Our Hybrid Tradition,” in Chantal Pontbriand, ed., Danse: langage propre et métissage culturel/Dance: Distinct Language and Cross-Cultural Influences (Montreal: Parachute, 2000), reprinted in Before, Between, and Beyond, 257.
(5) For example: Sally Banes, “Kasyan Goleizovsky’s Ballet Manifestos,” Ballet Review 11, no. 3 (1983): 64-75; Banes, “Gulliver’s Hamburger: Defamiliarization and the Ordinary in the 1960s Avant-Garde,” in Banes and Harris, eds., Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 3-23; Noël Carroll and Sally Banes, “Cinematic Nation-Building: Eisenstein’s The Old and the New,” in Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie, eds., Cinema Nation (London: Routledge, 2000), 121-138; and Elizabeth Souritz, Lynn Visson, and Sally Banes, “Fedor Lopukhov: A Soviet Choreographer,” Dance Research Journal 17, no. 2 (Autumn 1985): 3-20.
(6) Banes, “Olfactory Performances,” TDR 45, no. 1 (Spring, 2001): 68-76, reprinted in Before, Between, and Beyond, 244. Also see “The Scent of a Dance,” a paper given by Banes to the Society of Dance History Scholars in 2001, in Before, Between, and Beyond, 269-280.
(7) Joan Acocella, “Electrification,” introduction to Before, Between, and Beyond, xix.
(8) Banes, “Elephants in Tutus,” paper planned for the Society of Dance History Scholars conference in 2002, printed in Before, Between, and Beyond, 356.