Lexicon of the light fantastic

The Oxford Dictionary of Dance
June 21, 2002

Dictionaries of art, dance and music cannot be comprehensive, despite publishers' claims for them. If this is granted, The Oxford Dictionary of Dance is enjoyable, packed with interesting definitions, choreographers, dancers and dance works.

Authors Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell's extensive experience as dance reviewers writing in leading national publications in Britain and the US clearly informs their choices. The dictionary seems to address a British rather than international readership of dance theatre-goers, for its comparisons tend to be to what the British understand best. Up-to-the-minute factual information is enlivened with a few fascinating stories about personalities.

Ballet and modern (and post-modern) dance dominate, although there is an attempt to include other performance genres now regularly scheduled by major British theatres. A sprinkling of Bharata Natyam and Kathak, a bit of Flamenco, some Kabuki, the omnipresent Butoh, Shobana Jeyasingh and so on.

As always with such dictionaries, it is interesting to see what has been left out. Omissions tend to elicit strong emotional responses from readers. I will confess to being disappointed by the superficial description of dances from Indonesia that presents them as ritualistic and faintly exotic, and draws unnecessary comparisons with Indian dance. There is no mention of the very lively contemporary Indonesian dance scene or of the choreographer Sardono W. Kusumo, who has a great following in the US and The Netherlands but has never performed in Britain. Is a British performance the criterion for an entry in the dictionary on a contemporary foreign artist? Surely not.

It is also surprising - and amusing - to see a homage to the Indian dancer Shanta Rao, whom very few will recall today, in an entry that does not give details of why her performances were controversial and does not explain what the Dasi Attam she performed actually was. Dasi Attam is the name once used for Bharata Natyam. As a specialist, I happen to know this - but will others recognise its significance? This is not the only example of its kind.

The positive features of the book are that its discursive treatment makes for easy reading while offering substantial information. Some unusual forms of dance are included, for instance ice dancing, which is given the recognition it deserves as art. The relationship between dance and fashion is considered at some length. Most importantly, the entries on famous choreographers, about whom reams have already been written, have a freshness made possible by the authors' excellent writing skills.

Overall, this is an unpretentious book, despite its awesome title. The diversity of the entries, clearly dictated by a strong ambition to produce the most up-to-date and all-inclusive reference work for the 21st century, is at times contrived and not sustained by direct knowledge or in-depth research. Nevertheless, the ambition is a laudable one and the book is definitely to be recommended to anyone interested in dance, no matter whether they are an adept or not.

Alessandra Lopez y Royo is senior lecturer in dance, University of Surrey Roehampton.

The Oxford Dictionary of Dance

Author - Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell
ISBN - 0 19 860106 9 and 860400 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00 and £8.99
Pages - 5

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