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Eye on Dance 

by Julie Malnig 

Eye on Dance(EOD), a weekly, half-hour public television interview show launched in 1981, was the first and only program of its kind to offer lively, topical, and informative discussions about historical and contemporary dance spanning a range of styles and forms from classical ballet and postmodern dance to jazz and social dance. At its peak, EOD actually aired four times a week—twice each on WNYC and WNYE-TV.  By its completion, in 1992, EOD had broadcast over 324 episodes. The show continued to air through 2006, helping to make dance, long a stepchild of the arts, a part of the cultural conversation and proving that dialogue on dance could be both enlightening and entertaining and draw an audience of aficionados and professionals alike.

EOD was revolutionary in many respects, and not least because it enabled viewers to hear dancers speak—candidly, wittily, and intelligently. The brainchild of Celia Ipiotis, former ballet and modern dancer—who also hosted the show—and videographer and media professor Jeff Bush, EOD typically paired one or more prominent dancers or choreographers with either an historian or critic. The stated aim of the show was “to propel dance literacy” and  “use the artist’s voice to frame dance within a cultural, historical, and social context” (Ipiotis, 2015, Interview). As critic Laura Jacobs rightly noted, the show was a veritable “Who’s Who of International Dance” (49) featuring many “greats” of dance as well as up-and-comers.  Unlike a typical “time-based” interview show linked to upcoming performances, EOD purposely remained “timeless,” a format that, as Ipiotis notes, “linked dance to larger social, educational, and political currents; we did this by crafting flexible, theme-based conversations that investigated issues while embracing every conceivable form of dance” (Ipiotis, 2015, Email). EOD never dodged controversial subjects, and offered a little additional frisson to the proceedings through Ipiotis’s conscious pairing of guests from different sides of the artistic aisle.

A part of the 1980s “dance boom” that saw an expansion of dance companies and an explosion of writing about dance, EOD furthered the conversations and in many cases jumpstarted them. For instance, EOD was one of the first media outlets to deal with the AIDS crisis and was praised, says Jacobs, “for its accuracy and hopeful, nonalarmist tone.” (1990. 49) It also featured several shows focused on gender issues in dance and many dealing with non-Euro-American themes. Here are just a few: “Undermining Political Codes the Latin Way,”  “Apartheid’s Hold on the Arts,” “The Black Identity in Traditional and Experimental Dance,” and “From the Plantation to the Asphalt.” The number of artists featured is, of course, too vast to list in full, but suffice it to say EOD showcased many luminaries in the worlds of concert, popular, and social dance including Agnes de Mille; Maya Plisetskaya; Merce Cunningham; Alvin Ailey; Hanya Holm; Anna Sokolow; Alwin Nikolais; Arthur Mitchell; Meredith Monk; Violette Verdy, Edward Villella; Alicia Alonzo; Bill T. Jones; Yvonne Rainer; Gwen Verdon; Frankie Manning; —the list goes on (Eye on Dance and the Arts Video Catalog).

The 1980s was also a pivotal time for video and the emerging field known as video-dance, and Ipiotis and Bush (who at one point used their nonprofit organization ARC–-Arts Resources in Collaboration—to foster such work with local dance companies) were in the vanguard of explorations into these mediums. Bush, in fact, wrote a pioneering essay, “Videodance,” with Peter Z. Grossman, a kind of call-to-arms to the dance community to take the genre seriously as one “with its own requirements, its own techniques, and its own aesthetic principles” (1975, 12). Ipiotis, with her preternatural curiosity, was keen to borrow concepts from videodance and cycle them back for their interview-styled show. Says Ipiotis: “Despite all this exuberant enthusiasm for videodance, the public rarely experienced dance and the arts in general on television. The idea [for the program] was to look at dance three-dimensionally: to hear the dancers; to see the dancers dancing, and to show its relevance in history.”  Ipiotis continues that it was always the intention of EOD “to be topic oriented and multimedia” (Ipiotis, 2015, Interview). Early on, Ipiotis and Bush were fascinated with video’s potential for both artistic creation and historical documentation. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the show, in addition to its sophisticated and entertaining conversation, was its incorporation of often rare vintage film as well as contemporary video of the performers and performances, always used judiciously to explicate and deepen the underlying theme of the show and illustrate a commentator’s point.

Some of the earliest programs on EOD, in fact, featured shows on the topic of videodance often with original videodance excerpts. A couple of these are gems. One, “The Art of Dancing: An Introduction to Baroque Dance,” produced in conjunction with the New York Baroque Dance Company (NYBDC), was shot on location at the historic Morris Jumel mansion and the ARC dance studios in New York City.  Through clever use of illustrated Feuillet notation and demonstrations by company members in elegant period dress, the video, narrated by a would-be dance master, instructs a young man on the correct steps and decorum for the Minuet. Describing the perils of breaches in etiquette, the narrator notes that “If one should disgrace himself on the dance floor either through loss of memory or an attempt to execute a step variation beyond his capabilities, it is advisable that he refrain from attending the balls for the remainder of the season and continue a dutiful practice of dancing with his dance master” (Eye on Dance, 1982). In the interview portion of the show company members, including NYBDC founder Catherine Turocy, explore the intricacies of 18th-century dance and describe the value of the video in helping to conduct early-dance workshops at colleges across the country. In another episode, Ipiotis interviewed videographers Dennis Diamond, Director of Video at (then) Dance Theater Workshop, and Eliot Caplan, film artist-in-residence at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, for EOD’s 1989 program “Wedding Dance to Video and Film.” The episode opens dramatically with an excerpt from Cunningham’s “Changing Steps” (filmed partly in front of a stream) before shifting to a spirited discussion with her guests in which Ipiotis asks if dancers have gotten more sophisticated in their use of video. The jaunty Caplan quotes Cunningham—an early video enthusiast who understood video’s potential and relished its challenges—who told him that “making dance for TV is like making dance in an elevator” (Eye on Dance, 1989).

Clearly, EOD represents a cornucopia of primary source archives on dance and the related arts. A sampling of the shows attests not only to the program’s range but its unique emphasis on how one form (dance) connects with others, such as: “Improvisation in Jazz Music and Modern Dance” (with Billy Taylor and David Parsons),  “Ancient Greek Poetry, Music, and Modern Dance” (with Peter Steadman, Eve Belgarian, and Rachel Kitzinger), “Freedom of Expression in the Arts” (with Carol Vance, Doug Varone, and Carlos Guttierez-Solana), and “Dance and the Plastic Arts” (with Remy Charlip, Yoshiko Chuma, Yves Musard, and Adrian Saitch). Currently, copies of EOD broadcast programs along with selected copies of support materials including publicity items, producer’s notes, and interviews, reside at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (see Eye on Dance Records). Several university libraries also contain duplicates from the broadcast collection, among them Ohio State University, New York University, the University of California-Riverside, Florida State University, Columbia University, University of Hawaii, and George Mason University.

As of this writing, in 2015, ARC Videodance is in the process of a major capital campaign, the EOD Legacy Archive Project, to restore fragile videotapes, organize newly discovered raw footage, and digitize the EOD archive.  Several of the videotapes consciously chosen for restoration include those featuring individuals who died of AIDS and who are not documented elsewhere, including Ulysses Dove, Chris Komar, and Fernando Bujones. As part of this restoration project, and to acquaint a new generation of audiences with the influential work of EOD, Ipiotis has organized screening events of selected shows from the archive in conjunction with the Gina Gibney Dance Studio, the 92nd St. Y, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, among other venues. Recent events in Gibney’s series have included “The Language of Dance: Deciphering the Code,” a 1990 episode featuring Christine Dakin, Neil Greenberg, and Vicky Shick (who danced with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Trisha Brown respectively). All three dancer/choreographers also appeared in person for a conversation about their processes and a reflection on their work with these choreographers.1

A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” lamented the dearth of current dance writing and the loss of some of our major outlets for dance criticism. As author Madison Mainwaring notes, “The less dance is written about for the average reader, the more niche and patrician it appears to be” (2015, 8).  EOD reminds us that dance history and criticism, not only in print but on television, can make a major contribution to American life and culture. Never overly esoteric, EOD both educated the general public about dance, choreography, and dance’s relationship to the other arts and at the same time informed dance specialists about current developments and trends in the field. Indeed, for nearly two decades EOD served as a veritable dance education that was at once enjoyable and thought-provoking. Far from a market “niche,” EOD helped make discussion about dance a part of the mainstream of cultural life.


NOTES

1. This installment of the “Sorry I Missed Your Show Series,” occurred at the Gina Gibney Dance Center, Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, 280 Broadway, in New York City on March 2, 2015 at 6:30 pm. Eye on Dance, “Events/Dance,” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/events/dance/eye-on-dance-24290.html.

Ipiotis, Celia. 2015. Interview by author, 20 July, New York City.  

Ipiotis, Celia. 2015. Email correspondence, 17 August.   


Julie Malnig is an Associate Professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University where she teaches courses in performance criticism, history, and aesthetics. She is the author of Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance (NYU Press, 1995) and most recently editor of Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Julie Malnig is a former Editor of Dance Research Journal. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from  NYU.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Archives

Selected records of Eye on Dance may be viewed at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts:

http://archives.nypl.org/dan/19810

Eye on Dance Records. (S) *MGZMD 180, Archives and Manuscripts Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Books and Articles

Bush, Jeff and Peter Z. Grossman. “Videodance,” DanceScope, vol. 9, issue 2 (1975): 12.

Jacobs, Laura. “Meet the Television Host Who Proves That Dancers Can Talk.” Connoisseur magazine (1990): 49.

Mainwaring, Madison. 2015. “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” The Atlantic,   http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/american-dance-critic/399908/.

Moving Image

Eye on Dance. “An Introduction to Baroque Dance,“ ARC Videodance, 1982. NYU Bobst Library Avery Fisher Center Main Collection (DVD 5777).

Eye on Dance. “Wedding Dance to Film,” ARC Videodance, 1989. NYU Bobst Library Avery Fisher Center Main Collection (DVD 5798).

Web Resources

Eye on Dance and the Arts Video Catalogue, Eye on Dance and the Arts website:

www.eyeondance.org