Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Edwin Denby

In the early seventies, Trungpa Rinpoche was newly arrived in the US and was anxious to explore as many cultural scenes as he could. One evening, accompanied by Vivian Kurz, he went to a party of poets and theater people. Robert Wilson, Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Meredith Monk were among the many guests, but when Rinpoche arrived, he immediately took an interest in Edwin Denby.

Denby was, at that time was in his 70’s, a distinguished poet and America’s foremost ballet critic. He was a tidy, fastidious man, and a little bemused to find himself being grilled by a vigorously intense hard-drinking Tibetan. The conversation went on for a half hour before they were swept apart.

Late in the evening, Rinpoche had drunk a good deal and his companions were ready to leave. But he insisted on seeing Denby before he left. Denby was slightly appalled to find this sweating Tibetan man now embracing him and kissing him on the mouth.

“You are a true living Boddhisattve.” Rinpoche told him over and over.

In remembering this story, I have often been moved that Trungpa Rinpoche not only paid such attention to Denby, but also felt it so important to speak to him in this way. The Buddhist term Boddhisattva, one who has vowed to put others before himself and postpone liberation from cyclical existence until all other sentient beings have attained liberation, would have meant little or nothing to Denby. And yet Rinpoche found it urgent for him to know himself in this particular way.

Because of this story and because I am not particularly taken by western classical ballet so would like to understand what eludes me here, I’ve often read, and re-read Denby’s essays on ballet. His writing is astonishing for it’s simplicity, open-heartedness, overall enthusiasm and genuine love, all of which inform a scrupulously detailed way of looking at dance and dancers and inform a lovely clarity of articulation.

For instance this, chosen almost at random:

“When you watch a girl moving about a room you sometimes guess what the quality of movement ‘means’. It I not that she expresses herself by making hand gestures, she does it by the rhythm of her actions. We often understand animals that way and they us. And in love we all know how dramatic such a moment of understanding is. It seems to tell more than any words and say it more irrevocably. And this is the natural phenomenon on which the art of ballet is built as a convincing human expression.” (Dance Writing, Ballet Theatre’s Season May 1945 Edwin Denby, Knopf1986 p.

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