“Surprise Was My Teacher” by Merrill Brockway is a delightful memoir by the man who pioneered dance on television. Here’s the review from the New York Times on September 15, 2011:
‘Dance in America’ for a New Generation
By JULIE BLOOM
If you came of age in the late 1970s and ’80s, odds are you first encountered Martha Graham and modern dance not in a theater, but via television. Over the years the “Dance in America” program, which made its debut on PBS in 1976, introduced millions of Americans to major dance artists and their greatest works.
The director and producer of that series, Merrill Brockway, is now helping a new generation meet those artists and view their work. Last spring Mr. Brockway, 88, published a memoir, “Surprise Was My Teacher” (Sunstone Press), which details his career during a golden age of television and his collaborations with dancers like Graham, Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp. He was also allowed to donate the archive to the National Dance Institute of New Mexico for educational purposes.
Mr. Brockway “was someone who said America needs to see this, America needs to see dance, and he was ahead of his time,” Catherine Oppenheimer, the founder of the dance institute and the New Mexico School for the Arts, said in a phone interview. This fall those institutions, which serve close to 7,000 students, many disadvantaged, will begin incorporating the library of videos into their curriculum.
Mr. Brockway’s tapes, about 130, as well as additional documentaries, cover his 35 years filming dance and feature many of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers.
“This could really be life changing for these kids, to see some of the best dance works as they were intended to be seen by the choreographers,” said Linda Szmyd Monich, who is using the tapes to teach dance history at the school for the arts and to aid in lectures at the dance institute.
The archive, Ms. Szmyd Monich added, is “one of the most important things that’s ever been done in dance because it preserves the ballets as the choreographers wanted them to be seen, and as we get further away, we’re seeing original source material, if you will, so we’re seeing ‘The Four Temperaments’ the way Balanchine wanted us to see it.”
From his home in Santa Fe, Mr. Brockway spoke about his television career, his work with those artists and his decision to donate his library. Here are excerpts.
Q. Why did you want to create a performing arts program for TV?
A. You’d had specials with concert dance, but no series, and that was a golden opportunity for me. I didn’t know it was going to be the golden opportunity, but it became clear from the beginning that we were making history.
Q. Why did you keep those tapes?
A. As I remembered, it was late in the 1960s that I became aware that I could copy videotapes. I was trained as a pianist. I was mostly interested in the performing arts, so I taped everything that was available. In the archives there are different versions of the same thing, and I didn’t have very much discrimination, I just taped all I could get.
Q. Why did you decide to donate your library?
A. Catherine [Oppenheimer] was my first friend when I retired to Santa Fe, because she was in City Ballet. And when N.D.I. [of New Mexico] started, I saw what she was doing, and I would go and watch. Balanchine would say, ‘Ballet is not the step, it’s what happens in between the steps.’
And I saw this young man when he was 9 years old, and he was doing “Singin’ in the Rain” with an umbrella, and it was memorable. It still remains with me because he had that mysterious thing in between the steps. So I watched him grow. By the time he was 18, he was in the advanced ballet class, which I would go to as often as I could. He was short, so he would never be in a ballet company, but he was the best one there and had never seen anyone else do any of this. And that’s when I got the idea to give the library to N.D.I.
Q. What about dance appealed to you?
A. I took one class with Martha Graham, and it was very clear in one class that I was not a dancer. But she grabbed my gut, as I write in the book. I love it for several reasons, aesthetically, and also working with the dancers. I found them the best trained of all the professionals; we took very good care of them; they were your friends.
Q. Why did you stop working on “Dance in America”?
A. I worked in television during the 1950s and then ’60s and ’70s, and I knew what I was interested in. Dancing was diminishing in the ’80s, so I stopped in ’88, because I saw that it was all going pop culture, and I didn’t think that was valuable. Now you see what we have today — there is no performing arts. If you watch “America’s Got Talent” or Dancing Couples, or whatever, it’s all tricks. It’s not dancing.
Q. What was it like to work with those major artists?
A. Well, they were my teachers, and it’s like having a personal relationship with a teacher. In the memoir I write about how Lincoln Kirstein said New York City Ballet would never be on anything as vulgar as television. But Mr. Balanchine, he liked movies. Because I had a history of collaboration with artists as a pianist, I knew what my position was, and I wanted to collaborate with the choreographers, and that appealed to him, and he was also interested because I had been trained as a musician, and so we had that connection. He and I talked music.
Q. What was it like being on the set with them?
A. With Balanchine, he, Twyla [Tharp] and Merce [Cunningham] understood television. It’s totally different; a stage is rectangular, and television is flat, so people who knew that, like Twyla and Merce and Balanchine, understood you have to change the dancing. It’s not redoing, it’s just changing to fit the landscape.
Q. Did you ever see yourself as a choreographer?
A. No, the idea was I wanted to do the intention of the choreographer. I didn’t want to make up my own choreography. With Martha, when we were planning “Dance in America,” she said, “I don’t collaborate.” By the time we finished “Clytemnestra,” she had been the top drawer of a collaborator with me. She knew when to push me, when to sit on me, when to listen to me, she knew the whole thing. With a good collaboration, it’s like playing chamber music.
Q. In the book you say, never just show the feet. How did you know to do that?
A. By watching and by knowing what the choreographer wanted you to see. It was interesting with Balanchine. He was not a face choreographer; his favorite dancer was Fred Astaire; and if you notice, all Fred Astaire movies are full figure, and Balanchine ballets are like that. So we devised acceptable shots, and we came up with those together. The British television people thought my shows were boring. Because if you watch TV now, it’s like they’re taking pictures. In dancing you can’t just take pictures, you’re telling a story.
Q. What does it mean to you to turn these archives over and have students watch them?
A. At my age, 88 going on 89, I woke up one morning, I figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life, and I want to be involved in the education of young people. It doesn’t mean I want to go in the classroom, but I want them to see and expand their education, and that’s what I want to do with the library and working with Linda [Szmyd Monich]. We’re expanding to include parents and teachers, so that everybody is aware of the same story, and if we do that, it will spread.
“Surprise Was My Teacher” is available from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, online book stores, or directly from the publisher Sunstone Press (800-243-5644, www.sunstonepress.com.
ISBN 978-0-86534-748-9. $19.95. Publication Date: April 2010, 207 pages.
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