Books: Michael Church on body language: Reading Dance by Judith Mackrell
Reading Dance by Judith Mackrell, Michael Joseph, pounds 20

Time was when the "meaning" of dance was crystal-clear: the mimed conventions of story-ballets left audiences in no doubt as to the goodies and baddies, who was unhappy, and why. When the Fairies of Purity, Generosity and Eloquence took the stage at the Swan Lake ball, each moved in a manner consonant with her quality. When the magic worked, there was mystery in abundance, but no mystification. This art was accessible to all who could afford a ticket.

If contemporary dance is "about" anything, it's usually about itself: fine for initiates, but deeply mystifying for everyone else. Judith Mackrell's book may sound like a postgrad primer, but she opens with a nicely populist question: if there is a language of dance, how can we understand it? Her answer is encouraging; all we need is "a willingness to let the movement play on our senses, to let its rhythms charge up our pulses, and to let its pictures range around our imaginations".

Dance, she says, is as ambiguous as music; we discuss its patterns in terms of architecture, balance, line; we speak of bodies having sculptural form; we call dance abstract. But this, she argues, contradicts a basic truth about dance, which is that it is always human. As abstraction's pioneer Balanchine observed, "Put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story. A man and two girls, there's already a plot."

Mackrell plots the course by which Petipa's Swan Lake has transmogrified into Matthew Bourne's male-swan crowd-puller via a series of stylistic revolutions. The aristocratic elegance of Tsarist ballet was upended by Diaghilev, who harnessed the brightest talents from all the arts to forge his astonishing amalgam. Choreographic revolutionary though he was, Nijinsky still kept faith with his balletic roots; Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham shook dance free of classical convention. The pull of gravity, which ballet had denied, was now embraced. Emotion became raw; a new breed of woman emerged.

Then came Merce Cunningham, aided and abetted by John Cage. His choreography was determined by the throw of dice and set to the pulse of a stop-watch. Then came minimalism - "No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe!" shrieked a manifesto - and its attendant obsessions with ordinariness, improvisation, and trance-like repetition. Meanwhile ethnic minorities - black in America, Asian in Britain - were enriching the mixture. The dance world fragmented into a thousand schools, each with its resident guru. Past gurus had emerged by apostolic succession - Paul Taylor worked for Martha Graham, and nurtured Twyla Tharp and Pina Bausch. Today's gurus emerge from media studies seminars.

Mackrell is outstandingly good on the masterpieces created in St Petersburg and Paris. Her prose is clean, vivid, and evocative; her vignettes on Giselle, Apollo, and the Rite of Spring are superb pieces of critical writing. Her short essays on Isadora and Graham give more illumination than whole books have done in the past. But half-way through Reading Dance something unfortunate happens. Mackrell's prose acquires a hyperbolic, promotional tinge. As she deals with contemporary hot-shots, that tinge grows stronger. One misses the critical edge needed to demystify boredom- merchants like Rosemary Butcher and Richard Alston, and to put slick operators like DV8's Lloyd Newson - the Damien Hirst of dance - in their rightful place. When Siobhan Davies makes a work about "the rich set of feelings that dancers get as they make a dance", Mackrell nods approvingly. She doesn't seem bothered that for many choreographers, process now counts for more than product.

"Subverting the bourgeois complicity between performer and audience" is the sort of bogusness dance-radicals love but - as Matthew Bourne's hit Swan Lake proved - that complicity has a healthy way of reasserting itself. Mackrell is far too sane and intelligent not to welcome this return to the juiciness of music, story, and spectacle, but she still champions her campus gurus. For such people and their students, her book will be required reading. The rest of us may find in it - with its ruminations on partnering, scoring, staging, and filming - much food for thought.