Edwin Orr Denby '19
Edwin Orr Denby '19

Edwin Orr Denby '19 *

Profession: Journalist, dance critic, poet

Field: Media

Denby, Edwin Orr (4 Feb. 1903-12 July 1983), poet, dance critic, and actor, was born in Tientsin, China, the son of Charles Denby, II, an American diplomat, and Martha Orr. Denby lived in Austria and Detroit, Michigan, with his parents before attending Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where he earned distinction as class poet. In 1919 he enrolled at Harvard University but left as a sophomore and went to England for a year. When he returned to the United States, he lived and worked on a farm in New Hampshire for five months, then tried Harvard once more before moving to Greenwich Village. He received no college degree. In 1923 Denby returned to Austria, where he underwent psychoanalysis for depression with Dr. Paul Federn, a colleague of Sigmund Freud's. With Federn's encouragement, Denby enrolled in 1925 at the Hellerau-Laxenburg School, where he earned a three-year degree in gymnastics and specialized in Grotesktanz (eccentric dancing). In 1929 he joined a German company known for its modern dance, the Hessisches Landestheater in Darmstadt, where he excelled as a comic dancer. There Denby performed satirical dances with the principal dancer, Clare Eckstein, until 1934, when he felt the threat of Hitler's government. He taught dance and gymnastics in Switzerland before returning to the United States. In 1935, at the request of Orson Welles and John Houseman, he adapted Eugene Labiche's farce, Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie, for the stage. Titled Horse Eats Hat, the play was scored by Paul Bowles and performed in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration Federal Theater production. Afterward Denby embarked on a successful career as a dance critic.

As a critic Denby could draw on his own experience as a choreographer and dancer and, like poet-critics Theophile Gautier and Stephane Mallarme, use his poetic faculties to describe in words what a dancer expresses in body movement. Denby's knowledge of the history of classical ballet, music, and theater also contributed to his understanding of a dancer's means of communication. Denby wrote about dance with a journalist's clarity and accuracy and a poet's subtlety and eye for detail. According to his friend, poet Frank O'Hara, for Denby, "attention equals life." In 1949 Denby outlined his standard for criticism in "The Critic." A critic, he wrote, should "appreciate in dancing the magic communal beat of rhythm and the civilized tradition of a personal and measured communication. I expect him to sharpen my perception sometimes to an overall effect, sometimes to a specific detail. I should not be surprised to find in some of his descriptions general ideas stimulating in themselves, even apart from his immediate subject, nor to find in other descriptions technical terms of dancing, of music, of painting or theater craft" (p. 416). Denby himself accomplished all these things.

He interpreted and evaluated in such meticulous detail the performances of famous dancers like Alicia Markova in Giselle that he gave readers of his reviews a system of criteria by which to judge and appreciate ballet. His descriptions of George Balanchine's choreographies made readers more sensitive viewers of dance performance. In his article "The Power of Poetry," published in Looking at the Dance (1968), Denby wrote about Balanchine's Apollo, "What you see on stage is strangely simple and clear. It begins modestly with effects derived from pantomime, a hint of birth pangs, a crying baby, a man dancing with a lute, and it becomes progressively a more and more directly classic dance ballet, the melodious lines and lyric or forceful climaxes of which are effects of dance continuity, dance rhythm and dance architecture" (p. 133). Lincoln Kirstein, cofounder with Balanchine of the School for American Ballet, bestowed the highest praise on Denby when he equated the art of Denby's dance criticism with the art of the dance to which he was responding. Yet part of that art was Denby's focus on describing the visual performance at hand rather than on his own writing as an object of art. In "On Edwin Denby," Kirstein cited Denby's essay on Stravinsky and Balanchine's Agon (1957) as the best piece of dance criticism ever written. Denby's criticism enhanced the viewer's appreciation of a particular performance and the American public's appreciation of ballet in general. He wrote most of his dance criticism in a nine-year period, a time when both modern dance and ballet gained prominence and needed a proponent with Denby's talent for eloquent analysis. Denby wrote for Modern Music from 1936 to 1943 and, at the urging of his friend the composer Virgil Thomson, became dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1942 to 1945. In 1945 Denby supplied the text to Alexey Brodovitch's 104 photographs collected in Ballet. Denby also freelanced for the Nation, Hudson Review, Dance Magazine, and other periodicals and newspapers. In 1948 he won a Guggenheim fellowship for dance criticism and in 1966 the Dance Magazine Award. His two books of criticism, Looking at the Dance (1949) and Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets (1965), are considered primary sources for the history of ballet in the United States.

Though largely recognized for his dance criticism, Denby considered himself a poet first. When Contemporary Poetry asked him to describe his poetry, he said, "Theme: city. Form: sonnet." He used his keen visual memory to create portraits of New York City in poems appearing in In Public, in Private (1948) and later in Snoring in New York (1974). Denby's Proustian sonnets in Mediterranean Cities (1956), according to O'Hara, are deeper and stronger than the "Fulbright poems" of a typical American's experience in Europe. Denby expressed a Romantic sensibility in which sensitivity to environment leads to a blurring in the distinction between environment and writer. He won the Poets' Foundation Award in 1965.

In 1936 Denby began appearing in underground films, most of which were directed by his lifelong friend the photographer and filmmaker Rudolph Burckhardt. Their first film, 145 West 21 (1936), is also the address of the first apartment the two shared in New York. Denby appeared in ten other films, notably Lurk (codirected with Red Grooms in 1964) and Money (1967). Denby also wrote three opera librettos, one a collaboration with Aaron Copland, The Second Hurricane (1957).

Denby could withstand the deterioration of his body due to aging but not his mind. He committed suicide in New York City by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. His contribution to dance received further recognition with the publication in 1986 of Dance Writings. This collection includes more than 200 reviews and ten essays taken from the two earlier collections as well as previously unpublished work.

by Barbara L. Ciccarelli for American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies

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