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Reflections on the passing of dance writer Tobi Tobias

by Mindy Aloff
February 24, 2020
The writer, editor, and dance critic Tobi Tobias (1938 - 2020), who died last week at the age of 81, edited my performance reviews for Dance Magazine from the mid-1970s (when I sent them from Oregon) for the next 15 or so years. She became a friend as well as a mentor; I watched her children grow up, and, through my reading and our many conversations, I closely followed her career.

Tobi considered herself a writer who happened to cover dance. But she also published a book on literary quotations about fashion.and deeply researched essays on the subject (with special brilliance on Charles James). Some librarians knew her principally for her books for children—biographies about dancers (including the first bio of New York City Ballet star and Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell) as well as books on emotion and language for very young readers. The syntax and depth of highbrow literature, from all eras, was her model in writing, even for tiny children. A French major at Barnard, with a master's in French as well, she was fluent in that language and read all books by French authors in the original. The same was true for her knowledge of Danish, which she taught herself, with some tutorial help, in order to produce what she once told me she considered the most important work she ever did in dance, an art she began to explore as a student of modern dance in the classes of the Alwin Nikolais company: But, although she faithfully chronicled modern and postmodern dancing throughout her career as a critic, this life project was classical: an extended, comprehensive oral history (conducted in the 1980s and '90s) with all the leading lights of Bournonville training at or retired from The Royal Danish Ballet. Tobi was passionate about the Bournonville school of classical dancing to the point of obsession. It summed up everything she valued about theatrical dance: liveliness, deep knowledge of tradition, respect between women and men, spiritual humility, meticulous attention to nuance of character and language. She immersed herself in Bournonville's dance world, as did many of her colleagues, during the landmark 1979 Bournonville Festival, in Copenhagen. However, seeing that the Bournonville repertory and school were being increasingly considered as archaic (and therefore useless to young dancers), she single-handedly set out to shore up as many of the ruins as she could, entirely as a volunteer. The individual oral histories are controlled in their access by the oral historians, and Tobi, a proponent of privacy and personal choice, did not publicize her project intentionally, even when she was knighted by the Queen of Denmark for her efforts on the ballet's behalf. She traveled often to Denmark to work on the oral history but also interviewed Danish dancers in the U.S., France, and elsewhere. She deposited the entire oral history .with the Harvard Theatre Collection, at the university where both of her and her husband, Irwin's, children attended.

As a critic, Tobi was tough. She loved the art more than any of its individuals, including herself. Sometimes, I felt that she was uncomfortably brutal, but she provided a beacon of integrity to the field. She was open to elements of darkness, even ugliness, as well as to beauty, as long as the choreography and performance met her standards of craft and accuracy. Those standards were developed in her by her decades of studying Balanchine, Bournonville, Ashton, Flaubert, Mme Grès, Barbara Karinska, Matisse, and the works of Lincoln Kirstein. When she was the reviews editor for Dance Magazine, she treated each of her reviewers as if we were dancers in her company, and she made assignments individually according to how she thought each one needed to grow. She treated her role as grandmother with the same sense of blazing focus on the individual. The word “nonpareil” could have been invented for her.
Tobi Tobias

Tobi Tobias

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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