THE STATE OF CRITICISM, PART ONE

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say on this over time, so I labeled the post Part One.

Here are a couple of write-ups from The Dance Enthusiast on the panel discussion on dance criticism two weeks ago that I took part in.

I was going to wait for the video to go up online so I could embed that or link to it but it hasn’t gone up yet. I usually take notes at such things, but since I was on the panel didn’t — and I feel lost doing a write-up without my notes.

Anyway, these two write-ups are good. We talked about how there are virtually no paying jobs for dance writers now, in the internet age, how there’s only one full-time dance critic in the country (no one was allowed to speak his name — but it’s Alastair Macaulay of the NY Times of course), and the situation is only getting more dire as newspapers let go more and more of their arts critics and close down entire arts sections.

Robert Johnson, esteemed longtime dance critic, currently at the New Jersey Star Ledger but he’s written and / or edited for practically every dance publication in existence (Dance Magazine, Pointe, etc.) was on the panel as well, and he was probably the person most knowledgeable about dance history and the history of writing about dance of anyone in the room. He’s a very nice man as well and I was glad to finally meet him. As Jowers points out in her write-up, when Marc Kirshner of TenduTV (the moderator) asked how newspapers got into this situation, Johnson pointed to an intriguing-looking book by Dolores Hayden and said it likely has a great deal to do with the suburbanization of American culture. Newspapers are local and most of them serve their urban communities, and with people leaving those urban centers and spreading out, there’s just not as much interest in what goes on in the cities anymore — like dance and classical music performances, art openings, etc.

That definitely resonated with me since many of my readers here found my blog through my writing on the dance TV shows and aren’t located anywhere near New York. I’ve tried to write about the local dance performances I see in a way that makes those people interested in seeing a performance,

but of course many are never going to come to NY for that reason. It started to make more sense to post pictures and videos in order to involve far-away readers, but of course many of the big dance companies don’t allow videos to be taken. The panel talked a bit about how dance companies could use the internet more — particularly to live-stream their performances (Jaki Levy, internet guru, who works sometimes with Misnomer Dance Theater, who live-streams was on the panel), or create videos that bloggers could use, etc. Audiences want to be involved in the performance, I said; that’s why these TV dance shows and the online wrap-ups (which many online newspapers seem to have, an audience member pointed out) are so popular. Reading a review of a performance you’ll never see doesn’t seem to make much sense… which is why dance companies, imo, should try to use the internet to make those performance available to anyone living anywhere. Since, as Mr. Johnson pointed out, PBS and other TV stations aren’t regularly airing live dance performances like they used to, perhaps the internet is the way to spread concert dance.

We also got into a short (too short!) discussion about the traditional role of criticism versus perhaps a more contemporary one (which not everyone, including me, felt comfortable with). Mr. Johnson mentioned that his newspaper won’t allow him or any of the arts critics to write previews or feature articles because to do so the critic would have to get to know the dancers and choreographers, which precludes to a degree objectivity in reviewing. I heard that all newspapers used to do this, but, because of cutbacks, had to stop keeping on staff both critics and feature article writers, and so just condensed their functions.

I have to say as a blogger, though, you really can’t write an objective review once you get to know the artists… which is why I tend not to write reviews anymore. I prefer now to post photos and videos, if available, link to live-streaming, etc. I’m getting to know too many dance artists now, and my blog is for other watchers and dance-goers, not for dance artists, so how can I serve both communities? How can I be open and honest about a performance for my readers’ sake if I’m feeling the greater urge to not be too critical of a friend?

Dance writer and writing instructor Brian McCormick, whose husband is choreographer Nicholas Leichter, felt the opposite: that to have a personal understanding of the struggle of a dance company, of the artist’s struggle, helps you to engage better with the artist and use that in your writing. My paraphrasing of him is bad because I don’t have notes – -read Jowers in the above link, as well as her thoughts on that issue.

This point about artists and their critics maintaining distance from each other is very interesting to me. Later in the week, I attended a day-long discussion of literary criticism at the Center For Fiction and one panelist said she thought the state of book criticism was in decline in part because instead of professional critics reviewing books, it was other novelists or authors doing the reviewing. The reviews tend to be overly nice (which, interestingly, is opposite of the current state of much dance criticism) because these new novelist critics are afraid of being mean to their friends, and just because they identify with being a novelist in the first place. But then, when accepting an award bestowed by the Center for Fiction, critic Marcela Valdes (whom I loved hearing speak) said, “All good criticism must begin with an understanding of what the author is trying to do. Understanding does not equal approval. But there must be this understanding before there is criticism.” I thought that was brilliant, and is perhaps what is missing from much dance criticism today. The thing is, at least regarding fiction, I know that it’s easier for a novelist to understand what another novelist is trying to accomplish. So, easier to then critique how well the novelist has accomplished what he or she set out to do. So, maybe it does make some sense to have some criticism be by this kind of “art-insider.”

Some of the panelists — Kirshner and McCormick — suggested we perhaps try to set up a system whereby performing arts venues add a per-ticket surcharge that will be put into a fund for dance critics / bloggers. The sprightly, highly energetic Elizabeth Barry, founder of GenDance (do sign up for their newletters if you haven’t!) joined in that call. When Mr. Johnson said he thought there’d be a conflict of interest in critics in essence being paid by the venues (which is just what I was thinking right as he voiced it), Barry countered, “Well maybe it’s time for things to change.”

Barry also talked a little bit about branding for dance writers (there wasn’t a lot of time left to really delve into that as much as I would have liked). Longtime writer, author and critic Elizabeth Zimmer (who was one of the first let go from the Village Voice at the beginning of the end of newspaper arts criticism) was in the audience, and hearing her talk about her career and all that she’s struggling to do to try to find her way again drove home to me how hard it is for all the longtime professional arts writers who’ve defined themselves as such for their entire careers to cope with all the changes going on right now.

I felt like there was room for much more discussion but of course we only had a limited time. Anyway, the Dance Critics Association is having their annual conference in NY this year, in July (16th – 18th). I’m definitely planning on going, and I urge anyone else interested in the state of criticism, of arts journalism in general, to do so as well. Ms. Zimmer is leading a writing workshop and there are panel discussions on dance, technology and the law, the critic and the public, dance on film, and more.

A few people who read this blog came up and introduced themselves to me afterward — Max, and Wendy. So nice to meet you guys!

3 Comments

  1. I found this meeting and everyone's thoughts very interesting. It is indeed a time of change for print media. Many newspapers are struggling with the advent of the internet. I am not sure anyone has worked out how to best navigate these times. Congrats on your Gold Medal. I enjoy your blog and love the links you provide. I do not live in a big city anymore so miss access to all the dance and arts that a larger city provides. It is great to read about what is out there for the time I may visit the city again! :)

  2. Great post Tonya. We've shared it on our FB page. The question of a blogger's objectivity/impartiality is a very interesting one. There's the undeniable fact that we act both as publishers and reviewers so, unlike conventional media, there's no dividing wall between these two functions. But how can specialist dance publications survive just base on their output of “proper” reviews? I was shocked when I heard a UK dance mag editor share that mag's monthly circulation. There are well established culture blogs out there that make their stats seem so modest. How are these – more traditional – publications going to rethink their structures and, once they do, what might happen to their own firewalls?

    Best, Emilia

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