Who gives a damn?
No, really. That’s a legitimate question. My question. And I’d like an answer.
Let me explain.
Next month marks the first anniversary of the last review I wrote for The Village Voice after nearly thirty years of professional association with that newspaper as a freelancer writing on dance and–occasionally, joyfully–getting to write items somewhat related to my more metaphysical passions. One afternoon in early November, I checked my email and downloaded a terse message from Voice dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer.
The powers-that-be at the Voice had decided to make permanent the occasional space cuts that, for the past year or so, they had inflicted on the paper’s already meager dance section. From now on, the art of dance would get a mere half page of coverage and fewer listings. Moreover, they had ordered Zimmer to stop using freelancers–that would be me and Tobi Tobias (an internationally respected professional, my first editor at Dance Magazine, and a refugee from her own nightmare at New York magazine), as well as a handful of occasional contributors, including interns who Zimmer enjoyed rewarding with assignments and space in what was still considered the coolest weekly in town. The paper would have but one dance critic, the venerable Deborah Jowitt.
Zimmer assured me that any reviews I already had in the pipeline would eventually run but that if I had made commitments to review upcoming shows, I must cancel them. (Yes, I had quite a line-up in the works.) “I’m sorry,” she wrote. And that was that.
It took but one moment to catch my breath before my Mars in Scorpio kicked in. I flew into action, canceling reviews–“Come see the show anyway,” everyone said, wonderfully–and alerting my network of friends and dance contacts to this new development.
Some were shocked, some unsurprised, but all were saddened. The dance folks immediately felt the new wound to the community’s already precarious situation in this city. They had noticed how frequently the Voice had chopped up the dance page and were alarmed to learn that things would stay that way. They probably didn’t know that the management had drastically slashed fees for freelance dance writing many months prior. It remains unclear to me what, if anything, Zimmer or Jowitt did to attempt to reverse either of these developments.
A consortium of concerned dance artists and institutions put their hard-won money together and bought a full-page protest ad in the Voice. I’m sure this inflow of cash from the dance world must have given the ad folks a rush, but the gesture made absolutely no difference. Since then, we all learned that Voice management was preparing for the sale of the paper, an event that unleashed ongoing turmoil. In late August, Zimmer and several other editorial staffers lost their jobs. Cue the sound effects guy: The other shoe had dropped.
Since being cut loose by the Voice, I have discovered space–the final frontier–and a greater freedom of expression at Gay City News, on my own Web site, and now here at Apollinaire’s Foot in Mouth blog. The Village Voice, meanwhile, is nowadays The Village Voice in name only, and perhaps should be rechristened.
What does all this have to do with Juliette Mapp?
Thanks for asking. I’ll explain.
A few months ago, I attended a Movement Research event, where cutting-edge dance artists show works-in-progress (or process, a much-favored term), at Judson Memorial Church, famed as the headquarters of New York’s avant-garde, experimental dance in the 1960s.
The program included a mesmerizing solo by early Judson luminary Deborah Hay–picture dance fans packed in like sardines–and an ensemble work by Juliette Mapp.
Mapp’s piece involved two women sitting and turning the pages of a book, two people nestled in the far background whispering to each other and maybe posing or moving a bit, and Mapp delivering a long, wandering monologue about world events.
As sympathetic to her concerns as I was, I had a hard time staying with a text at once so flatly didactic and so unruly. But what really got to me were at least two snipes at some unnamed Village Voice critic–not me, I hadn’t reviewed her–who apparently had disapproved of a previous politically oriented work by the choreographer.
I checked in with my feelings. Why did I feel my heart sinking?
Mapp was certainly entitled to her feelings and the expression of them. I really got what she was saying about the critic, and I mostly agreed with her–although, having spent quite a long time listening to her that evening, I could also see a little bit of where that unnamed critic was coming from. I was torn in both directions. I don’t mind it when a work of art puts me in that condition, but what Mapp said threw me into an unexpectedly vulnerable place.
Was I–a dance critic–The Enemy? It felt that way. I felt targeted and marginalized–a familiar experience for other reasons, but this time I felt marginalized by a community of people I’ve come to give a damn about.
But who gives a damn about dance critics?
Dancers? Wary of most of us–sometimes justifiably–and caught up in their own fight for survival, they can’t be expected to give a serious damn about us.
Other journalists? Do they even know we exist? Or comprehend just what it is that we do? Or why we bother?
The public? Do you know how often people look at me with blank expressions or “that’s nice, dear” expressions when I tell them that I write dance criticism? They simply have not heard of this work.
That’s okay…sort of…at least for now. That’s a struggle for another day. What concerns me here is that I wonder how much of an active damn the dancemakers themselves give about the condition of dance journalism and criticism in New York City. It’s well known that the community is dissatisfied with the status quo, but without actively, openly clamoring for more and better coverage, more and better documentation of its experiments, discoveries, and achievements, things will not change.
Right about this time, someone usually mentions the Internet as–hands down–The Solution. End of story. So, I’ll save you the trouble: Yes, the Internet is a grand resource, and we should all be about the business of making the best uses of it. But, as enormously creative people who struggle and strive and somehow manage to make work and more work, more spaces for work, more festivals to showcase work, more institutions to nurture work, can we not also dream up even more ways to lift both the field of dance and its dedicated chroniclers?
After all, the print media, and printed journalism about the popular arts, still exist out there. Let’s look at print journalism and visualize more for dance, not less. The art of dance should not be expected to just quietly evaporate up into the cyber-ether where, by the way, its journalists are making little or no money.
One last thing: after thirty years in this practice, I am not tired of dance. I do tire of its severely limited recognition in our society and how that negatively impacts those of us working in this field and those of us who could have served the art but-for practical or even psychological reasons–chose differently. I grieve that. But I’m not going away. Not just yet. I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me–that Mars-in-Scorpio thing.
Who gives a damn?