Eva Yaa Asantewaa: Tales of the Crypt

I’m enjoying your Tales from (in and out of) the Crypt. Just a couple of thoughts to toss off before I head out of town:
Prior to your discussion of blackface in “The Pharoah’s Daughter,” you wrote:

People won’t discover dance until critics express more curiosity and insight about the culture it’s wedded to. Since dance isn’t sealing itself off from the world, why are we? When a dance does live in a crypt, though, critics should take note.

Hmm…Some dance does, in effect, seal itself off. But you know what? The world seeps in, and the dance becomes instructive to us even so. For example, the blackface in “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” — which I did not see — and the acceptance of it by audiences and critics actually reveals the shadow side of our supposedly enlightened times. You could interpret the entire phenomenon–the staging of this ballet, the welcoming of it by an American audience, the obliviousness of most of the critics — as a manifestation of something larger out there in the world, no? In a sense, here is the world right in our faces. But to see it, you have to read the whole thing, not just the dance.
Perhaps we should be asking, how many of our critics are willing to take on the entire phenomenon — not just the dance but who’s seeing the dance and through what filters they are seeing it. What useful information might that offer us? [ed. note: yes! I think this would be an illuminating approach to a ballet of this kind.]
Of course, at that point, you might discover that many of the critics themselves are part of the problem and their viewpoints will not be terribly useful.
You know, Apollinaire, after three decades in this field, enjoying and covering dance in multicultural New York City, I still sit in audiences that are mostly white, unless the company itself is exclusively or predominantly black or Latino. I still see companies that are exclusively or predominantly white. It feels very strange to me. What does this say about dance in New York, of all places? What does that fact about dance in New York say about everything else in New York? Is dance lagging behind? Or are a lot of things lagging behind?
Now, about previews, features, profiles, and the like: I actually loathe writing them. I savor the opportunity to connect with the choreographers and performers and learn about them, but I don’t like that creeping feeling that I’m selling a commodity, even when I’m wildly enthusiastic about the subject and would probably grab everybody and pull them into the theater if I could.
What’s frustrating is the perennial problem of editors who don’t want to publish dance reviews unless the show has a long run — a rarity in this field — and would prefer to publish previews. I’m lucky that Gay City News does not restrict me in that way, and that’s really because its arts editor is solidly supportive of dance, understands the struggles, and knows it’s important to document the work of the field and to sensitize readers to the range and significance of what’s available out there. It’s about feeding a sensitized audience that will be there for the duration. It’s not merely about selling tickets to next week’s show.
Next… Gee, I thought this was going to be a short note! About Doug’s suggestion of showing audiences videos of previous versions of a dance before they see the final dance: You know, what works for me as a person who writes about dance is to remember that I am an ordinary member of the audience. No, really, I am. That’s how I choose to do my work. If I don’t see something from that mind space, I’m off into another way of thinking that is guaranteed to be less than useful to anyone other than a dance insider. And I don’t think of myself as writing solely for dance insiders. Or even arts insiders.
So this ordinary person does not want to be confused by seeing earlier versions of the final piece before I see the final piece. Afterwards, I might be fascinated to know how you got where you ended up — particularly if I loved what you did — but not before. I appreciate being in that total “be here now” kind of space with your dance. That way, I haven’t shut off any of my channels of perception or inquiry — and I haven’t let you inadvertently shut them off either.
Even reading what choreographers have to say about their process prior to seeing the actual work can sometimes be distracting or misleading or totally baffling. I don’t want my be-here-now experience mediated in that way. Sometimes the words do help, but–come on, admit it!–that’s more rare than you might think. I don’t even like to be much distracted by my own colleagues’ previews– or reviews of ongoing shows, for that matter. After I’ve seen the dance — and most often, not even until after I’ve written about it–reading about it can be interesting.
Which sort of brings us back to the earlier problem of publications’ preference for previews over reviews. What is the best function of a review? Can reviews also skew a potential audience member’s perception of what he or she will experience? Or can a review, read after seeing a performance, help to stimulate and feed the reader’s continuing engagement with the dance?
This connects back to Doug Fox’s and your discussion of active, participatory engagement. I am in love with dance performances that will not let me go, that continue working with me and instructing me and bothering me and maybe even changing me long after I’ve seen them, even a few that did not make me terribly happy in the be-here-now moment. I’m not into the one-night stand.
Okay, I’ll go quietly now…
See you in December, Apollinaire!
Eva :-)
[ed. note: Eva Yaa Asantewaa will return in a couple of weeks.]

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