How NOT to Write, So Dance Will Matter

Last week, Doug Fox — of the web site Great Dance, which works to bring to dance the benefits of technology — sent me this searching comment:

To follow up on your remark that modern dance’s intent is “to communicate in a language that you have to construct every time all by yourself — that is deeply individual even though it belongs to a family of tongues,” how do you think dance audiences would respond if they saw earlier versions of a dance before they attended a performance of the final product?

Say a video was shot from the first rehearsal onwards. Visitors to a website, blog, or video site could see the movement vocabulary for a specific piece develop and evolve. Then when they caught the actual performance, they would have a much richer understanding.

Do you think this approach might encourage more people to attend modern dance shows? Could it thwart the notion “that modern dance is a great terror, its aim to alienate and befuddle”?

Doug, I appreciate your excellent intentions, and I’ve heard similar schemes from marketing people. But I don’t buy the premise — that people need to be instructed in how to read movement. Anyone who has ever sussed out the mood of her lover or mother knows how to read movement. A toddler does.
When I invite friends to a show who haven’t seen much dance, they understand instantly how the movement is working. They know when it plays off common gesture and when it chooses to signify nothing. They’re alert to the strangeness of unison.
Last week, my friend Owen attended Doug Varone’s splendid 20th anniversary show at the Joyce Theater, here in New York. Owen (age 23, plays basketball, studied philosophy in college) had seen live dance exactly once before — with me, the previous week! At the Varone concert, he had a million questions: Which was the best seat in the house? How much did a ticket cost? Was the Joyce considered a big venue for dance or a small one?
Then at intermission, he surprised me — or would have if I hadn’t grown used to the perspicacity of neophytes. He noticed that in the duets, the dancers seemed to express individual intent, to speak with their movement, but in the group sections, an outside force seemed to propel them. He may have arrived at this insight by the oddest means — the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s theory of the soul — but he didn’t need to have encountered any art-dance to get there.
What he didn’t know, however, was whether this shift in agency typified all dance, only modern dance, only a species of modern dance, or only Varone. He lacked context.
That’s where we critics come in. (Okay, Doug, I’m going to shift to criticism now. I hope you can draw analogies to your own line of work.)
We need to supply more context.
We’ve let movement description dominate our reviews for too long. You know, “Miriam Morningflower lifts her leg, whirls, climbs on her partner’s back.” We show and show and show, when we ought to mainly tell.
Or if a dance reviewer is particularly short on space — as in the New York Times — she summarizes each work on the program, then adds opinion for spice: a salty laundry-list review. On the rare occasion that she is granted more space, what does she do? Add more movement description! (If the Times upped the typical wordage to 500, from 350, she’d eventually figure out what to do. Right now, she’s caught in a vicious circle: editors aren’t generous because writers don’t use the extra space well, and writers don’t use it well because they haven’t had the practice.)
The usual defense is that description is a form of contextualizing. Yes, but an insider’s form. If someone already knows about dance, then she knows what it means that a dancer moves in one way rather than another. For everybody else, explication is in order.
And at this point, most everybody is everybody else. My 69-year-old mother has seen a single ballet, “The Nutcracker” — and that one only because she has daughters. Still, she’s heard of Edward Villella. (In case you haven’t, he was the New York City Ballet’s first male star.) Granted, she’s his age, but if I mention Angel Corella to a 30something not already inculcated into the world of ballet, he will draw a blank.
Description-heavy reviews came to prominence in the ’60s among downtown critics of the avant-garde. The reviews resembled the dances themselves: factual, investigative, and not very interesting if you weren’t already clued in to the thinking behind them.
Most reviews still resemble those dances, except now there’s that sprinkling of snark. What they lack is argument, which is how a civilian figures out what’s at stake.
How do I know the reviews would be useless to me if I weren’t already dance-inured? Because I try to read the Times’ classical music reviews, written for just as exclusive a readership.
A typical review will describe an “account” of a Mozart piano concerto, for example, as if the reader’s memory bank contained dozens of other “accounts.” This ideal reader spends evenings beside her bulky radio listening to Rachmaninoff while gobbling Beef Stroganoff (and knowing the difference). She lives in an America circa — circa what? The late ’50s? See? I don’t even know.
The review rains adjectives, as if you cared whether the pianist’s “account” were fluffy or muffled when you don’t even know what’s at stake. Tell me that first, please.
The preeminent 20th century dance critic Arlene Croce — at the New Yorker for more than two decades and somehow mainly remembered for her essay on Bill T. Jones and what she dubbed “victim art” — never buried dances in an impressionistic haze, and she was parsimonious in her descriptions of passages of movement. But she always made a powerful case for why the dance mattered or didn’t — to all of us, not just readers in the know. And she never presumed that if you didn’t know about dance, you didn’t know about a whole lot of other things.
Here’s half of a paragraph from the middle of a 1984 essay on Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.” (“Sinatra Suite,” at American Ballet Theatre this past season, excerpts five of those songs.) I’ve italicized passages that set context — with ease, in the flow of things.

Oscar de la Renta’s ball gowns are fifties-ish without being archaic, and with the exception of the one for Sara Rudner, which looks like two bibs hanging back to back, they aren’t examples of egregious chic; they’re what wives and girlfriends might reasonably dream of wearing on New Year’s Eve. The great Rudner is also given the most labyrinthine acrobatic choreography — a tortuous series of slithers, blind leaps, upsy-daisy lifts, and ass-over-heels floorwork, to “One for my Baby.” [Note: this is one of only a couple of physical descriptions in the three-page essay, and it's summary.] With excellent support from John Carrafa, Rudner makes it all lyrical. The sexual frankness of Tharp’s choreography may surprise people who haven’t seen exhibition disco recently. But the discos know nothing of Tharp’s wit. Her roughhousing is as tautly controlled, as systematically applied, as her boffo effects.

In 125 words, Croce sets “Nine Sinatra Songs” between contemporary disco and ’50s social dance to distinguish Tharp from both. Croce doesn’t put on a Plain-Jane act. She admits she knows about exhibition disco — thinks what’s happening outside the theater matters — and expects with a bit of prompting we’ll be able to follow along. When she’s writing about Tharp’s “Catherine Wheel,” in another essay, she assumes we know who David Byrne is and that his music deserves close attention.
Not so, many of today’s critics. They either ignore the elements in the dance that might serve as entry points for a larger audience or they assume we live in a cave and need the obvious spelled out.
When Stephen Petronio commissioned a score from singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright for “Bloom” this spring, Jennifer Dunning of the Times gave the divo no more mind than your average, no-name dance-music specialist.
On the other side, the New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella felt it necessary to point out in her review of Tharp’s Dylan musical that “Dylan is different from Billy Joel.”
When you encounter this sentence, you expect some wit to follow — you know, a little wink to let us know she doesn’t think we’re as dumb as all that. Instead, Acocella goes on to say, in her helpful way, that Dylan is “not just a bigger artist, but a symbol, of a period and a generation.”
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.
Blackface in ballet: Don’t pretend you didn’t notice (and if you didn’t, it’s time you start)
A couple of summers ago, the Bolshoi Ballet brought to the Met “an imaginative reconstruction” of 19th century balletmaster Marius Petipa’s first big hit, “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” from 1862. (“Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” count among the French-born St. Petersburger’s keepers.)
“The Pharaoh’s Daugher” rode the wave of Egyptomania that swept Europe upon the construction of the Suez Canal. Like many 19th century ballets, it served as a fantastical travelogue for the leisure class. The rivers of the world each performed their national dances decked out in national costume, while a real camel, Egyptian spearmen, Englishmen in white colonial garb, Italian fishermen, and Nubian slaves came and went. The spectacle ran five hours, with 400 dancers scampering up and down the rungs of European society, envisioned in pseudo-Egyptian terms.
For his “imaginative reconstruction” of 2000, the Frenchman Pierre Lacotte reinvented the steps (few records of the originals remain), cut the running time down to three hours, and eliminated three-quarters of the cast. But not the blubbering, eye-rolling murderous slave, slathered in chocolate-brown body paint, and not four Little Black Sambos, also painted from head to toe.
Other 19th century ballets feature slaves. In the pirate adventure “Le Corsaire,” the way you tell the slave ballerina from the others is she’s got a veil plopped over her head. The man slave, Ali, is bare-chested and does the most leaping around, but keeps his dignity intact.
There are also other evil dark people in these ballets. The Saracen (medieval for “Arab”) with the long, unpronounceable name in Petipa’s “Raymonda” resembles Shakespeare’s Richard III: You end up rooting for him because he makes being bad so much fun. He could have an unpronounceable Bosnian name, and nothing would be lost.
My friend Paul considers these exotic ballets a kind of science fiction: they’re not really about slaves or Moors any more than other ballets are about swans or peasants.
True enough — until a dancer appears in blackface. Then history intrudes.
Critics didn’t happen to notice. Some 30 reviews of performances in New York and London found “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” “jolly,” “silly,” “a romp.” Only two reviewers had anything to say about the blackface.
The Times’ head dance critic, John Rockwell, characterized the ballet as “a slight, amusing, rather mindless pastiche, full of nice lyrical dancing with gracious music,” before discussing reconstructions in opera and ballet. It didn’t occur to him that the persistence of the stupid-slave character might bear on the topic.
With 5000 words to expatiate on the Bolshoi visit, Laura Jacobs of the New Criterion mentioned the male lead’s “quite wonderful” “display of entrechat-echappĂ©-sautĂ©,” but not the Sambos’ quite awful salaaming.
Let me tell you a story. For a preview piece on the Bolshoi’s visit — specifically, on the whole phenomenon of the exotic ballet (funny, how no one wanted to talk to me) — I interviewed the company’s artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky. He’d inherited this new “Pharaoh’s Daughter” from his predecessor.
Ratmansky demonstrated none of his American counterparts’ political savvy: he kept divulging things he probably should have kept mum about. What fun! So when I asked him whether he was going to bring the painted slave to America and he responded, with some fright, “You think I shouldn’t?” I stepped out of interviewer mode and gave him a piece of sound advice: “Wipe the paint off, at least. Otherwise, no one’s going to notice anything else.”
The slave arrived with paint intact, and I turned out to be wrong.
You can tell when an audience is appalled. The silence grows palpable; the laughter is shrill and nervous. The day I attended “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” the house was happily amused. Noted Gia Kourlas in the Times, “The quartet of children, in blackface, alarmingly seemed to warrant some of the most enthusiastic applause.”
This is terrible, but perhaps it’s even more terrible that Kourlas was nearly alone among critics in sounding the alarm.
When people defend ballet by pointing to its special status, they shouldn’t mean the blackface. What’s special is the language of aspiration and flight — the open hips, the straight lines that point to the four winds, the garlanding corps. Even the hierarchies and occasional moments of preciousness are okay. But not the rotten relics of 19th century colonialism and empire-building. Ballet shouldn’t be a sanctuary for the amused bigotry of yesteryear. As critics, we should trust the genre’s virtues enough to speak up when it betrays them.
What’s the story? Same as it ever was
I’m not sure when it started, but the center of gravity for dance writing has now shifted from reviews to features, profiles, and trend pieces.
Flacks love the previews — advocate for them, are hired to make them happen — because in the short term they get people into the seats. But they do little in the long term, as they don’t adequately prepare a person for what she’s going to see.
They tell you about the inspiration for the dance, but not what the dance might inspire. They tell you about the occasion of its making, but not the occasion the dance itself invents. The terms that a preview establishes for the dance can only be approximate, whereas a review — if it’s given enough room and knows what it’s doing — can be precise.
Issues and personality drive features and profiles, while structure and impersonality — or at least the distillation of the personal — drive dances. As Croce notes, dancer Sara Rudner is great not because she looks sexy or because she has terrific sex after hours, but because onstage she transmutes disco exhibitionism into lyrical wit. We’re not watching Rudner so much as the character of her dancing.
If you ask of dance the classic, cigar-chomping newspaperman question, “What’s the story?” the answer will always be, “The dances.” Forget the back story — the drama is in the dances.
Because we have not been writing about these dances particularly well, more and more we’re being asked to skip the story. We need to find our way back, with our editors — and their editors — in tow.

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