Rachel Howard, regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, responds to “How NOT to write, So Dance Will Matter”

Re: How NOT to Write, you nail the problem–and the solution–precisely. Before a GENERAL audience wants to know what a dance looks like or even whether it was sublime or silly, they want to know why they should care.
Why they should care = context, and it’s what I’ve been aiming for and achieving only fleetingly in my own reviews lately. It’s harder, of course. It takes research; it takes understanding a given choreographer’s place in the aesthetic universe; it takes analysis. It’s much easier to string together the adjectives. Even pushing yourself to describe movement in the most vivid, metaphorically rich way possible is far easier than constructing an argument. And, of course, a daily reviewer has to try to do this overnight.
Lately, I’ve been trying to write my reviews as if talking about last night’s show to a random person at the office. And if I went on and on to a random person at the office about what the movement looked like, even in the most poetic terms, their eyes would be glazing over within ten seconds. So why would we assume anyone would want to read that?
I think many of the writers at the online Danceview Times do an excellent job at the kind of contextualized writing you’re advocating. I only wish that kind of writing was valued more by daily and weekly papers, so that such writers could be more widely read–and paid. I also think Joan Acocella does the kind of writing you’re advocating better than just about anyone now working, despite your unflattering citation. Allan Ulrich, Robert Greskovic, and Clement Crisp also come to mind.
Excellent parsing of the Croce passage. I do think, though, that it would be helpful to consider what a daily reviewer can reasonably achieve versus a writer who has a little more time to structure an argument. To me, if someone who’s writing under a two-hour deadline manages to frame the work in question and give a few indications of why someone should care, then needs to fill out the review with a decent report of what happened, that’s still quite an achievement.
I’d be interested in parsing some Edwin Denby passages in the same way you take apart former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce, since he was usually operating under overnight deadlines.
Apollinaire responds: Thank you so much for your response, Rachel . It’s great to get feedback from a critic for the dailies.
Yes, the writers at Danceviewtimes are a godsend–I’m glad you’re coming up with positive examples, to make up for my scant praise. For those of you not acquainted with the online magazine, it comes out most every Monday and covers shows in San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York, and London, mainly. I’ve found Paul Parish, Lisa Rinehart, George Jackson, Nancy Dalva, and Ann Murphy particularly illuminating (though I haven’t seen much from these last two lately. Where are they?). As writers, we’re the ones who decide how to frame the dance–it’s not like a test with one right answer–and these writers construct beautiful frames.
Yes, I agree, it’s hard to do justice to a dance with an overnight deadline–I have 9 am deadlines for about half my reviews for Newsday, noon deadlines for the other half. I find the more a performance moves me, forces me to rearrange my thinking, the longer it takes and the worse I do when the time is limited, which is TERRIBLE, because when the art is tugging you forward, you don’t want to hold it back.
I just got home from the experimental choreographer Luciana Achugar’s “Exhausting Love,” at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, and I wonder if it will get reviews adequate to its self-effacing brilliance, its slovenly smartness, its hilarious excess. The combination of strict ritual and crotch-baring mess is all her own.
But two hours to get a review in? I object. The choreographer has spent anywhere from weeks to many months making this dance, and editors are asking for our summation in two hours ? This is just wrong. Wrong to think the dance, however lousy, matters that little. The endeavor at least was worthy, and we should be endeavoring too. The choreographers have produced a labor of love, and we treat our job like a job? It makes me mad even thinking about that disparity.
I haven’t found that many editors discourage good writing–though, if they’re giving you two-hour deadlines, you’re right, they are. In my experience, editors want good writing if they can get it, though sometimes they aren’t exactly sure what “good” would be, because they feel out of their league with dance and they’ve seen so few positive examples.
Would you like to parse some Denby, Rachel? It would be an interesting experiment. I didn’t cite Denby because I think he’s very hard to emulate without falling into affectation.

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