Eva responds to Clare Byrne: Yes! to art that sheds our usual selves

Clare Byrne’s November 29 letter to this blog deeply resonates with me, and I look forward to partaking of the sacraments and rituals she and other dance artists will be creating in the coming years. She asserts a number of things that I know in my gut to be true: that dance “plucks our very flesh-and-spirit lifestrings” and that on a cellular–and I believe, spiritual–level, observers dance with the dancers. Herein lies the power of this art to create change–and the potential for lasting change–within an individual and beyond the individual. The ancients knew this, and other cultures retain this wisdom and technology. We are invited by Byrne to remember. This is profound generosity, beckoning us past the pettiness of grading and ranking critics.
What critics write is personal sensibility and subjectivity shot through with, on a good day, silver threads of knowledge and gold threads of insight. Acknowledge those critics whose contributions instruct and delight you. Absolutely. I’m grateful to see the Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz recognized and praised, even as the result of such a weirdly conceived and executed process. But turning this into some kind of horse race feels silly and demeaning. It represents the worst of what New York City has become.
Byrne is proposing a way of being with art and within art that requires us to shed the identities we so fiercely and fearfully cling to in this brittle, competitive culture. How terrifying! How exhilarating! To not have one’s customary prescribed and inflexible relationship to the art of dance. Oh, whatever will we do without our status, our plump egos, our self-importance?
Byrne is giving voice to something that has quietly–sometimes, not so quietly–nagged me for the past couple of years, and it helps to explain my dissatisfaction with the role of observer/critic as well as the sharp alienation I feel from the world of criticism as it is practiced in this art, this city, and this culture. I take seriously her challenge to not just consume and pass judgment on what’s given but to dream up and agitate for what could be, to serve as an agent of change and a channel for something that wants to be born, a guide for something that is passing away, and a celebrant of every dimension of pleasure in the current moment.
Like Byrne, I do not claim to know where this is all going and what the landscape will look like when we arrive. I can only tell you that whenever I have allowed myself to be in that space of not knowing-without anxiously trying to control it-I have been given a deeper gift of understanding and have moved on to a better place in my life. Dance has been with me for a very long time, as long as writing, and has been a steady agent of personal change. I trust it to take me to the next step…and the next.
Apollinaire responds: Hi, Eva, I’m glad of your critic’s response to Clare Byrne’s eloquent letter. I do have a question. Can you elaborate on your “dissatisfaction with the role of observer/critic as well as the sharp alienation I feel from the world of criticism as it is practiced in this art [and] this city”? I probably know what you mean, but want to make sure.
Also, I very much like this notion of a critic: “to serve as an agent of change and a channel for something that wants to be born, a guide for something that is passing away, and a celebrant of every dimension of pleasure in the current moment.” I like the way you see the critic navigating past, present, and future.
Critic as “agent of change” is tricky, though, isn’t it? We don’t want to prescribe the art to come because then we’ve abandoned “the space of not knowing,” as you say. So, hmm…. How do you avoid that pitfall?
Eva responds:Hello, Apollinaire! I think we’re primarily talking about the juggling act between not taking yourself all that seriously as The Authority (based on what I think are cultural and experiential limitations) and allowing yourself to be affected, actually experiencing something, actually feeling something, actually feeling yourself moved and changed by powerful art and taking a significant part in opening the door and opening people’s senses to new art.
What I took away from Clare Byrne’s statement was an encouragement to critics to be more like midwives, and that might sound weird and even contradictory but I’m listening to it with another set of ears that operate in a different field, my metaphysical work, and I understand it from that perspective. Does that mean I’m beginning to feel myself slipping out of the role of critic as it is usually defined? Perhaps.
Remember, too, that Clare predicted that we’d be shedding the names of our roles–even “artist” and “critic” might be released–as something as yet unnamed emerges. What I meant about the “not knowing” is that I suspect I don’t have a clue where I will be on the spectrum tomorrow, and I’m not worried about the not knowing.
The idea of standing over something and passing judgment on it from that erudite, supposed superior distance has never resonated with me. I feel that I already do what I do by immersing myself in a work and engaging with it in the best and most honest way I can, given my own cultural-experiential limitations and my willingness to try to see and imagine past those limitations. The result of that is very much like what I do in my metaphysical work: When I find something extraordinary or even simply useful, I immediately want to give it away. I want you to have it. I don’t want to keep it to myself. As critics, there are a lot of things that we are expected to do, but this is the one thing that most fits who I am as a person.
What is dance criticism, as it is practiced today in New York, doing to remedy the absence of the art of dance from the awareness of most Americans, or the limited awareness of a limited aspect of it? How is criticism remedying the fact that black dance companies draw primarily black audiences, that white dance troupes draw primarily white audiences, and that, at least when it comes to dance, Americans seem unaware of how much we have learned from one another in the past and how much we have yet to learn and share? Criticism is largely helping people-in-the-know to keep the treasure to themselves, and I can’t figure out how that will benefit dance, its creators and practitioners, those who profess to love it, and certainly those who could come to love it and learn from it.
It is ironic that the art that employs the body–the one thing we all have in common–has become marginalized and insular when it should be, as in early traditions, central to our understanding, celebration, healing and advancement of ourselves as humans. I am open to an art that is useful to us in our condition, and I am open to a way to be useful to that art.

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