What’s going on?

Readers have wanted
to know why I haven’t said anything about all the critic layoffs these past
several weeks.

 Here’s Claire
Willey from San Francisco (to represent you all!):


 I was saddened that
nobody has spoken up about the nationwide loss of fulltime dance critics. Deborah
Jowitt has lost her place at the Village Voice,
Lewis Segal was dismissed from the Los
Angeles Times
, and Laura
Bleiberg is leaving the Orange County
Newspapers are on the decline.

It seems that there is no money for a full-time critic in any major newspaper
except the NY Times. There is an
overwhelming number of “media outlets,” but each seems more dubious
and unverifiable than the last.

Where does this
leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the
knowledge and provocation of our major critics? How are Youtube, Myspace, and Facebook
affecting dance? When everyone has a say, then whom do we trust? And if no one reads
the major newspapers, then how can we reach the larger community?

There has been some
vast changes over the last 10 years, and yet it seems that we are facing some
of the same problems. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Thanks! Claire

 Dear Claire,

I chime in, here’s my friend Paul Parish, irregular Foot contributor, who
seconds your emotion and answers some of your questions. His email arrived
about the same time as yours: 

Sat last night
behind Louis Segal at the final program of San Francisco Ballet’s New Works
Festival, commiserated with him, and this morning read the following letter in
the New Yorker [in response to this great article by regular Nation contributor Eric Alterman]:

Alterman’s predicted demise of the newspaper is
premature. Newspapers are still making good money while firing staffers or
offering them buyouts. An industry that has garnered profit margins of
twenty-five to thirty per cent–figures that other businesses could only dream
about–flies into a panic when the margin dips to seventeen per cent. Do
newspaper executives really believe that they can cure their ills by reducing
their news holes and closing bureaus? In my view, as someone who has spent many
years as a newspaperman and as a journalism professor at New York University
and at California State University, Long Beach, a glaring failure of newspapers
is in not making their importance known to the public. While the television,
movie, and other industries inundate us with information about their exploits,
newspapers are mostly silent about themselves. The newspaper industry and
individual newspapers could well benefit today from the assistance of
public-relations firms that are able to tell the story of newspapers that they
themselves unfortunately don’t–that they produce news coverage unlike any other
M. L. Stein, Irvine, Calif.

It totally confirms
my sense of why dance critics of the stature of Jowitt, Zimmer, Segal are
getting fired. First the publishers are making the position untenable, then
they blame the critic and take the position away. Cynically. It’s just a
business decision. They make more money that way. Stein is naive to think that
the papers need better PR. They are flying under the radar–nobody will call them on their duty to inform the public if everyone thinks they’re dying. But
in fact democracy as we know it, for a 9-figure population, depends on common
knowledge and real reporters saying to the best of their knowledge what they
know and following up on developments — not giving their opinions nor
the weird and delightful things they’d like to think nor the Scenes We’d Have
Liked to See….

Niche-things (blogs and Youtube) are taking up the Mad Magazine function very well, and Stewart and Colbert are great
at it, and it has its place as a safety valve, but it is not a substitute for
agreement— and democracy requires us to agree to put up with what most people
agree to do, even if it goes against what we think, believe, want. But
to do that depends on everybody getting intelligible
intelligence. The place of the arts in this is in training the sensibility so
we know what bullshit tastes like when we’re being fed it.

your friend in California,



I’m with Paul most
of the way. A few other thoughts, though. First, the reduction to freelance
status of Jowitt and Segal, and the departure of Laura Bleiberg (perhaps she
saw the writing on the wall) are terrible developments. Really depressing. I
only haven’t said so here because at this point the loss felt inevitable.

As Foot contributor
Eva Yaa Asantewaa pointed out on her own blog more than a month
ago, this shoe is not the first but nearly the last to drop, after the dance
pages of newspapers and magazines have been halved or eliminated and a
precedent set for dance criticism’s irrelevance. The less there is of it, the
less need there is for it, because criticism gains traction by numbers.

Whether she
recognizes it or not, every critic has a particular philosophy of criticism
from which she writes; when we read two excellent critics responding to the
same work differently, we develop a philosophy of our own, “so we know what
bullshit tastes like when we’re being fed it,” as Paul so vividly puts it. When,
on the other hand, there’s only one take on a show, then the review can really
only function as a report or an opinion. It means less, dance means less, and
then–as Paul points out–editors can justifiably decide they don’t need any reviews
anymore. A terrible chain of events.

Criticism was the
secular, humanist answer to Talmudic commentary and Christian sermon: all advance
by various species of beautiful argument.

And what will come
next? On a good day, I think, Surely something new. On a bad, that argument will
go the way of archery.

Which brings me to
your question,

There is an
overwhelming number of “media outlets,” but each seems more dubious
and unverifiable than the last. When everyone has a say, then whom do we

 I would say, trust
writers who give you some idea of how a dance’s meaning is made or impact
created. Avoid writers who repeat truisms that art would likely question–you
know, peppering their reviews with words like “elegant” and “beautiful” and
“feminine,” as if this weren’t exactly what dance were trying to figure out
again and again (what is elegant? What is beautiful? What is feminine?).

 As for your question–

Where does this
leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the
knowledge and provocation of our major critics?

 —I wonder how much critics
have ever affected the art. That they have affected its audience, I have no

 This being a blog,
I should end by saying something about the wonderful World Wide Web. Well, I do
think it’s wonderful, as it enables me, for example, to write pieces I can’t
get paid for. (See here and here.)

 And advertisers are
gravitating to the Web, so maybe writers will someday get paid. But probably
not dance writers–because of the “world wide” part. Say you are the Joyce
Theater, and you want to advertise a show on Tobi Tobias’s Seeing Things blog here at Artsjournal. Readers may already be dance enthusiasts–good for the
Joyce–but they’re likely to be spread across the country–not so good. An art
form as grounded in place as dance may have a hard time getting advertisers to
transfer to the Web.

 And without pay,
writers can only do so much. You can’t be a Sunday writer if you’re going to be
any good. And if you don’t have a trust fund or a well-paid partner, that’s basically
the time you’ll have. So even formerly undubious writers will soon become

 Well, this has been
a cheery post, hasn’t it? And I have succumbed to complaining about our circumstances,
which I started this blog to counter. But things have changed. A year and a
half ago, I thought there was something we writers might do to improve our
circumstances. I don’t think so anymore.

UPDATE TUESDAY: Eva responds to a timely essay by Minnesota freelance dance critic Camille LeFevre here. (See comments for a taste of Eva’s post, and the link to the essay she’s responding to.)

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  1. says

    I’m not a dance critic per se, but it is one of my (sometime) beats. As to the question of how YouTube and etc. are affecting the dance world, here are a few articles to that effect about Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s 21st Century Choreography Competition:
    I did not, in any of them (unfortunately) address the issue of whether or not having the public vote on something as nuanced and specialized as dance was a good idea, but the company raised some interesting questions about dance’s relevancy to a general audience.
    Apollinaire responds: Thanks for the links!

  2. foot in mouth says

    UPDATE: Eva Yaa Asantewaa, former freelancer with the Voice and abruptly dismissed when the dance pages shrank, has responded to LeFevre’s essay on her Infinitebody blog here: http://infinitebody.blogspot.com/2008/05/critic-lefevre-deals-with-dis.html.
    Here’s a taste:
    …Decreasing space and pay were early signs of the dwindling status of dance writers–on staff or freelance–at the Voice, and this entire matter is a story of disrespect and disempowerment that the dance community, if it is indeed one, will have to address if we are ever to have safe, supportive and encouraging conditions for able writers in our field in this city.
    Do we want dance journalism? If so, what do we want from it? What are the goals and objectives of good dance journalism? What form or forms should this journalism take? These are questions we will need to answer as we move forward.
    My purely personal response is to ride with this opportunity to evolve new forms and new relationships with the art of dance–something that, in any case, has been silently pulling at my heart for the past few years. While I do not know where this will lead, I do know that the role of critic–at least, as it appears to be officially practiced here in New York–interests me less and less.
    Go to http://infinitebody.blogspot.com/2008/05/critic-lefevre-deals-with-dis.html for the rest.

  3. says

    I just picked up this weeks Village Voice and found that not only is there no article by the recently fired/demoted Deborah Jowitt, but there is no dance page at all! It’s been dropped from the table of contents and there is not one story. In the listings section there are only 15 concerts listed (and more, but still not too many, Off Off Broadway listings either).
    I guess when the Voice redesign debuts next week, we’ll get a better idea of what they are up to, but it sure seems like they have largely decided to stop covering what is unique about New York and become, what? another Time Out, albeit one with a little political attitude?
    Apollinaire responds: Yes, freelance status could just be the New Times’ weasly way of saying adios. That’s the problem with freelance (and why papers like it): since the writer isn’t already paid for, editors have no incentive to use her. So, even if the new Voice does mean to have some dance coverage, it could be infrequent. And the more infrequent, the more likely it is to grow more infrequent (I’m repeating myself here…)

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