foot in mouth: November 2006 Archives
Dear Apollinaire and Eva,
I'm jumping in late on an old trail here, so please forgive, but I'm just reading your postings "Does anyone give a damn about what we do?" and "The dire situation of professional dance writing," and they happily provoked this response in me, which I might title "taking pleasure in the dire situation of professional dance." I do not claim to be saying anything new, but here goes.
My way in: what I appreciated about Doug Fox's suggestion -- to have pre-performance online video documentation of rehearsals -- is not so much that it gives contextual preparation for the audience, but that it demonstrates, and perhaps contributes, a sense of purpose to the whole entity, the rehearsal through performance. Which an audience appreciates.
A question I am thinking about in my dancemaking: what is both the intent and the net result of the dance? Why are we doing it? As has already been asked in light of reading about dance, "Why do we care?"
I do not mean to suggest that dance needs any justification or cannot simply be, existing for the glory and wonder of itself -- believe me, I believe in it. I also believe that dance and dancemaking are inherently radical (as in "returning to roots") as well as political, valuing the body in deeply philosophical, spiritual, sensual, sexual, emotional, mental, and everyday practical ways. Dance does not get nearly enough credit in this time and culture -- that's the problem.
But, I get a strong feeling, we are ripe for another look into intent. This is good, and fun! I like trying to figure out what dance is brilliant at or, more, what it is essentially for. And my recent thoughts are that dance enacts: it manifests an idea, an intention, and then does it -- just as a muscle takes an idea, an intention from the nervous system however conscious or unconscious, and does it -- and perhaps by doing changes it into something else.
Now, I may be extreme in suggesting that there are some things that dance enacts better than others, but I am both vastly encompassing and specific in my list: dance enacts beginnings and birth, endings and death, and everything in between that has to do with those two. To borrow a phrase from the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, dance aims truest when it is "about procreation and perish." I would add a third "p" in there, "pleasure." Dance resonates, plucks our very flesh-and-spirit lifestrings, when it is related to these three things, which are everything. And we know it when we see it; with a very short scent-trail back to these markers, it gets to us.
Oh yes, and it is about love. But love is bound up warp and weft in all of this and also beyond it all: it is unnameable.
Dance is very good at enacting pleasure for doer and onlooker, and also enacting the flipside, "p" for pain. We now know from science (as if we didn't know already) that the onlooker actually does the movement she is watching, in her frontal lobe mirror cells. She just doesn't necessarily move her body. (See NYT, Science Section 1/10/2006 "Cells That Read Minds.") How's that for audience participation? We've called this "kinesthesia" for a long time. Dance and music articulates, vibrates, activates the senses in both doer and watcher. And the senses are the key to everything, they are all we've got for knowing the world.
So I am on fire right now about dances that are consciously doings -- and I understand that I am changing myself, those I dance with, my audience, my world through this action. It is for real. It's not a symbol of something, it doesn't tell or show.
I could use the word "sacramentality" for all this, and "ritual," which dance itself created and then found itself excised from in Western culture.
I am searching for words and containers to fit who I am in doing dance, and who the on- (in, with, over, under) looker is. Words such as "professional," "audience," "performance," and even "artist" don't seem appropriate anymore. So I'm trying, slowly, to unhinge myself from these categories (while still doing the things I do) and am out to drift, looking for nonexistent or very old categories that seem to apply. So I think about containers, but I am not eager to fill them or set things in stone. This is also a problem. And I think many, many of us dancers and choreographers and dance writers and dance watchers are going through the same disaffection. I hope for a healthy infection soon, a better set of heartfelt paradigms! And not necessarily "new" -- which is an overused and exhausted word in the art-trying-to-be-commerce world today.
Previews and reviews are both predicated on systems of profit and reward, and seem increasingly ill-suited in our endeavor. I agree wholeheartedly with the thought that dance writers don't need to describe particular dances these days so much as describe dance-in-and-with-the-world, and not just describe it but dream for it, initiate, push, nudge, aggress, encourage, cajole, do something to provoke both dancer and reader.
I imagine articles in which a writer is not reviewing one concert but taking in a whole broth of concerts and running them over the tongue. I imagine articles where a writer is fantasizing her dream concert (a la Dylan and covers?) and provoking us choreographers to do it, and I imagine us, if not doing it, responding with something else. I imagine the dance writer unhinging herself from the normal set of words. It's already happening, I know. Let all this, among other things, unhinge the writer from the after-show deadline.
So my dream: death to old names, old definitions, and growth to new ones. I am not saying this solves anything practically -- finances, career definitions -- but we are all in the same boat, the same field. And this dying is not only okay, it is necessary, and not only necessary, it is a pleasure, I am beginning to find. I think we are going to find different ways and contexts for doing dance, as dance becomes more, not less, essential (yes, I believe it will). Amen to more, not less, dance writing, although it may not exist under that name.
Thank you. Clare
Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Clare, for your provocative and impassioned response. Much food for thought.
[ed. note: Modern-dance choreographer Clare Byrne is based in New York.]
There is now a free link to Terry Teachout's article, "Ballet? Never Heard of It."
Great Dance blogger Doug Fox has a response, where he analyzes the article and questions its data.
And a reader, Clare Maxwell, has this comment:
I wish, since he IS writing for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout's excellent article had the space to take on the financial aspects of the decline of dance in America. What better place than the WSJ to address how lack of funding for independent artists has stifled development of new choreographic voices? Maybe part two? P.S. full disclosure, I work at the WSJ as a photo editor.....
As I have no time over the next couple of weeks to post anything substantive, I thought maybe YOU could.
It used to be that people would revise their ballets. Over and over again. In his "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," Balanchine admits to tweaking "The Nutcracker" every year. I don't know how much that's happening now, but I sure wish it would. It's so much effort to create a work in the first place, and so much less effort to revise it once it's up, that I wish more choreographers had the opportunity.
Here's a few dances I found compelling, but not completely so. I have faith they could be fixed without total revamping:
Mark Morris's "Kolam" for his own troupe. It begins with a sense of foreboding, which builds straight to the end, when the dance gives up. The ending needs fixing.
Christopher Wheeldon's "Evenfall" for the New York City Ballet. What a stunning, lovely, inventive ballet. This one doesn't need much to make it incredible. There's just some problem with the pas de deux at its center: not integrated enough, or maybe too integrated. hmmmmm....
Peter Martins' "Friandises" for the New York City Ballet. Tonal problems in the beginning, I think. The ballet can't decide at the start whether it wants to be coy or a flurry. I don't think there's any coyness in the music, so I'd get rid of those gestures. (Martins should never be allowed to use a parallel passé sauté again, ever, or in fact any kind of parallel passé. No more passés, for you, Mr. Martins. You've used up your lifetime allotment.) The opening needs to prepare us for the poignancy of the central adagio. And the whizzy entrances at the end are GREAT, but I wish they were more of a surprise, with the dancers arriving a bit sooner or later than we expect. And it would be neat if the performers thought of themselves as members of a circus or a commedia del arte troupe, as in the opening of Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations."
Alright, your turn...
Terry Teachout, fellow Arts Journal blogger (among many other, illustrious things), has an interesting and comprehensive column in today's Wall Street Journal on the "decline and near-disappearance of dance in America." ("Today" is Saturday November 25.) .
And therein lies the challenge of reviving dance in America: Anyone who seeks to launch a new company, or revitalize an old one, must start by figuring how to make large numbers of Americans want to see something about which they no longer know anything -- save that Emmitt Smith does it. [emphasis added]
Choreographer David Dorfman's self-congratulatory paean to the Weather Underground finished its run at BAM's Harvey Theater yesterday. "Underground" makes a person exclaim, "What this? I have to check my brain at the door?"
Or at least a person who's not a dance critic. When choreographers present wrongheaded reductions of vexing, long-lived political questions, we critics too often give them a benefit of the doubt we would never extend to a playwright, a politician, a tenth grader. We may quibble with the show's tangential ideas and execution, but we rarely question the issues on which the work is premised, however sketchily. Dorfman means to challenge us with "underground." We need to let him know, in more precise terms than he musters, how he's doing.
In "underground," the 50-year-old Dorfman looks back to the heroes of his youth, the ten self-styled American revolutionaries who, in their own broad terms, "attacked symbols or institutions of American injustice" for a decade beginning in the late '60s. Dorfman laments the supposed apathy of current 20somethings. He gets a young horde of sweaty barefoot dancers dressed in Urban Outfitters chic to ask or respond to these questions:
In a violent world, can you fight for peace?
Would you kill for your country?
Would you kill for your family?
Would you kill five people if it would save fifteen? Fifteen if it would save forty-five? [all the way up to several billion]
"Whatever" is as good an answer as any when questions are stripped of all the contingencies that would make them agonizing and real.
Later, hippy-Jesus lookalike Joe Poulson freezes mid-motion with fist in the air. A few people gather around: they've never seen an Activist before.
The show ends with Poulson brought back to life with Dorfman's help. Together they fling an imaginary bomb. Without the grizzled elder's heroic return, The Movement would never have revived, as one bouncy youth in a faded Army t-shirt makes clear: he says he isn't into politics, he'd rather work on his website.
Where has Dorfman been, lo, these many years? Along with cell phones, those websites he scoffs at have proven essential organizing tools for current activists (yes, they exist). But with Dorfman's kind of thinking as the alternative -- "Does what you do make a difference?" is another dopey question flung our way -- college kids could be clicking through porn sites on the Internet all day and watching reruns of "Gilmore Girls" on their iPods all night, and we'd still be better off.
The Weathermen loved making a spectacle of themselves. The whole era was one big spectacle, and we knew it even while it was going on. All of us: black-bereted, machine-gun-toting Tania, the Black Panthers with their Maoist military drills, the lankhaired ladies in their Renaissance Faire velvet and brocade, me -- only a child. I don't mean it was only a game, but it was also a game.
On the other hand, people who "made a difference," to borrow that inane phrase, insisted on a distinction between play and reality, however often it didn't exist. In fact, the gains of many liberation movements depended on recognizing that the symbols that spectacles use as fodder are like peoples: they never entirely belong to what they're attached to.
Osama bin Laden's henchmen may have thought of the Twin Towers as signs of American power, but we can think of them as a place where thousands worked and died. The Bush Administration may want us to associate the "war on terror" with Iraq, but the facts don't corroborate that linkage. Likewise, the Weathermen may have conceived a government building as a "symbol of injustice," but blowing it up only destroyed that symbol if you believed in it in the first place. Meanwhile, the injustice remained.
The Weathermen let their theatrics -- their faith in the fixed power and meaning of symbols -- get the better of their politics. Though he's making theater himself, Dorfman fails to notice the Weathermen's own. Only their earnestness catches his attention. Same with himself. He hasn't taken the full measure of absurdity of a man playing air guitar with another era's already ungrounded aims. He seems to think he's getting underneath its skin, rather than just piling on more costume.
Choreographers don't have to engage in politics. In fact, it's a notoriously hard assignment for dance, as dance's scant use of words resists the specifics that bring alive political debate, driving the art instead toward the psychological and existential. But if dancemakers do take on the challenge -- and the best art often moves against the grain of its medium -- they better know what they're talking about.
Self-reflection is also in order, with some kind of answer to the question, What does it mean to make theater about this historical moment?, embedded in the piece itself.
Your column really hit the nail on the head for me. I find former New York Times dance critic Jack Anderson among the most guilty, always describing literally what he thinks he saw with nary a word of context, much less analysis of what the work might or might not have attempted and achieved metaphysically.
And, you know, I think choreographers today are as much in need of guidance and contextualizing as the audience. So many young choreographers trot out some combination of what they liked in class and what feels good to them or what is related in their own minds to some thought or other without any real effort to determine whether the audience might actually be able to read their visual language. Or worse, they don't have any real goal; the goal of art should be to raise the consciousness of those involved -- in some way, to turn the light on. We all have to push one another.
As to that Butoh article, I thought it was a bit silly to ask if there is now too much Butoh. Is there too much ballet?
Apollinaire responds: Well, it's nice having some crotchety company, finally! Thank you for writing, Christopher.
And this, also about "How Not to Write," from Irene Borger, director of the Alpert Award in the Arts in California:
I've been enjoying your blog for some time now, and appreciate what you just wrote about the use of description to the exclusion of context.
I used to take primarily non-dance students from my 20th century dance history class at UC Riverside to concerts; they were so much more open to the experience when they had been exposed to some of the ideas -- and context -- of a choreographer's work. But just as with museumgoers who trundle around like sheep in a gallery, earphones intact, it seems critical to me for visual AND performing arts audiences to learn to register and trust their visceral responses as a way of entering work.
Thanks for what you're doing.
Apollinaire responds: Irene, you're welcome! My only thought: I don't think visceral response and a feel for the ideas in a work are mutually exclusive. The strength of our reaction may in fact be in inverse proportion to the tangibility of its cause. Think, for example, how strongly people respond to a work's tone. It makes or breaks many an experience. And what is tone but the choreographer's idea about her material or about us?
To change the topic drastically, here's a logistical question for all you choreographers who have ever made a dance to a popular song:
A reader wants to know what costs a choreographer might incur from doing a dance to, say, a Dylan tune.
In other words, if you're doing some small production for a week -- at Dance Theater Workshop or the Alvin Ailey studios, for example -- and don't take care of the issue of royalties, will you have to pay a terrible fine? get thrown in the clinker? What are the consequences?
My sense is that if you are very diligent and do all the right things, the record companies (record companies? I'm clearly living in the wrong century) will happily take your money, but if instead you are slovenly and fail to do anything, you will not be punished. The scale of our enterprises are so small, the music entertainment empires (that's better!) probably don't even know what to do with our requests.
But I really don't know. So could anyone who has ever made a dance to pop please write in. ("Anyone" does not include Twyla Tharp or a choreographer for Ailey or the big ballet companies, where you're more visible, more liable to be prosecuted, and have more resources to pay for the songs.)
Please tell me: the song and/or singer-songwriter; the number of times you performed this dance and where; what steps you took re: copyright and royalties; how much money you ended up paying; whether you think, in retrospect, you might have gotten away with not paying; and exactly how crazy you are.
I will keep mum about your identity, of course, though I may use the name of the songwriter, so people have a sense of the scale of fame we're talking about. Otherwise, no identifying details.
[ed. note: I received this email last night, from choreographer Janis Brenner]
Someone referred me to your excellent site because of your dialogue on Tharp and Dylan. I love the whole conversation. I do want to let you know that in 1995-96 I made a work to several Dylan songs, entitled "What About Bob" (before there was a movie...), which first uses really outrageous renditions of Dylan classics -- "sung" (butchered) by Sebastian Cabot and William Shatner -- and then finally the real Dylan, in "Like A Rolling Stone" and "It Ain't Me Babe." The piece goes from truly absurd to rather poignant.
Literally yesterday, I was in rehearsal reviving the final duet section, created with dancer-choreographer Richard Siegal, for a spot on my 25th anniversary season coming up this February 1-4. Richard and I were discussing the fact that I had made this work more than ten years ago, and recalled being quite nervous about attempting to do ANYTHING to Dylan, a childhood hero of mine.
We did tour the work on and off for a few years, and it was always much better received than I had ever anticipated. I think if I had created the work soley to the famous Dylan songs and not had the terrible/hilarious versions first, the piece might never have worked. I was saved by Shatner (doing "Mr. Tambourine Man") and Cabot, and the idea of a rather twisted tribute to folk music and folk dance.
When I heard that Twyla Tharp was attemping a full-scale, Broadway production to Dylan...well, I must say, I was worried for her right from the outset. I was lucky, and kept my love for and tribute to him small-scale and encased in other ideas.
So, yes, and why not!? Someone should put together an evening of individual, small-scale Dylan interpretations. If it's done, we'll be ready. Come see our absurd-yet-heartfelt duet in February. And thank you for all this astute, necesssary dance dialogue.
They say, "Dylan never talks." What the hell is there to say? That's not the reason an artist is in front of people. An artist has come for a different purpose. Maybe a self-help group -- maybe a Dr. Phil -- would say, "How you doin'?" I don't want to get harsh and say I don't care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn't be there. But it's a different kind of connection. It's not a light thing. [Pause.] It becomes risky. I mean, you risk your life to play music, if you're doing it in the right way. --Dylan to novelist Jonathan Lethem, Rolling Stone, September 2006
I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn't exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it -- trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot. -- Dylan in his unconventional autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One
Sometimes the "you" in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else. If I'm talking to me in a song, I'm not going to drop everything and say, alright, now I'm talking to you. It's up to you to figure out who's who. A lot of times it's "you" talking to "you." The "I," like in "I and I," also changes. It could be I, or it could be the "I" who created me. And also, it could be another person who's saying "I." When I say "I" right now, I don't know who I'm talking about. -- Dylan as clown Talmudic scholar getting all tangled up in himself. To Scott Cohen in Spin Magazine, 1985
Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it. -- Dylan to Lethem.
I've been thinking more about that Dylan Suite you guys are hard at work on.
The obvious thing for a dance to do with a pop song is act out its story, but one of the most powerful things about pop songs, including Dylan's, is that they address "you." The singer is serenading or regretting you. That's the big reason people become groupies of pop singers.
Dylan's singer talks to "you" a lot, but he's also shifty, migrating within a single song from "you" to "he" or "she" -- to story. And his "you" is so vividly specific -- and often such a pain in the ass or the heart -- that we end up shifting around too, just to make it through. When the Dylan singer is too much to bear -- too angry, too full of longing, too struck by our absence -- we turn ourselves into voyeurs, relinquishing our special place to someone in the song.
Whatever you all choose to do with the miasma of shifting roles, don't ignore them and don't try to fix them. Perhaps the worst thing in the legions of problems with Twyla Tharp's Dylan fiasco (to close November 19 -- sooner than I guessed, but not too soon) is the revenge she seeks on the slippery songs. She wants them to give up their nature and hold still. But even in neutered Broadway renditions, the songs slip away, leaving her in a vacuum.
A Dylan song is more than a letter posted to the air, though -- more than "you" and "I." The imagery grounds the songs and transcends the singer. The singer takes up a lot of room, but the song doesn't rest with him: why people like to call Dylan a seer; he sees past himself. The language has its own gravity and direction.
So does the music. The instrumental sections -- which in live shows distend; bootlegs give a better feel for the tunes -- make clear how beautiful the music is, as well as the genre Dylan is tweaking: rhythm and blues, country-western, waltz, etc., etc., etc.
People like to say that rock is relatively static. Dylan isn't. It's not that the musical patterns are complicated or even that they change a lot in the course of a given song -- though they change radically from song to song. In fact, they tend to set their course and repeat it. But they set out a vision of time that corresponds with the story they're telling. They both move in time and characterize time and, by association, this moment in a life.
The twilight chords of "Not Dark Yet," from the 1997 album "Time out of Mind," lap forward, then slip back. We're waiting for the tide to rise and sweep us under once and for all.
In early songs such as "Tangled up in Blue" and "Like a Rolling Stone," time holds steady, the music a jangly loop that makes a hazy home out of "no destination home."
It's not just "the times" or even the history of American song that this magpie artist roots himself in, but also the future and past that a given moment assumes. "Like a Rolling Stone" imagines a past of privileged oblivion for its fallen and let-loose heroine; her future is unknown -- and so is the singer's. He uses her to wonder about himself.
"Not Dark Yet" is saturated in sunset, the music savoring the light that has mainly faded for the singer.
Again and again, time -- the texture and density a moment accrues from the future and past inside it -- is Dylan's subject, which is why he's so well suited to dance, where time is always the subject, whatever else is, too.
What's that? You say you don't want to do a dance to Dylan? You'd rather do Sleater-Kinney, Lauryn Hill, someone -- anyone -- else?
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!
[ed. note: Eva Yaa Asantewaa will return in a couple of weeks.]
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.
Or, rather, he'd like me to answer what he asked in the first place: how might the Internet and other recent technologies help to attract a larger dance audience?
Doug, thank you for your persistence and your concern for dance's future.
Here are Doug's questions, version 2.0 (for the unedited version, click here):
In a 2004 research paper, Alan Brown created five modes of arts participation, ranging from very active to very passive, with "Attending Live Dance Performances" highly passive affairs.
My question: How can the dance community sustain such a sharp disconnect between the inventive and participatory nature of the Internet and the observational nature and passivity required of most dance performances?
My answer: Some dancers and dance companies will greatly benefit by exploring new ways to enable their audiences to be more active participants in the process of creation in order to address this growing divide.
I'd like your thoughts on the following:
1) What do you think of the idea of an "active audience," and how do you think it relates to dance performances? Do you think the dance world would benefit by embracing the emergence of a participatory culture?
Doug, the way you ask the question answers it. In your view, it's not possible to be both actively involved and sitting in one's seat. Receptivity, by your lights, is akin to passivity.
When you read a book, do you feel like a paper towel sopping up Kool-Aid?
I hope not. A person can both absorb something and be actively engaged. In fact, I doubt you could take something in if you weren't engaged.
Art--any kind, as long as it's good--offers an especially charged form of engagement. The artist has created a singular experience for you--to pull you out of yourself so that when you return there will be more to you. If you "participate" as you mean it-- shaping the very thing you might have simply experienced--you shift the balance between you and it. Less of it, more of you.
The good intentions behind advocating this kind of participation--to save us from feeling isolated--misunderstands loneliness, conflating it with solitude. Loneliness isn't about being alone, it's about never being able to escape yourself. Art is one of loneliness's best cures. An active cure. But you need to allow the art to set its own course for it to work its magic.
2) What is the optimal way for choreographers and dancers to use blogs and related tools to communicate with their audiences?
I'm not much of a blog reader, so there are likely a million uses for a blog that I haven't thought of. But I can see the appeal of a site like The Winger , a behind-the-scenes visual diary of the professional dancing life from members of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, etc. (It was NYCB corps member Kristin Sloan's idea--a bright one, indeed.)
I'll keep scratching my head over this one and if I think of other nifty possibilities, add them here.
3) For your own personal enjoyment of dance, can you envision a scenario where the pleasure and insight you derive from a dance performance was enhanced by online content and interactive opportunities prior to the performance?
Some reviewers think you should show up to a performance like a virgin--that preparation leads to prejudice--but I'm not one of them. In fact, I think the less you know about a particular troupe, the more likely you are to fall back on generalizations about the kind of dance you're watching and only give blurry attention to the actual dances before you.
Once I know I'll be reviewing a show, I jog my memory about the troupe--or acquaint myself with them if they're new to me--any way I can. If they have a good web site, it makes the job easier: I'll check out face shots, read features, interviews, reviews, the history of the company. If there's a video--there rarely is--I'll watch it.
If the choreographer is musically attuned, I'll track down the music--from the library or iTunes. It would be very cool if companies had the dances' music on their web sites--I mean, if they can do so without extra cost. Companies are already so cash-strapped that I wouldn't want to suggest anything that would put them further in the red.
4) Following up on your thoughts about how dance reviews should be written, how would you incorporate pictures, videos and audio interviews into your reviews? Since there are no space limits on the Internet, do you see a more multimedia type of dance criticism emerging? If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what's video worth when it comes to dance?
An intriguing question. I'm always glad when a photo accompanies a review, as I have too few words to do justice to costumes and set. And the possibilities for video are exciting.
But here's the problem: Most reviews in newspapers and magazines appear in both print and web editions. The writer can't assume readers have seen a video or even a photo: the print edition doesn't allow video-viewing, and some web sites don't reproduce the papers' photos. So the writing is stuck doing what it always does: going it alone. But maybe some day...
5) As more media outlets turn to user-generated content (stories submitted by readers), what will the impact be on performing arts coverage? For example, Wired reported on Friday that USA Today and 90 other US newspapers published by Gannett will turn to "crowdsourcing" as part of its news gathering process.
We dance critics turn out to be way ahead of the game for once, as we've already been largely retired. The only difference is, there are no crowds of opinionators eager to take our place. Something to look forward to!
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-echappé-sauté," 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.
In a conference about Marina Abramovic's "Seven Easy Pieces" from last fall, Peggy Phelan referred to Abramovic's performances as "covers"-- a somewhat synesthetic approach.
I wonder about how we engage with pieces we've known in some non-live form before we experience them live. I wonder if in dance, this pre-knowing precludes us from fully acknowledging that the event we are witnessing is unique--and if this is a good or a bad thing.
hmmmm.... I'm not sure the event is unique--I mean, for the viewer. I'm not sure we can ever separate the current version of a dance from all the other versions we've encountered. Maybe the mind works like a palimpsest, or sometimes anyway: it probably depends on the dance.
The dance critic Arlene Croce once asserted that with "Swan Lake," you tended to construct the perfect "Swan Lake" from all the versions you'd seen. You could hear in the Tchaikovsky all that the ballet might be and had yet to achieve. For her, there was a unique "Swan Lake," but she had yet to see it onstage:
Like so many others, I go to see "Swan Lake" not to re-see a ballet, but hoping to see the ballet beyond the ballet. The performance is only the occasion for meditating on what might have been. (" 'Swan Lake' and Its Alternatives," The New Yorker, June 11, 1979)
If you love ballet, you revisit "Swan Lake" every year till you croak--and you need to organize all those experiences somehow! So this makes sense. But I, at least, do go to re-see the ballet. While I'm at it, I catch glimpses of the ballet beyond the ballet.
It's not the ballet itself that leads you to look past it to a Platonic ideal--the ballet before you is impossible not to absorb, in the moment, as it is. It's the music. Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" tells its own story--and you wait to see it. So, to get back to your question, sharkskingirl--does the tag "cover" give too much power to that first version? Might it be better to declare all versions equal?
For a dance to survive all its versions, it needs an anchor. Otherwise, you're playing a game of "Telephone"--by the end of the line, the ballet is gibberish. Often, though, not the steps but the music grounds a classic. The composer wrote a score; there is no dance score, just dancers' memories.
The Shakespeare scholar and literary critic Stephen Booth maintains that the viewer's anchor is always the first performance she saw of a work, however bad or good, early or late in the day. That first experience creates such a permanent groove in your mind that you fall into it with every new experience. "King Lear" will always be the same "King Lear" no matter how many times you see it. Over and over again, the same play, the same you, learning nothing. That strikes me as a bit unlikely, and also darkly funny.
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