In her article for The Atlantic, “The Death of the American Dance Critic”, Madison Mainwaring expertly illuminated the current landscape of American concert dance and dance criticism. The situation she described is bleak: skilled (sometimes brilliant) dance writers blog with no pay, dance artists lack vital dialog with a critic’s enlightened eye, and a general readership is deprived of intelligent writing about a sometimes arcane art form.
Not addressed in her article is the way that all of this is folded into the decline of actual print, “broadsheet” newspapers and the rise of screen media, and the way that that particular retreat from the physical world radically reduces our chance for an unexpected encounter with difference—a phenomenon with implications beyond the somewhat rarefied world of concert dance. Concert dance, however, is a good entry point into that tangled scenario, so let’s start there.
Mainwaring noted that dance is often the least respected of the fine arts, but it’s more than a lack of respect; concert dance is so roundly ignored as to be practically invisible. The NEA’s 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows ballet attendance bottoming out; less than 3% of U.S. adults attended a ballet in the course of a year. There is no statistic for attendance at contemporary dance concerts (“contemporary dance” is what the current incarnation of the 20th century’s “modern dance” is often called, and in some instances the terms are used interchangeably); the NEA rolls them in with “other dance,” which includes modern, contemporary, folk, traditional, and tap.
From experience, I can say that the audience for contemporary dance is miniscule and inbred, consisting largely of dance “insiders”—people who teach, study, choreograph, or practice dance themselves. As sociologist Howard Becker observed, “Look at the audience at any dance event. No equivalent sample of theater- or concert-goers displays such erect carriage, such self-conscious placement of feet and legs, such well-maintained bodies.” I do look around me at any contemporary dance concert I attend and indeed, I find I know a great number of people in the audience by virtue of their roles in the local dance scene.
Whether the cause of this situation is a dance world whose products are self-indulgent and so obscurely coded as to be inscrutable to outsiders, or an audience ill-prepared by arts-impoverished public education and Lady Gaga videos to process ambiguity and non-representational logic (of course the reality lies somewhere between), the fact remains that hardly any non-dance people see contemporary dance.
Having derived so much satisfaction from it myself, this sometimes disappoints me. I want my dad and my neighbor to see and enjoy contemporary dance, too. But why would they? What would compel a dance “outsider” to foray into a dance concert? Consumers tend to minimize risk with their leisure time, choosing what they know they will enjoy and what is accessible. Not only is contemporary dance unknown to most people, it is relatively inaccessible, happening for a limited time in small venues. How might someone who’s not a dance insider even know it exists? How, or where, might they encounter this strange, non-verbal, adamantly physical form at all?
This is where—in addition to the places Mainwaring addressed—intelligent, accessible dance writing is meant to function. Most people, unlike me, don’t attend dance concerts, but most people, like me, read. By virtue of their identities as readers, they might be exposed, through dance writing, to what anthropologist Charles Goodwin calls the dance critic’s “professional vision.” A dance review by Marcia Siegel or Deborah Jowitt calls attention to the salient features of the dance—its qualities and composition, its performance history—as well as exposing readers to a dance insider’s vocabulary.
Although outsider readers may not comprehend the article as fully as an expert would, because of their exposure to Siegel’s and Jowitt’s professional vision, they acquire some sense of what’s at stake. Not only do they become aware of contemporary dance’s existence through reading about it, they become just a bit conversant in it.
The near-disappearance of Siegel and Jowitt from the arts pages of prominent publications, then, strikes a blow to any metaphorical bridge between contemporary dance and its potential audience. However, so too does the disappearance of actual arts pages, in actual newspapers. Newspapers, with their physical limitations, compel readers to encounter something other than what they set out to read—perhaps dance.
Consider how the experience of reading a newspaper differs from that of reading news online. When I read a newspaper, I read the front page. Then I look to the arts section, then the science, then the local news. If I am still stuck on the bus, or I still have some coffee and I just want to sit and read longer, I have finite choices—there are only this many sections and this many pages in a newspaper. The physical facts and limitations of a newspaper require me to move beyond my preferences, and I am confronted with material that is not my first choice, confronted with difference. I have to read about Syrian immigration, or I might settle on a music review. As journalist Gary Thompson observes, a printed newspaper is a finite journey. Because it is physically bounded, it forces me to butt up against different ideas and voices I would not have chosen otherwise.
If I were reading at my laptop, the process would unfold quite differently. I would start with, for example, nytimes.com/dance and I would never get out of dance until my reading time was up. If I ran out of New York Times writing that interested me, I would just keep clicking on related links, pursuing my interests. The Internet allows me to choose my company; I only have to deal with those ideas and voices I invite.
The use of a screen medium, the Internet, for reading news transcends physical boundaries of space and in so doing, enables us to buffer ourselves from difference, to choose those ideas that align with our pre-existing ones. We can make this buffering systematic by “customizing” our news sources so that they deliver only what interests us. A Pew Trust study notes, “Some 42% of the internet users who get news online…say that it is important to them when choosing news sites to be able to customize the news they get at that site.” That is, readers set up their Internet access to the news site so that it displays what interests them, diminishing exposure to that which falls outside the scope of their interest. In other words, in the online world we can choose what we will see, decreasing chance encounters with difference, whereas in the physical one we must deal with what’s there, regardless of how it aligns with our predispositions.
This ability to customize, to fully control the writing to which we will be exposed, has negative implications for my modest campaign to increase general interest in and enthusiasm for concert dance. I can imagine my hypothetical counterpart-reader who is passionate about experimental music, or deeply invested in the situation in Syria, but is completely uninterested in dance. I imagine him with his broadsheet newspaper, having devoured the topics he’s interested in, but still with time to kill on the bus. He might have turned to the newspaper’s dance review. Maybe he would have encountered some writing by Marcia Siegel or Deborah Jowitt. Perhaps never having seen a live dance concert, but having access to this well-communicated professional vision, he might have become curious about concert dance. He might have read a dance review again, just because he enjoyed the writing. Now familiar with the type of dance that Siegel and Jowitt write about, he might have one day bought a dance concert ticket for himself.
I’m pretty sure my guy is not looking at a broadsheet newspaper, though; he’s killing time on his smartphone. He could read some Deborah Jowitt, but he’d have to hunt her down at artsjournal.com/artsbeat. And why would he? Remember, he’s not looking for dance. He’s looking for what interests him already, and finding more of that than he could ever take in. Journalist Thompson writes that navigating a website is like going to a cheap buffet meal that offers endless choice, but never actually fills you up. There may be endless selection, but we always gravitate toward the same things: the ones that already please us. On the Internet, there is little occasion for someone who didn’t set out looking for coverage of dance to serendipitously happen upon it.
It’s easy to telescope this observation outward into a wholesale indictment of a screen-based culture that at every turn allows us to buffer ourselves from those uninvited encounters with difference. Shopping, researching, and spending leisure time online effectively eliminate those encounters. We only have to deal with people we choose, usually those whose thinking aligns with our own. However, when we engage in the shared physical space of the world—making our way on sidewalks and buses and subways, shopping in stores, researching in libraries, seeing movies in theaters—we are confronted with difference.
We must stand in line with, listen to, share a seat with people who think differently from ourselves. We didn’t choose them; we’re stuck with them because they are using the same shared public spaces. And these almost inevitably include people whose company we would not invite, given the choice. The spatial limitations of sidewalks and aisles demand the same confrontation with difference as do the spatial limitations of a newspaper, whereas the substitution of an onscreen experience radically reduces the possibility of brushing up against anyone or anything beyond our purview. In that way, the screen undermines the possibility of a diverse community built on casual, daily (messy, inconvenient) contact—that brilliantly commonsense model that Jane Jacobs described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
So this new normal wherein everyone carries a small screen with them everywhere starts to have a grim, dystopic cast to it. It’s largely responsible for the loss of casual contact with the unfamiliar and the weird, with that which we did not choose, and—more to the point of my pet project—it doesn’t help bring anyone into contact with dance who wasn’t already interested in it.
But then, surprisingly, it does; the screen also emerges as a vehicle that can introduce casual viewers to concert dance.
If the serendipitous encounter is important for expanding outsiders’ exposure to dance, and won’t be achieved via a practically non-existent arts curricula or vanishing printed dance criticism, maybe the screen can save the day. Never mind that there are countless wonderful dance videos on youtube, vimeo, and ubu; again, dance insiders may happily seek them out, but who else would? No, to surprise a viewer with an unexpected encounter with dance, the screen, or the viewing experience, would have to somehow be physically bounded in the same way that newspapers are. Like a newspaper, it would have to demand that the viewer sit tight and keep watching, even when the content veers to that which he or she is not predisposed.
The scenario in which the screen works in dance’s favor is one in which the viewer is committed to watching—is spatially bounded, unlikely to get up and walk away—and dance sneaks in, catching that person who sat down to watch something else. Whoops, there happens to be some dance thrown in! It may seem like an unlikely hypothetical, but there are already real-life situations where this scenario is playing out. For example, Mitchell Rose’s short dance film Globe Trot (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXgYKU9F-0A ) will soon be shown on Air Canada international flights. The elements are there—the imperative to sit and watch (I can think of nowhere that I am more physically bounded than on an airplane. I’ll watch anything, read anything, do anything to transcend the tedium of a long flight) and the limited range of choices. While Air Canada’s selection of in-flight viewing options is extensive, it’s not infinite. Conceivably, someone who has finished watching two feature-length films they really wanted to see but still hasn’t arrived in Gdansk might kill some time with a 5-minute “avant garde” (Air Canada’s nomenclature) film.
And Globe Trot is the perfect little film to act as dance’s ambassador to the uninitiated. Viewing a dance is not the same as reading about a dance; it lacks the expert’s professional vision to guide the novice through unfamiliar territory. However, a film like Globe Trot has the potential to do the same subliminally educational work as a good dance review. It has familiar elements that don’t require an insider’s eye to discern or appreciate, making it accessible to a casual viewer, but it also acquaints that viewer with some of contemporary dance’s values.
It is short, has catchy music, is handily edited, and has an appealing “hook”—the film is comprised of very short, crowd-sourced film clips of people performing segments of the same dance all over the world. Each successive clip finds a new dancer replacing the previous one in the exact same spot in the frame, taking up the exact same moment of the dance. The dance goes on uninterrupted, but the identity of the dancer in the foreground constantly changes, as does the background. At the same time, Globe Trot also delivers a primer in contemporary dance. Bessie-winning choreographer Bebe Miller crafts movement that is simple enough for the performers of many ages and body types to execute, but which touches on a range of dynamic qualities and etches pleasing trajectories through space.
The viewer who happens upon Globe Trot on an international flight, or sees it as a “short subject” in front of a feature-length film (Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio ran it in front of The Congress) or among other non-dance films at a film festival is having a chance encounter with dance in much the same way the newspaper-reader did when he flipped to Jowitt’s or Siegel’s writing. In both cases, the activity (reading, or watching movies) is physically bounded such that the reader/viewer is compelled to take in some content that he didn’t necessarily sign up for.
Like reading a dance review, watching Globe Trot opens a portal into contemporary dance for the unsuspecting viewer, or at least alerts that viewer to the fact that the portal exists. The film, when it is shown in non-dance contexts, creates new possibilities for encountering difference. Let Globe Trot be a bellwether for how constant interaction with screens might enable rather than hobble such serendipitous encounters.
From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.
You can contact her at: email@example.com.