Neither dancers nor the dance audience are out on the barricades demanding more and better dance coverage, or celebrating the younger generation of smart dance writers for their curiosity and their persistence.
By Marcia B. Siegel
For years, dance critics have bemoaned the shrinking universe of outlets for their writing. Now, in The Atlantic.com, Madison Mainwaring laments the disappearance of dance critics from the mainstream press: dance critics are a “dying breed.” Well, a little out of breath but not dying.
Mainwaring narrows her discussion to people who’ve inhabited the “mainstream” press, and those who live in the New York area. She seems to equate the mainstream press with the New York Times. The other New York dailies haven’t had regular dance critics for years. The weeklies haven’t either. Staff dance critics disappeared long ago in other cities, or left and weren’t replaced. I’ve never known a time when there were more than two or three writers in the country who did dance criticism full time. All the rest practice it part time, earning a living some other way. I don’t resent having had to do this; I’ve been lucky enough to develop other occupations related to dance writing and dance research. Though I’ve never done reviewing full time, or wanted to, I’ve always considered myself primarily a dance critic. And that meant, for three decades, being based in New York, where I could see the widest variety of dance and start learning how to write about it.
I’ve had the luxury of expansive space and long deadlines — and the immensely encouraging support of the editors — at the literary quarterly Hudson Review. I’m sure my many essays in that publication have prodded me to go deeper into what makes dance tick. Over the New York years, in addition to writing for dance magazines and journals, I was a dance correspondent (writing as often as twice a week) for three Boston dailies at different times. I wrote occasionally for the Sunday Los Angeles Times, reviewed dance for a few months at the Wall Street Journal. I survived the loss of the Soho Weekly News, and later supplied reviews disguised as feature stories for another downtown weekly, the New York Press, whose editor said he didn’t want critics.
It’s true that most people who want to engage with dance on a serious level are drawn to New York, because of the concentration of dance studios and performing venues there, the energy for experimenting. Writers want to be on the scene. More buzz creates more interest — more people who want to go there and do it, see it, write about it. For me, New York presented endless opportunities to write about dance. Even when a publication was cutting back on dance coverage, or closing down, there were always others.
I doubt that New York will ever lose its power as the nation’s dance magnet, but it’s possible that the center of gravity of dance writing has shifted to the Internet and away from the so-called mainstream press. The Internet has been blamed for the decrease in all types of print publications, but it has also been the source of more writing. Labeling dance criticism online as either esoteric babble or gossip, Mainwaring ignores the good dance writing that has migrated there. In fact, her own piece was published on an Internet venue, though the Atlantic in print doesn’t have a dance critic.
When the Boston Phoenix closed down in 2013, I lost another regular outlet for my writing. But last spring I started reviewing for an online magazine, the Boston-based Arts Fuse. The Fuse, with its multi-arts approach, is not alone in the cybersphere. Oregon Arts Watch has a similar perspective, and there are no doubt other regional sites offering serious consideration of the arts that occur outside of New York. Besides the ‘zine approach, there are many other online venues for arts writing, although not all of them are mediated or edited. Arts Journal is essentially a blog, where the writers put up and format their own work. The Journal also collects and links you to writing from other sites. There are specialized dance sites, like Dance Tabs and Dance View Times, where experienced writers cover events in and outside of New York. There are individual blogs written by dancers and writers. Arts institutions, universities, and galleries often publish, or re-publish, writing about their presentations. So do dance companies and presenters themselves. Academic writing can be hard to access for the general public, but if you have an entrée to JSTOR you can look for that material.
The Internet not only decentralizes writing about dance performance, it’s anti-centric itself; some websites don’t even tell you the location of their office. This is a good thing in the case of dance, because the audience for live performance is limited; the public can’t appreciate the extent of dance’s evolving effects and possibilities without the interpretive eyes of critics. I still want to visit New York and write about things I see there, but when I cover the Boston Ballet, anyone in the country can see what I think that company is doing. In that way, my writing may help to broaden the audience.
The problem for dance writing is learning how to do it. One needs a certain amount of specialized knowledge and expertise, plus the skills of writing and observation. It can’t be taken for granted that any literate person will be able to understand nonverbal performance and communicate something about it in writing. This used to be called movement description, but to capture the style and effects of how a particular dance works, in language that ordinary people can grasp, means more than describing. At one time it was expected that if you wrote about dance, you were a dancer or had studied dance extensively. But a performer doesn’t necessarily perceive the dance in the same way as a viewer. Dance writing that came from the dance field was expected to support the field in a positive way. Many dance critics now don’t have a background as performers or trained dancers, and their reports may be more “critical.” Both accounts are valid.
The question of how to make a living is one we all have to answer in our own ways. Individual bloggers don’t get paid, but their commitment to their sites may push them to learn how to write better. There’s a residue of amateurism throughout the dance field, left over from the days when you were to appreciate the chance to do what you loved, even if you got paid miserably or not at all. The democratic dictates of the counterculture assumed that anyone with a computer could blog about what they saw. This doesn’t necessarily mean what gets blogged is useful to anyone besides the ego it ventilates. Even professional dance writers can give in to over-protective assessments, but credible criticism can account for both the wonders and the banalities of performances.
I’d like to think the shift to the Internet is leading to better exposure for dance, but the “democratic” mindset favors the products of marketing in all media. This means that dance becomes widely visible via the big producers, spin-doctors, television, and gossip-hungry feature writers. Maybe it’s always gone in that direction, but now we’re living under the curse of constant input and easy forgetting. We’re a culture of instant recognition and impatience, of anti-historical ignorance and immediate gratification.
The reputed democracy of the Internet is somewhat misleading, because websites have to earn their living too. After a limited number of glimpses, you pay to read the Atlantic on line, or the New York Times or the Boston Globe. Sites like the Arts Fuse remain open to all readers, but they have to fundraise and/or solicit advertising. In a column, Arts Fuse editor Bill Marx has commented on the hardscrabble finances of online arts coverage. Economics, even in the nonprofit world, inevitably reflects on the reviewers. I’m grateful I never got overt pressure to pay attention to advertisers before the Fuse, and I still don’t. Yet, in order to retain an independent voice, I have to resist the temptation to be positive, to reinforce the advertiser’s spin. Trying to find ways to talk about the dance and avoid being sycophantic is still a challenge.
The experimental arts have never had big audiences or serious mainstream coverage. In the rich days of the Dance Boom, I was asked to write a weekly preview piece on downtown dance for the New York Times, in 500 words or less. I declined. It seemed demeaning and even pointless to boil down the most interesting and unpredictable work to some eye-catching, retrospective synopsis. Trisha Brown and Bill T. Jones rose to the surface of public consciousness anyway, while most of the other experimenters of that time continued to work on the shores of the mainstream. The Times may occasionally visit offbeat dance productions, but they get much more exposure on the Internet.
Nearly a century ago, before the advent of Lincoln Center or the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein touched off the battle in American dance between high art and populism. The contenders have regrouped, but the struggle continues. High art now is too expensive to be anything but elitist, and populism is an eclectic mix of all dance techniques and pedestrian movement hyped to a glamorous virtuosity.
The critic problem isn’t only economic. One of the less felicitous products of the counterculture was the trashing of art and art history. I’m ambivalent about this. Totems make me nervous, but I love history. Curiously, when it comes to dance, the mainstream looks backward. It’s the historical classics and the singular critical voices of the past that are endlessly cited as exemplary in the mainstream press. The writings of Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce confront us, even though they were looking at dance decades ago. No one can dispute the inherent disappearance of dance, or the fact that dance changes all the time, but history is essential for that very reason. It seems arrogant for dancers and dance writers to disregard their roots and precedents in the past, to insist that dance is limited to what’s before us in the present moment.
Youngsters have almost no incentive to learn about dance as art, let alone aspire to it, except as a route to fame and fortune. Their models, especially in the past decade, are handed to them on the screen. Dance “reality” shows feed the public’s appetite for physical daring and sexy bodies with three-minute dancelets of stylistic attitude meant to elicit responses from flamboyant judges. Choreographers who craft the bits may then create bigger and often formless contemporary stage dances that incite the audience to rock-concert accolades. A populist answer to the counterculture’s demand for inclusiveness, reality dance could be a sign that dance has finally entered the mainstream, a strenuous diversion like competitive sports or celebrity cookoffs. I don’t know if any dance critics have looked into reality dance for deeper effects, if there are any. It seems certain that the mainstream press isn’t going to devote any of its diminishing dance space to taking apart that genre.
Mainwaring points out that the critical discourse is a form of memory and a way of sorting out the “importance” of new work in a confusing and elusive field, and Joan Acocella, the respected but nearly invisible dance critic of the New Yorker, calls for a “conversation” about dance in the public media. Mainwaring’s piece has evoked a certain buzz, mostly from dance insiders who join her in regretting the diminishing amount of dance criticism. But this doesn’t really extend the conversation. Neither dancers nor the dance audience are out on the barricades demanding more and better dance coverage, or celebrating the younger generation of smart dance writers for their curiosity and their persistence. The conversation I’d like to see is about dance itself, not about where the chess pieces belong on the board. I doubt whether it will occur in the mainstream press, but there are plenty of other places where it can happen.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.