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The Buzz, 2-15: The Problem with Gia
Time for the Times to disengage from its unengaged critic

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Dance Insider FlashBlast e-mail club members got this column and other exclusives earlier this week by e-mail. To receive the Dance Insider's free daily FlashBlast, click here then press send.)

Wednesday we reported in the Dance Insider FlashBlast that critic Theodore Bale has recused himself from freelance duties at the Boston Herald, after finding that newspaper less and less interested in dance. I commented, with admitted self-interest, that those concerned about shrinking dance criticism should support -- by spreading the word, advertising, and their own volunteer writing -- publications like the Dance Insider which are actually trying to grow dance criticism. However, if this would address one problem created by newspaper criticism that is dwindling in quantity and quality -- the absence of *record* -- it would not solve another more immediate concern, at least in the United States: building the dance audience.

However valuable to the historical record and to the artists themselves, even to the point of helping them get work when the clipping is positive, dance criticism in specialized industry journals like the Dance Insider, Contact Quarterly, Ballet Review, Dancer and especially Dance Magazine is not going to spread the gospel of dance beyond our own (I'm speaking of the U.S. now) rarified circle. Neither are -- frankly -- the efforts of presenters to penetrate other markets and publics enough alone.

Dance has a problem in the United States.

Modern dance is too weird and/or self-absorbed.

Ballet is too effete or old-fashioned or feminine or gay or expensive.

These are some of the perceptions amongst the vast majority of the vast public -- to the extent that they think about dance at all.

Here's where newspaper criticism comes in.

What newspaper criticism offers that we in the niche journals can't is the potential to reach people who think as I've just enumerated and profoundly change their perceptions of dance (or at least inspire them to go to a dance concert).

But the way it does this is not with under-qualified criticism that simply attaches various meaningless superlatives (beautiful, lovely, stunning, glorious, amazing) to dance performances. Nor by unimaginative writing that makes no effort to engage the art -- and thus the reader.

Which brings us to Gia Kourlas, a freelance critic for the New York Times.

At a time when space for newspaper criticism of dance is at a premium, it is a shame that a newspaper which on the one hand has made the laudable decision to invest in two full-time and numerous freelance dance critics on the other hand wastes this premium space -- and this golden opportunity to turn its vast culture-invested audience on to dance -- by assigning reviews of serious work to perhaps the least serious critic ever to grace (or disgrace) its pages.

Here's just one recent example, from her review of Paul Matteson's quintet "Temper Please," part of a program Matteson and Jennifer Nugent presented at Danspace Project last December (emphasis added):

"This time the mood is all business, as the dancers initiate movement from fixed points on a stage, employing their gazes, stillness and odd thrusts of motion to evoke a clear frame for the ensemble."

"Odd thrusts of motion"?

This is not dance criticism.

Earlier, addressing (if not engaging) a duet created by the accomplished choreographer Terry Creach for the same program, she writes:

"Throughout, the dancers play with momentum, flinging their arms and legs as gravity pulls them in different directions, but the theme of two bodies coexisting in one world grows exhausting. How long can you watch someone almost fall?"

The level of aesthetic exhaustion and linguistic and observatory depletion Gia Kourlas reveals in this passage is almost too abysmal for me as a critic to contemplate. As a colleague recently put it to me, she manages to affect a prose style that is at once defensive and imperceptive, to review dance in a way that is utterly devoid of questions or humility.

Reviewing a 2006 concert by this same pair, the DI's Maura Nguyen Donohue wrote:

"I am most satisfied when these bodies are in contact as if they were separate parts of a set forged from the same furnace. But it is in the spaces in between that the personal content reveals itself. The two performers maintain awareness across significant distances and through the enclosing and separating fabric several times. In the end, the two now walk a similar parallel path until Jennifer turns and sits and Paul stands with his back to her for a long time before the lights dim. And so, in the repeated departures and returns I realize I am watching the ebb and flow of a life, or really of a life together, inviting a quick contemplation of how a couple of acclaimed dancers and highly sought-after teachers would manage to actually build a family around such a sporadic, gypsy life."

A critic finds the spaces in between and reveals them to us. But to do that, she needs to be able to see and interested in looking. Gia no longer is. She needs to engage her art. Gia Kourlas has clearly demonstrated she is unable to do this. The Times needs to disengage from her and engage another freelancer who will give dance the energy it gives to us and, potentially, in the context of widely-read newspaper criticism, give it the increased audience it needs to financially survive -- and to have a more pervasively profound effect on our lives.

(For a more concrete demonstration of the difference between an engaged and a disengaged critic, check Gia's review, and then check Maura's. Among other distinctions, note the way each critic perceives falling.)

(PS: Also compare the lack of empathy in Gia's reviews with the evident love and passion in those of her Times colleague Alastair Macaulay.)

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