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The Buzz, 3-14: Dissecting the Undissectable
Dear Mr. O'Connor: I was Wrong

"I am a dance illiterate. I have never formally studied dance, never taken a music lesson, never performed on any stage except as a youngster, in school plays. My career as a critic is proof that one can come to dance knowing nothing of how it is done and still understand it, or understand it well enough to spread the news. This has to be because even the most highly cultivated form of dance, classical ballet, speaks directly to the prenatal instinct for movement and for rhythm, the thing that makes sense of movement. My own unsuppressible need to try to make sense of what I'd seen led to my becoming a writer of dance criticism; the folly, for me, of that undertaking was offset by my belief in the power of dance to communicate itself to others as it had to me."

-- Arlene Croce, introduction to "Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), as posted on the New York Times.

"Joan Acocella had better check her 'sell by' date because her article entitled 'Mystery Theater: Downtown surrealists' in the Aug 8 & 15, 2005 issue has the distinct odor of irrelevance. Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up. Through her lack of understanding and her inability to reach out and get information from artists, she joins a group of critics whom I will call 'the literalists.' These critics do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries. What's more, they don't do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists or what are the contexts in which these works are created. They have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken."

-- Tere O'Connor, Letter to the New Yorker, posted October 14 on the Dance Insider.

"I do not see my job as requiring me to go to artists, find out their intentions, report their intentions to the reader, and then talk about how they fulfilled or didn't fulfill their intentions."

-- Joan Acocella, quoted by Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, February 28, 2006.

"There often seems to be a disconnect between what choreographers say they're doing and what actually occurs onstage."

-- Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice,ibid.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

He may have made a misstep, but Tere O'Connor is right.

Some 12 years ago, in what would turn out to be her effective swan song, Arlene Croce, the greatest dance critic of her generation, wrote a piece in the New Yorker called "Discussing the Undiscussible," in which she explained why she would not review "victim art," specifically a piece called "Still/Here" by Bill T. Jones. I won't be able to do justice to Croce's article here; it has disappeared from my files and, apparently, from the Internet. But her valid themes included that as a critic, she did not feel it was fair to ask her to essentially review -- and feel comfortable criticizing -- sick, even terminally ill people; Jones's piece was inspired by workshops with the terminally ill, seen on videotape during the show. In Croce's view, a work that featured -- and in some way, even ministered to -- the ill essentially disabled her as a critic. More fundamentally perhaps, she took issue with work whose need to minister was more important than art-making. (I myself am hobbled here by not being able to access her piece, so I go on memory.) In an era in which political causes and social needs often seemed to marginalize aesthetic standards (and not just in dance), Croce's column was a tonic. Unfortunately, Croce undermined herself with one tactical error that allowed the perpetrators to disarm her: She didn't see the show immediately in question. Thus, instead of engaging her on the valid broad issues she raised, Croce's critics were able to trip her up on a more localized one by asking, How can she write about a work she's never seen? That Croce didn't need to see the work to critique its well-known (and already tired) genre didn't seem to matter.

I fear that Tere O'Connor, in responding to a piece by Croce successor Joan Acocella published last fall, may likewise have made a tactical error. I'd like here to ask you to look beyond that -- as I have now come to do -- to the more over-riding and valid theme expressed in his letter, posted here in October.

What myself and many of my colleagues took umbrage with is O'Connor's implied suggestion that we essentially have to interview him about his intentions before we are qualified to review his work -- "to do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists." To any critic who has ever waded through William Forsythe's program notes -- let alone, as have I, the pompous precis of many a European choreographer -- these are fighting words. We are dance critics. Our job is to view dance and to offer an admittedly subjective interpretation of it to our readers. To the extent that the choreographer has a concept, it's up to him or her to convey that in the movement. To require us to know what's in his or her mind outside of what is presented on stage is in effect a form of cheating -- by the choreographer.

So this sentiment is what fueled what Jowitt accurately calls my "scathing rebuke" of O'Connor and defense of Acocella.

But on some reflection, I now believe I missed Tere's forest for his trees.

In that rebuke, I began, "Poor Tere O'Connor. He doesn't want to be liked; he wants to be understood."

I was wrong.

In fact, I now see, it's to O'Connor's credit that he chose to make his point over a review which, on a superficial level, is positive; thus his letter cannot be easily dismissed as simply the sour grapes of a panned artist but must be taken seriously. Instead of ridiculing him for rejecting a positive review, I should have asked: Why?

In her attempt to explain/penetrate the work of himself and the three other artists reviewed, O'Connor writes, correctly, that Acocella "latches on to surrealism yet her attempt to draw a comparison is intellectually porous. The surrealists were rebelling and they were referring to art history, making statements against the status quo. That is not what I am doing. She only sees it this way because it is so far out of her limited world of dance that it looks like rebellion to her."

Here I think is the polemical center of O'Connor's argument with Acocella. The fact is that Acocella is an intellectual lightweight; she's no Croce. And, unfortunately, in a universe now dominated, in the mainstream press anyway, by John Rockwell and Gia Kourlas, she's the heavyweight! (I exempt critics whose backgrounds as trained dancers or dance professionals qualify them to critique dance, including Jowitt and our own Dance Insider writers, not counting me. I also exempt those of the earlier generation still around, such as Tobi Tobias and Jennifer Dunning.) The source of O'Connor's angst and perhaps even anguish, therefore, is not so much that these critics might write a bad review of him, but that, even if they find pleasure in his work, they will invariably, by their ignorance, reduce it.

As indicated by my preface of the Croce quote above, I agree that there is a virtue to non-dancer dance critics; after all -- and I wish more dancers would remember this -- critics are not just chroniclers of their history, they are also the audience's representative. But I absolutely believe that for those of us who are not trained dancers (or, like my colleague Philip W. Sandstrom, experienced in other aspects of dance production), absent any kind of required curriculum, we need to at least meet Edwin Denby's standard of being poets able to do some kind of justice to the dance in our own medium. Do we need to know the choreographer's intentions? Absolutely not. Do Mr. O'Connor and his colleagues have a right to expect us to perform at a literary level and with a historical authority commensurate to the standards they bring to their art form? Absolutely yes. Are we doing this? On the mainstream level and with the exceptions noted above -- I think not.

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