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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,
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,
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
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.