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The Buzz, 3-24: Fools for Dance
Critics to Die for and Cry About; Blockheads for Bunheads; Lichtner Feted; Homer Remembered

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

This one goes out to Joe. Merci for the save.

Critics, Ordinary and Extraordinary

Anna Kisselgoff, the lately supplanted chief dance critic of the New York Times, was sometimes referred to in the dance world as "Kissofdeath" or "Kissitoff," meaning a bad review from her could be the kiss of death to a season, which could then be kissed off. But the power of the dance critic goes beyond the box office and endures long after the curtain has fallen. Ours is the power of and over posterity.

Unlike theater or film, which usually do, dance does not have a written text. Yes, there's a choreographic text in the creator's mind which, funds and foresight permitting, is sometimes recorded on paper by skilled notators. But because there is no text, per se, the responsibility of the dance critic to find, interpret, and even explain that text in a written form is weightier than that of the film or theater critic. This is not just a responsibility; it should also be a pleasure. Edwin Denby once wrote (in Anatole Chujoy's "Dance Encyclopedia") that -- I paraphrase -- what dance criticism needs is not more technicians but more poets. Because we have more responsibility than our brethren in theater to, well, narrate, we have that much more of an opportunity to create a written literature for a danced one -- a canon of its own, if you will. We're not just 'reviewers,' reporting what we saw; we're really engaging in our own pas de deux, our words with the dancemaker's movement composition. Our best critics realize -- in both senses of the word -- this task, and meet it with essays that double the reader's experience: They get a feeling for the dance, and they also get a fine experience in reading. Writing about Scott Heron in 2001 here, the DI's Chris Dohse noted that Deborah Hay had said Heron had "a heart like a jewel." But another jewel was to be found in Chris's previous paragraph, where, referring to Heron and musical collaborator Chris Cochrane, he noted, "They've been friends a long time, and their camaraderie enriches the shared space. If the viewer allows them to take him away, their abundance of imagination remodels the ordinary." Except that the material is far from ordinary, the same might be said of readers who allow critics like Chris to carry them away.

But I'm not just beating the DI's own drum. Here's Marica B. Siegel (whose collections should be required reading in college dance history courses), writing in this week's Boston Phoenix about Mark Morris: "Dance repertory has its drawbacks, chiefly the danger of an automatic response. Morris splashes a postmodern irreverence into his old and new dances, and that keeps them from complacency. He's too mainstream now to be thought of as a true subversive, but he's constantly playing against your expectations. You may not notice he's doing this because his dance rides so securely on its musical accompaniments, but then all of a sudden you realize you're not looking at a carbon copy of your memories." (Click here to read the full review.)

All of which is by way of helping you understand why when I woke up too early this morning, I found my 4 a.m. upset focusing on the current reviewing situation at the New York Times, which, I believe, is in many ways the equivalent of the Times saying "Fuck you Dance." Sorry to swear, but objectionable actions sometimes call for strong language. We still have (um, we do, right?) Jennifer Dunning, perhaps the most underrated American critic of our times, as well as Jack Anderson, who appears to be undergoing a sort of late-game renaissance. But unfortunately, the Times has also given us -- in its ongoing cavalier attitude towards dance criticism and therefore dance performance -- John Rockwell and Gia Kourlas, both of whom had spare to little prior experience critiquing dance before the Times decided to give them the responsibility, and who bring, respectively, ignorance and agendas to their briefs.

The latest mistake -- because let's be clear here, we're not just talking about a difference in opinion, but plain errors -- from the Times's new chief dance critic was Rockwell's declaring Saturday, from his perch across the ocean, that the British choreographer Matthew Bourne, "like several other European choreographers, seems so eager to market his dance as theater." I don't know about Bourne, but I live here (in Europe) and, unlike M. Rockwell, I not only see dance here, but I see how it is marketed, and he's put the problem in the inverse. The problem in Europe is not dancemakers wanting to market their work as theater, but their marketing as dance works which contain very little dance and a lot of (usually bad and outdated) theater.

But the hiring of Kourlas is in a way even more disturbing than Rockwell's promotion, a) because she had so little prior experience as a critic, and b) because it shouldn't take much knowledge of dance on the part of her editors to see how she is abusing her new responsibility. SNIDE is one word that comes to mind. CATTY is another. A review of a performance at Joyce Soho seemed as concerned with the fact that the theater wasn't as chic as the neighboring boutiques as it was with the quality of the dance. A recent review of "Riverdance" didn't stop at simply criticizing what Kourlas perceived as a lack of chemistry between stars Conor Hayes and Sinead McCafferty, but went on to snipe that "Ms. McCafferty, a manicured, American version of pretty, also lacks a certain dignity. She could be a guest on Howard Stern." This isn't dance criticism. It's a person abusing her forum to make fun of someone who's not as cool as she is, and why the Times has given this harpy this perch defies reason -- not to mention fairness. If anyone's dignity has been lowered here, it's the Gray Lady's. (Kourlas also rivals her chief for ignorance; a recent review opened, "In dance, women are frequently reduced to stereotypes." What dance has Kourlas been watching?)

Super-heroes, 1

Speaking of agendas, if you want to see one of mine outed, check the latest chapter of The Block, the comic strip saga penned and inked by Ben Zackheim, incidentally the DI's founding production manager. For the secret origins of PBI's dance Jones, head on over to The Block.

Super-heroes, 2

While we're promenading with the visual artists: Degas is not the only major artist to have found inspiration in the dance studio. Schomer Lichtner, whose 100th birthday Friday was feted at the Milwaukee Art Museum Sunday, is best known, writes the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Mary Louise Schumacher, for his expressive and whimsical paintings of dancers and dairy cows, as well as his regionalist murals. Here's one in which Lichtner combines two of my favorite things. And here's another which returns us to the subject with which we opened today's sermon. (To view the whole slide show generously offered by Lichtner and the Journal-Sentinel, just click here.)

Super-heroes, 3

.... And how about we close today's with a Homer-Run? That would be our friend and colleague Homer Avila who, longtime partner Edisa Weeks writes to tell us, will be remembered on videotape and in live performances and reflections Monday, April 18 beginning at 7 p.m. at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church in New York. Organizers are looking for ushers and housing for out-of-town guests, among other help. To become involved, please e-mail Laura Colby at laurac@elsieman.org. (If you're a Dance Insider reader who actually doesn't know who Homer is, just enter his name in our search engine window.)


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