The Buzz, 3-24: Fools
Critics to Die for and Cry About; Blockheads for Bunheads; Lichtner
Feted; Homer Remembered
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
This one goes out
to Joe. Merci for the save.
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?)
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.
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.)
.... 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.)