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The Rockwell Files, 7: Elitist is as Elitist Does
Gray Lady's New Provincial Gown

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- I don't want you to think I'm hungrily scanning the dance pages of the New York Times every day to find the latest jaw-dropper from new dance reviewers John Rockwell and Gia Kourlas. Believe it or not, I've better things to do. But one of those is to pursue the part of the Dance Insider mission that dictates we "give a voice to dancers," so when dancer-readers alert me to a new know-nothingism from M. Rockwell or the latest Criticism of the Not-Kool from Mlle Kourlas, I'm impelled to check it out. Well, John had the gall -- ;) -- to touch down on my side of the Ocean recently, and one of the results is a real head-scratcher, a column headlined "Europe's Elitist Dance, Flirting Everywhere." I suppose the flirting could refer to my love life, but as for the alleged 'elitism,' I'm afraid the analysis says less about European dance than about the analyzer and the muck of provincialism into which he and Kourlas appear to be dragging the floundering dance pages of the Gray Lady.

In theory (I was just joshin' about having the gall), it's a great thing that the Times is going to the expense of sending its dance critic over to this side of the Ocean to review important events, of which the Netherlands's Utrecht dance festival appears to be one. To the degree to which Rockwell lobbied to make this happen, he deserves credit. It's also great to see more attention given to artists like Rachid Ouramdane -- much more relevant to the contemporary French currency than old-hat Angelin Preljocaj. I can't even say that, had I seen the work on which Rockwell comments, we'd necessarily disagree in our assessment of the individual dances. But any good he accomplishes is over-shadowed by his shallow, appalling, unsupported, erroneous, and off-target assessment that, "Theorizing aside, the dance was extremely elitist, for all its bows to popular dance (hip-hop) and political immediacy. This followed in the grand tradition of provocative European avant-gardism, influential and obscure. Work like this flourishes in a climate of still-generous public subsidies (at least from an American perspective) and a sympathetic dance intelligentsia, unmindful of such tawdry considerations as potential box-office appeal."

At the risk of sounding like part of the sympathetic dance intelligentsia, allow me to break that comment down, from the micro to the macro:

Regarding the artists' alleged aloofness from considerations like box-office appeal, Rockwell's just wrong. Performances here routinely sell out, and pleading "looking for a ticket" signs are a normal occurrence.

Of course -- and here we get to Rockwell's bigger charge of "Elitism" -- one reason for the full houses may be the relative affordability of tickets. At the top-of-the-line Theatre de la Ville's two theaters, the top ticket price -- for exceptional events like Pina Bausch -- is 30 Euros, and tickets for most performances there range from 16-30 Euros, before any discounts for multiple purchases. If you're under 27, you're in luck: You typically pay 11.50 to 13 Euros, 23 for something like Bausch. (At private theaters throughout Paris, the deal is even better: On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, spectators under 26 can get tickets for 10 Euros, subject to availability.) The prices compare favorably to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York equivalent in stature and offerings. If "elitist" implies exclusion, this hardly qualifies.

Here's how Webster's defines "Elitist": "The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources." Ticket price knocks that last criterium out. As for whether dance artists here consider themselves superior socially or intellectually, I really think Rockwell has mis-diagnosed the problem. Some contemporary European dancemakers can certainly seem obscure and overly brainy (at the expense of physicality, I mean), their work indulgent and/or detached -- even under-choreographed. But to these symptoms Rockwell has applied the wrong motive; there is no classicism involved here, either social or intellectual. Most of the artists who might qualify (by my own biased view) as obscure, detached, or even indulgent, are not driven in that direction by any sense of superiority, but because they are more interested (or seem so) in process or "research" than in facilely pleasing the audience. (Which, judging by its density, seems to appreciate these researches anyway.) I'm not condoning this kind of dance content; as regular readers know, it drives me crazy. But simply labelling it "Elitist" is a critical cop-out, relying on a provincial critic's pre-conceptions and shorting audience and artists of any sort of constructive criticism which might actually advance both the art of dance and the art of criticism. At the Times, anyway, Rockwell and Kourlas seem to be retarding it.

PS: Regular Rockwell readers will be glad to know that he found at least one performance which speaks his language: "The Belgian Charlotte Vanden Eynde had six dancers performing sexy choreography that came closer to American-style modern dance than most of what (the festival) offered. Ms. Vanden Eynde had maybe too many ideas: the piece could have ended after 45 minutes, despite a nice nude female solo at the end and bubbles descending from on high. But what was good was very good indeed." Not to burst your bubble, John, but I am indeed shocked! shocked! to find dance featuring nudity emanating from Belgium.

Got a Rockwell- or Kourlas-ism? E me at paul@danceinsider.com. Please specify if you'd like your name withheld.


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