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The Buzz, 5-12: Critics Really Cornered
Critics Group's Answer to Criticism Crisis: Write More Features!; Delirious at the Gallery; 'Carmen' in Rochester

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Critics Calcified

It wasn't so long ago that, at a forum on the dwindling media space for dance criticism, my esteemed colleague Deborah Jowitt, senior dance critic of the Village Voice, was pooh-poohing advance features on dance performances as so much fluff, her essential (and valid) point being, How can one write about a performance before one's seen it? Such advances, as we call them in the trade, are basically uninformed by any kind of critical perspective on the work, since the work has yet to be unveiled. Well, on June 10, poor Deborah will find herself delivering the keynote speech at a Dance Critics Association conference which proposes to solve the crisis of the dwindling space for dance criticism by counseling its members to (wait for it) write more features!

If one is to believe Steve Sucato, the feature writer who now chairs the Dance Critics Association (which not so long ago wouldn't even admit feature writers), the most depressing aspect of the decreased space for dance reviews is not that dance companies aren't getting reviewed, but that dance critics aren't getting work.

"We live in a time of great change in the field of dance writing and criticism," Sucato, who evidently broke the story the first time a dog bit a man, informs his members on the organization's website. (Which also, btw, has Jowitt speaking for over 12 hours, from "12:00 - 12:30 a.m.". Back to proofreading school, Steve!) "Recently we have seen a decline in available jobs and writing opportunities for dance journalists." Yes, dancers, your main purpose is not to create art for the world, but employment for dance journalists. "Past conferences have focused on an awareness of the current crisis in the field. The 2006 conference will offer up practical thinking and advice on several subjects from features writing to how we view dance criticism in an effort to help us adapt to our changing field."

The description of the kick-off panel is, well, just embarrassing for an organization aspiring to represent a cadre of professional critics, indicating a descent into journalism 101: "This panel discusses the writing of feature stories: how to get to the heart of the 'story,' what kind of language to use to reach a broad readership, which of your skills as a critic can be applied to writing features, and how the story can be the opposite of 'fluff'.'" In other words, how to dumb yourself down without really dumbing yourself down.

Even a second panel, "Criticism: Process & Purpose" misses an opportunity by offering up the same old farts to address the topic. I have the greatest respect for at least one of these old farts -- she's an idol I try to emulate every time I write about a dance concert, with limited success -- but I would have loved to see one of the newest critical voices from the New York Times, John Rockwell or Gia Kourlas, included, if only so that Rockwell could be pressed on exactly what is his process, and Kourlas forced to 'fess up to her purpose.

More important, and speaking of Rockwell, I don't know what burg Rip van Sucato has been living in, but if you ask any dancer (and some critics as well), to describe the major issues facing dance criticism right now, there are two, neither addressed by this conference: The dumbing down of dance criticism at the Times, as reflected in the anointment of Rockwell as chief critic and the assigning to Kourlas of any reviews; and the gap between critics and dance artists exposed by Tere O'Connor in his brave response to a (positive) New Yorker review of his work. HOW ON EARTH CAN AN ORGANIZATION WHICH PURPORTS TO REPRESENT DANCE CRITICS NOT BE AWARE OF THESE ISSUES? By not addressing them, the DCA risks alienating us even more from the dance artists who make our, er, job opportunities possible.

(PS: And why not even a WORD on Josephine Baker, whose 100th birthday is June 3, a week before the conference? Talk about out of touch!)

Advances that Dance

Speaking of uninformed advances, here are a couple:

To my taste, there's nothing so thrilling -- for the change of space -- as seeing dance in an art gallery. So I regret I'll be out of town when one of my favorite dancers, Edisa Weeks, brings her company Delirious to one of my favorite (maybe one of the last?) SoHo galleries, the Puffin Room, next Friday and Saturday May 19 and 20, to present the first installation of "Liaisons: the Living Room Project." As described by the choreographer, the performance, which runs at 8 and 10 p.m. each night, involves "a series of quirky dances about desire that are performed with the audience seated on four sides. The dancers form liaisons with the audience and each other, stretching the boundaries of closeness between strangers, inviting the audience to intimately gaze at the unfolding movement and one another." And what dancers! Weeks's stellar cast includes Jenni Hong, Kate Johnson, Jeffrey Peterson, and Trebien Pollard. Speaking of the incredibly shrinking dance world, and possible antidotes, here's the best part: Children under 10 will be admitted free. For reservations and more info, ring 718-455-5266.

Here at the Dance Insider, operated as we are mostly by active professional dance artists, it's impossible to avoid all conflicts of interest. Ergo, our policy is to disclose connections where they pop up in reviews or elsewhere. So I tell you upfront that this next advance involves not only a work I've never seen, but a choreographer who, besides being a consulting editor to the DI since our founding eight years ago (in a SoHo attic, btw), is also a longtime and close friend.

Tonight at the Nazareth College Arts Center in Rochester, the Rochester City Ballet gives the world premiere of Edward Ellison's "Carmen," to the Bizet music, on a program which also includes new work from Spanish choreographer Inma Rubio Tomas.

Lest you think that all this work (and this item) has to recommend it is that I've known the choreographer since we had nothing better to do than hang around Len's Market sucking on Jolly Ranchers (watermelon, followed by apple), allow me share his serious credentials: Edward is not one of those ballet dancers who declared immediately on his retirement (in this case, from a career highlighted by being a soloist with San Francisco Ballet), Voila, I'm a choreographer! No, rather, having been turned on to ballet relatively late by an inspiring teacher, Marius Zirra and, later, been particularly impressed with the critical role it plays in the art by Larisa Sklyanskaya and Irina Jacobson, Edward decided to make teaching his metier. (Sorry for all the French words; hope you're keeping up, Steve.) A stint at SF Ballet's school was followed by guest ballet mastering and teaching around the world, including for the companies or schools of American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Houston Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet, and others; he even took the fabled Vaganova teaching course in Russia. In New York, Edward has taught a popular class at Steps for years.

In teaching, while you can often enjoy relative autonomy within your class, in the context of a school affiliated with a company you are ultimately working in someone else's pedagogical construct. It may well be a great construct, but it's still not yours. Edward's desire to be responsible for the big picture -- as well as a fundamental understanding of the critical role ballet education plays in forming ballet artists -- lead to his founding, last summer, the Ellison Ballet -- Professional Training Program, a New York-based school for serious students between the ages of 14 and 18. (And on whose board I currently serve. The DI is also a media sponsor.) It also lead him to want to create choreographies that would put his educational precepts and results to practice in performance. While not his first such effort, "Carmen" is one he's been winnowing for a while -- this ballet was not created overnight -- and thus I'd recommend your checking it out, which you can also do, besides tonight, tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m..

If I can be permitted to test your indulgence (not to mention Steve's French vocabulary) with one more word for tonight's show, I send Edward and the dancers one grande merde!

PS: Actually, I'd like to close with this thought from Tchaikovsky, with whom I celebrated a birthday Sunday, cribbed from the Ellison Ballet's website: "One cannot afford to sit waiting for inspiration. She is a guest that does not visit the lazy, but comes to those who call her."


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