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The Buzz, 6-21: The Wilis
Why the Dance Critics Association is a joke, and why this matters

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

To understand why the Dance Critics Association is -- in my humble opinion -- a joke, you need look no further than a recent review written by its president (at least, last I heard he was; the DCA's website lists him just as a member of its board), Robert Abrams, who published it on his own website (where, full disclosure, he has also published and declined to publish work by me). This is a review that does not mention the choreographer, the librettist, or the composer. (Mr. Abrams says they are mentioned on the program for the performance, which apparently he links to.) This is a review that suggests the producers of "Giselle" might think about adding super-titles:

"But as important as challenge is, and as important as preserving the past is, we as a dance community cannot succeed only by challenging our audience. We also need to adapt to modern expectations of memory. So I ask you this question: What was the last great silent movie you saw? The answer is probably 'None.' Almost no one makes silent movies anymore. Perhaps it is time to experiment with talkies in dance? With a production like Giselle, there might be supertitles like the ones used in opera that translate the pantomime. Supertitles above the stage might be a distraction to those in the audience who don't want or need them, so an alternative would be to provide audience members who do want the text with a heads up display they can mount on their glasses."

I almost don't know where to begin here (besides, "'Metropolis.'") Except to say that, the next time a dance critic -- or a dancer -- complains about the lack of on-staff dance critics at newspapers, they might consider whether when people like Robert Johnson, Marcia Siegel -- my hero -- and Alastair Macaulay (who, despite his shortfalls, is the chief dance critic of the NY Times) -- participate in the DCA (Siegel spoke at its last conference, and Johnson and Macaulay are listed as board members) and thus acquiesce and implicitly endorse its president who makes statements like this in the guise of criticism -- oh, I left out the part where he suggests "Giselle" might be improved by adding a 'wine-tasting' version of the ballet (if the original librettist -- Theophile Gautier, btw -- had wanted to go this way, it would have been opium) -- then they have only themselves to blame when newspaper editors don't put dance criticism on a par with theater, music, and film criticism.

Oh wait: There is some actual dance criticism here:

"Giselle and Albrecht danced some very nice partnering."

"When Giselle danced with flowers, the flowers extended her wingspan in a beautiful way."

"Hilarion had some impressive high leaps."

That's some mighty fine partnerin', Gissy!

Personally, I have nothing against Mr. Abrams, whose love of dance is sincere and whose work is evidently not motivated by profit. Let him publish and propose innovative solutions to re-plotting famous ballets to his heart's content. But when the putative trade organization for dance criticism elects as its leader, or even as a board member, someone who is clearly unqualified to write professional dance criticism, it cheapens the field -- my field -- and has only itself to blame for the lack of seriousness with which dance criticism -- and, more seriously, dance -- is taken at U.S. newspapers.

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