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The Buzz, 7-5: Amplitude
The Tragedy of Jennifer Dunning

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider

One of the reasons I was relieved when the New York Times hired Alastair Macaulay as its chief dance critic last Spring was that it was obvious from his writing that Macaulay approached dance reviewing from a place of love and respect. I don't think dancers -- mature dancers, anyway -- resent criticism. But they expect it to stay on the level of critiquing the art and their ability to execute and interpret it. The subject of the criticism should be what they're creating, and how they're creating it, not simply their bodies, their bodies which they put on the line as none of us do to elevate their art and maybe, sometimes, our lives.

Jennifer Dunning, the longtime Times critic, used to write about dance from a place of love and authority, not to mention objectivity. (By objectivity, I mean that unlike, say, her Times colleague Anna Kisselgoff, she didn't let factors outside the dance, e.g. dance world politics, influence her reviewing.) During the Kisselgoff-Jack Anderson-Dunning era, Dunning was far and away the most talented reviewer and writer, the most eloquent, the most universally respected by dancers. This isn't to say there were never any dance artists who felt wounded by her, but I think the very fact that they felt the wounds so deeply attests to their not expecting the arrows from Jennifer, normally a fair-minded critic.

When Kisselgoff retired, I wasn't the only one in the dance world disappointed that the Times didn't automatically make Dunning chief dance critic.

And yet, in recent years, Dunning has sometimes succumbed to a malady common to many veteran critics (including myself), in which the critic becomes jaded, impatient, and tired, and the fatigue creeps into the criticism to make it sometimes less than that.

Take Dunning's June 16 review of Villains and Heroes, the latest installment in the DancemOpolitan cabaret series produced by Dancenow/NYC and Joe's Pub, at Joe's Pub in New York.

"The heroes" of the evening, Dunning wrote, "included Ashleigh Leite's pudgy Wonder Woman, boisterous and meditative in turn...."

"Pudgy"?

This isn't dance criticism.

Jennifer, we love you, we treasure most of the body of work you've created in more than two decades recording the dancers' art most of the time with love, with poetry, but I think it's time to ask yourself whether you are still open to dance.

As the word 'tragedy' has come to be often misused and misunderstood these days, I should perhaps expand on my applying it to the case of Jennifer Dunning: I use it in the sense of a tragic hero. This is used to describe a good person -- often a great person -- who has become beset by a tragic flaw which diminishes and damages them, and usually brings down their loved ones as well. To illustrate what I mean with an opposite example: Were I writing about Dunning's Times colleague Gia Kourlas, I wouldn't employ the same word; that's not a tragedy, that's simply spite and cynicism. Kourlas has never had real respect for dance, nor respected the role dancers have given her. Dunning has, for many years, and that's why seeing her descend to the level of calling a dancer 'pudgy' (even in the context of an otherwise positive review of the piece in question) hurts so many of us. It demeans the dancers who have given her her line of work, as well as her own metier.

 

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