The Buzz, 8-9: Dumb & Dumber
It was the Best of Times, it was the Worst of Times
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider
I was going to start this column with a letter from a Lincoln Center publicist asking me to quantify -- with a dollar value -- our recent coverage of the Lincoln Center Festival, but then my DI colleague Aimee Ts'ao forwarded me an article by the former Lincoln Center Festival director now masquerading as a dance critic, just the latest example of how the New York Times, once one of the first reference points for newspaper criticism in the U.S., is leveling every notion of responsible, qualified dance criticism (not to mention just plain journalism) and doing its best (albeit ignorantly) to take down an entire art form with it. No longer content to simply dumb down at least two art forms -- dance and dance criticism -- John Rockwell, the Times's chief dance 'critic,' is now using his bully (if increasingly wobbly) pulpit to try to take down colleagues who, by their erudition, indirectly reveal him for the under-qualified dance observer he is -- not by criticizing them in an honest dialogue, which would be legitimate, but by distorting their views, even attributing to them things they did not write. Thus in Rockwell's spin, Lewis Segal's brilliant "Five things I hate about Ballet," an accurate diagnosis of the problems currently facing an art form the author obviously loves and cares about, published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, becomes just inveterate ballet-hating.
The distortion in Rockwell's Times piece of yesterday starts from the beginning, with the headline "Critic's (sic) Notebook: Ballet as a Dance Form Some Just Love to Hate." (The reason I'm not linking to the article is that after a week or two, you'll have to pay to read it.)
Here's what Segal actually writes, in his second paragraph: "Ballet has given us visions of limitless human potential and a sense of grace as profound as anything we have ever thought, felt or believed. But all too often, it now (emphasis added) commandeers a disproportionate amount of money and attention in the dance world and returns only an increasingly self-satisfied triviality."
This is not the writing of someone with, as Rockwell puts it, a "low regard for ballet" -- quite the contrary. This is the expression of someone who understands the potential of ballet and is distressed at the level and fashioning of its current edition; and the ensuing article the SOS of someone who loves the form in its ideal state. (Later, Segal writes: "Beauty in ballet should be something unique, luminous, even mysterious: dancing that embodies a physical and spiritual ideal, a profound, expressive act rather than just a refined technical feat.") In describing ballet's current flaws, he is being a good reporter -- and, in my view, an accurate one. But accuracy of course is something Rockwell would not understand. Supposedly digesting Segal's article for his readers, he writes, "Nineteenth-century story ballets are politically incorrect, he (Segal) writes." Actually, he doesn't; I've just done a word search of Segal's piece and find neither "politically" nor "incorrect." While "politically correct" may be an expedient if intellectually lazy way for Rockwell to dismiss Segal's legitimate -- and widely shared -- concerns about a distasteful relic of ballet tradition, the phraseology Segal actually employs is "Poisonous exoticism: The serpent among the flowers," which he explains as follows:
"For beginners, the easiest thing to hate about ballet may be the way so many 19th century story ballets depict non-Christian, non-European, nonwhite people. Happy slaves, lustful Muslims, murderous Hindus: They sure don't make 'em like that anymore. But why are we watching this stuff -- surely not out of nostalgia for the racism and xenophobia on view? It's not the same thing as viewing a movie from a less enlightened age, it's more like remaking one: enlisting the finest dance stars and stage artists of our time to reanimate a corrupt vision.
"Classical music still shakes us to the core. Classical theater speaks of the eternal issues that define our lives. But too much antique Western classical dance doesn't even function as metaphor -- it simply buttresses a sense of white Euro-privilege by dramatizing how colorfully nasty things are elsewhere. And as the audience for this kind of ballet continues to die out, so should the works dramatizing this offensive world view. When they're gone from the repertory of major companies -- available for study on film or video or reduced to their formal pure-dance sequences (emphasis added), they'll no longer be the living embarrassment they are now. In their place, a new, powerful, inclusive classicism or neoclassicism just might emerge. Worth trying."
The stakes are pretty high here -- in fact mortal: Orientalist ballets that -- in their two-dimensionality -- present Arabs as sub-human savages can make their deaths -- as those in Lebanon in Palestine -- seem, if not palatable, more acceptable than the loss of white lives.
If not as lethal, the stakes for ballet are also pretty high. And make no mistake: It's Segal -- who sees it falling into the abyss and wants to sound the alarm -- and not John Rockwell, who cannot see, who truly values ballet.
Unfortunately, at the New York Times these days, John Rockwell is not just an aberration but a manifestation of the reigning ignorance -- editors who don't understand dance giving platforms to would-be critics unschooled in its basics. Witness the recent spectacle in which Rachel Howard, writing in the paper's July 23 editions, wrote that William Forsythe's "'Artifact Suite,' which receives its New York premiere at Lincoln Center, was the highlight of (San Francisco Ballet's) last home season, with the corps dancing like gangbusters for 50 minutes of nonstop Neo-Classicism. (Emphasis added.)"
If William Forsythe has created some ballets to which the term "Neo-classicism" might be applied, this one is not one of them. In the old days, Anna Kissselgoff would have caught this. Now that John Rockwell has taken her place I'm afraid it's just the dumb leading the dumber.
Indeed, perhaps I need to put this on a level Rockwell can understand. The New York Times's so-called 'chief dance critic' begins and ends his critique of the Los Angeles Times's dance critic's essay by attempting to ascribe Segal's perspective to the fact that, just as it has no football team, L.A. has no permanent ballet squad. If I can then employ his preferred metaphor, John Rockwell criticizing Lewis Segal is kind of like a strike replacement player taking on Willie Mays. Segal's hit one out of the park and into the Bay; Rockwell, a homer in a different sense, is not fit to carry his jock.
Show us the Money
On Monday I received the following letter from the Lincoln Center Press Office:
I am writing from the press office at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. At the end of each of our series, we attempt to match an estimate(d) dollar value to the coverage we have received in various newspapers, magazines and online publications for our productions.
(T)he Dance Insider has run a few stories on the series that I am involved with -- the Lincoln Center Festival -- and it would be helpful if you (or someone else) could provide me with an equivalent rate which you would charge someone with the same amount of bought 'real-estate' on your site....
I would so greatly appreciate it if someone from your publication could get back to me....
Thanks very much,
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
I was so astounded by this letter that I decided to verify its authenticity; I was told, by the Lincoln Center press office, that the letter, while actually written by summer PR assistant Vanessa Arcara (and sent on Plumb's computer), was legitimate. In the interests of giving the benefit of the doubt to the professionals at the Lincoln Center press office -- some of the best -- here's how it was explained by a higher-up press official:
"Among Vanessa's many festival-related duties is collecting and copying festival clips and doing a summary of the approximate 'value' of all of the editorial coverage we've received. (I.e., what the space or time would have cost if it were paid advertising.) This is based on the advertising rates currently in place for print, broadcast and electronic media where our coverage appeared(:) per column inch, air-time rates for broadcast media -- for our T.V. and radio hits -- and, if calculable, costs for website placement. This last is most difficult, with so many variables (where things are placed on the site, the length of time an item is up, etcetera), and because there are sites which do not accept advertising, so we are able to include website coverage values only minimally. I'm aware, via (LC marketing director) Martha (Cooper), that LC placed some advertising on the Dance Insider. But Vanessa was asked to contact various outlets directly to obtain the most accurate rate information that would apply to the specific coverage we received. If you're able to provide us with a figure you are comfortable with, we'll be happy to include it."
Well, no. I'm actually not comfortable assigning a dollar value to a piece of dance criticism on a work of art. And I'm shocked that a presenter would reveal to a media outlet that this is how it values and evaluates the impact of coverage (or at least one of the ways it does so). There has been much valuable discussion over the last year -- in these pages and elsewhere, notably the Village Voice -- of the role of the critic. Most of it -- involving critics, artists, and artist/critics -- has been on a reasonably high level and, notwithstanding a certain amount of accompanying rancor, has I believe advanced both our fields -- criticism and dance. I'm all the more saddened, then, that a presenter -- and a major one -- would reduce the indices to this level.