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The Buzz, 9-19: More Books & Pencils
Back to School with Tere O'Connor; Michelson's not THAT in the money; Tulsa is

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

The anti-Literalist Storms the Academy

Whenever I meet a dancer for the first time and tell her I'm a critic, she inevitably responds, "Oh, are you a dancer?" This is not an appraisal of my svelte form, but rather, I think, a polite way of saying: "I trained for my profession. Did you to criticize it?" Indeed, by the time they reach adulthood, many dancers have been preparing for their profession for more years than they'll be able to practice it. Critics, by contrast, face no such gauntlet. Provided they know how to put words together in interesting combinations, all they need to do is prove their authority on the subject to editors who often have even less. (These days, you don't even need to be a critic to become an 'associate member' of the Dance Critics Association. You can even be a publicist.) Do we still produce some naturals? You bet. But the general mean have no required standards to meet. And while various academic disciplines can certainly help prepare one for a career as a critic -- aesthetics, literature, theater, music, creative writing, journalism, art history, and of course dance itself -- you can't major in dance criticism per se. If this is to change, it will fall to the college and university dance departments to change it. (If editors don't care about dance, one can hardly expect the journalism schools and departments they stock to introduce a dance criticism track.)

I believe it's our lack of any parallel qualifications that was at the root of Tere O'Connor's response to critic Joan Acocella's reductive New Yorker review of his (and others') work, expressed in a letter to the New Yorker published here last fall. "Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up," O'Connor wrote, lumping Acocella into a group of critics he dubbed "the literalists," who "have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken."

Well, O'Connor himself will now have a chance to shed some light, as he joins the faculty of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign as a full tenured professor this year.

Sara Hook, one of a generation of New York choreographers determined to stay connected with the city's dance scene even as they fan out to positions at universities, made it her pet project last year (when she was interim head of the dance department) to recruit O'Connor as a faculty excellence hire. While I imagine his main mission will no doubt be to teach subjects like dance and dance composition, I would urge new department head Jan Erkert, a big-picture person if ever there was one, to consider exploiting the presence on her faculty of a dance artist deeply invested in the state of dance criticism to implement a program geared to teach dance students how to critically analyze and write about dance. They're not all going to become dancers; there aren't enough jobs. Some will inevitably become critics, as a way to continue to serve their passion and the field. Why not give them the tools to be able to do so? Yes I know, the decrepit state of dance criticism is not the responsibility of dance departments, but journalism departments. But the reality is that my field (journalism) just doesn't care enough, globally at least. So if there's going to be a change, it's going to have to come from the dance end. Strategically placed now in an academic setting where he can actually effect change and not just kvetch about it, Tere O'Connor, who catalyzed this most recent round of what's becoming a perennial discussion, just could be the catalyst for real change. (Hook, by the way, is also deeply invested in dance criticism. It was she, as the founding senior artistic advisor of the Dance Insider, who first hipped me to the importance to our history of Louis Horst's Dance Observer.)

Apart from the little fantasy I've just shared, Urbana Champaign's hiring of O'Connor is also important for the model it provides of a structure for choreographers to both enter the academy and maintain their connections with New York, as well as their companies' touring presence. He'll be in residence in the spring, but will spend the fall recruiting for the university in New York and on other projects, continuing to work with his company and maintaining his international visibility.

It's a Greg Zuccolo World, the rest of us just live in it

... El Zuccolo, who has danced for both, being the connection between the O'Connor item and this one on Sarah Michelson, a member of whose entourage writes to tell us that reports (in the New York Times) that La Michelson is getting $157,000 from the Brooklyn Academy of Music for her latest spectacle are somewhat exaggerated.

Oklahoma, where dance dreams big

... And even that amount would be just chicken feed to Tulsa Ballet, which announced recently that it had exceeded the original $9 million goal of its three-year-old campaign, "Exceeding Expectations," by more than a cool million, the accomplishment (along with the desire to increase its capital and endowment funds) inspiring the 50-year-old company to increase the goal to $12.5 million. While it's great to be back in black, artistic director Marcello Angelini tells the Dance Insider, the company is also not idling creatively. "I am adding a series totally dedicated to creation starting next year in our new theater," Angelini reports. "So, finally, Tulsa will start creating at least three works every year. First we changed the perception of our audience about dance.... Then we introduced the best of the past few decades. Now it's time to start creating art." Tulsa's latest creation, Ma Cong's "Carmina Burana," opens Friday on a program with Balanchine's "Serenade" which runs through Sunday.


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