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Scott Heron (center) with Hijack's Kristin Van Loon (left) and Arwen Wilder (right) in "Smithsoniansmith." William P. Starr photo courtesy Scott Heron.

Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

"During Friday's performance the sky had become cloudless, and on my way home I kept looking up through the pine trees to see perhaps a thousand stars, all astonishingly large and seemingly near."

-- Alastair Macaulay, New York Times, August 8

Alastair Macaulay was content. A week earlier, his editors had sent him downtown. Way downtown. Way, WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY downtown, to Chrystie Street, to see Scott Heron and Hijack (the duo of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder) perform "Smithsoniansmith." "It's part of the Dixon Place Hot! Festival, which celebrates queer performance and culture," Alastair explained, "and everything about the performance was also queer in the old-fashioned sense." Then, like the proverbial kettle calling the pot black, Alastair continued, "What was strangest, and most disappointing, was the tone of inconsequentiality and triviality that marked it all." Make a dance where neither truth nor consequences are apparent, dear post-modern choreographer, and you risk befuddling a reviewer whose critiques (even about performances he likes. *Especially* about performances he likes.) so often seem so... inconsequential. "It seemed that one person alone watched the proceedings in unbroken bafflement," Alastair had observed, before admitting, "and I take no pride in that." (Neither should his employer.)

Now Alastair was back in familiar terrain, where his universe was back in order: A (mostly) ballet festival, held amidst the "wonders of Vail,' the elevated surroundings no doubt more comfortable for the Times chief dance critic than wondering what was being unveiled before him in the lower depths of Manhattan.

If you think I'm about to bash ballet, you're wrong. Ballet can lend itself to profound analysis; ballet can be complex; ballet can be psychological; ballet can be timeless; ballet can be mysterious, even enigmatic; ballet has been grist for intellectual giants from Theophile Gautier to Jean Cocteau. Ballet often has what post-modern, or post-post-modern anyway, doesn't: a basis in literature. (And I don't mean text written by the choreographer.) And this is before we ever get to its vaunted place in the musical universe.

If I cite ballet here, it's because it is more likely to lend itself to at least a superficial level of observation than post-modern dance. So it provides an opportunity to illustrate how high Alastair is able to jump when he's not befuddled, and thus to prove that the unbearable lightness of inconsequence comes from him, not what he's watching.

You're not going to believe this, dance insider, but in 2010 -- post 2008 U.S. presidential election 2010 -- the only leitmotif Alastair could find in the Vail international Dance Festival, which certainly, with work from Paul Taylor to Jerome Robbins to Savion Glover provided enough meat for a worthy critic to sink his teeth into, was... nationality. That's right. We're subjected to a relentless ballet-by-ballet listing of the countries of origin of every principal and soloist. What a waste of words and valuable space! Alastair -- and dance -- are given front page coverage (on the Times's website at least), and he squanders it by confusing a dance concert with a Benneton ad.

Elizabeth Zimmer famously lamented a decade or so ago "the incredibly shrinking" space for dance criticism in newspapers. Why has the Times given such a precious amount of it to a lilliputian critic, incapable of understanding anything that falls outside his universe? And who doesn't comprehend that reviewing a dance concert is not an opportunity for him to see the stars but to help his readers aspire to them?

Dance criticism -- more than in any other genre because, let's face it dance insiders, you *can* be obtuse -- calls for critics with the capacity to interpret what they're seeing. (That doesn't mean they need to *like* it.) This man doesn't even try!! He goes to a concert that the artists have been developing for several years and after it's over (perhaps as soon as it started) pronounces the critical equivalent of "Mommy, I don't understand." If Alastair cannot understand, he needs to quit or the Times, if it's to regain any shred of the credibility it's lost since the departure as staff writer of Jennifer Dunning, needs to fire him.

Anyone can spot a thousand stars in a cloudless sky. It takes someone who can see to read the pattern. (For an example, see Gus Solomons jr's Flash Review of "Smithsoniansmith.")

PS: Not only doesn't Macaulay try to get the dance, he doesn't get one of the artist's names right, referring to Scott Heron as "Scotty." Beam 'im up, Scotty.



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