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Flash Media-Watch, 11-27: Report Card
The Incredible Shrinking World of Dance Publications
--And How to Make it Grow Again

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

At a news conference yesterday at an undisclosed location in Southern Afghanistan, where the U.S. Marines had set up base, General James Mattis, asked to describe the operation, told reporters: "The New York school of ballet could not have orchestrated a more intricate movement more flawlessly." Of course, you and I know there is no such institution. But the error -- not just by General Mattis, but by the news service (Reuters) which reported the remark without correction -- reflects, I think, not just a gap in the education of U.S. military leaders, but the failure of the principal dance media organizations to adequately serve the field. If we are doing an inadequate job of getting the word out on dance, we can hardly expect our more mainstream colleagues to get the facts right when it comes to dance. The good news, however, is that, in the case of each principal dance publication, a solution is close at hand -- and I don't mean requiring the cadets at West Point to attend the annual School of American Ballet recital.

With the temerity, perhaps, of a foreign power setting up military bases where it doesn't belong and dictating a new government, I'd like to describe where five dance media organizations are failing -- and the steps they can take to fix themselves and thus serve the field as it deserves to be served.

The New York Times

The Gray Lady should always be lauded as the only daily newspaper in the States which has not just one full-time dance critic -- which would make it rare enough in today's daily journalistic landscape -- but three. Sort of. The set-up now, as I understand it, is that Anna Kisselgoff is the chief critic; Jennifer Dunning comes next, but also has responsibility for dance news, and beyond that writes features and the occasional obituary. Jack Anderson is the third-string critic, and also writes the occasional Sunday history piece.

As a writer, Kisselgoff presents contradicting values: She can be our most eloquent of dance writers, but, she can also be our most obscure. Non-dance people I talk to who try to read her reviews say it can be like trying to decipher an entry code for a club in which they are not welcome. Ms. Kisselgoff isn't the only dance writer who writes in code, but I believe as one who has access to the biggest potential audience of non-dance people, she should write for intelligent people of all persuasions, not just the converted.

Ms. Dunning's biggest challenge is not of her making. In a town like New York, which is the dance capital of the world, she is simply being asked to do so much. She's a great critic -- perhaps our best daily dance critic -- and a thorough, lucid reporter (who does know how to explain her subject to a wider audience). She should be assigned just one of these tasks. This is not a criticism of Ms. Dunning. I simply believe the field would be better served to have her full-time as either a critic or dance newsperson.

This audience probably does not need me to regurgitate the Jack Anderson situation. Suffice it to say that today, anyway, Mr. Anderson either doesn't have the tools or the will to write incisive dance criticism. This is the Times's second biggest flaw, dance-wise, as Mr. Anderson is often assigned to review the very companies -- new and young -- which most need the hearing and opinion of an informed and informative dance critic.

The Times's biggest flaw is in the over-politicization of its dance coverage, under, presumably, the direction of Ms. Kisselgoff. This is most obvioiusly revealed in its long support for the ex-director of the Martha Graham company, Ron Protas, even at the expense of the facts, with the Times, initially anyway, putting a factually incorrect spin on the recent trial between Mr. Protas and the Graham school and center. But the most embarrassing chapter came when the Times carried its perplexing loyalty to Mr. Protas to the extremeof not covering the 75th anniversary gala of the Graham school of which Mr. P no longer approved.

Solution: Consign Mr. Anderson to the Sunday history pieces he essays so well. Assign an editor to supervise the coverage and news decisions in which the Times currently defers to Ms. Kisselgoff. Hire a fourth critic who will review the new companies currently assigned to Mr. Anderson, and who will spell Ms. Dunning on news coverage.

The Village Voice

I borrowed the title for this piece from Ms. Zimmer, whose dance section over the last seven years -- through no fault of her own -- it might be used to describe. While Ms. Zimmer has performed a veritable miracle of the Fish in wringing more dance coverage out of declining space than would seem possible, the fact remains that her editors at the Voice have, in terms of dance, all but abdicated the Voice's historical role as a chronicler of avant-culture in New York.

Solution: Dance presenters and companies, big and small, should advertise more in the Voice. Then, once dance advertising has increased, they will have a more economic leverage from which to pressure (or nicely coax) the editors to increase editorial space for dance.

Lifestyle Ventures

There's no doubt but that Michael Weiskopf, the savvy CEO of this group of dance-related magazines, the industry leader in circulation, is the best thing to hit dance journalism since Patsy Tarr had to fold her luscious glossy Dance Ink. For the first time since the death of Jean Gordon, former owner of Dance Magazine, the world of mass-market dance magazines has a publisher who is business-savvy and whose policies are based on sound business practice, not personal vanity. Journalistically, though, Lifestyle's publications are a mixed bag.

Dance Spirit, the "senior" publication, is -- sorry, no other word -- a joke. Copy is infantile, with readers being talked down to. (The magazine even refers to its subjects only by their first names. E.g., "Next, George made up a ballet which he called 'Agon.' It was really cool!." Okay, I'm exaggerating, but not by much.) Its cheesy coverage demeans dance, and I don't know that it can say it is really teaching its readers anything.

Dance Teacher, under the able stewardship of Caitlin Sims, has been transformed from a publication that was, likewise, not taken seriously by its supposed market, to one that has won new respect and that may be the best print trade publication in the dance segment of the business.

Pointe, Weiskopf's latest dance publication, is something of an editorial puzzle. On the one hand, Weiskopf made a smart move by hiring the consummate dance insider, ex-Dance Theatre of Harlem prima Virginia Johnson, as its editor, and a veritable all-star squad of dance journalism veterans who worked for Dance Magazine in its glory days -- Ms. Sims as managing editor, Diana Leidel as art director, Harris Green as copy chief, and Robert Johnson as advisor. As well, no doubt under Ms. Johnson's guidance, Pointe presents a compendium of useful information to young dancers. And, unlike Dance Spirit, it doesn't talk down to them, but elevates them. On the other hand, some of the editorial is, to say the least, of questionable value, including a featured cartoon which reinforces the worse stereotypes about ballet and a sort of 20 questions which seems like a waste of both readers' and subjects' time. (Do I really care who Vladimir Malakhov would like to get stuck in an elevator with?)

Most disturbingly, however, is that Mr. Weiskopf has, effectively, barred reviews from his publications. I don't think that any dance publication can be taken seriously, or can be said to be serving its readers, without dance reviews. This is kind of like a newspaper with no news!

Finally, word in the trade is that Mr. Weiskopf will soon launch a tabloid to serve the dance retail industry. Not a bad idea on its face but, for his own and the field's good, he may be spreading the advertising too thin. Even before the introduction of this new publication, dancewear manufacturers -- the presumptive principal advertisers in a publication aimed at the retail field -- were pulling back in general, and complaining that about being over-taxed in terms of publications they were expected to advertise in, particularly at Lifestyle.

Solution: If Mr. Weiskopf wants his publications to be taken seriously by the field -- and, more important, if he wants to truly serve it -- he'll need to add reviews, at least to one of his publications, probably Pointe. Regarding the dance retail publication, I defer to his proven business acumen on this one, and reserve judgement.

Dance Magazine

Of course, if dancewear advertisers are feeling over-taxed, they'd do well to pull out of Dance Magazine, and use those dollars more wisely elsewhere. The grand-daddy of dance publications has lost its focus, wandering haphazardly from niche to niche; circulation and editorial quality have declined; it has little respect in the industry and, one might even suggest, little self-respect left. Bizarrely, the magazine moved to California two years ago. Bizarrely not because there's no dance in California, but because the decision was based entirely on the fact that the owner's daughter and new publisher lived there and didn't want to move to New York. The net result was that the staff suffered a nearly 100 percent turnover. Names long-respected in the field -- like Mr. Green, Ms. Sims, and longtime editor Richard Philp -- were replaced, with two exceptions, by people no one ever heard of. (Mr. Philp hung on as a columnist, but without editorial authority.) Those exceptions were Janice Berman, who lasted little more than a year before she was unceremoniously dismissed by the publisher, unfairly made the scapegoat for declining circulation; and dancer, choreographer, and dance writer Wendy Perron, perhaps the best hire by any dance publication since 1995. Ms. Perron was hired as the magazine's New York editor, a solitary pro-NYC move by the magazine.

The magazine was sold in July to the Macfadden publishing group, a somewhat ironical development as the original Macfadden published the first publication called Dance Magazine, in the 1920s. I for one was ready to wish the old owners "Happy Trails" for this move, and grant a clean slate to the new ones. However, they appear to be dawdling, retaining the Oakland-based staff under which the magazine declined.

Solution: This may be in the air. On Thursday, Ms. Perron and the current editor-in-chief have invited members of the New York dance community, including many of its longtime freelancers, to a so-called "focus group," ostensibly to discuss the question of the magazine's New York coverage. I think this question rather misses the point. The tragic question at Dance Magazine the last two years is not so much over its focus or lack of focus on New York but, er, EXACTLY WHAT IS ITS FOCUS? The magazine has more or less ceded its longtime foothold on the profession to, if you'll permit me saying, newcomer us, The Dance Insider, and, to a degree (restricted only by the aforementioned lack of reviews and puerility of Dance Spirit) Lifestyle. All that Lifestyle has to do is make Pointe monthly (and did I mention, add reviews?) to finally and firmly replace DM as the leader among ballet studios and schools.

However: I suspect -- not from any inside knowledge, but simply from longtime observation of and participation in the fields of business and publishing -- that the meeting Thursday may not actually be about what Ms. Perron and the editor think it's about. I suspect that the meeting is in reality an opportunity for Macfadden to assess the current editorial team, and the respect, or lack of which, with which it is regarded by the New York dance community, including dance writers. Anecdotal evidence, too, has it that Ms. Perron has been actively courting the new Macfadden CEO. My suspicion is that she may be angling for the top editorial spot, in a Dance Magazine that would re-locate to NYC. This in my opinion would be a good thing.

A Dance Magazine with Wendy Perron at the top would have instant credibility in the field, particularly in the world of Modern Dance, which has sometimes felt neglected by Dance Magazine in recent years. It would have instant credibility among most dance writers. Ms. Perron has a knack and inclination for cultivating young writers, particularly dancer-writers, also a good thing. Were Macfadden to make Ms. Perron editor-in-chief, also bringing back Mr. Philp as a sort of gray eminence -- on staff, writing his column, even an ombudsman guiding Ms. Perron in areas of journalistic procedure where she is perhaps lacking but relieved of day-to-day editorial responsibilities -- I believe it would win Macfadden instant credibility in the dance field.

Ms. Perron and Mr. Philp, given equal power, would nicely compliment and balance each other. And, with Ms. Perron given free reign to build a new editorial team around her, coupled with Macfadden's proven business acumen (reportedly, it is already planning to have the magazine's circulation audited, a brave thing for a magazine in declining circulation, if you ask me), Dance Magazine might be able to reverse its fortunes, which would not be a bad thing for the field. (Mr. Weiskopf, faced with serious competition, might even be forced to relent on reviews.)

Ballet Review

Edited by Francis Mason and clearly our most distinguished dance publication, the problem here is not inherent. That is, there is no problem with the publication. I list it merely as an excuse to air a fantasy, which is that an angel would come along who would provide the funds for the magazine to increase circulation, so that more in our community can benefit from its lucid reviews. Or, better, that some of the dancewear companies currently squandering their ad money elsewhere (see above) would better serve their own interests and the field by re-directing those ad dollars to Ballet Review, if it would have them.

The Dance Insider

We are not without our failures, but I don't think I'm the one to objectively address them. So I recuse myself, but as always, the floor is open if, yikes!, anyone else with credentials wants to weigh in.

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