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Flash Media-Watch, 11-27: Report
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
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
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.
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.
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.)
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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