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Flash Media Watch, 3-14: All the News that's Fit to Spit
The Incredibly Shrinking Minds of Dance Critics

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Yesterday, I found myself in Room 1517 of 100 Centre Street, waiting to be called to serve on a jury in the New York Supreme Court, where I could be selected as one of 12 men and women to weigh in on an issue of criminal justice. Strolling down Lafayette, I recalled the '50s television jury melodrama, "12 Angry Men." Well, I wasn't called yesterday, but I did find my sense of critical justice enraged enough for 12 men when I picked up, first, the New York Times, and second, the New Yorker. But before I rant at these publications and the small-minded commentaries that outraged my sense of justice, and share a reader's rant at me for same, some context: At issue is the abdication, by even high-brow media, of any responsibility to provide intelligent coverage of dance.

It used to be that in New York alone there were a dozen newspapers, and such a relative surfeit of intelligent critics that when the Herald Tribune's Walter Terry and then Robert Lawrence were drafted, the replacement critic was Edwin Denby, now considered the pre-eminent American dance critic of the twentieth century, bar none except perhaps Arlene Croce. Also pertinent to today's topic, most of the critics rushed out after a performance and filed their reviews in time to be published in the next day's paper -- while there was still time for dance-goers to actually act on the review.

Now New York has only three daily newspapers. The Daily News has no regular dance critic. The New York Post has a dance critic, Clive Barnes -- but is otherwise such a rag, more a mouthpiece for the right-wing politics of Rupert Murdoch than a genuine newspaper, that it is not taken seriously. The Times -- in what might seem at first glance commendable -- has three dance critics, about six times more than most newspapers in the U.S., which don't employ full-time critics. But while the Times may have three critics on paper, does it really have three critics who are exercising their full critical faculties every time they go to a concert?

Let's break it down.

Anna Kisselgoff, at her best, is able to wax eloquent on everything from ballet to Momix. And she has more knowledge of ballet history in her little finger than, I, for one, have in my little brain. She's also able to translate the emotional appeal of, say, a technical feat. Her only failing might be that she cares too much, at least when it comes to major dance institutions: She's loathe to find anything wrong with the ballets of Peter Martins, who rarely exhibits any originality and regularly exhibits an embarrassing lack of taste. Ditto her sentiments on Paul Taylor - a master, surely, but not as infallible a one as Ms. Kisselgoff's "criticism" would have you believe. I can see being patient with a beginning choreographer, but does a Paul Taylor really need to be coddled? As well, she's been known to give American Ballet Theatre a pass. In her disingenuous review of Lar Lubovitch's "Othello," a flailing, unimaginative emperor of a ballet in a million-dollar wardrobe if ever there was one, she avoided actually addressing the aesthetic value of the ballet by lauding its "downtown" production values.

Jennifer Dunning's only handicap is not of her making: Passionate and smart in her reviews and obituaries, impeccable and thorough in her reporting of dance news, and able to go deep in her features -- well, I've just described the handicap: Ms. Dunning is simply asked to do too much.

Now we get to the question of Jack Anderson, and his apparent inability to apply any kind of critical eye -- negative or positive -- to the concerts he reviews.

Choreographers cringe when they find out that the Times is sending Mr. Anderson to review their concert. Not because they fear a negative review, but because they know Mr. Anderson will not turn in any kind of review at all, but merely the most superficial, bare-bones description of what took place on stage, as near as he can figure it out. His comments will not be instructive enough to help the artist in evaluating his/her work; nor engaging or decisive enough to help a dance fan decide whether to see the concert; nor informative enough to help a presenter decide whether to book the company.

It was in the context of Mr. Anderson's paucity of any kind of sophisticated critical perspective -- his lack of any point of view at all -- that I was appalled yesterday to read the first sentence of his review of Ben Munisteri's program, presented last week by the Harkness Dance Project at the Duke at 42nd Street. Wrote Mr. Anderson: "It was best not to search for deep thematic or dramatic significance in the dances Ben Munisteri presented on Thursday night at the Duke Theater."

I'm not going to address the rest of Mr. Anderson's review, because it's not my purpose here to offer a point-by-point rebuttal. Indeed, it might seem petty to do so -- Ben is, after all, a friend, colleague, and even one-time collaborator.

But I simply cannot excuse, nor recuse myself from commenting upon, this reductive opening to his review, because of the source. The problem is not the lack of thematic or dramatic significance in the dances of Ben Munisteri, but Mr. Anderson's lack of ability to find the deeper thematic or dramatic significance, meaning, or intent in any dance concert he reviews. This void in his application of any kind of critical analysis is particularly missed in view of the fact that he is usually assigned to review our newest artists -- precisely those who would find any kind of criticism, negative or positive, valuable. And for whom, because there is no previous critical record, Mr. Anderson's reviews, being published as they are in the New York Times, instantly become the record, for dance fans considering whether to see the concert and, more critically, presenters considering whether to book the artists.

But even that's not really the bigger problem. Just as no choreographer sets out to make a failure, perhaps Mr. Anderson doesn't set out to write a review so limited in its scope and depth and ambition and true engagement with the work. The problem is that the powers that be at the Times care so little about dance that they haven't noticed. There is no shortage of able dance critics in this town who, I'm sure, are ready to serve both the Times and the dance community as a genuine third critic. (Disclosure: I've previously applied for a position at the Times, but have not done so in three years and would refuse to serve if offered the "opportunity"!) The Times has brought newer, more energetic critics to its music and film reviewing staffs. That it has not done so with its dance corps -- particularly when Mr. Anderson's vapidity is so obvious to everyone in the field -- sends a signal to the dance community, and to its wider reading public, that the Times simply does not care enough about dance. That, notwithstanding its motto of printing "all the news that's fit to print," when it comes to dance reviewing, it simply doesn't care whether all its writers are fit to critique. (And let's be clear: I am NOT suggesting firing Mr. Anderson, but simply replacing him as a critic and leaving him to the dance history pieces in which he does display more passion and authority.)

And even THAT's not the only bigger problem! Ben's company's concert was the second program in the Harkness's first-ever festival at this new and prestigious venue. Indeed, the Harkness series is, in my opinion, the most prestigious dance event this young venue has yet hosted. And yet, despite that the venue is right down the street from the Times, and that the programs in the Harkness series open on a Wednesday and run through Sunday, the Times has yet to manage to publish its reviews while people can still catch the programs. Ms. Dunning's rave of the first week's program, from Vertigo dance company, didn't run until the following Monday. I received some criticism for my, er, rant on that concert. And yet, putting aside this criticism -- which we've also put below, at the end of this article -- I'd argue that the larger problem is not my review, but that a Times review which would have balanced it did not come out until it was too late for dancegoers to act on it. Would the Times wait five days to publish the results of a Yankees game, even if it was in the beginning of the season and had little bearing on whether the Yanks would four-peat as World Series champions? I don't think so.

Of course, for years, the most authoritative critic and evocative writer in dance held forth not at the New York Times, but at the New Yorker. But Arlene Croce is now more or less retired, and in her stead we have Joan Acocella, a dilettante of a dance writer who is single-handedly dragging the New Yorker's one-time reputation as the leading vehicle for serious, expert dance criticism into the gutter. I might not have put it that strongly a couple of weeks ago; every time I was about to conclude that Ms. Acocella's rapier wit masked a serious deficiency in dance knowledge, she surprised me with a piece that was either critically or reportorially incisive. But now Ms. Acocella has weighed in, if you'll forgive the pun, with a screed on the case of Fredrika Keefer that is as proto-reactionary in its assertions as it is ignorant in the bases for those assertions.

Ms. Keefer, longtime Dance Insider readers will recall, is the nine-year-old ballet student whose mother, Krissy Keefer, filed a complaint with San Francisco's Human Rights Commission after the San Francisco Ballet School declined to admit Fredrika, allegedly (okay, more than allegedly) because in the ballet's view she did not meet its size standard. As the ballet company (tho not the school) receives money from the city, Ms. Keefer argued, this non-selection of her daughter violated the city's new ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of weight or height by any organization receiving city funds.

When this controversy first surfaced last fall, Christine Chen, in our pages, more or less took the side of Ms. Keefer and daughter; and I more or less took the side of the ballet. (For Christine's view, click here; for mine, at the time anyway, click here.) Since then, however, there has been a veritable piling on of dance critics on the Ms.'s Keefer that in some cases not only supports ballet's archaic standard, but goes it one reactionary step further. Ms. Acocella's defense is not only reactionary, but in its very premises displays an ignorance alarming to find in the pages of the once august New Yorker.

"Today," declares Ms. Acocella, "a bosom is a rare sight on the ballet stage." Huh. My Webster's defines bosom as: "a, the human chest and esp. the front part of the chest," and "b, the female breasts." But even allowing Joan her hyperbole, she goes on to state: "The premium is on technique -- the ability to do a lot of hard steps fast and clearly -- and for that you must be thin. If you aren't, not only will you have to strain like mad but, by straining, you will risk injury, as will the men who have to lift you."

I've been staring at this statement again for five minutes -- where do I start?!!!

First, er, exactly who puts the premium on technique? (As opposed to soul and spirit and heart.)

Second, since when is technique merely "the ability to do a lot of hard steps fast and clearly"?

And I think that anyone who has seen Monique Meunier or Jenifer Ringer of the New York City Ballet would dispute that a dancer needs to be "thin" to execute flawless technique, let alone to not imperil the careers of their partners.

Ms. Acocella goes on to dictate, "A short and squat dancer should not aspire to dance with the New York City Ballet any more than a five-footer should anticipate playing center for the Los Angeles Lakers." Thus spake Joan Acocella, the woman who would be both George Balanchine and Phil Jackson! (Altho, as Mr. Jackson would tell her, basketball is a sport that needs both the 7-foot-plus Patrick Ewings and the 5-foot Spud Webs.)

Of course, when Ms. Acocella employs such derogatory terms in her argument, she makes it uncomfortable for others to refute her: (She also describes the height-weight anti-discrimination law as being passed at the urging of "advocates for fat people.") "Oh yeah? Well, so and so is short and squat, and she's a great dancer!" Ms. Acocella concludes the above thought by saying, "If that's your child's shape, put her in a neighborhood school, not a professional school."

I submit that it is Ms. Acocella's language for discussing art, and her limited way of viewing it, and not Fredrika Keefer, which belongs in the schoolyard, and not a professional publication like the New Yorker.

And speaking of schoolyard bullies, and justice, and, er, looking for themes: What drives me to pen today is not just injustices perpetrated by others. The larger problem, as I said, is that the media's regard for dance has sunk so much that those venues where dance criticism is still given even a modicum of space, and the critics that take up that space, assume a disproportionate value. If anything, the Jack and Joan acts have reminded me -- me as publisher of The Dance Insider -- that our own role as a documenter of dance is even more, er, critical, than we originally envisaged. This is not to vaunt us. But merely to say I have been thinking about the issue of responsibility. We have already addressed this somewhat by offering such a variety of voices on our pages that no one critic has the power of an Anna Kisselgoff, Joan Acocella, or Jack Anderson. (To cite one example: While I personally have serious concerns about the Alvin Ailey company, my voice was just one of about six reviewing its recent season.) As a writer, I still feel a responsibility -- and a right -- to call them as I see them, expecting you will take these views as they are: the views of one writer, and a writer who, like Jack and Joan, is not a dancer. However, as a publisher, I'm aware that, with the diminished ability or will of once reliable publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times to provide a truly accurate and complete record of the dance endeavor, we need to make an extra effort to find ways in which we can serve that need.

So: Here, for starters, is another view on the Vertigo concert and its presenter. (To read my original review, click here.)

Ivan Sygoda, of Pentacle, writes:

"There is an adage in the carpentry trades: measure twice, cut once. In other words, it is generally a good idea to think before acting. This is especially true in the Internet Age, when mere nanoseconds separate the expression of a thought from its publication worldwide.

"Even assuming the validity of your aesthetic take on Vertigo's 'Gas Heart,' and you are certainly free to find the work inept, it is churlish and arbitrary to turn your disappointment into an ad hominum attack on a lady we have long known as a dedicated arts worker, a passionate advocate for dance and dancers, and a committed presenter of new (and therefore sometimes untested) work. You are certainly free to find Ms. Finklestein's judgment in this case misguided and to declare a misstep, but to leverage that assessment into a barely veiled call for her advisory board to run her out of town on a rail for the sake of their own reputations -- Well, Mr. Ben-Itzak, that smacks of fascism, and I did think twice before choosing the word.

"You need to know at least one thing. The bit with the usher at the door was part of the play. Your recounting of it says nothing about the presenter's capability nor Ms. Finklestein's personality. All involved in the presentation will survive your misjudgment. What I'm worried about is The Dance Insider itself. Dance needs the timely coverage and the multiplicity of voices. We are sorely lacking a forum, and so it is important that your enterprise thrive. To have its credibility and therefore viability undermined so pointlessly by its own editor is cause for concern.

"Two safety nets failed you. Knowledge -- about Dada, about the company, about this production -- would have corrected your most egregious errors. But as you so animatedly point out in Ms. Finklestein's's case, no one is perfect. Now that you've learned something, you'll do better next time, I'm sure. But what also failed you is that generosity of spirit that is at the heart of all dance, even bad dance. Every pirouette, even those that wobble, is a gift offered. You are certainly free not to accept that gift, but you are not free, in my opinion, to spit at the dancer."

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