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Flash History, 6-28: Secret Origins
The Dance Insider: A Manifesto

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

One of my first assignments as a professional journalist was to cover Princeton Tiger basketball for the Associated Press. Deadlines were tight; we had to have the results in five minutes after the game ended, so that the story could be in the papers the next day. Even college basketball was deemed important enough that the papers wanted to give their readers last night's results today.

Later on, I covered financial markets for Reuters. In addition to newspapers, the news service's clients including equity brokerages, who followed stocks on Reuter monitors. If anything happened to a public company that might possibly, even slightly affect its stock, we had to get a story out immediately: a 50-letter "Flash" or "Snap" -- basically a headline -- out NOW, with a paragraph or two more in ten minutes.

We often covered stock conferences, where brokerages would parade panels of company CEOs before investors. To generate news, we'd ask these CEOS questions like, "What do you think of Street estimates that your earnings will rise $10 per share in the next quarter?" Typically and cautiously they would answer, "I'm comfortable with that." This was considered breaking news, that we had to snap.

If there was a moment where The Dance Insider -- at least in my mind, because the idea was also fermenting in many dancers' minds -- can be said to have been born, it would be at the 1998 Arts Presenters conference. This is an annual confab where presenters from around the U.S. watch dance companies from around the U.S., on the basis of which they often book their seasons. It's very much like a stock conference, with one difference: Where stock conferences were covered by battalions of reporters, the media scarcely cover Arts Presenters.

Seeing these markets -- presenters, dance companies -- under-served by the media planted the seed for the DI in my mind, as a journalist. A similar need for a serious dance publication that reflected and addressed the real concerns of professional dancers was also fermenting in the minds of dancer-journalists like Veronica Dittman and Rebecca Stenn; dancers like Robin Hoffman, Sarah Hook, Aimee Ts'ao and Edward Ellison; and dance photographers like Jamie Phillips.

We launched the Dance Insider as a print magazine in June 1998. Our mission was to tell stories not told elsewhere, give a voice to dancers, and build the dance audience. Initially, there were no reviews -- rather, the magazine concentrated on news, analysis, forums, photography, features, issues important to presenters and dancers, and dancer-driven guides. My own feeling was that reviews were being done elsewhere, so that this was not a story not being told elsewhere.

When Robin floated the idea of a web site in 1999, I saw it as a tool to promote the magazine. We had to have content. I suggested that we include my dance diary. I went to many performances, but rarely had the time to review them. However, I was always inspired, and figured it wouldn't be too difficult to take an hour to write down my "flash" thoughts, and post them on the web the next morning. By calling them Flash Reviews, I reasoned, we would guard against people not expecting them to be masterpieces of the type Deborah Jowitt delivers weekly. But there would be an immediate value to and interest in knowing what happened last night at the theater

What happened last night at the theater, we figured, is just as immediately important to dancers as what happened yesterday on the stock market is to investors, and what happened on the ball field is to sports fans. Wouldn't dancers and fans be just as interested in reading about what their favorite dance company/choreographer/performer did last night at the theater? Why should they have to wait two to five days (NY Times), one to three weeks (Village Voice), two to four months (Dance Magazine), or more (Ballet Review)? Just as an overnight wire report doesn't replace a more seasoned, considered analysis in the N.Y. Times, Flash Reviews were not meant to replace what a Deborah Jowitt did, but rather to fill a specific need for TIMELIENESS not filled in the current critical landscape. Sure, Deborah and Ballet Review are worth waiting for, but why not also have the instant impression, the news -- a Flash Review whose spirit is that of the excited (or enraged) dance fan rushing out of the theater, and calling or e-mailing his/her friends to tell them about the performance?

In other words, the immediate reaction to the piece.

I didn't entertain much of a notion that these instant missives of mine would have a lot of staying power.

We no sooner started the test period of Flashes -- by sending them out to an e-mail list, prior to launching the web site -- then I realized the void in dance criticism was vaster than I'd been aware.

Early on in the test period, in October 1999, Belgium-based Needcompany performed a dance-theater piece by Grace Ellen Barkey, a re-working of Bela Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin." I saw it on a Friday at P.S. 122; my review was posted Saturday morning; several readers who read the review followed my advice and hied themselves to the show Saturday night; representatives of the Bartok estate, who had also seen the dance but had a polar opposite reaction to mine, tried to halt the production immediately. And essentially succeeded. This wonderful dance was seen for both the first and last times, anywhere, at P.S. 122. My review thus took on a bigger importance, simply because there weren't any more opportunities for others to review the piece.

More critical to the staying power of Flash Reviews -- and a life-saver to me! -- dancer after dancer volunteered to write Flash Reviews. They were tired of waiting for the critical mainstream to get its act together (in terms of space given to dance by mainstream newspapers -- this is not a criticism of the critics), and decided to take things into their own hands. (A popular news DJ in San Francisco used to say, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." These dancers decided that rather than just continue complaining, they would go out and make some criticism of their own.)

What has surprised me most about their writing is that, even though these reviews are written on deadline, they read as finished pieces, as if written upon much time to reflect. These are thoughtful, mindful criticisms -- often more mindful and thoughtful, frankly, than much of what appears in The New York Times, where the three critics have much more writing experience than our writers, and much more time in which to consider their words.

What has also surprised me is that as cool as the "Now" aspect is to me, and as relevant as it is because readers can act on a review while the show's still up, to many companies our speed is not the most important service we're providing. More important is that we're reviewing; that we're able to give significant space to reviewing, with no hierarchy -- we're as likely to give a concise review to a major ballet company and a 2,000 word analysis to a college concert as the other way around; that we're introducing new critical voices; and, most important, that those voices are those of dancers. (Except for me and one or two others, all of our writers are experienced professional dancers.)

Speaking just as a reviewer for the DI -- and not for my colleagues -- if there's any downside to getting our reviews out so fast, it's that we're still alone in publishing timely reviews (and sometimes simply alone in reviewing an event), giving our reviews a disproportionate weight. My opinion as a reviewer is not that of God, but of one man with his own peculiar tastes and prejudices. When I raged against one company recently, I got some angry letters. My response was that the problem was not my opinion, but that this opinion was the only one published while the show was still running. Jennifer Dunning's review in the N.Y. Times -- a positive one -- didn't come out until the show was over. This was a critical program in a critical season for a high-profile presenter, and yet the powers that be at the Times, who will give reams to an overnight report on one insignificant baseball game in a long season, or for a 2,000 word analysis of Alan Greenspan's latest sneeze, did not consider Jennifer's review important enough to get into the paper right away. If that's how little regard they have for a major presenter, you can imagine the situation for companies and presenters with less clout than the 92nd Street Y.

My message to dance companies -- particularly those who receive a negative review from us -- would be this: No matter how harsh our words, they are not DISMISSIVE. By simply reviewing your concert immediately -- rushing out right afterwards to tell dancers and dance fans about it -- we at the DI are making a statement that what you did at the theater last night is important, and is news that just can't wait, but needs to be delivered NOW.

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