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Flash View, 8-20: Vichy Redux
Dance/USA Tries to Sell Tobias Down the River

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

In its response to New York magazine's firing of one of the nation's top two dance critics and the magazine's intention to no longer publish dance criticism, the dance community had, for once, been pulling together. The desired goal -- judging by the letters to New York magazine editor Caroline Miller and other commentaries, copies of which we've received -- has been twofold: to restore dance criticism at New York magazine, and to support the reinstatement of Tobi Tobias, one of our most perceptive critics and elegant writers, a genuine prose stylist who has devoted a major portion of her working life for over thirty years to dance. So I almost cried when the news arrived in my e-mail that an organization called Dance/NYC is now attempting to sell Tobias down the river, conveniently swallowing a transparent turn-around by Miller now that the latter has changed her story to say it wasn't dance criticism she wanted to get rid of, just Tobias. This evolution in thinking has not only been accepted by Dance/NYC, it has been framed by the organization as an indication that "the future is bright."

The capitulation by Bob Yesselman, the director of Dance/USA's Dance/NYC branch and a self-appointed leader of the dance community -- who elected you to speak for Dance and to capitulate for us, by the way, Mr. Yesselman? -- came Friday in a meeting of Miller, Yesselman, and dance publicist Ellen Jacobs. According to an e-mail sent out later that day by Dance/NYC, Miller has now pledged to restore dance criticism in the fall -- indeed, she hasn't just pledged to restore it, she's back-edited her reasons for firing Tobias in the first place.

On August 1, Miller told the Dance Insider that the action was motivated primarily by economic reasons -- a plausible explanation given the magazine's thinning pages -- and added, "We believe that, for the time being, the best way to provide ongoing coverage of dance is in other parts of the magazine" besides the criticism section. This past Friday, in a statement Yesselman said Miller has asked him to pass along to the dance community, her thinking had undergone a miraculous change: "I made the decision not to renew Tobi Tobias's contract because I felt the column didn't appeal to enough of New York magazine's readers," she said in the statement released by Yesselman. "What we need to do is find new ways to bring the dance scene alive in the pages of the magazine, not only the established companies but new choreographers and dancers and companies. And we need a new critical voice that can speak to a broader audience."

Now, you may well ask: What changed between August 1 and August 16, besides Miller's rationale? Well, chiefly, in the interim dancers, dance community leaders, dance critics, university dance professors, and presenters have been barraging Miller with e-mails, many raising the specter of a consumer boycott of the magazine.

Let's look at a couple of those e-mails, shall we? In fact, let's start with the e-mail Mr. Yesselman originally suggested others send to Ms. Miller:

"The point of your letter should not be the effect that this move will have on your own company or career, but rather that for a magazine called 'New York,' known world-wide for its coverage of the cultural scene in NYC, to ignore dance in the dance capital of the world makes no sense....

"Whether you have liked Tobi's criticism or not is not the issue -- the issue is dance coverage in the dance capital of the world. The more voices the magazine hears, the more possibility for a REINSTATEMENT." (Emphasis added) And Ellen Jacobs wrote Miller:

"New York City is renowned as the dance capital of the world; it is the Mecca where all major ballet and modern dance companies aspire to perform. They come here from all over the world to test their mettle, knowing that we have the most discerning and sophisticated audiences and critics, among whom Tobi Tobias is a standout. She is widely read and fervently discussed by the city's culturally aware, as well by the field itself. "

These, then, were the parameters delineated by Jacobs, Yesselman, and others in their e-mails to Miller: We were alarmed about the apparent elimination of a prominent podium for dance criticism, yes; but we were also concerned by the loss of that podium to one of dance criticism's most informed and dazzling critics. We demanded reinstatement of both.

Why did Yesselman and Jacobs back down, and why do they now have the temerity to presume to speak for all of us in relinquishing the second part of this fight, i.e. for for the reinstatement of this major chronicler of dance, whose criticism is so essential to the record?

Why, especially, would they have us surrender half the fight when we appear to be winning? It looks to me like Miller was backing down and retroactively altering her reason for firing (officially, deciding not to renew her contract, but a rose by any other name...) Tobias for one reason: the campaign is working.

Look at how her stock responses to the e-mails -- and her rationale for the firing -- have evolved as the criticism mounted and the boycott threats accumulated:

"In these difficult times," she put it at first in an e-mail to the Dance Insider on August 1, "every publication in America has had to make painful choices, focusing limited resources on work that best serves its readers." How little her readers were interested in dance was a theme she ran out in subsequent explanations: "And it's no surprise to anyone that the audience for dance has diminished," she told Elaine Dutka of the L.A. Times in comments published August 2. Later, she embellished this theme, telling another letter-writer that "every publication in America, like all arts organizations, has had to make painful decisions on how to deploy limited resources to give readers what they value most."

At first, Miller insisted, "While I have valued Tobi's contribution to the magazine, I believe that, for the time being, the best way we can provide ongoing coverage of dance is in other parts of the magazine." This didn't cut it with the dance community, and as their opposition persisted, so Miller's e-mailed explanations shifted: "Like all organisms," she said, "magazines need to keep evolving, developing new voices and new approaches."

And then: "Despite what seems to be going around the dance world, we are not discontinuing dance coverage in New York magazine. It's true that we decided not to renew Tobi Tobias's contract. We felt we needed a change, a new voice or critical approach that would broaden the audience for our dance coverage, which is at this point a tiny percentage of our readers. (If you want to attract new audiences to dance, rather than just talk to veterans and insiders, you have to innovate.) In the short term, until we find the right voice, we'll continue to run previews, listings and features by other writers."

Finally, Friday morning, after meeting with Yesselman and Jacobs, according to Yesselman, Miller issued this statement, and asked that he share it, which he did with the Dance Insider:

"I made the decision not to renew Tobi Tobias's contract because I felt the column didn't appeal to enough of New York magazine's readers. What we need to do is find new ways to bring the dance scene alive in the pages of the magazine, not only the established companies but new choreographers and dancers and companies. And we need a new critical voice that can speak to a broader audience. Until we find that person, we'll be covering the bases with Fall Preview..., Cue previews and listings, and upcoming features.... We haven't abandoned our commitment to serious culture; on the contrary, what we're doing is trying to change our approach to respond to the reality that we seemed to be speaking only to insiders and dance veterans, and not a broader audience. That is, after all, what we are all looking to do."

What this evolution in Miller's explanations makes clear to me is that we are winning this battle. Indeed, given the strong statement and threat in no uncertain terms of a massive boycott issued by Dance Theater Workshop director David White this week, it is clear that the momentum is ours.

What I read from the progression of Miller's story -- and Yesselman, who asked everybody to send him copies of their e-mails to the magazine, was no doubt aware of this too -- is that this was not a time to give up the fight. What Yesselman and Jacobs read into it -- and who gave them the right to make this decision, or to negotiate, on our behalf? -- was: time to surrender. Blithely ignoring the obvious change in Miller's story, Yesselman wrote of his and Jacobs's meeting with her: "The conversation was invigorating, and her perception and sensitivity were stimulating. I am extremely pleased to report that Ms. Miller affirmed her own appreciation of dance and the magazine's commitment to continuing an ongoing page of dance criticism -- but with 'a new voice.' The future looks bright."

Why is this a capitulation?, some might ask. After all, dance criticism at New York magazine, if one is to believe Miller's latest explanation of her firing of Tobias, is to be restored! Well, this is a capitulation because from a position of rare strength, Mr. Yesselman and Ms. Jacobs would have us retreat to the same ol' same ol: Dance, often treated like the stepchild of the arts, will accept whatever scraps she can get. Take away one of our leading critical voices, one of Dance's most gifted critics and therefore most ardent advocates, and replace her with an unspecified reviewer to be named later? In the view of "Dance/NYC," this doesn't signify defeat, it signifies that "The future is bright"! As Yesselman also wrote in his note accompanying the statement he said Miller asked him to share:

"We are delighted with this result, and hope it can serve as a model for our field to come together as a community, and to take effective joint action to address issues of common concern."

I for one am not delighted with this result. Abandoning a vital voice for dance criticism -- after Yesselman has stated he would fight for it -- does not to me represent "a model for our field," but a shame to it; and the surrender Mr. Yesselman is so gleeful about is not "coming together as a community," it is allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered and deserting one of our community's most important members.

I propose that far from being the time to give up the campaign of telling Miller what you think of her decision, it's the time to accelerate it. E-mail Caroline Miller, by clicking here, and ask her why she changed her story. E-mail Bob Yesselman and his superior, Dance/USA's Andrea Snyder, and ask them why Yesselman bought into this transparent evolution and abandoned his previously stated insistence that NY mag reinstate this crucial voice. Ask them if this type of weak-kneed "action" is what they spend their members' money on. E-mail the presenter-members of Dance/USA and tell them you do not support "a model for our field" that entails accepting less than we had before, giving up a crucial voice on dance, and sacrificing a human being. Continue to contact Miller's superiors, too, and tell them you do not accept this resolution. Fax Alan Katz, the magazine's publisher, at 212-583-7516, or call him (or Miller) at 212-508-0700. If you want to send them snail mail -- or, what the heck, picket the magazine's offices -- the address is 444 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.

You can also FAX Tom Rogers, chairman and CEO of New York magazine's parent corporation, Primedia, at 212-745-0121. You can call him at 212-745-0100. And, you can send Mr. Rogers an e-mail care of Laura Brounsein, Primedia's director of corporate communications.

If you do not buy into Miller's evolving explanations, or the solution that Yesselman and Dance/NYC want us to accept, it is critical that you keep up the pressure campaign on New York magazine and Primedia. Be polite, but firm.

Perhaps now is a good time to turn the podium over to my colleague Deborah Jowitt, the respected senior dance critic for the Village Voice, who spoke for many of us -- even if not for Mr. Yesselman and Ms. Jacobs -- when she articulated what this was about:

"I was disgusted but not surprised to learn of New York magazine's cancellation of its dance column. Over the past few years, the editors have cut down on the number of times Tobi Tobias's reviews appear, and I know she has often had to argue for coverage of a dance event as major as a season by Paul Taylor's company at City Center.

"It is yet another signal of how publications -- swinging wildly to interpret demographics, count Website hits, etc. -- consider dance criticism as irrelevant. This in a city that has been considered the dance capitol of the world!

"How sad, too, that the magazine appears not even to realize that in Tobi Tobias it has one of the most important and articulate dance critics working today. I have been lamenting the shrinkage in her coverage. Now, unless New York magazine will change its stance, her voice will disappear, and the New York cultural community will be the poorer for it."

There's an old Paul Schrader movie called "Blue Collar," starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. In this film, the employees are trying to organize a union. The company defeats them by dividing the workers. What has happened here is that an organization which should be taking the long view neither realized that full victory was at hand, nor cared enough about the person involved to finish the battle. We should expect more from our so-called leaders. I for one am not pleased with this decision or the capitulation. People are not just disposable objects to be forgotten for a price. Mr. Yesselman has found his price, and sold out.

If this decision is allowed to stand -- if the e-mails to Miller and the threats of reader and advertiser boycotts recede -- it sets a terrible model for our field as one that is ready to sell out one of its most eloquent and compelling critics for expediency. The surrender that Yesselman would have us accept -- and this is critical, dance insider -- also would make a statement that we as a field do not take ourselves seriously enough to know the value of an accomplished and authoritative critic and passionate writer like Tobi Tobias, as opposed to this unnamed 'new voice' New York magazine would replace her with. I, for one, am not ready to do accept this "model." I, for one, would consider such a future not "bright," but bleak. And I, for one -- and perhaps you as well -- did not appoint Mr. Yesselman or Ms. Jacobs to negotiate on my behalf.

Don't be fooled, Dance Insider. Don't give up the fight. Stay strong.

P.S. As part of her new spin, Ms. Miller has floated -- and Dance/USA has endorsed -- the false idea that this is about bringing in "new" voices, to reach "new audiences," presumably leading to reviews of "new" artists. Judging from some of the well-meaning but under-informed e-mail we've received, a reminder is in order: For more than thirty years, as critic of New York magazine and as a critic and /or editor at publications including Dance Magazine, the Village Voice, and the Soho Weekly News, Tobi Tobias has fervently sought out dance in nooks and crannies where I, for one, didn't even know it existed. To the degree that the artists covered in Tobias's recent columns for New York magazine might be labelled "mainstream" or "only major artists," this selection reflects the limited scope not of Tobias, but of her editors. Not withstanding its pretensions to spunkiness, New York magazine is, at the end of the day, a mainstream publication more interested in the pop culture than the underground. A dance critic for any mainstream publication must fight for space even to get stalwarts like Paul Taylor covered, let alone other artists her editor has likely never heard of. As well, when a critic writes as elegantly and engagingly about dance as Tobias is able to do, she is in effect not just proselytizing for her immediate subject, but for the field as a whole.

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