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Flash Rant & Response, 11-5: Credibility
Does DTW Have a Gap? Does The Dance Insider?

Rant by Paul Ben-Itzak, with responses from Laurie Uprichard, Barbara Bryan, Mary Cochran, Richard Daniels, and Veronica Dittman

In a Rant sent out to the Dance Insider e-mail list October 28, Paul Ben-Itzak, speaking for himself and not necessarily anyone else on the staff of the Dance Insider, wrote:

First, it was the Bessies: An awards event produced by Dance Theater Workshop (in association with Danspace Project and the Joyce Theater), and an awards committee with two DTW directors -- David White and Craig Peterson -- awarded a performer award to a (very good) dancer who also happens to be the DTW receptionist. True, Mr. White and Mr. Peterson are just two of the 23 members of the Bessie Committee -- almost half of whom are dance presenters. (In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Isadora Duncan Awards committee is made up of artists and dance writers -- no presenters. As a result, the awardee net is cast much wider.)

Now, I looked at this year's Bessie recipients list when it came in and, on reflection, figured: Okay, these awards can hardly be considered objective, but hey, if a bunch of leaders of the dance community want to honor their best, who am I to piss on their parade?

But ultimately, an awards competition has less at stake for dancers than a curating one.

DTW says -- quoting the press release here -- that its Fresh Track series features "works by emerging choreographers and performance artists. Selected through open auditions by a special panel that includes artists, producers, and critics, Fresh Tracks participants represent an up-and-coming generation of artists of unusual potential and striking imagination."

So who has been anointed as having unusual potential and striking imagination by DTW this fall? "The choreographers for this Fresh Tracks," says the PR, "are Antonietta Vicario, Ori Flomin, Erin Cornell, Anna Sperber, Lionel Popkin in collaboration with Carolyn Hall and Tami Stronach." And who is Carolyn Hall? That same "Bessie-winning" very good dancer that happens to be DTW's receptionist.

This is NOT a rant against Ms. Hall, who is indeed a gifted performer. It's a rant to ask: For what its own publicity represents as an evening of performance curated through "open" auditions in search of artists of "unusual potential," why has the presenter selected one of its own employees -- indeed, the employee who might be said to be its first public face, greeting visitors to its offices every day as she does?

Why is an institution that in so many other ways rightly lays claim to being a leader of the New York presenting community curating, in this instance, like Ma & Pa's Li'l Theater, putting on a play by Cousin Lil'? Why is this happening in New York City, reflecting it as a provincial city rather than a world leader in dance programming? And even if the work on which Ms. Hall collaborates (and commissioned) is a winner, how would Mr. Peterson explain this choice to the many other artists of unusual potential and striking imagination who don't happen to greet him every day when he shows up for work?

Why do I care about this? Because every time a dance institution makes a Bush league move like this, our credibility is diminished. Our credibility as presenters, dance artists, and dance media trying to represent Dance as a field serious on a par with theater, music, and all the other arts. And -- let's not forget -- also damaged is the credibility of DTW, whose hard-working, dedicated, and professional staff deserve for their institution to be taken more seriously by its directors.

Laurie Uprichard, executive director of Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church and co-chair of the Bessies committee, responds:

I know that you've heard from a number of people regarding the apparent conflict of interest you perceived in Carolyn Hall's receiving a Bessie Award and being selected for Fresh Tracks due to her employment at DTW. As co-chair of the Bessies committee, I have to tell you that neither Craig nor David could or did speak about Carolyn at any Bessies committee meetings as it would have been a conflict of interest as outlined in the policy below.

"The Bessies committee meets approximately ten times per season, and cumulatively attends nearly 2,000 performances by more than 1,000 artists and companies annually. Consideration is open to all performances of contemporary dance and performance work presented in New York City over a season (July through June). However, no member may nominate or discuss work that he/she has presented, produced, or commissioned.Personal and professional relationships will also be considered conflicts of interest."

Professional relationships include employees, board members, etcetera. This policy is honored by all members and stringently enforced by the committee co-chairs and coordinator.

It was the rest of the committee -- a group with wildly divergent aesthetics -- those without any conflict, who felt absolutely clearly and passionately that Carolyn was deserving of a performer award.

I was not on this Fresh Tracks panel so cannot comment on that specifically but, having had many years of experience with the process, I am confident that it was a fair one and that Lionel Popkin's piece with Carolyn as performer deserved to be included on the series.

It is unfortunate that, in the U.S., most artists do not make their living at their artwork. Danspace is fortunate to have two excellent working dancers and administrators -- Marya Wethers and Peggy Cheng -- on staff. It would be unfair, I think, to eliminate them from consideration for a Bessie simply due to their job rather than their talent. I would rather leave that choice in the hands of the 20 or so individuals who selflessly devote their time to this process each year.

Barbara Bryan responds:

As you know I work with artists these days -- having left my dance presenter days behind. I usually appreciate your rants and find it refreshing that someone is speaking up, but I have to let you now that I strongly disagree with your comments about Ms. Hall and the Bessies. Although you say it is not personal -- it is personal to Carolyn and all the other dance artist employees at DTW, not to mention the other arts organizations and institutions that support artists through steady employment since performance itself does not sustain one.

Just a note: John Jasperse (who has reached critical acclaim world wide) was once one of those DTW employees who was recognized for his artistic talent and not just for his ability to answer the phone.

I applaud these organizations for their support of artists, knowing that they compromise by giving them time off for performances and touring. This community would suffer even more without this support.

Richard Daniels responds:

Insider trading at DTW has been the operating procedure as long as Mr. White has been at (its) head. But let us speak for a moment about regime change. In New York City, the people who run...DTW, the Joyce Theater, Danspace at St. Mark's, and P.S. 122 have all been in those jobs for decades. Plus, they are all in collusion with each other, to the point that all those venues have nearly a singular vision. They hardly represent the rich gamut of modern dance as it exists. It is not "David White's Dance Theater Workshop," etcetera. They are institutions with a public mission. While funders are delighted that this kind of manifestation represents stability, for the sake of the dance world, it's a stale, narrow, limited vision. The Bessies are but one symptom of narrowness of that organization. They have never been more than who did David want this year. Recently the head of the National Theater in London resigned, saying, "I've been here seven years practicing my vision. Time for someone else to try theirs."

Mary Cochran, former member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and currently on the faculty at Mills College, responds:

I am on the Izzy Committee and have just gone through my first voting cycle. It was very difficult, but I was impressed with the ethical bent of the committee discussions. The nature of the Izzy awards does include the entire dance community here. The Bessies don't have the same inclusive feeling as the Izzies and, therefore, the awards mean a little more here, I think.

Veronica Dittman, choreographer, dancer, and the founding editor and current senior artistic advisor of The Dance Insider, responds:

This is hard for me to be objective about because Carolyn is not only, as you know, a role model dancer for me, but also a friend. And I did read the part where you said this is not a rant against Carolyn, but I can imagine her reading your piece and getting the idea that she doesn't really deserve the recognition she is getting.

So the devil's advocate question is: if Carolyn Hall is the most beautiful dancer you can imagine, and her collaboration with Lionel Popkin is a brilliant piece, should she NOT get the attention she's getting just because she works at DTW? It seems to me exactly analogous to your justification of DI coverage of performance work done by DI staff: e.g., Sara Hook, Tameica McCloud, Faith and Veronica, Rebecca Stenn should not be penalized for contributing to the DI when they're doing good work that deserves to be written about. It almost sounds like you're saying Carolyn should be penalized for her good work because she works at DTW.

Paul Ben-Itzak responds to Richard Daniels:

Besides David White, I don't know that the heads of the organizations mentioned have been there for "decades." 10-15 years is a closer estimate. As well, "collusion" is an inappropriate and incorrect word here. Having covered the New York scene for seven years, I can't think of any artist who has appeared at all the venues mentioned. And one of the beauties of the NYC presenting community is that it is more colleaguial than competitive. As regards the artists who are regularly programmed at one or more theaters, the presenter outlook would be that they and their audiences are nurturing artists over a sustained period of time. In this, New York presenters are not unique. Here in Europe, artists such as Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, Meg Stuart, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, needcompany, and Wim Vandekeybus perform annually in France, Belgium, and other countries.

If Mr. Daniels is off as regards "collusion," he is onto something when he writes, "While funders are delighted that this kind of manifestation represents stability...." As more and more funders have opted to direct funds to presenters rather than individual companies, presenters have become not only gatekeepers for what dance we see, but middlemen and women for what dance is funded. This is why it is fair to scrutinize their curating procedures. This is why it is fair to demand that artists not receive -- or even be perceived as receiving -- an unfair advantage for themselves or the companies for which they dance by virtue of working for a presenter during the day. It's not a question of denying them opportunities because they have to have a day job and that day job happens to be with a presenter; it's a question of not giving them an advantage over other dance artists who don't happen to work for the presenter.

PBI responds to Veronica Dittman:

With Sara Hook, after seeing an early incarnation of "Valeska's Vitriol" at University Settlement, I was so awed that the first thing I did before writing a review was to write Sara and say I wanted her to step down as the DI's senior artistic advisor precisely because I wanted us to be able to review her work. (Plus I had a feeling we had a pretty good replacement in the wings. :) )

As to the others...I'll cede that this area -- the DI reviewing dance artists who also write for us -- continues to be a bit murky. But I'd argue that we continue to do this because the nature of our mission, giving a voice to dancers, means we're inevitably going to have dance artists writing for us -- it's central to our mission. And, yes, they shouldn't be penalized for this connection by not having us review them. I hear you asking, then why should Carolyn Hall be penalized? I'd argue that there are other places besides DTW for her work, solo or in collaboration, to be presented. Whereas, in many cases, were we not to review the work of these artists, the work would not be reviewed at all. (Not because it doesn't deserve it, but because of the current reviewing situation in much of the media.)

So...that's the Fresh Tracks argument. And as regards the Bessies, well, as I noted in my piece if it was that alone, I probably wouldn't have said anything. But to look at the DI situation: Being a Dance Insider staffer does not guarantee a GOOD review. Both you and Rebecca have received in part negative reviews from the DI. Plus, we're more transparent. I think you'd have to physically have visited the DTW office to know that Carolyn Hall is an employee of DTW.

Additionally, when I personally have written about Rebecca, I am always very careful to say that she is a friend; even though that might suggest that this is the only reason she is being written about, disclosure is more important.

All this said, your argument is not a bad one.

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