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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
include employees, board members, etcetera. This policy is honored
by all members and stringently enforced by the committee co-chairs
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
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
All this said, your
argument is not a bad one.
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