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Flash View and Response, 9-19: Blind Spot?
Deborah Jowitt and "The Phantom Project"

View by Paul Ben-Itzak
Letter in Response from Deborah Jowitt
Flash View copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

In a piece e-mailed earlier this week to the Dance Insider list, Paul Ben-Itzak wrote:

In her 1994 New Yorker article "Discussing the Undiscussable," Arlene Croce, the doyen of American dance critics, explained why she would not be reviewing Bill T. Jones's "Still/Here": "By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable -- the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs."

Nine years later, Croce is out of the active critical loop, and Jones is still producing manipulative dances. But he has not learned nothing from his critical slap on the wrist. In lieu of putting victims in his works of art, Jones has now found a new way to put himself beyond the reach of criticism: Insert the critics into the piece!

In his review of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's "The Phantom Project," a 20th anniversary look back at the company's '80s beginnings on view at the Kitchen through Saturday, our Chris Dohse wrote, in part:

"I absolutely reject the recorded voices of (Village Voice critics) Elizabeth Zimmer and Deborah Jowitt folded into the sound collage, analyzing and commenting on the importance of these early duets as we watch them -- I hear the words "camaraderie" and "structured," the names Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs -- as if the opinions of these two critics dictate public record. Well I suppose they actually do, but really it is too much to be force-fed this canonization. I feel manipulated." (To read the entire Flash Review, please click here.)

While I support Chris's conclusion, it's no surprise that Mr. Jones is a master manipulator -- he's admitted to as much himself (at a Kitchen "TV dinner" a couple of years back). But by including the critics' views of his work in the remountings of the actual work (as opposed to, say, in the program notes) Jones has escalated his tactics beyond manipulation of the audience to manipulation of an actual critic reviewing the work.

Still.... Jones as the artist might be given the lee-way to frame the performance as he sees fit; after all, his evident need to tell viewers how important the work is signifies a lack of confidence that they'll reach this conclusion independently of being told so.

One should even extend Ms. Jowitt and her editor, Ms. Zimmer, the benefit of the doubt that they had no idea on assigning Ms. Jowitt to review "The Phantom Project" that they would both actually be in it. But once this became clear to them, Ms. Jowitt, at her own discretion or by her editor Ms. Zimmer's directive, should have recused herself from reviewing the performance (She could hardly disagree with herself on the work's value.)

She did not. The result -- surprise, surprise, a glowingly effusive re-canonization! -- was published this week by the Village Voice, in what will no doubt be remembered as one of the blackest days in that publication's life and this deservedly vaunted critic's career. In addition to "The Phantom Project," Jowitt considers a work by another choreographer, "Blind Spot." The title could just as easily apply to the critic herself.

Responding to Ben-Itzak's column, Deborah Jowitt wrote:


You raise the specter of Arlene Croce, but you make me think of her for another reason. She criticized Bill T. Jones's "Still/Here" without seeing it; you go into attack mode based on one Dance Insider's view of a performance you didn't see. I doubt that anyone but an insider could have identified the voices, and it was extremely difficult to hear the words, let alone decide what the thrust of them was.

Although you may consider the history of my limited participation beside the point, I'll tell you what I told Chris D.

In the summer of 2002, composer Helen Thorington approached me about an interview. Her idea was this: Bill was planning this retrospective in honor of his partnership with Arnie; to make her music reflect and contribute to the backward look, she wanted to add intermittently to her original score a muted mix of voices of those who had seen the two when they started out (I assumed there would be quite a few voices -- not all critics). So she asked me questions about the New York scene in those days -- who was doing what, what seemed to be the predominant concerns. She asked me to think back to how Jones and Zane first looked to me, how they fit or didn't fit into the scene. What I said was meant to be a trip down memory lane from an observer's point of view. That the observer was a critic was secondary to Thorington's purpose. Although Chris took our participation as a seal of approval rather than voices from-the-past as a musical element, it was not anyone's intent to make the words that surfaced in the score tell the public that they ought to be liking this 2003 performance because a couple of critics had put an imprimatur on it.

You imply that contributing my memories to this performance influenced me to write a more positive review of it than I otherwise would have. Please! I do not so yearn to have a few truncated, low decibel phrases of mine appear in the score for a reconstructed work by Jones that I would consider myself obligated to rave (which I don't think I quite did). I did the interview as a favor to Thorington, and, by extension, to a project that sounded interesting....

I asked Chris how he could be so sure he wouldn't have liked Jones's and Zane's early works if he had seen them in the '70s and early '80s. I I enjoyed myself at the Kitchen, and perhaps nostalgia had something to do with it, even though the evening (like many of Jones's) was too long. (It's too bad I cut words to that effect while trying to fit my article into the Voice's new and cruel-to-writers design).

You think this was one of the blackest days in the history of the Voice and my own career. I have been enmeshed in the dance world in several complicated ways ever since I started to write. Conflict of interest has often been a very thin line for me, because of all the people I know well from having been a performer, choreographer, and teacher, as well as a writer. You could probably find days that would be, in your estimation, much blacker than this one.

I did laugh, though, to see Tom Patrick's mention of me in his review of Tharp's new version of "The 100s" (another rigorous and pure work from another era overextended -- this time in an effort to make it more "accessible"). A good thing I didn't have the space or the inclination to write about it from an insider perspective, although I did contemplate the idea. Still, perhaps the next time I review Tharp, you'll think, "Hmmm, Jowitt sold her soul in order to dance for 11 seconds in the midst of a mob of people."

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