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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
"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
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
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
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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