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Flash Flashback, 6-5: Critics Cornered
Why we Review Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1998, 2006 The Dance Insider

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. This article first appeared in the Winter 1998-99 print issue of the Dance Insider, and is today posted online for the first time.)

I have always been leery about reviewing. Reviews can wield clout -- from influencing you about whether to see a show to closing one. While I am convinced about dances that have uplifted me or enraged me, most of what I see is in the middle. I can formulate opinions on these works, but I can't be sure you'd agree. I don't care for Trisha Brown, but many feel otherwise. The beautiful dancers of Ballet Hispanico make me weak in the knees, but if you want subtlety you might be wasting your money.

Three recent works, two recent reviews, and two pieces of advice have convinced me that there is a gap in criticism, and the Dance Insider has an obligation to try to fill that gap. The advice came from Sara Hook, a choreographer, teacher, dancer, and our senior artistic advisor, and Boo Froebel, who produces the performance series Phat Tuesdays. Sara, critiquing an article I wrote, said it was full of interesting quotes but lacked a clear point of view. She said I should not be afraid of giving my opinion, and of revealing my passion in writing. Boo feels that critics should advise and inform, rather than mandate, and that some forget this.

Recent dance and recent review #1 that made me change my mind involve Lar Lubovitch's "Othello," premiered in 1997 by American Ballet Theatre. Lubovitch shackles his dancers in choreography that requires little more than simplistic flailing. He wastes Desmond Richardson (who created the lead), dance's best switch-hitter. Unlike theater, dance is not locked into words, and when it is relating a story, it should use its architecture to amplify the story as well as reveal its subtleties. Jose Limon does this in "The Moor's Pavane," his 40-minute, four person "Othello" in which the only prop is a handkerchief that cost volumes less but speaks volumes more than the million-dollar accoutrements of Lubovitch's Moor. In James Kudelka's "Washington Square," the heroine conveys her timidity through expressive footwork. The New York Times's Anna Kisselgoff executed some fancy footwork of her own reviewing "Othello," avoiding addressing the lack of choreography by lauding the production values. No matter how fancy the setting, this emperor has no clothes, and someone needs to say so.

Review #2 which prompted me to think our voice is needed was also from the Times. When the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall presented "The Mysteries of Eleusis" -- a hybrid with the world's top Kathakali, Flamenco, and Peking Opera dancers -- the Times sent a critic who ignored the dance except to ask, "Why is the flamenco dancer even there?" Peter Marks devoted his space to the type of sarcasm-masquerading-as-criticism that reveals more about the writer's acid tongue than the work. "Under cover of darkness," he said, "Large groups made mad dashes for the doors, like the stealthy P.O.W.'s tunneling to freedom in 'The Great Escape.'"

If the Times would have sent a dance critic instead of a theater critic, she might have directed her spectacles to the stage instead of the exit doors. Dance critics do not expect to have meaning spoon-fed to them and, unlike Marks, are prepared to evaluate art outside their regular brief. With theater and dance hurtling towards a merge lane, publications need reviewers who are up to speed, and can comprehend both. They should also make sure their critics are open to new ideas. Marks was put off by the production's non-traditional spirituality. "The New Age sets and lighting make (it) look (like) a rejected pilot for yet another manifestation of Star Trek," he wrote.

"The Mysteries of Eleusis" was not conceived on a Paramount soundstage, but in the Marcopoulo mountains outside Athens. Performers rehearsed from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., when their work was illuminated by the stars, and sometimes blanketed by rain. If the production had an Achilles heel, it may have been this immersion. While not "the most incomprehensible work ever attempted in any medium," as Marks said, it was sometimes hard to decipher. Director Vasilios Calitsis may have lost perspective on how it might be comprehended by one who has not spent five years immersed in the project. He needs a dramaturg. He -- and other artists who are no less sincere because their infrastructure is faulty -- also need criticism that will not level but help them build better work. We'll attempt to fill this function.

The third reason for introducing reviews into the Dance Insider is that when we see something we love, we should share it. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's September show at New York's Kitchen is one such event.

De Keersmaeker's passion was apparent from the moment in 1981 when, still in college, she stepped onto the stage at Dance Theater Workshop to audition for its Fresh Tracks series with "Fase." "The panel sat there stunned," recalls DTW executive director David White. "It was great: rigorous, rehearsed, and she was just 19 years old. She stalked downstage and said, 'Now I don't want to hear any shit about using Steve Reich.'"

De Keersmaeker returned to New York in September for the swan song of "Fase." On its surface, the phrases were like those I aver in Brown and other post-moderns. But De Keersmaeker revealed to me what post-modern can be when danced not with ironic detachment but joy. Swirling in a circle of light for her Third Phase solo to violin, she was rhapsodic and virtuosic. Far from being detached from the music, she allowed herself to be swept up in it. She did not hold back, but shared her enthusiasm with the audience. She was on fire. It was post-modern unafraid of being exuberant in public. She finished by looking frankly out at us before the lights blacked out. My first impulse was to go backstage and interview her. Then I thought, no, I don't need to own this -- I need to share it. That need -- as well as the need to shout out when emperors have no clothes, and to advise and inform artists and audience -- will guide our reviews.

 

 

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