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Flash Dialogue, 6-16: Critics Cornered, 5
To Review or not to Review?

By Maura Nguyen Donohue & Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue & The Dance Insider

To: paul@danceinsider.com
From: maura@immixedcompany.com
Subject: Re: Allyson Green

Hi. So I just saw Allyson Green's concert at Danspace Project. You had mentioned wanting separate pieces for dancemOpolitan at Joe's Pub and hers. I don't think I can. I don't think I can say that much about Green's work. Frankly, I decided in the middle of the third and final piece that I was going to refuse to review it, not knowing what the repercussions would be. But I came home and talked it out a bit with husband Perry and have since diffused some of the rant in my head. I just felt like my views and tastes as an artist and subsequently as an audience member were strongly disinterested in this work. But I didn't feel that this is how I'm supposed to operate as a dance critic. Maybe after tonight's sleep I'll be a bit more generous but the work was so conventional that I might consider it banal. But I respect Green and the dancers and all that and just wonder why the hell anyone should care what I have to say about this when it's so clearly not part of my palette. So I was thinking it'd be best served, if it has to be served up at all, as a gender-related tag to the Joe's Pub show, which sent me into a lot of consideration about performing gender, and the first two works on Green's program, which was so much about performing 'the female' but in a totally different, very traditional dance manner.


To: maura@inmixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: Re: Allyson Green

Hiya,

Well, you know me -- I'm not about holding back. At this point, having sat through much (wait until you see my piece to be posted later today) here in France which just fundamentally doesn't engage me as an audience member, I see my primary responsibility to the audience and to call them as I see them. So -- and I'm sorry if I gave you a different impression with my pre-hype of the Green show -- you have my support to rant this, as well as to give it but a footnote in a Flash Journal. Also remember this: You don't do the artist any favors by going soft on her, or by (sorry, about to get brutal with you!) looking at the work in a specific context (gender) that lets you avoid critiquing it pure and simply as art. Also, Green is not some 21-year-old straight out of the academy who's going to either be crushed or get snotty about a bad review -- she can take it.

You write that you feel like your views and tastes as an artist and subsequently as an audience member were strongly disinterested in this work.... This is your review, so the tack you take is totally up to you, but my suggestion would be a sort of compromise: In your piece, maybe just note that this particular type of work might not be to your taste, but then go ahead and give your full-bore opinion of it. (I've even done this sometimes.) Is this all clear? I think this is an important subject, because it goes to how you consider yourself as a critic....


To: maura@immixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

....which is not to say I've brought Chris & Gus in on the conversation, but that some examples from them might be instructive. Here's a Chris (Dohse) which might interest you, on the subject of criticizing dance that may not be to our taste. I also like the Gus (Solomons jr) approach: As I read Gus, anyway, he often starts by saying what the artist appears to have been intending to do -- as Gus sees it -- and then says whether they did it well.... I'm not suggesting either of these approaches for you, just giving you some views of criticizing dance....

Yers,

P


To: paul@danceinsider.com
From: maura@immixedcompany.com
Subject: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

Thanks. Yeah. I could almost word for word pull these sections directly from Chris's piece, just replace piano with cello:

"But modern dance performed to piano, played live or recorded, makes me want to stick pins in my ears. A grand piano onstage calls forth one of the many chips on my shoulder, evoking upper class privilege or highbrow fussiness. This inner bias threatens to shut me down before the dance even begins.

"The movement invention is what I like to call uptown modern, something that often looks like ballet in bare feet. The vocabulary seems to value extended line, buoyancy, 'correct' execution of position and steps. I'd rather see bodies in repose or silence or floor-bound abjection; these are my tropes. Not bodies who fill the stage with doingness. I see a similar tensile quality to the styles of Zvi Gotheiner and Lar Lubovitch.

"...Perhaps an anthropology of the audience would help me parse the dance's appeal? If it's not my cup of tea, then the people here must be here because it is theirs. I don't see anyone I recognize from the downtown dance crowd; I see few dancers. At intermission, I don't hear anyone talking about the work, either with praise or disdain. Rather I hear two suburban couples discuss the trouble they've been having with their housekeepers and nannies (uh-oh, there's my class bias again)."

Anyway. It's just that artist to artist I respect Allyson's history, dedication and effort. I just personally, and I feel like this is very specifically about what I as an artist want to see, don't care. It just brought up thoughts about constituencies and the audience I imagine I'm usually writing for and mostly who would care. I understand there is an audience for this work out there and I think that there should be. People should see dance. Even if it has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering. Anyway. More on the subject soon since I guess I'm going to have to spend a bunch of time addressing my issues with the work because there was little to say about it. Coming to you shortly. (I hope) -- M


To: maura@inmixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: Re: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus


Thanks Maura! I respect your perspective.... I would respectfully offer a different vantage point on just one of your points. You write: "People should see dance. Even if it has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering." Yes, people should see dance but the problem is that if they see too much (or with some non-danceys, even one is enough!) that has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering, they won't come back. I think all art should have some perspective, n'est pas?

Looking forward to your piece!

P


To: paul@danceinsider.com
From: maura@immixedcompany.com
Subject: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

Yeah. I agree. I'm just trying to practice a little democratic generosity because Perry's always saying things like "What are you, the Dance Police?"

Anyway: So I started working on Green's but decided it does deserve a bit more consideration. Not the work but my response, which started to get caught up in the 'what's wrong with dance writing' and 'is NYC no longer the capital of dance' discussions of late. So if okay I'll need to get that to you closer to the end of the week since the next couple days and evenings are pretty full.


To: maura@inmixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: Green

Hi 'gain --

Just wanted to get back to you on this.... I guess my perspective -- i.e., less empathetic perhaps because I'm not a dance artist myself -- would be that we're not just critics but also reviewers. So that where Perry's comment implies that you (as a dance artist yourself) are judging whether your fellow dance artists cut the mustard, I think that, as a reviewer, you're just telling your readers whether in your opinion -- ideally backed up -- the piece is worth seeing. It's a little fuzzier with us because we have more dance professionals than non-dancer simply dance fans in our audience -- so that they actually are looking to us maybe even more for 'judgment' than 'should I see it' -- but in general I think it's appropriate for a reviewer to give an opinion, however damning. I guess where we can show more, well, sensitivity is simply -- as Chris did -- 'could be this is not my bag' as a sort of qualification, before giving our opinion....

Having said all that, for this piece, I like the idea of exploring it in the context of the 'what's wrong with dance writing' and 'is NYC no longer the capital of dance' discussions. On the first, btw, my (and I think many people's) problem with (the New York Times's) (Gia) Kourlas & (John) Rockwell is not their opinions but that they're not qualified...which doesn't serve the field of dance and doesn't reflect well on the field of criticism....


To: maura@inmixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: Re: Green -- another argument for you to say what you will

Hi -- Couldn't resist reading this Roslyn Sulcas Times review of the Green concert and doing what I usually wouldn't -- send it to our reviewer reviewing the same piece (in the original e, PBI pasted in copy of the review) -- with this intention: I would would submit that this is one uninspiring review! I know and have worked with the writer, and have no axe to grind with her.... Basically, she was pleased by the performance -- not inspired, pleased -- and her review reflects that. I submit that whatever you write, your passion for the task -- the task of reviewing, even if this particular work didn't inspire you -- will serve the work, the artist, and the readers better. I mean, she writes, 'spacious in structure and as self-possessed as any mountain range'; that's not a point of view, that's a description! And what's up with, "Ms. Green allows the movement to speak for itself," -- Duh! "and the dancers resist any descent into emotional excess." -- Heaven forefend dancers should 'descend' into 'emotional excess'!

As you know, this is the tenor of the Times reviews these days -- with the possible exception, ironically, of Gia, who, however uneducated she may be as a critic, at least attacks her subject with some verve! -- the writing is saccharine, the superlatives trite. Rockwell's lead on the ABT gala: "Monday's opening-night gala fulfilled most of its expectations: There was a nice preview of season highlights and some superior dancing."

'Nice'? 'Superior dancing'? What I like about you and our other writers is we do better -- we engage -- we get excited (even when in the negative)....

Yers,

P


To: paul@danceinsider.com
From: maura@inmixedcompany.com
Subject: Re: Green -- another argument for you to say what you will

Eee gahds. So I was hoping to hear from someone who really supported the work. Simply to hear an opposing viewpoint that would reveal to me something I didn't see in the work. But besides being an exactly opposite response to some specific points, that review was as trite as the work. So I guess if the point was to match the manner of the work... then it was a success of a review. And I agree, at least Gia reflects a point of view.


To: maura@inmixedcompany.com
From: paul@danceinsider.com
Subject: Re: Green - another argument for you to say what you will.

Well, this really reminds me of a conversation I was having with a visiting choreographer the other day. His argument -- or rather, his question -- was essentially whether the dance writing is only as good as the dance. For example, it was the task of writing about Balanchine that elevated Croce. Discussing Sulcas really makes me think of this: The fact is, on Forsythe -- where I've had the chance to edit her raw copy -- she is absolutely inspirational and riveting. And yet with Green, she's mundane. Artist or reviewer? And should we simply not review a concert because it doesn't inspire us? Or is it our responsibility -- to the artist, audience, indeed the field -- to say so?


To: paul@danceinsider.com
From: maura@inmixedcompany.com
Subject: Re: Re: Green - another argument for you to say what you will

Absolutely. Because truly, I could have just written a plain, descriptive piece essentially devoid of true response and I could have done that for a few reasons. One being that, generally, I believe that as a still (barely) working artist I tend to approach reviewing work with a generous spirit. I want to be an advocate for the artist and to respect my peers. So I might have simply chickened out in deference to an experienced choreographer. But, you know, I actually couldn't. Maybe I could have a few years ago but these days it's getting harder to subvert actual disinterest. If Green was clearly inept at putting a dance work together and was working with supposed emotional content then I would have been ready to rip but that's clearly not the case. She knows what she's doing and she is representing her own vision but within the context of the work that I choose to see to feed my soul, to inspire, to challenge, to rankle, to terrify, to delight, to entertain, to learn, to question this had no place. And I felt like I should have been able to put together a review that saw some of what Deborah Jowitt saw in her Village Voice review. Maybe after I've left New York for a while I'll want to present pleasant peaceful versions of the world as well but that isn't the world I live in today. And it isn't part of the discussions of dance that happen here. Here where so much dance is made and shared and commented on every single damn week of the year. Green's work was supposed to be about women's grief and joy but the representations of "female" were so "Bridges of Madison County"-esque as to seem like a satirical cliché -- clasped chests, over-emoting expressions, a dance vocabulary full of ronde de jambes, sautés and coupé jetés, long flowing dresses. I'm sure members of my mother's writing group would see this is an accurate dance portrayal of their experiences but not the women I keep company with.

Which brings me to the issue of dance writing and why I think I'm not qualified to respond to this work. I don't think I get the context within which the artist is working and that is what I think is wrong with a lot of dance writing today. We are not objective observers; it's simply opinion we're presenting. Own up. Do some homework. Editors, build a diverse stable of writers and send the appropriate ones out. I think artists deserve to be approached with individual consideration of the circumstances and aims of their art-making and then judged on the success of their endeavors. Which means old white dudes shouldn't review hip-hop. Nor should anyone be allowed to use phrases like "to these western eyes..." ever again. Because really, what is the point of a dance review anymore? Even Flash Reviews no longer appear during most dance runs. And who tours anymore anyway? So they don't serve to build (or caution) audiences. Are presenters so incapable of deciding for themselves whether an artist or work merits time in their space that they would be swayed by critical response? And how many of us actually take away constructive information from a negative response? Seriously. Why do we need approval? Or rather, why do we need record of approval? Or even better, why do we need record of understanding? Who is being served by public commentary? Why don't I just write a letter to each artist about my singular response.


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