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Flash Rant, 12-31: Out with the Old & A Tie for Richard
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999 The Dance Insider

New York City
December 31, 1999

In my last (Flash Review 12-19, "Who's Been Naughty and Who's Been Nice") I beat my breast in a "woe is me" that I'd been going to dance every night for all of about four-plus years and not all appreciate it.

Well, folks, I'm a bloody piker compared to the New York Times troika of Anna Kisselgoff, Jennifer Dunning, and Jack Anderson, who between them have probably logged close to a century of dance-watching.

The service has been dedicated, and each has brought distinct talents to their work. Anna has an ability to tap into the larger emotional resonance of a ballet or a moment in a ballet, references relevant history with ease, and also has a wide knowledge of the classical history of the other performing arts. If only some of the Times's classical music critics had half the breadth of dance knowledge that she has about their field! Jack also has a profound store of dance history, and writes compellingly about it. Jennifer's job is, I think, the hardest. She's considered the second to Anna's lead, which, when it comes to covering dance in New York, is kind of an irrelevant designation in terms of the workload and the importance of her assignments. She's also responsible for covering all the dance news; writing most of the obituaries; and a good portion of the Sunday previews.

However, all of this is irrelevant when it comes to a concern mentioned to me by more than one dance artists in this town: Time to get some new blood at the Times.

This is not a revolutionary notion in the journalism world--and, specifically, at The New York Times. It is customary to rotate foreign correspondents every few years, so that they remain independent of the turf they cover, and also so that a fresh, "non-native" perspective is constantly rejuvenating the coverage.

And it is becoming customary with the Times's cultural coverage.

As reported December 9 by Sean Elder in Salon.com http://www.salon.com/media/col/elde/1999/12/09/new_film_crits/index.html, the Times recently announced that it would replace retiring film critic Janet Maslin with the troika of current second-string critic Stephen Holden, Elvis Mitchell, and A.O. Scott.

The thinking goes something like this: Mitchell--you can check him out on my favorite radio program, Weekend All Things Considered, Saturday mornings--is, well, HIP. If Anna K., for example, references the classical forms of other arts, Mitchell can actually reference, with ease, the current culture--pop or highbrow. Until recently, the guy sported dreads! Not that dreads make the critic--but I think they say something about the world he comes out of, and that he floats around in with ease. (He also, by the way, knows the history, and is just as likely to reference Godard as Puffy.)

As for Scott, he is a Newsday book reviewer who shamelessly admits that he has never in his life written a movie review. This is exactly the attraction for the Times, the thinking goes; that he'll bring a fresh perspective, plus his knowledge of the literary arts, and that the perspective of someone familiar with another art will be an informative, healthy one to bring to movie coverage.

In other words, both Mitchell and Scott will bring the perspective of a world beyond movies to the way they perceive and interpret movies. This, in turn, should draw the interest of a circle much wider than movie fans.

I know what you're thinking: the circle of movie fans is already pretty large. You're right. Unfortunately, the same is not true for dance. One of the reasons for this--to my mind--is precisely the insularity of many of us who write about it, most significantly those at the Times. Pedestrians who try to read some of these reviews at the Times tell me they can't; to them, many of these are written in a coded language not meant for them. The problem here, of course, is not that they don't read the reviews, but that an opportunity is missed to get them into the performances. The galling irony that makes me hit myself over the head when I consider this is that once we get them into the theater, most of the artists (excepting those who are just "working things out," aesthetically or emotionally) are pretty damned great at being relevant. What they create goes to the heart.

The product is good enough to get more people to get more people to the theaters. The artists just need a little help from their friends in that "can't live with it, can't live without it" monster, the Press. This is why I recommend the Times do to its dance pages what it has done to its movie section. I'm not saying it should fire the troika--just move them to other beats--which, perhaps, they can inform with their dance knowledge!--and replace them with new blood. And, specifically, new blood whose arts writing interest and background goes beyond dance.

The sad news is it's probably not going to happen, because the editorial powers that be at the Times, like most editors in mainstream journalism, know little and care little about dance. They don't understand it, and thus are not invested in it.

....Which is why we were always blessed to have Dance Magazine. And, specifically, another journalist next to whom I'm DEFINITELY a piker when it comes to years of dance world service: Richard Philp.

In the January issue of the magazine, you'll find Richard's name--appallingly--at the very bottom of the staff masthead. The new owner of the magazine has moved the franchise from New York City to Oakland--chiefly because she didn't want to leave her Bay Area home for the dance capital of the world--and replaced Richard as editor-in-chief with Janice Berman. (On whose desk I am now writing, after having gotten up from her bed, both of which she sold to me when she resigned as dance critic at Newsday and moved to the Left Coast. I can say Left Coast because I'm an old-time lefty from SanFran.)

It's actually standard for a new regime to bring in its own people. What's also standard, in the universe of DM, is the lack of respect with which its owners have treated some of its employees. One would have thought that Richard Philp, who--together with his hires--has been the only thing that has kept the owners in the dance world for the last 10 years and, working with his predecessor Bill Como, for the last 27 years--would have been an exception. But it was not to be. They shipped most of his books out to Oakland. They gave him the title of executive editor--but bumped him from the top to the bottom of the masthead.

They've retained Richard's Kickoff column, for many years not just a bully pulpit for RP, but a weathervane for the field, where Richard held forth--for the most part, relevantly--on where the field was and where it was going. Unlike the magazine's owners--who see the field only as it provides a social cachet for them--Richard always saw the big picture. He valued his perch on top of the mountain not for the view it provided the dance world of him, but for the vantage point it gave him on the dance world.

In her new column, "Dance With Me," which now precedes Richard's in the magazine, Berman (who does give due thanks to Richard) glows about how great it is to be made editor of her "favorite" magazine. Hmmm. Newsflash: While Berman was busy turning down news story assignments from her favorite magazine because they didn't pay enough after her stint in the more lucrative world of mainstream journalism, Richard Philp(and, again, earlier, Como and later Richard's hires) was the only thing that kept DM from becoming a personal vanity rag for its owners. The magazine has its well-founded critics, but I'm not so sure most people realize how much worse it could have been if not for Richard and his hires.

Richard was my personal entree into the dance world beyond San Francisco, when he hired me in June 1995; I would soon become his news editor, succeeding Joe Mazo after he died of a heart attack. (And, by the way, Richard was there too in Joe's apartment, along with me, after we discovered Joe's body. We refused to leave until we had rescued Joe's cats.) About the first thing this dapper man with the bow tie and white shirt did when I arrived at DM's offices near Lincoln Center was to warn me that above all, I was not to fraternize with dancers. The second thing he did was to walk me over to the news editor's office, where I found Joe busy hob-nobbing with one of my favorite ballerinas, the Joffrey's Beatriz Rodriguez.

The journalistic basis for such "fraternization" is sound. In getting to know the dancers, we're motivated not just by them being great and fun and beautiful people, but also the same principle that motivates any good police reporter: you cultivate sources. Hanging out with the cops gives you a bead on stories. The danger is that that you'll only get the cop's perspective on a controversial story; fortunately, dancers don't beat people! (Note to any police or police-friends out there: Not all police do either!)

While I got along swell with the dancers, things weren't always so smooth with my colleagues at the magazine. Not being able to lash out at our over-lords, we sometimes vented on each other. Whenever this happened, Richard would inevitably pull out his Robert Joffrey story, which goes something like this:

Richard, then managing editor of DM, was not getting along with the editor, Bill Como. Desperate, he sought Robert Joffrey's advice. The latter leaned over his desk. "Richard," he said, "get him a tie." Richard did so, and it helped, at least for the moment. More important, I think, it helped Richard to stay on the positive tip--always an uphill battle at DM.

It's one of many lessons I learned from Richard (and from Joffrey!). When I'm having difficulties relating to a party, I try to trot out that tie.

I had my difficulties with Richard, who fired me in 1997, over lunch in front of the famous mural of '70s ballet idols at O'Neal's. He even made a point to introduce me to one of the brothers who owns the place. The other brother, an actor who usually played the urbane villain on bad '70s cop shows, is no longer with us. Playing out this firing scene, I felt like I was in a bad '70s cop show, with Richard playing the urbane villain as he told me to stop shaking and finish my salad while he tried to fire me. (He even asked me if I was sure I didn't want desert!)

I no longer think of Richard as a villain, but a hero-to me personally and, more important, to dance.

Richard wasn't trying to make me uncomfortable at O'Neals. He was trying to make himself comfortable, and O'Neal's was where he always went for this; where he took his important guests. He introduced me to quite a few of these, as well as to the wonderful ballets they produce. Last night, after one such wonder-City Ballet's version of Balanchine's "Nutcracker," with the daring, musical, and PRESENT Darcy Kistler, partnered by the rock-solid Jock Soto, and ably assisted by an ebullient Pascale van Kipness as Dewdrop-I took Tara Zahra, our managing editor, to O'Neal's. We sat at The Table, in front of The Mural. A couple of months back, I took a respected and accomplished former director of two major companies there. I met both of these remarkable individuals because Richard hired me to work at Dance Magazine. Neither had ever seen the mural. They thanked me; I thank Richard.

Richard saw many things in the dance world, and revealed them to many others. He showed me much.

Richard, this tie's for you.


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