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Flash Rant, 7-5: Anna Kiss-it-off
Clueless & Careless at the N.Y. Times

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"Alas, the first program in Pilobolus Dance Theater's new season at the Joyce Theater is more or less a bust.... The sincerity behind 'Gnomen,' a male quartet, is not in doubt, but neither is its sanctimonious tone. Mr. Cook, Mr. Kent, Mr. Louis and Mr. Pring each took turns as the protagonist either succored or stoned by the others."

-- Anna Kisselgoff, the N.Y. Times, June 29

Alas, the first review from the N.Y. Times of Pilobolus Dance Theater's new season at the Joyce Theater is more or less a bust.

The sincerity behind Ms. Kisselgoff's review, an arrogant dismissal (exception: she does like "A Selection"), is not in doubt, but neither is her sanctimonious tone, occasionally called into service when the reviewer sees a work she can't access from her own experience. Also not in doubt, more importantly, is her gross irresponsibility; not in criticizing a dance, which is her right and privilege, but in dismissing a whole evening of meaty and rewarding dance theater by reducing it to "more or less a bust."

Regarding "Gnomen," perhaps Ms. Kisselgoff meant to say sacred instead of sanctimonious.

Just because Ms. Kisselgoff does not have the vocabulary to describe this elegant and transformative ballet of a rite of passage involving four men doesn't give her the right to so arrogantly dismiss it. And in fact, her paucity of language in doing so says more about the reviewer than the reviewed. Reducing the movement in this intricate, complex, humane and human dance to "each took turns as the protagonist either succored or stoned by the others" is like saying, of a classical ballet performance, "each took turns either jumping around or pirouetting."

"Gnomen" goes to a deep deep place, a place that has to do with bonds between men, with journeys, with passages, with good-byes, with preparing one's comrades for the next world, with pain, with love, with strength and with vulnerability. Don't just take my word for it. Here's what critic Byron Woods said about it, writing in 1998 in the Raleigh News and Observer:

"Then came their 1997 work, 'Gnomen,' a memorial for dancer Jim Blanc, who died from AIDS in 1996. Picture a Pilobolus book of the dead: in it, one finds represented the suffering of an individual, along with the varying attempts at help from friends -- sometimes to good effect, sometimes with slapstick consequences. At the end, they help that soul fly and bear the body, in a culminating prayer for peace. Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken's choreography was at times joyous, elegiac, introspective and funny; throughout, it was overtly spiritual. Critic Susan Broili called it Pilobolus's 'most powerful, personal, and perhaps greatest work to date.' I call it one of the more profound works of dance and mourning I have ever seen."

My outrage does not come from wanting to protect Pilobolus -- they got along fine without me and Ms. Kisselgoff, thank you, and will continue to do so. The masses have spoken, despite the critics. No, my outrage is because, unfortunately, some might still give credence to the N.Y. Times, and thus be deprived of seeing a masterpiece of a dance that will teach them, change them, transform them, and live with them long after they have left the theater.

If I feel a protective impulse, it is in response to Ms. Kisselgoff's dismissive tone. This is a dance that has been labored over, worked at, carefully probed by dancers and directors for more than three years. It is also a dance that has resonated with audiences who have seen it throughout the world. The out-of-touch Ms. Kisselgoff certainly has a right to criticize it, but she does not have a right to do so in such a reductive, toss-off manner. Indeed, her pulpit comes with a responsibility to back up what she's saying - like any good reporter.

I haven't seen "Tsu-Ku-Tsu," the Alison Chase New York premiere collaboration with Taiko drummer Leonard Eto which Ms. Kisselgoff savages, but our reviewer, Maura Nguyen Donohue, has, and she raved about it. (See Flash Review 1, 6-28: Volatile Virtuosity. Unlike the NY Times, we also offer video of this dance -- judge for yourself!) And on this piece, I think Maura, who, unlike Anna, has worked as a choreographer with Taiko drummers, is more qualified to judge how the two meld. One of Ms. Kisselgoff's many blind spots is, as conversant as she is in classical Western music, she resists the melding of dance with world music, and is also under-educated in world music.

Finally, and most egregiously, and notwithstanding her praise of "A Selection," it is mind-boggling that someone in a position of such authority and responsibility as A.K. would abuse that position by beginning a review, "Alas, the first program in Pilobolus Dance Theater's new season at the Joyce Theater is more or less a bust." Can Anna be so oblique, so unaware of her power that she would not know that many readers would stop right there and on that basis decide not to see the show? Here at the DI, even with works we don't like, we try to say why, as opposed to simply dismissing a whole program.

As important, can Anna be so unaware of what it must feel like to the dancers to arrive at the theater and read an ostensibly important critic state that all your efforts, and the evening of theater you work so hard at (the program in question is a particularly grueling one, physically and emotionally) are a bust, a waste? Most educated critics (and for that matter the general dance-going public) are sure to applaud even when they DON'T like a dance, aware that they are applauding the DANCERS' efforts.

This gets at a deeper problem with the N.Y. Times's irresponsible, often dated, and out-of-touch coverage of dance, and you all know what I'm talking about. We can certainly go negative here at The Dance Insider, but the difference is that here the authority is not all vested in one voice. At times during the last year I had very strong negative feelings about City Ballet and the Ailey, which I felt were well-grounded. But I also tried, and try, to be aware that mine is just one opinion, which is why we had several reviewers for Ailey and for City Ballet and in general have made an effort to throw fresh voices into the critical fray. For the past thirty years or so, the Times has had the same three reviewers. One of them is a nice guy, has made important contributions to the field, and writes informative, authoritative, and interesting historical pieces, but rarely seems invested in his reviews anymore, to the degree of offering trenchant analysis. Another, Jennifer Dunning, is a great and sensitive and evocative writer and, I believe, most of the time open to receiving points of view that might be outside her direct experience. She realizes the responsibility of her position (most of the time), and her power. Unfortunately, the most power is vested in Anna Kisselgoff (dancers I know have referred to her as Anna Kiss-of-death or Anna Kiss-it-off, for the effect a negative review from her can have), who, from this Pilobolus review and others I've seen, is abusing that authority.

Shame on you, Anna, and shame on you, N.Y. Times, for allowing your pages to be misused for such base insults masquerading as considered criticism.

It's time for the Times to change.

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