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Flash Rant, 7-5: Anna
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
"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
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
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