Dance Critics / Dance Community Panel Discussion 11/14/07

Held in Mead Theater Lab – Flashpoint

Jessica Hartz, Director, Metro/DC Dance
Sarah Coleman, Business Space coordinator, Flashpoint
Pamela Squires, Sarah Kaufman, Naima Prevots, Jean Lewis, George Jackson
Moderator: George Jackson

Notes taken by Rob Bettmann. Image in the post by Rob Bettmann.

GJ – I feel like Jules Perrot in the creation of the famous Pas De Quatre. Who should go first amongst the luminaries? First a little background on our panel:

JBL – Critic for Washington Times, did radio, writes for Magazine, was first wash post dance critic.
NP – Dance scholar, books, reviews online.
SK – principal critic of Washington Post for eleven years, was writing in upstate New York, Europe, earlier, wrote for years earlier.
PS – Wrote for Jerusalem Post, now writes for Washington Post.

GJ – How did you all become dance critics? Dancing? Writing?

NP – Started writing about dance when became a panelist for national endowment for the arts…. Started having to review companies to see who would fund. Was writing knowing that noone involved would see what I wrote. Was writing with funding in mind. Writing to give a representation of dance throughout the country. Had to keep in mind what I was seeing in context of where I was seeing it. Alaska is a different venue than New York.
Started reviewing in College (age 16) did review of Streetcar Named Desire for college paper. Writing now online. Started writing as a dancer. Teaching dance composition led more and more toward development of a vocabulary for critical analysis of dance.

SK – Simple answer is: I was born. We all probably share an analytical eye. I had danced as a child and into adulthood. I come to dance from the inside out. I studied a variety of forms, including ballet at a studio that no longer exists in Bethesda. Was a pre-professional release time student into college. Secondary path that became a stronger focus was writing, and so dance writing. Was able to weave together the two. Dance allows me an invigorating outlet for my writing.

PS – I started as a dancer: danced for New York City Ballet (for ten nights as a seven year old in the original nutcracker.) Went into academia from performing, UCLA, then Israel. Analytical approach is what defined my interests….. Ended up as music editor at Jerusalem Post. 17 years now writing for the Post. Have musicology background from Columbia.

JL – I like to dance. Doesn’t everybody? Had a teacher named Steffany _____ (Larson?) who was next door neighbor. Very inspiring dance teacher. Took me to see Harold Kreutzberg, others. Was introduced to dance as an art form. Wasn’t just: get on your toes. Always wanted to be a dancer. Didn’t have the sheer physical energy to be a dancer. Loved to analyze it dance. Lived in Westchester. From an early age what do you want to do: I wanted to be a dance critic.

George: When you write do you have more than one thing in mind – do you write to give historical record? Do you write to give consumer advice? Do you write to prolong the pleasure of the experience?

SK – Washington Post is a general interest paper, a general readership. I can’t and don’t write for the dance aficionado. Write primarily to recreate a performance with an analytical eye. It is a record, for history, of what happened. To teach a course a few years ago I turned back to old newspaper reviews, archives, that is wonderful treasury of history. I want recreate the experience, I want to have a point of view, and bolster that assessment. People don’t want to read something wish-washy. I endeavor not to. As a critic you have to put forth a judgment. A description, including the place, its world, and anything that you call into existence to live next to what lives in the imagination.

NP – Important to make sure the reader can almost see the event. I try a dialogue with the choreographer. I try and understand what the choreographer is doing, and try to find the good things, and also the things that aren’t working. I like to try and situate something historically. To find a context that’s appropriate for the work. Writing for different publications is different. With danceview it’s a more specialist audience. I try to create something illuminating for both readers and the choreographer. To give them something to think about.

JL – It’s a small community, we know some of the people…. I started writing in Japan. I knew one of the dancers socially. I was determined to be objective in reviewing her dancing. When I saw the review I realized I had spent twice as much space on her as the other people. And it made me realize that our main purpose is to be writing for the audience, for the public. We must not think that we are talking to the dancers. We only are given a little space in print. If the historical background is important, I try to include it for the readership, but I do have to make some assumptions of what the reader knows.

PS – I write for a major newspaper. So not just writing for the people in this city. Dance criticism is just one part of what the Post does to cover dance: we do previews, reviews, features, and listings. I cover dance for the paper. I don’t presume to do it to be part of the historical record. Your writing is to a certain extent dictated by the editors and the policy of the paper. There are rules I have to follow. I have to give an assessment, and I have to come down on one side or another. There are various approaches: more descriptive, more judgmental. I believe in giving as much background as possible to help them understand why one says what one says. We are always looking for more space. Very rarely do we get to have features. Mostly dance reviews. There’s all these things one would like to do, but there are certain rules and disciplines that one has to follow, and I am quite happy to follow them.

GJ — Do you choose what to review? Do you get given a certain amount of space? Do you get feedback from your editors?

SK – I am a full time staff writer. They turn to me about dance. I have a lot of freedom. The buck stops with me. I assign the reviews. If I can’t go, I call Pamela, and say would you like, etc. The math is a mathematical formula that I am not in control of, with more space given to more significant events… That judgment is generally in my hands. In the summer there is more give in the system, cause we’re looking for things to write about.

I generally determine what I will write, what will be critics picks, Sunday sources, etc. We have a new style and arts section, which I’m sure you have seen. Would love to know what you think. But nothing happens without a lot of focus. Style and Arts: they’re looking for things to fill it with. The drive is for us to get a good story. All of us are entrusted with going out and finding where the good stories are. That’s my concern and that’s why a vibrant and lively dance community helps us get stories in the paper. The more personal ties someone has to the work the more that drives the coverage.

GJ – How many write on dance?

SK – Barbara Allen, Sarah Halzak, Pamela Squires, and I are the writers.

Nothing is harder to write about than dance. Movies are easy. Dance reviews have to be short, with color, concise. An informed perspective, in a compact space. The people who write for Monday paper are basically creating haikus, works of art. It’s a strong distillation that’s hard to pull off.

GJ – What is the situation at the Washington Times?

JL – Similar to the Washington Post with Sarah – I usually decide what to cover. In thinking about this I think there’s a limited amount of space. The big companies have to be reviewed. I try to balance with coverage of local work, more than in the past.

GJ – Dance reviews, particularly daily reviews, don’t usually affect ticket sales directly. But reviews do affect the NEXT time they will perform… How aware are you of that impact?

SK – I think that factors into a mix of tone and sensitivity. I am aware of it. We don’t act as boosters… There have been critics who tried to boost dance, especially in early dance. Now my sense is: the works stand on their own. They need to be able to withstand the scrutiny we bring to them. Though I am aware of the impact, I can’t let that influence what I say. It may change how I say it. But nobody wants to read something wishy-washy.

NP – different experience on the internet: not so much a general audience. We don’t know exactly who is reading online, but it is how things are going. I am curious who reads all these things. But no, I don’t think I have any economic impact. Bad reviews, good reviews: choreographers keep going. There’s a lot of freedom, for me, in writing online. But there’s a lot of responsibility, too, cause the readership does tend to be more knowledgeable about the field, and I worry they might tear my review to pieces. Analysis can be deeper online. But I do question what impact reviewers have in general.

JL – Edwin Denby’s writing about Balanchine was one factor in Balanchine getting the audience he deserved….
Frost: A poem should lead us to the future: When?

GJ – Survey conducted by Lisa Traiger about dance critics nationwide…. Only nine make a living at it. Will post whole study online.

Open to audience

Emily Schmidt – What can we do to get more previews in the paper?

SK – We have a Sunday section we need to fill… If you’re asking what we can do, requires a little more thinking like a journalist… Have to think: What’s the story? What’s this gonna illustrate? How is this going to illuminate what happens beyond the stage? If there are personal stories, this is what the paper is all about. In July, when Fringe was happening I was told, you have to do a piece on this aerialist… I had never heard of her before. It was sorta interesting, didn’t know anything about her work. Piece was about Amelia Aerhart. As we talked more and more turns out she had had this overactive pituitary that had made brain surgery necessary. Came back to do this piece on Amelia, cause she felt so empowered having survived this tumor and this surgery. The piece became something totally different: I said “Thank you story gods!”

If you’re looking for more coverage, bring out the stories, not just the facts. Has to be a reason that people need to read about this.

And the more lead time you give us, the better.

JL – Does Washington Times do previews? Yes, it’s helpful to let readers know that something important is coming. With my limited frame of coverage I seldom do both review and preview, and favor doing the review.

SK – It’s good for us to know – what made you make the piece? What made you have to say something?

Suzanne Callahan – do you have a picture when you are writing for? A 40 yr old woman walking down the street, or someone like that?

SK – I want it to be something my mother could pick up and read. Something anyone could pick up and get something from. I think instinctively, I write for my mother. The editors filter what is between me and you. Their job is to make it understandable, readable by a lot of people. Not just dance experts.

GJ – The scope of what is covered seems to have changed. Reviewers used to go to New York, sometimes even foreign festivals. Now there are only reviews of local local work… is there any chance for getting more outside coverage?

SK – The style section always used to be different, used to be better. That’s what people always say. It’s always evolving, and goes in different ways depending on who is at the helm of the ship at a given point in time. But there’s also an economic crunch, so I don’t imagine we’ll go back to having more covered. There’s less money now for travel.

Shyree Mezick – How do you deal with deciding what to cover in terms of cultural diversity?

SK – do we have critics who know about different cultural styles? We have writers who know about dance… It’s either good or not good. Everything has to be viewed through the same lens. We have people who understand other fields. But concert dance is being reviewed as concert dance, regardless of its cultural origins. All dance has to stand up to the same standards.

PS – Reviews are for concert dance, and are not for things that are more or less than that.

Laurel Victoria Gray – We’d like to have a symposium to educate you on world dance forms. My company, Silk Roads, has experienced a lot of success. Why don’t we get covered?

PS – A lot of the world dance communities are insulated. But for instance in the Indian community, a lot of times the information stays in the community and doesn’t get to the paper… There are opera stars that come and perform from China, and we don’t hear about it, even if they are famous in that world. There is certainly no policy that says “we don’t like world dance and we’re not gonna cover it”. There is no intention to exclude. It’s a matter of getting information to the right place.

At this point I stopped taking notes…… Rob Bettmann

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