Tuesday, July 12, 2011

If I want your opinion...

Joshua Benton, who directs the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, attributed the appetite for opinion journalism to the public's need for "someone to make sense of all the information we're confronted with every day."
"A series of straight news stories about a complicated subject may do a great job of providing facts, but it might not do a great job of making sense of those facts," he added. "A well-framed opinion or analysis piece can do that."
from Surrounded by Opinion, the Times Raises Its Voices by Arthur BrisbaneThe New York Times, July 2, 2011
Reading this column by Arthur Brisbane, the Times' Public
Editor--about the recent replacement of The Week in Review section with opinion-focused Sunday Review--brought to mind a few conversations I'd recently had with Boston Phoenix dance critic Marcia B. Siegel. Siegel stood firm for the continued relevance of something she insists on calling "dance criticism" (informed analysis and evaluation) in this age of informal dance blogging and Twitter.

Siegel (along with a few other prominent New York critics) initiated me into this profession nearly 37 years ago. I have the highest respect for her, while I've long since done more than merely straddle the fence between legacy and new media. I don't spend a lot of time trying to shield dance criticism from the young, tech-savvy barbarians at the gate. In fact, I rather like holding that gate open and waving through a few scruffy insurgents. But Brisbane's column made me entertain the possibility that Siegel might have a point in sticking to her standards.

Is it possible that the audience we crave for dance and the readership we want for dance writing might be looking for the kind of sharp analysis, clear opinion and skilled voice that comes with experience and, yes, with a sense of entitlement to speak out?

Quoted by Brisbane, Peter S. Goodman--formerly of the Times and now an editor and columnist for The Huffington Post--deems this "the age of the columnist." Brisbane concludes that readers are looking for "strong voices and firm conclusions based on facts."

Dance isn't about facts or firm conclusions, certainly. But, at its best, it is about distinctive voices with intelligence, perspective and potent expression. It might be best met, in turn, with fearless, artful expression from the dance writer.

For example, I have a handful of Times columnists that I turn to, again and again, for enlightening and often entertaining writing--writers such as visual arts critic Holland Cotter and film critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis. Before he departed for New York Magazine, political columnist Frank Rich was also one of these.

Whatever I'm reading, I look not only for authority but also individual, unmistakable style, aliveness of mind and courageous expressiveness, sometimes deft humor and a sense of fun where appropriate to the topic. In the case of dance or any other art, I like to feel that the writer is a real person sharing genuine, considered and possibly transformative encounters with art. There's an openness, immediacy and zest in the writing--much like the energies we love in dance--that can take you directly to your own feelings or make you sit up taller.

So, even though I doubt that readers of dance writing are looking for "just the facts, ma'am," I do think they desire more strength and vibrancy, more engagement and human presence in our writing. And I'm guessing that we'd draw many new readers to our work--and, consequently, to dance itself--if we turned our personal and creative power on full blast.

Loss of jobs and freelance assignments plus the rise of new forms and venues for writing have all plunged dance writers into a dizzying time of rapid transition. Some fear the change. Some want to grab it with both fists and make it work. The second type have the potential to use and even create new technological tools and platforms, sharpening the definition of dance writing and bringing us new personalities and material that more people will be eager to read--quite a boon for the art of dance itself.

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