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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dance criticism, RIP?


Is dance criticism dead? Or, through the migration of displaced print journalists to the Web, is that classic, high-authority form of criticism just hanging on life support? And does anybody out there really give a damn?

Dance bloggers, social media fans and 'Net-savvy dance artists and administrators certainly smell blood. Last evening, Movement Research convened a panel to examine the undeniable new media revolution that is already bringing new voices, perspectives and strategies to the creation, documentation, promotion and discussion of the art of dance. Moderated by Brian McCormick--Executive Director of nicholas leichter dance and former dance editor of Gay City News--the panel included:

Eric Ost, High 5
David Parker, The Bang Group
Doug Fox, Great Dance
Jaki Levy, Arrow Root Media
Laura Colby, Elsie Management
Marc Kirschner, TenduTV
Maura Nguyen Donohue, In Mixed Company
Paz Tanjuaquio, Topaz Arts
Sarah A.O. Rosner, The A.O. Movement Collective

and myself. Although drawing a small audience, the forum offered a lively exchange of views and a useful airing of concerns about the perceived declining quality--not to mention quantity--of dance criticism in New York's mainstream media.

Here's one of the topics McCormick suggested to us prior to the panel, and it's the one that commanded our attention over the two hours:


In any event, the age of the dance critic is coming to an end. The print media brands that supply a critic with credentials continue to see their circulations shrink. A simultaneous convergence of artistic focus on PROCESS versus PRODUCT and social media capacities for sharing artistic process and practice are also at odds with a dialectic that focuses solely on one experience of a performative end to the process, which in some cases isn’t even happening anymore. In such an environment, (3) What purpose does dance criticism serve, and (4) can those purposes be achieved through other means? What possible/practical strategies can artists engage in restore some balance to the control of information about their work? [How does career level influence responses?]

As a print emigrant, I've been thrilled to indulge in new media's many resources and opportunities, both as a consumer and a creator. (InfiniteBody blog and Body and Soul podcast represent only a fraction of my online involvement, just as my interest in dance represents only a fraction of who I am as a person.) I'm betting on the new tech communications not only to make it more efficient--and, frankly, more fun--for me to connect potential consumers to the artists I value but also to introduce me to all sorts of people with diverse knowledge, sensibilities and viewpoints that can enrich my experience. As a writer and a reader, I'm psyched to think that mainstream gatekeepers--with their commercial, aesthetic and personal agendas--have been so rapidly, so decisively circumvented by new media with its open-door policy and DIY ethic. Hooray for the cool kids!

But I'm also a little cautious, and I expressed some of those concerns at last night's panel. This is the second discussion of these issues in which I've participated; these forums can easily become focused on the menu of neat tools--Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, dance videos, video blogging--that we should all be adopting right now and lose sight of the original purpose of it all.

The methods of delivery of information are surely changing with the times, but the encounter and engagement with art remains--for me and for writers I respect and cherish--a deeply human and decidedly fleshy one. I still want to read writers whose full-bodied writing entertains me and educates me and dazzles me and frightens me and shocks me, ones who bring the power of their connection with a work to life for me and have taken some time to craft a response instead of dashing off a reaction. (At the panel, I cited Jill Johnston--from the early days of my interest in dance--and Holland Cotter, visual arts critic of the Times as two examples of writers I'd follow anywhere, no matter what they were writing about.) In a similar way, while I can appreciate the presentation of dance on video as an art in itself, I still most often want to feel the energy of dancers in the same room as me, breathing the same air I breathe. All of these things move me, and dance will always be, for me, a transformative power.

Champions of new media argue that wonderful new voices will eventually emerge out of the crowd, hastening to add that this does not mean, of course, a return to hierarchical standards. I do want the usual suspects shaken up, and I'm eager to see who's out there and what they've got. Everyone agrees that we need better dance writing. So, if the new media revolution means we've gotta have more before we get better, okay then.

But replacing the once-almighty New York Times with new media's democratization of expression won't necessarily bring about dance reviews that we'll be happy to read. More venues and more voices mean way more opportunities for work to get picked apart by folks whose voices are fresh but whose knowledge might be shaky, who are not your friends and who don't have your back and--I can tell you from years of involvement on the 'Net--people rarely hold back. The level and tone of discourse can be mean. Even irrational. And poorly spelled.

Connection, empathy, consideration, well-crafted, clear communication, thoughtful dialogue and useful, constructive criticism take time. (We won't get into how inadequately, disrespectfully compensated that time is for most dance writers--another topic for another day.) I want to see more attention to these essential qualities in media, both old and new. If new media can bring that to me, then bring it.

Okay, see you on Facebook!

[For Jaki Levy's commentary on our discussion, click here.]


Anonymous said...

It makes me nervous to comment on this enty but I feel like there wouldn't be a more appropriate one to put my name on. I'm certainly not trying to be a dance critic, though the definition of such a thing seems to be blurring more and more. I liked what you said about people on the internet not 'holding back.' I think I'm constantly keeping myself in check trying to keep things constructive because as little views as my blog may have, with any 'emerging artist,' anybody's hurtful words coming up in a google search is still a blow. And with google (and especially google caching) the things you put on the internet stay on the internet and people may be reading them months or years after you wrote them. Which can also be a positive thing. Anyway, I know my blog is still getting established but I would be interested in getting to know/rssing other people who are writing about dance. I personally think after the mob of contributers, there will be a few shining stars that people will respect and blogging can become a means for dance criticism... whatever that will mean by then.

Eva Yaa Asantewaa said...

Welcome to the "blur"! LOL! I'm glad you sent your comment, and I'd like to direct people to your blog at

I'm trying to stay optimistic that opening the door wide will ultimately mean more opportunities for exciting writers to find a space to live. I so want that to happen. I know what it means to be shut out.

Let's work on it!

lori said...

"Everyone agrees that we need better dance writing. So, if the new media revolution means we've gotta have more before we get better, okay then."

The multitude of individual voices can only be a good thing for dance and dance criticism...I often think of Jill Johnston these days as a model.

What I would say to students who want to have an easier time with this...major in English or comparative lit. See a lot of dance. Lynn Garafola told me at the beginning..."just read and write."

Eva Yaa Asantewaa said...

Take interest beyond dance. Become literate across disciplines. Have a true self and train your sensibilities accordingly. Discover what you love and value. Fight for what you love and value. Respect artists; they are your teachers. Respect readers; they deserve your best efforts. Keep your ego human-sized. Have a sense of humor. Understand the arts as an integral part of what's happening now. Use the new tools and forms to do the job better and with more fun. Don't ever forget the body and humanity at the core of dance.

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