Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dancing to Your Own Music

When an email arrived from the theater dance and performance studies programfrom the University at California at Berkeley announcing a lecture “about “Doing Dance Criticism,” I decided to go.

I thought the lecture would be a healthy experiment.  With a half hour before the program was to begin, I landed a parking spot and walked through Sather Gate and located Room 315 in Wheeler Hall, which was already filled with people.  There I found the famous quartet of dance criticism composed of:

Sarah Kaufman, dance critic for The Washington Post, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, regularly writes about dance, music, and opera. She is the author of eight books, including The Amateur: An Independent Life in Letters and Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering.
John Rockwell, former dance critic, music critic, and editor of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, is the board chairman of the National Arts Journalism Program.
Lewis Segal, formerly the staff dance critic for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.

Sarah Kaufman referred to her experience checking in at the airport and asked, “Why do people recoil from physical contact and prefer a quick, but questionable technology,” contrasting the pat-down to the x-ray scan, perhaps thinking of the theme of her next dance article. Wendy Lesser responded to Kaufman’s question and offered, “The scan is faster.” As a recipient of two hip replacements, which requires Lesser to undergo pat downs all over the world, she said that the scan procedure means that people can keep a closer eye on their computers rolling down the security assembly line.

But what about dance criticism? There were a variety of thoughts ranging from the notion that dance on stage, or to what the panel referred to as “concert dance” represents an accumulation of inputs from everyone who touches a performance. The age-old question posed by the poet, W.B. Yeats, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” was described in the same way that the poet did—we really can’t. Another panelist said that the ability to write well in evocative terms, crafting language to describe the physical experience of dance, was a big plus.  The last speaker held by his motto, “We don’t make the scene; the scene makes us.”

One of the critics let the cat out of the bag and voiced a concern for the future of dance criticism. As newspapers shrink and arts publications die, Rockwell acknowledged that bloggers on the Internet have challenged the relevance of dance criticism.  He said, “We’re in transition to a new business model that may eventually allow some people to earn a living.” He also hinted that the Internet may evolve into a pay-as-you-go model.

Segal also acknowledged changing business models, recognizing that new TV sets now offer access to the Internet. As a result, he said, the “difference between cable and web sites will become blurred” and offer dance websites a viable future.

However,  the critics did not mention the impact of TV programs like “So You Think You Can Dance,” or “Dancing With the Stars,” in bringing dance to new public audiences, until that question was posed from the floor. Then everyone pitched in about articles they’d written on the subject. Some offered that the programs were “vulgar,” others were more positive in recognizing that dance-savvy judges offered the public an opportunity to become “dance literate.” Another critic wondered why the public needed to know about what steps composed the “Paso Robles,” for example, when they could simply discern “the movement,” which sounded like a Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” attitude if there ever was one.

My take-aways? I learned that the world of dance, like every other place, is being seriously impacted by technology. I also felt that these four dance critics may be falling behind the public as You-Tube, the Internet, and TV programs legitimize forms such as B-Boy and Hip-Hop and bring dance to a new audience. Do these audiences have an interest in a  criticism that can expand beyond the world of concert dance? 

Maybe the panelists are dancing to their own music...

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