Critical Dialogues

The first installment of “Critical Dialogues,” a series I’ve created for In Dance, is now in print and online. Here’s an excerpt:

“What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this first installment, LEVYdance associate director Scott Marlowe met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the June 26, 2014 performance of his first work, Soar.

RACHEL HOWARD: I’ll start with things that appealed to me about Soar, and then you can share the things that you were happy with. And then I’ll share my reservations, and you can tell me where I’m off the mark and what your intentions were. And then, I have this burning curiosity about what a choreographer wants in a review. I think, of course, they want publicity, but . . .

SCOTT MARLOWE: Right. It’s always interesting to me to see that some choreographers will not share the negative reviews. And other choreographers will share every review that comes in.

RH: I liked the wholeness of the work—an evening-length work with one clear structural concept. You had a complete commissioned score [by Ben Juodvalkis]—

SM: I’m so happy with the score. I listen to it on repeat on my iPod.

RH: And I thought you did a great job making the theater in Z Space into an alternate reality. The costumes were great. LEVYdance costumes always seem to be hip clothes you could find at H&M or Forever 21, and for Soar they had a nice soft palette. And I thought the dancers were strong and loved their diversity. Interesting personalities.

SM: Which side of the theater were you on? [Note: For Soar, audience members sat on stools arranged on the floor, with the dancers first performing in the center and running through the rows of seats. Audience members were then asked individually by the dancers to choose “red” or “blue.” A curtain was drawn to divide the stage space in half, and each audience member was led to one side of the other.]

RH: I chose blue, so I was on the north side.

SM: With the coffee table.

RH: Yes. And the woman in that duet—Angela [Rollins]—she was out there in her connection with her partner, no inhibitions. So what about the work were you happy with?

SM: I was happy and shocked that everything we were trying to do in giving the audience agency seemed to transpire without hiccups. We thought, what if everyone in the room chooses blue? We had backup plans, but every night was about 50/50. The feedback was that people found personal investment. They said, I wanted to vault off the table with you guys.

RH: So here’s where I am going to admit something that will make you hate me. It’s embarrassing.


RH: (curling into a ball of shame) I decided to leave the theater at about the 45-minute mark. Obviously if I were reviewing, I would never, never leave before the end of the show. But now I’m relying on you to tell me what happened.

SM: (remarkably gracious) So at the end of the piece, we invited the audience to move to the sides and they created a corridor. And we then launched into really dancey material. Then we took tables and nested them against each other and one by one the dancers ran up the tables and took a big belly fl op into the air, and the other cast members caught them. They did it over and over and over—that was the crescendo. And what I loved was that so many audience members said that they wanted to hop up there and do that with us. So I knew that they felt connected, that we reached them as humans and not as performers separate from the audience.

RH: What time mark did that happen at?

SM: Around 45 minutes—

RH: About right after I left. OK. Let’s say your dream review came out. What specifi cally would you like to hear the critic say?

SM: I would love to hear the critic fi nd a personal relationship to the work, and to put that out there, to expose themselves.

RH: Hmm. I always walk into a work wanting that to happen. But if doesn’t, it doesn’t always mean it was a failure of my openness.

SM: No, but if and when that happens, it points to the success of the work.

RH: Right. But let’s say—the critic’s job is also to analyze the aesthetics of the dance, and how it works. What piece of analysis would you hope for?

SM: Hmm. I would hope they would point to the honesty and the vulnerability in the performers. That human connection is why LEVYdance produces work. So to think about how it would be analyzed is hard—because ideally I wouldn’t want someone to be sitting outside of it to analyze it. Even a critic.

RH: Even a critic. That’s interesting. I feel that analysis is still an important role. The critic has to think about how art works, why art has its effects. I think, speaking also as a writer, that sincerity can get you a long way. But there’s something beyond the sincerity that is the artfulness that channels the sincerity so it can cross the divide. And has to do with how the work is structured, and the form—

SM: That creates the access—

RH: Right—and so I feel that the critic’s job does need to be thinking about how the art is working, because otherwise . . .

SM: Well, then in this case it would be amazing to hear the description of the audience around the critic as well, because the audience interaction was so much a part of what we were doing.

RH: So that sounds to me like pure descriptive criticism of the kind that Jill Johnston and a generation of writers in the sixties advocated. No aesthetic judgments.

SM: And actually reviews in that vein really do irk me. I don’t care to read a beautiful description of what a person saw. I want to know what they felt.

RH: So then, if a critic—me, for instance . . . well, in Soar I appreciated the dancers, but I didn’t feel emotionally moved. So if that’s the case—If I had ended up reviewing for the Chronicle, it would have been a very tough review to write. Because I like you, I think your dancers did an excellent job—and my honest reaction was that I was disappointed. It couldn’t have been a positive review.

SM: And I think that’s what a review is supposed to do.

RH: So in that case, a critic can’t be purely descriptive. So here are my reservations.”

You can read the rest here. Going out on a limb with this new form–candid feedback much appreciated. The next critical dialogue, with Pear Marill, will be out next month. For future installments, I’ll invite other critics to conduct dialogues. The experiment continues. Great thanks to Wayne Hazzard and the In Dance staff for making it possible.

Thursday, September 4th, 2014 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Fall Dance

What a pleasure to talk up my top ten dance picks in this fall arts preview for KQED’s website. I’m particularly eager to see Batsheva and Sasha Waltz. Click here for enticing photos and video. Hope to see you at some of these shows.

Thursday, August 28th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

Summer ’14 Update

Busy spring/summer of writing and reading!

–I finished an extensive revision of my novel-in-progress thanks to a deep reading from the ever-wise Ethel Rohan.

–I joined a writing group with marvelous Bridget Quinn and Kate Folk. Workshopped and revised two new stories and one new essay thanks to their comments (with the not inconsiderable bonus of getting to read their inspiring work).

–I taught personal essay writing at the SF Writers’ Grotto and memoir at Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writers Studio. This fall I’ll be teaching a ten-week course on crafting a strong book proposal for OWS. Registration opens August 18th. Check out all the great Stanford OWS classes here.

–I signed a contract to publish an e-chapbook of five of my personal essays, “Losing Things,” with the new ebook publisher Shebooks. Read all about their mission to equitably publish and pay women writers for their work here. The title of my collection comes from this essay published at Berfrois. The mini-collection will also include this essay which appeared in the Arroyo Literary Review, and will be released later this year.

–A few months after accepting my essay mini-collection, Shebooks editorial director Laura Fraser asked me to join the editing team. I’ve since had a thrilling time acquiring and editing exquisitely written nonfiction and fiction by Brenda Miller, Kathy Flann, and Anne Kaier. The first of my acquisitions for Shebooks, Brenda Miller’s moving essay collection Who You Will Become, will be published later this month.

–Finally, I’ve been fortunate to see and think about some great dance here on the Bay Area dance scene. What a pleasure to interview and profile RAWdance’s smart co-directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith for the SF Chronicle.

–And, after seeing LevyDance’s world premiere Soar, I had an idea: What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with the choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? So I pitched that idea to In Dance, and got the greenlight to launch a new series, “Critical Dialogues.” The first “Critical Dialogue,” between me and Soar’s choreographer, LevyDance associate director Scott Marlowe, will appear next month.

–Oh! And in non-writing life, I finished my tenure as cantor at St. Augustine’s Episcopal, where I was blessed to serve for six months. I’ve now joined the choir at St. Paul’s, and start rehearsals with their incredible singers in September. The music director assures me I will sight-read much better in six months, thanks to the wealth of challenging music they take on. Gulp. I’m grateful for this new adventure.

Phew. Now back to work.

Monday, August 4th, 2014 · Books, Dance, Misc. · No Comments »

Summer Writing Classes

Registration is now open at Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writers Studio, and I have one spot left in my 10-week memoir class. Take a look at all the great Stanford classes here.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto has just posted its summer offerings. I’ll be teaching a 9-week personal essay course, a 3-week arts reviewing course, and a 1-day “Gesture Writing” intensive. Here is the full lineup of Grotto offerings, including two 1-day classes I particularly recommend from Steve Almond.

You can read about my approach to teaching writing and my background here. If you’re interested in any of my classes, or have any questions, please write to me at rachel dot howard (at) gmail dot com.

Sunday, June 1st, 2014 · Books · No Comments »

Risk and Reward: Mark Dendy in Santa Barbara

Next week I drive to Santa Barbara for the second of three “Friday Clubs” with New York choreographer Mark Dendy and his dancers. This is a new offering from DANCEworks, a residency program that gives choreographers a full month to make new work onstage at the lovely 400-seat Lobero Theater, with full technical support. This allows choreographers the rare luxury of developing the work intensively, and in steady collaboration with lighting designers, musical collaborators, costumers, and set architects. The first five DANCEworks residencies have yielded tremendous successes, from Doug Elkins’ celebrated “Mo(or)town Redux” to Brian Brooks’ daring “Big City.”

The mission of DANCEworks is so important, I feel, and the enthusiasm of executive director Dianne Vapnek is so infectious, that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines as a critic/observer, and 18 months ago I joined the DANCEworks board. (Fortunately, this hasn’t yet created too many conflicts of interest in my reviewing life, since DANCEworks commissions only one choreographer per year, and by invitation only–no application process.) I’m on the edge of my seat about what Mark Dendy will do this year in his fresh work, “Dystopian Distractions!” Dendy, who has seen a resurgence in his career recently with his massive (80-dancer) “Ritual Cyclical” at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors festival, has chosen to take on the war machine of American culture in a dark satire of dance theater. I have no idea what the new work will have to say about Americans and war, no idea how it might provoke, enlighten, or offend–which is a risk at the heart of the DANCEworks mission.

At the new “Friday Club,” anyone who donates $50 or more to DANCEworks can see the work as it progresses, and talk about it with Mark and his dancers on the Lobero Stage. “Dystopian Distractions!” will have a full work-in-progress performance on April 26th, and I will be giving a short pre-curtain lecture.

Here’s an invitation from Mark and his dancers to the “Friday Club.”

Saturday, April 5th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

Shostokovich Trilogy: An Exhortation

I think only a Russian could have choreographed Shostakovich as Alexei Ratmansky has, capturing the music’s inner current so subtly and chillingly. Or perhaps a Czech, because seeing Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy is like being inside the dance equivalent of a Milan Kundera novel. The cast at last night’s west coast premiere with San Francisco Ballet (the production is a co-commission with American Ballet Theatre) was terrific to a one. The ballet feels eerily timely given Putin’s latest maneuvers, and there’s irony indeed in the fact that the stunning set designs which, in “Shostakovich Trilogy,” lightly spoof propaganda are by the same designer who for the Winter Olympics created ceremony scenery that served as actual propaganda. I take my exhortative recommendations very seriously. If you possibly can, you should see this.

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 · Books, Dance · No Comments »

Spring Memoir and Essay Classes: Registration Open

I have a few spots left in my spring classes in personal essay and advanced memoir at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, which is located at 2nd and Bryant Streets, in SOMA. If you’re looking for a substantive class that will both nurture and challenge you, that is what I offer. Some unsolicited feedback from my most recent classes:

“I’ll write this feedback on the course evaluation, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve learned so much from you about teaching and giving feedback on writing. You have such a gift of making each individual want to continue writing.”

“I want to let you know how meaningful the course has been to me. It is the first writing course (since my college days!) I have participated in and it has been a revelation. I have learned much about the craft–but I have also learned much about myself and others. I have seen how the process of writing can illuminate, frame and provide context and meaning to life experiences. It can also heal and bring closure. It has helped me in unexpected ways at this time.

Thank you for being a wise guide and insightful and supportive teacher. I will miss your influence and gentle prodding (to get on with the assignment!)–and I will miss learning from my talented classmates. Collective risk taking and giving voice to our stories has forged lasting connections.”

Sunday, March 16th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »

“Six Card Games”

The lovely and intellectually provocative Berfrois has just published one of my newest essays, “Six Card Games.”

An excerpt:

“G– cleared our pizza crusts. The bay lapped the boat and the old pit bull snored as G– dealt. Within fifteen minutes I was down to two cards in my pile, playing every card I could every time, gloating, and G– still had a tall stack. He rose to pour more Beaujolais and I blurted, “So you’re 51, never married. Do you think you’d want a family?”

G– slapped down three cards in a row with a competitor’s smirk. “Interesting question, Canary,” he said. “Probably not.”

I was 34 and we were both well aware of that.
He tapped the cards in his hand on the laminated little table. “So much for your lucky streak,” he said with a cluck.”

Full essay is here. Many thanks to Berfrois for sharing this work.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »

More on the New Ballet San Jose

Whether the moneyed tech population of Silicon Valley will support the reinvented Ballet San Jose remains to be seen, but whether Jose Manuel Carreno was the right choice to lead this company’s upgrade was perfectly clear Saturday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The first repertory program of Carreno’s reign was ingenious programming, to be sure: the ageless, elegiac craftsmanship of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade,” the busy, street-wise energy of Jorma Elo’s 2006 “Glow-Stop;” and the in-your-face angst (mixed with some playful lounge music) of Ohad Naharin’s collage of dances from the ‘90s, “Minus 16,” replete with audience participation finale.

This was a smart slate not only in the range of emotion and physicality it fed the audience, and the balance between crowd pleasing (the Elo) and classic (Balanchine). It was also brilliant in the growth it demanded from Ballet San Jose’s lovable, eager dancers. Everywhere in the ensemble, veteran company members who once stagnated became standouts: Jeremy Kovitch was a muscled wonder of deep presence in “Glow-Stop;” Beth Ann Namey brought an ease of lyricism to “Serenade.” Alexsandra Meijer has long shone as the top technician at Ballet San Jose; now she is joined by the equally elegant and musical Ommi Pipit-Suksun, whom fans will remember from her soloist days at San Francisco Ballet, and the two presided angelically in both the Balanchine and the Elo. There were new men commanding attention, too, especially the slinky Bosnian dancer Damir Emric, and corps member James Kopecky, who had the perfect unnerving intensity required for a company to pull off Naharin.

The audience was robust and raucously appreciative. But recently Ballet San Jose had to cancel Saturday afternoon shows and live music because Carreno’s kick-off gala, last November, did not net major donors. So listen up, Silicon Valley: Aren’t you always looking for the hot new thing? Here’s a tip: Ohad Naharin, danced with fervor by San Jose’s own—that’s a sure bet. Any sensible VC firm would make a sizable Series A investment in Carreno’s Ballet San Jose.

PS: Here’s an informative article from Allan Ulrich about all that Carreno is up to.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Dance · 1 Comment »

New Essay in Spring Arroyo Literary Review

I’m delighted to have a new essay, “Frank Black,” just published in the Spring ’14 Arroyo Literary Review. In addition to the print edition, the magazine has made the piece available online here.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »

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