Allan Ulrich jumps into the discussion about Octavio Roca?s reclycling with his usual ferocity. Allan takes seriously the charge that Roca?s actions smear critics as a class:

?Nevertheless, any lapse in ethical standards on the part of one critic makes all critics suspect. Many readers and editors still don?t consider us quite legitimate, and every time a critic is fired for recycling or reviewing an event in absentia or committing a crime while in a paper?s employ or using a position for ulterior motives, editors simply find one more reason for not hiring a successor. Critics, editors feel, are deemed more trouble than they are worth. So, let?s not gloat too long, folks.?

He sounds weary of the debate over just what crimes Roca committed, but he raises some important and provocative points about the proper role of dance criticism:

?[I]f these frustrated scribes claimed that newspapers should have staff dance critics because dance is an infinitely fascinating subject worthy of discussion in a large circulation newspaper in 2004, I could buy it.

But no, the argument goes something like: “All those poor dance companies will wither if they?re not reviewed.” The presumption here is that critics, as a matter of course, should use their bully pulpits in praise of what they find in their communities. They believe, in their self-aggrandizing way, that to find fault with a local favorite is to consign this choreographer to oblivion. Never mind that, back in the 1930s, John Martin?s doubts about Martha Graham scarcely impeded the progress of that seminal artist; and not all the Balanchine ballets we celebrate as masterpieces today were thus greeted at their premieres.

To enter into dance criticism because you feel you should boost local talent, rather than examining it as objectively as you can, seems like do-goodism misplaced, an ethical lapse almost on a par with Roca?s. I sometimes read Bay Area reviews that suggest the successor to Margot Fonteyn is slaving away in a studio in Walnut Creek, waiting to be discovered. Where does validation end and sheer dishonesty begin? No wonder prospective audiences don?t trust critics. Too many dance critics write with dancers, rather than audiences, in mind. Do you wonder why readers often feel left out of the critical process??

It?s the last three sentences that rally me. The delivery is perhaps harsh, but the warning is, I believe, well taken. Although it?s not unwarranted praise I worry about so much as the increasingly technical and insider tone of reviews. As serious dance writing increasingly migrates to the web (and thank God we have an outlet for it), dance writers can take for granted that the readers who seek them out online are dancers, choreographers, and hardcore dance fans. We have very few dance critics today who write to engage with a general audience?the reader who, perhaps looking for a book review, stops and lingers over the critique of last week?s ballet. Dance criticism is drawing its circle of readership tighter and tighter, a trend the Internet, with its specialized groups of readers, is encouraging. It?s a question of whom you write for?whether the review is laudatory or damning.

2 Comments

  • Leigh Witchel Posted August 3, 2004 1:47 am

    One thing I’ve learned from being on both sides of this fence is that reviewing is really never a dialogue with the artist. It can’t be; we don’t know the process. As a writer, we’re always in the same position as the audience – we walked into the theater, sat down and saw what we saw. And that’s who we have to speak to.

    It is sad that the byproduct of the Internet is the specialization of the reader. But when Bill Keller, editor at the NY Times, calls people who read dance and opera reviews a niche market as he did in an interview with the LA Times, he’s counted us out of the general readership. How do we reconvince mainstream publications that the fine arts are not a specialized interest, but a necessary part of cultural literacy?

    And mazel tov on your new blog!

  • sandi kurtz Posted August 3, 2004 1:32 pm

    Several years ago, at a Dance Critics Association conference, we had a panel on changes in dance writing as it moves to the ‘net, and one of the phenomenon discussed was something then called “point casting” — the method through which the reader (or, more ominously, the publisher) could tailor news to the specific reader. As a reader you could request to see only certain parts of a publication — as a publisher/distributor you could use that information to track other, specialized, material to that reader. I don’t know that this potential is always utilized, but I do know that the weekly paper I write for tracks individual “hits” on section of the website quite thoroughly. And that every time I as a reader go to a specific part of any web publication they have the capacity to put a “check” in that particular “box.” We have, as readers, in many ways participated in our own marginalization.

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