Dance Discourse organizer Mary Armentrout asked Paul Parish, longtime critic in the Bay Area currently writing for DanceView Times and the Bay Area Reporter, to contribute some thoughts before our panel Thursday. His comments weren’t read at the panel, but I find several of them resonant with my own notions, and others useful or provocative new directions. He has kindly agreed to let me post them here.
I feel I should add the requisite disclaimer: Paul’s thoughts and statements do not necessarily reflect my own; I reproduce them here unedited.
“[M]aybe I can participate by contributing a couple of my own concerns, and maybe you all will find them worth considering. Two bad things and a good thing.
The two things that threaten dance writing most are the decay of the public realm of journalism, and the toxic “professionalism” of academic dance criticism, which threatens to spill over into writing for the general public.
Both these trends have been underway for over a decade.
First, despite the wonderful growth of internet dance sites, which do nurture dance fans, still, the de cay of the mid-sized metro dailies, such as the SF Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury, means that the public knows less and less about what’s going on in the realm of dance. Twenty years ago the Chron had THREE writers covering dance, and they were given way more space to write than now. Rachel has not been given the BEAT nor the space, neither the authority nor the responsibility nor the space, and she can’t cover it top to bottom. For a writer to discuss names or ideas that are not already household words, s/he needs space on the page to introduce them before s/he can even begin the exposition. (Publishers began squeezing writers for space 15 years ago, and then began firing the writers a decade ago; the BIG squeeze was five years ago, but it was already well under way.)
The other problem for dance writers, looming on the horizon, is the pressure to conform to the way those who think about dance are writing nowadays. It’s a style thing, to “professionalize” the discourse and elevate it into a realm that nobody without an advanced degree could understand. Academic dance-writers are virtually writing in Latin — it’s ludicrously polysyllabic and reflects the insecurities of an adolescent academic discipline which has entered its post-modern phase without ever having had a classical period. Mastery of the jargon threatens to become the prerequisite for being taken seriously as a thinker –
Ten years ago excellent critics were getting fired to be replaced by free-lancing recent MFAs – but nobody would read the newbies, so that was a stand-off. In fact, an editor can’t judge whether or not the new-model critics know what they’re talking about, but in the dumbing-down imposed by publishers they decided just to do without dance critics at all.
We DO need dance critics to be critics of dance, and not music or literary critics in disguise. But the public needs to have writers who can be understood. If the artist is cryptic, well, the critic has to be able to elucidate (and will probably need some inside knowledge). And an angle….
Which brings me to the GOOD thing.
Community-based newspapers seem to be doing rather well. The gay weekly, the Bay Area Reporter, which I write for, is holding its own in the recession – as I believe are other papers which people go to to find news they need. We don’t have the huge readership, but….
My editor actually GOES TO DANCE PERFORMANCES. He is encouraging me to cover the beat – in a recent article, he sa id don’t just review the ballet gala, I could also include a preview of (transgendered) Sean Dorsey’s new show in the same article, and a quick review of the gay-friendly aspects of the Fire Ballet Drakul (namely, its debt to Ludlum and the Theater of the Ridiculous, and its overall overwhelming stageworthiness), AND the gay subtext buried in Lar Lubovitch’s agonizing Men Stories).
This means that dancers who contribute to the community – any community – are likely to get covered as NEWS, or even as gossip. If you offer to do your Shtick at a benefit for (you name the cause, Tsunami relief, AIDS prevention, a new hot-water pool at some hospital), you may have an editor asking the critic to mention your company in a favorable way, or even to go cover your next show at Counterpulse or the Milk Bar. This applies of course most to communities who feel oppressed – who feel grateful to their spokesfolk – but I can see the Berkeley Daily Planet looking kindly on someone who tried to help get help for the libraries.
There’s a spectrum on this – my editor wasnt asking me to cover anybody I did not admire. He was letting me write about everybody I felt I needed to mention, despite the raggediness of the review. It’s not necessary for there to be an obvious community tie-in to get covered in the BAR, and on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that if there IS an obvious tie-in that you’ll get a notice. Some weeks there’s no space.
Check out the community papers. And look to your communities – even the one you don’t like belonging to. Everybody needs a hand right now.”
Thanks to Paul for his comments.