General 11-4-2002

On Dance Writing: The Backseat Critic

Critics on Criticism: Part 2 of 3

Caroline Palmer supplies the second in this series of critics writing on criticism. See the “Recent Special Features” link at the end of this article for the first in the series, Michael Fallon on visual arts critique. Upcoming is Peter Scholte writing on music criticism.

During the summer of 1991 I held the position of Publicity Director at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. In many ways, the job was enviable. My role was to promote the offerings of a venerable
institution founded by Ted Shawn during the early 1930’s. Situated in the Berkshire Mountains, the festival grounds offered gorgeous vistas and a rustic setting for viewing everything from regional ballet companies to modern dancers and Russian folk performers. Every day I lunched at a picnic table and
conversed with artists and students from around the world. I took dance classes in a barn. I watched revered composition teacher Bessie Schonberg lead workshops and choreographers like Mark Morris rehearse their companies. I rifled through the extensive archives. I had a great tan. The hours were long,
but, needless to say, I didn’t require hardship pay for this dance enthusiast dream job.

Every once in a while a critic would come up from New York to cover an opening night. Being city dwellers, none of them owned cars, so my job was to meet their buses in downtown Lee (outside the drug store) and chauffeur the intrepid writers up the mountain to whichever show required their attention. After the show I would wait an hour or so while the critic banged out a review on my computer and called it in to the newsroom.

I was still young and therefore intimidated by my charges, especially those from the New York Times. Although I already had nearly two years’ experience publicizing shows for Performance Space 122 in the East Village, I never spent any significant time with critics. I wrote press releases, made a few phone calls, reserved comps. Conversations consisted of a few sound bytes, a promise to send photos, the occasional rehearsal invitation.

Burt Supree, the late dance editor at the Village Voice, whom I have always considered one of the best reviewers ever, would tell me directly, and sometimes profanely, when he thought an artist was unworthy of column space. But that’s it. The critics took care of themselves in New York.

The Pillow was different. I had to spend quality time with the critics, something I wasn’t mentally prepared to do. All of a sudden I was racking up miles with someone who I aspired to be, thinking up things to talk about that had nothing to do with the purpose of that person’s visit. For some reason I believed that, as the lowly publicist, I shouldn’t talk about the work unless spoken to about it. No wonder I didn’t last long in the field! I remember shrinking under the dashboard when my husband asked Jack
Anderson what he thought of the Ballet Chicago performance he was sent to review for the Times (“You can’t do that!” I scolded him after we left the close-mouthed critic at his motel).

Some writers were quite talkative, freely dispensing biases and gossip, asking me to give an impression. Given the same conversations today I would be more honest; then I was too afraid to break my perceived vow of neutrality. I namby-pambied around, trying to please the artist (who wasn’t even in my car) and writer alike. I realize the critics were simply seeking a bond with someone who saw the same performance, shared the same experience, yet had no personal investment in the printed outcome other
than the accumulation of clippings files. Maybe they were waiting for me to drop the public relations agenda and speak truth. Sadly, I failed to rise to the occasion.

So now I have an opportunity to redeem myself. I’ve evolved from publicist to dance writer. I don’t think it’s entirely correct to call myself a critic because most of the time I write previews. My paper rarely
runs reviews due to publishing deadlines, so most of my opinions come long after the fact, usually when someone has already embarked on a new project. Then I decide whether to write based on my perception of the artist’s previous work. I would, however, welcome the opportunity to write more reviews, seeing as I enjoy judging the shortcomings of other people’s efforts. Right now I’m basically a backseat critic.

Contrary to popular opinion being a critic is not easy. Earlier this year I took a course with Elizabeth Zimmer, the current dance editor at the Village Voice, while attending the Dance Critics Association Conference at Lincoln Center. Our assignments included short reviews of a New York
City Ballet and Elizabeth Streb performance. After watching the shows we had to race to our computers and crank out no more than 600 words, overnight, just like the typical daily critic. We read our efforts out loud to our workshop colleagues. Zimmer was tough and after my first review was poorly received I tearfully called Stephen declaring that I was a fraud, had no right attending the critic’s conference, and should just take the next plane home. He dutifully fluffed my ego and I tried again. My second review
received the tepid comment that “it got more interesting as it went along.” A decade’s worth of complacency went out the window. My true thoughts and meaningful descriptions about the work were hiding behind zippy thesaurus theatrics and mixed metaphors (not to mention cute alliteration). The publicist within was still withholding her opinions. I had been exposed, most importantly to

So now I know where I stand, what about the community in which I write?

At the same conference I sat in an auditorium with dozens of writers from across the country, all with the same complaints: No one wants to publish dance reviews, editors perceive dance as irrelevant, dance doesn’t buy advertising so it doesn’t merit space. The Twin Cities are as guilty of these transgressions as any other large market, despite the local dance community’s considerable national reputation. It’s tough to be a champion for an art form when popular culture and professional sports — both fueled by significantly more dollars — are the competition.

The optimist in me thinks that this state of affairs presents the best sort of opportunity for a critic. Rather than surrender to whining for attention, or worse yet, neutrality (remember my experience with the
critics in my car!), arts writers have to start wielding the combined power of context and knowledge. Context meaning the ability to place the art form alongside other cultural influences, and knowledge meaning the savvy to create continuums, demonstrating whether or not said art form might outlast the competing cultural influences. Context and knowledge combine to create relevance.

Few critics, however, get to employ this formula on a regular basis because word counts and editorial direction aimed at the lowest common denominator dictate how much detail a critic can pour into a preview or review. Blame these circumstances on the corporate media or the dumbing down of America, but the critic has to find a way to surmount these challenges if for no other reason than self-preservation, but also, one hopes, for the sake of the art as well. Here I submit that the readership, if it really wants meaningful reviews, needs to make its needs known. But dialogue between the critic, artists and readership is necessary in order to create such a situation. The more frequent and predictably arts criticism runs the more people come to expect it, and the more likely they are to engage in the
cultural dialogue. Scattershot reviewing does not command the readership.

The Star Tribune may have concluded, recently, that reviews are not always necessary to a show’s success or failure, but that is beside the point. Writers contribute to the cultural record and whether their
observations matter now, in the future, or never. Someone needs to be keeping track of
the evolution of creative thought, no matter how thankless the task.

These days I’m the only critic I drive about town. I’ve got a lot more to think about, and a lot more to say, than I did a decade ago. Sometimes I only say it to myself, but since most arts writers wonder whether anyone really reads their work, I am used to the isolation. If I can’t speak truth to myself, then who am I to criticize?