Imagine…. A World Wide Web with no blogs, no streaming video, no Google, hardly any graphics worthy of the name. A 56.6K modem was the newest, fastest way to get yourself on the WWW but only the really cool people had them. In 1997, this primitive world was real, and voiceofdance.com stepped up to try to integrate the physical world of dance with this new, still quite mysterious medium. VOD is now celebrating its tenth anniversary, and while the site’s name and fundamental mission have remained constant, the changes in and around it have been steady as well.
In 1997, we could not have imagined just how the Internet would settle into the pervasive resource that it is now. What makes Voice of Dance’s story timeless (at least, timeless in terms of the very short lifetime of the WWW), is the story of people seeking a cheap, effective way to speak back to those who would not listen to them, and to connect directly to their community.
At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle had one full-time dance critic. VOD co-founder Lori Smith Sparrow was a fundraiser finishing a capital campaign for the San Francisco Ballet, and she had the unpleasant experience of being told that donors wouldn’t give because the local reviews had been poor–even though critics in New York and Paris had been positive. The sense in the dance community was that this critic, Octavio Roca, was writing reviews that went beyond negative and actually discouraged people from seeing dance. Many were afraid that, as Smith Sparrow puts it, dance “couldn’t survive an assault from inside.” Reviews, of course, impact audiences, but negative ones can also cripple artists’ ability to write compelling press releases and strong grant applications, which affects whether or not they are able to continue to make dance. The dance community was at the mercy of one person’s viewpoint, which is not a good deal for anyone.
There was a series of community meetings, bringing together many of the strongest forces in the Bay Area’s modern dance and ballet community, including the San Francisco Ballet, ODC, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and Dancers’ Group’s Wayne Hazzard. The upshot was the founding of VOD by Smith Sparrow and investment banker F. Warren Hellman. VOD began as a place for Bay Area dance lovers and dance makers to be heard, to prevent the conversation on dance from being a series of monologues by critics. As Smith Sparrow points out, if you write a letter to the editor, it may not be printed; and usually, this is the only chance you have to present a different point of view. So, when the site started, it included traditional reviews but also, significantly, a forum where users could write their own reviews of performances of their choice.
The Middle: Unexpected Changes
Once Voice of Dance went online in 1997, it began evolving almost immediately. One change was that the public turned out to be either shy or lazy, and didn’t leap at the opportunity to shout out their own reactions to the dance they saw. Instead, Smith Sparrow found that people wanted to know where they could take dance classes and which performances were coming up. So, VOD listened to its audience and added class directories and a calendar of performances by VOD members. Also, though VOD was intended to be a local site addressing the lack of critical dialogue specifically in the Bay Area, within three months it had started to include national information because it had visitors from across the U.S. Within a year, its scope was international, again because of its visitors. These changes directed the focus of the site away from the local critical issue; Smith Sparrow points out that the national and international visitors “couldn’t care less” about it.
The Present, and the Future
At this point, VOD is a two-person operation, with Carmen Carnes, also a choreographer, assisting Smith Sparrow in the day-to-day site operations; contractors help out with technical matters and design for the site. You would never guess this from visiting the VOD site, which has a wide range of resources and is updated frequently. What’s included in the site is constantly changing. The featured professional critics now include a letter from London by Barbara Newman, Anna Kisselgoff (formerly of The New York Times), Mindy Aloff (also from NY), sometimes Rachel Howard, and longtime contributor Allan Ulrich (both SF). VOD is starting to work more with video, a natural for dance: a video they produced is already available and more are to come. Early on, the site offered online chats with notable people in the dance world; Smith Sparrow would like to revisit these using video, so the audience can actually watch someone respond to questions. They’re also considering offering podcast previews, so viewers could access an interview with a choreographer right before going to their show.
Smith Sparrow has never lost sight of the initial impulse behind the creation of Voice of Dance, and the technology is finally getting ready for her. Soon, anyone visiting the site will be able to comment on reviews easily and quickly; the technology is much more user-friendly now, so people should actually do it. This tool brings the site a lot closer to its longtime goal of allowing discussions of dance to move beyond statements by critics to a more multi-dimensional, conversational model. Blogs are another method for encouraging a wide range of people to contribute their ideas about dance, and VOD is in the process of starting several geographically-based blogs in areas where there are both dance audiences and a reliable moderator (SF, NY, London).
“Always the plan was to have many voices talking about dance, not just one,” says Smith Sparrow. She sees dance as a living art form which may change from performance to performance; she’d like to include several reviews of the same piece or even of the same performance, so dance could have something like the range of perspectives focused on movies. She compares dance to wine, because people without specialized knowledge feel intimidated and unable to evaluate what they see; some are even discouraged from going to see it in the first place. Many reviews are “unreachable”; VOD may play with how they present reviews to make them more immediately approachable.
Hearing Smith Sparrow talk about how dance and dance criticism interrelate offers a glimpse of an alternate reality, one where dance’s immediacy and changeability are understood and no one is afraid to react to what they see. Choreographers, dancers and audiences benefit from true, open, intelligent, engaged criticism, and dance is strengthened. Utopian, yes; but if no one imagines the future how will we get there?