A View From the Trenches: Critical Losses

By Brenda Way

January 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Art nourishes consciousness. It helps us identify who we are, what we value, and what we might become.

“The function of criticism is the re-education of perception.” (Philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey).

In America, where dance-making is hardly a national pastime, we have depended to a large degree on the critical community to ennoble the artistic enterprise and take a lead in educating the public to its challenges and pleasures. The ‘60s and ‘70s were exceptional; they were teeming with intelligent writers who helped energize the stage and the theater lobby with their insights and questions, their skepticism and their admiration. The dynamic growth in the dance field from coast to coast was due in great part to the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts but also to the visibility and intellectual energy provided by committed dance coverage in major newspapers that supported full-time dance critics. Over the years, these voices have disappeared. Commerce has replaced concert and the aesthetic conversation has dwindled to a whisper. In this past year, the magnitude of this shift has come into full focus. Dance critics’ jobs have been rolled back or entirely eliminated across the country: Lewis Segal was let go from the Los Angeles Times, dance and music critic Paul Horsley from the Kansas City Star, dance critic Laura Bleiberg gone by virtue of a buy-out from the Orange County Register, Jennifer Dunning retired from the New York Times and her full-time slot left unfilled, and 40-plus year veteran Deborah Jowitt’s weekly column in the Village Voice diminished by two-thirds. The writers who framed my career, alerted me to new ideas, probed my values and gave me consideration and critical context (and those of countless choreographers across the country) … gone.

San Francisco is second only to New York in dance activity. The city’s reputation and economic base is intimately tied to its artistic profile. For many years, the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper of record and most widely read publication in town, employed not one but two full-time dance critics. No longer. A contracted freelancer, Rachel Howard, now provides the bulk of the informed dance coverage. But she serves at the pleasure of her editor on a case-by-case basis. Personal meetings and letter writing efforts by artists and dance enthusiasts failed to persuade the editors to rehire a full time dance critic. We certainly understand that the economics of the daily newspaper are tenuous. But truly, isn’t our local performance scene the scoop of the region? No one in New York or Cleveland can claim that story. San Francisco residents in huge numbers attend the performing arts and our cultural scene is what attracts many to our region. I would think that stirring up a lively discussion about our arts milieu would engage readers, enhance our civic profile, push our artists to excel and sell both papers and tickets. We need intelligent reviews of course, but also features on who’s coming to town and why we should care. We can get movie reviews on TV and national/international political news from the New York Times or online but I still subscribe to the Village Voice solely to read what performances are happening in downtown Manhattan.

The response I hear when I bemoan this critical disappearing act is, “Go to the web. Newspapers are dead.” I love the Internet but it is a vast and undifferentiated landscape and the dance writing attracts only the pre-disposed. A beautiful newspaper photograph or bold headline would, in former times, arrest the uninitiated reader as well as the cognoscenti. We also gained civic stature by simple inclusion in the daily conversation. No wonder the general public no longer has us in their sights, we have become virtually invisible. And no wonder the public thinks Dancing With the Stars is what dance is all about. While blogs and websites invite an engaged and dynamic broad-based critical expression, these don’t take the place of a responsible editorial commitment to an art form (web or paper based). There is no fact checking on the web, no filter. Newspaper critics are accountable, through their editors, to the public.

Contemporary artistic work gives voice to the spirit of its home culture and it is the unique role of the regional critic (and every venue and artist belongs to a region) to perceive and consider that voice — to understand it in a national and historical context. And these writers need placement in and among the important issues of our day. Critics literally write a region’s place in history– and by extension, of course, the artists’. Further, in a historical period that boasts an increasing diversity of artistic expression and new technologies, with their deconstructing and overlapping art forms, an era that faces an onslaught of entertainment-oriented programming and political agendas that continue to fan a growing suspicion of contemporary art, the role of the critic has become more necessary than ever. They help raise fundamental questions: What is art? What is quality? Who’s who and why should we care? The questions must be asked and addressed in a multiplicity of voices.

The dance art, in particular contemporary dance, reaps the greatest rewards from the writing press. Modern dance presents a point of view rather than a system. It requires a broad-based and informed critical response. No written score, compact disc, literary text, graphic representation, frame or received vocabulary of steps can represent it or document its evolution. Repeated exposure (if one is lucky enough to have the opportunity) represents the most effective route to understanding. But informed guidance facilitates and deepens the process. (The power of the cathedral isn’t explained away by the guide-book, but our experience of it is certainly made more complex and satisfying.) Our critics are our interpreters, our advocates, our means of participating in the great cultural debates and our best chance of reaching new audiences.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract patronage, audience, and funding for new works in this shrinking critical environment. If this has affected San Francisco, the second largest dance city, I hate to think about what is happening in the rest of the country. Dancers, choreographers, presenters, and critics survive in a symbiotic relationship. If one of us disappears, the rest of us will be diminished.

Remaining silent or ignoring the problem won’t make it better. Surely, we should make common cause with the critics and work together to imagine how we might reframe their publishing strategies. And in the short term, we must continue to let publishers and editors know how essential they are to the vigor of our towns and cities. Ultimately, a professional critical community, those writers with the gift of sight and of insight, is the bridge to an informed audience and to an enlightened public life.

This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of In Dance.

Brenda Way received her early training at The School of American Ballet and Ballet Arts in New York City. She is the founder and artistic director of ODC/Dance and creator of the ODC Theater and ODC Dance Commons, a community performance venue and training facility. Way launched ODC and an inter-arts department at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in the late 1960s before relocating to the Bay Area in 1976. She has published widely and is a 2000 recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and was named Resident of the Arts at the American Academy in Rome for ‘08/’09. Way holds a Ph.D. and is the mother of four children.