The Crisis in Criticism: The Economy, the Internet and the Death of Dance Writing, Jun 2009

By Elizabeth Zimmer


If you are reading this, odds are you earn at least part of your living working in the arts, or are a committed member of the dance audience. Let me ask you to think about key issues affecting the dance world, and the livelihood of those who want to work in it.

How do you get your information about the arts in your community?

How much discretionary income do you spend on arts events?

How do you decide how to spend it?

My subject here is the interdependence of media and the arts. I’m interested in how a cadre of smart dance writers, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped to create the dance boom, and why the current collapse of print media is disastrous for the arts, especially experimental, low-budget work.

I’ve been writing dance reviews, in the United States and Canada, since 1972. At first I did this on a freelance basis, for radio and newspapers, supporting myself as an English teacher. Later I earned an increasingly large portion of my income writing while working in arts management. In addition to producing dozens of reviews, I edited a useful book on Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.

I lost my first full-time dance critic job when the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989. I kept my hand in, writing for the radio stations KCRW in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s KALW, and a free bar paper in San Francisco, until my former editor at The Village Voice, Burt Supree, dropped dead in the spring of 1992. I was offered his job, returned to New York, and for a few years I was in dance heaven, earning decent money to look at dance, write about it, and edit the work of other writers I respected. Not incidentally, I sat in weekly meetings that determined the content of the entire newspaper, gently nudging an intractable editor in the direction of taking dance seriously.

During those years I was commissioned to edit what has become the standard text on dance and film, Envisioning Dance on Film and Video, published in 2002. I also wrote reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer on a freelance basis, taking the train to Philly every other week or so to cover the Pennsylvania Ballet and other troupes that managed to run for more than a couple of days. I went to festivals and conferences all over the world, visiting Frankfurt and Monte Carlo, lecturing in Taiwan and Taormina. I had the time and the flexibility to teach short workshops at universities all over the country, and a salary that underwrote the hours I spent going to performances almost daily, soaking up the choreographic life of the period. When, in 1994, I was invited to address a Dance Critics Association conference in Berkeley about my career path, I remember announcing that I had the best dance job in the world.

In August 2006, after 14 years, I was laid off from that job. At that point, the space available to write about dance in the Voice had been eroding for nearly a decade.

Back in the ‘60s, a dancer named Jill Johnston began chronicling her life in the studio and onstage, and the Voice printed her wonderful journals for many years, until she went off the deep end and her writing became too much about her own struggles and not enough about the dance scene. Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts began funding dance, and supporting training institutes to develop capable dance writers for newspapers around the country. Deborah Jowitt trained a lot of us in the 1970s, after picking up the gauntlet at the Voice; Arlene Croce went to work for The New Yorker; and Marcia Siegel got a job first at the Soho Weekly News and then at New York magazine, while also teaching at Mills and at NYU. Clive Barnes came over from England and began reviewing dance and theater at The New York Times; he died last year after decades at the New York Post. There were small magazines, like Dance Scope and Ballet Review, that paid a lot of attention to dance, and a clutch of other weeklies and monthlies, all of which supported dance writers. Dance was hot in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which were very body-conscious decades; advances in birth control allowed women to prolong their dance careers and still have love lives, as well as letting dance fans postpone childbearing and extend their years as active audience members.

In the ‘80s the situation took a turn for the worse. The AIDS epidemic ate a huge hole in the talent pool of dancers, choreographers and writers. The real estate market on both coasts of the U.S.A. went through the roof, making it difficult for dance artists to maintain living and working situations in the cities. The National Endowment for the Arts, under Reagan, cut back its funding for dance touring, and a lot of dancers lost their jobs.

And then, in the ‘90s, came the Internet, which revolutionized the distribution of news and advertising. Sites like Craigslist undermined the classified advertising sections of many newspapers, causing the papers and their arts coverage to begin to shrink. Young audiences largely abandoned print media for faster, cheaper news service on television and online. And now, in the 21st century, the financial crisis has caused major retailers to reduce display advertising, leading to the layoffs of many arts and other reporters, and to the closing of dozens of newspapers across the country.

Arts criticism is in trouble in print media across the country, and invisible on television and radio. It’s burgeoning on the web, though generally in situations that don’t pay the writers or edit their work in any way. I’ve been contributing to Metro, one of New York’s free dailies (the editor who hired me used to be my intern; who says there’s no such thing as karma?), but the paper only lets me write about three arts events a month, including both theater and dance, and only accepts reviews of shows that continue to run, which leaves out about 90 percent of the city’s dance presentations. I sometimes get work writing feature stories—interviews, for the most part—for an Australian daily, about dance artists scheduled to appear Down Under. Today I got word that the paper is cutting the rate they pay me by 25 percent, on top of the fact that the Australian dollar is worth much less than the U.S. one. But at least they’re still assigning stories and I still get some work.

The Village Voice, the weekly newspaper from which I drew a salary for 14 years, has reduced space for dance from about 2,400 words a week to about 675 appearing roughly every third week. Five years ago the Voice eliminated its annual dance supplement, after shrinking it over the previous 15 years from 12 pages to two. In 2008 the paper reduced its longtime chief critic, Deborah Jowitt, from full-time staffer to occasional freelance contributor. They’re paying her for one review a month, and she’s writing about three, some of which appear only on the paper’s website.

When I was a full-time staffer there, my editor-in-chief at the Voice kept asking me, “How many people in the city do you think are really interested in dance, Elizabeth?” Every time I answered him I inflated the number by another 10,000, but you could tell this sports nut was skeptical. He once told me to avoid using the word “choreographer” in dance stories. He didn’t think people understood it. He, too, was relieved of his position in late 2005, and the new owners of the paper continued cutting space and resources for dance. In my last year at the Voice, I spent a lot of time working with Deborah on a kind of triage: figuring out what single item, out of the diverse bouquet of 30 or so events available to us every week, we wanted to feature on the dance page. And then I got laid off.

Five or six other dance critics also lost their outlet at the Voice, and many others have been laid off elsewhere. Tobi Tobias lost her post at New York magazine seven years ago, and was laid off by Bloomberg News early this year. Similar processes have taken place in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles and in Boston, where full-time critics have been retired and replaced with freelancers. A couple of papers in New York that had good arts coverage have folded. Dance Magazine becomes increasingly staff-written, with less opportunity for freelancers. At other papers, critics have died and will not be replaced. At The New York Times, things are pretty good, actually: Staff critic Alastair Macaulay and a rotation of capable freelancers give dance a lot of attention in six print issues a week and online. But even the Times is in trouble; the paper recently announced a cutback of about 15 percent in freelance assignments. A lot of critics have begun writing blogs for, listening to vague promises of eventual pay based on advertising and increased readership.

Dance writing across America has become for the most part an avocation, something you do for love and maybe mad money, not for a salary. Over the past three decades, fees for dance writing have not increased; in many places, relative to inflation, they’ve actually been reduced. As I say, there are opportunities to write online, on specialized websites and personal blogs, but hardly any of those opportunities pay anything, so even longtime professionals are suddenly classed as amateurs: they’re doing it for love. And love, I needn’t remind any of you, does not pay the bills.

Where does that leave the dance profession itself? What are the audiences that 21st century choreographers are trying to reach? What are they offering to those audiences?

One thing any “lively arts” community needs to face is the bottom-line fact that it’s in the entertainment business. People may be making perfectly serious art, but that art is competing for consumers’ time, money, and “mind share” with books, feature films, broadcast and cable television, video games, glossy magazines, and the Internet, not to mention the gym, fine wine, and destination restaurants. Since the economic meltdown, a lot of people have retreated to Netflix; a movie ticket in Manhattan now costs upwards of $15.

Even with good discounts, dance performances now have too many empty seats. Even the New York City Ballet is cutting prices and laying off dancers. Some members of what used to be the dance audience have had children, and want or need to stay home with them. People who’ve invested in cell phones, premium cable, and DSL may be less inclined to leave the house to sit through sketchy shows by people they’ve never heard of. People over 40, increasingly the only ones who can afford to live in urban centers, are reluctant to spend hours in bad folding chairs, or to take off their shoes to enter a loft studio. People under 30, infatuated with reality TV, may be unwilling to subject themselves to the taxing thought processes that go along with deciphering new dance. Now that almost everyone is accustomed to multitasking, the young and the busy seem less willing to sit in the dark and concentrate on something complicated; check out the number of cell phone screens visible in the average darkened dance theater. Ushers now routinely ask people to silence their cell phones and to refrain from sending and reading text messages during a performance.

The media revolution is a mixed blessing for the arts community. Methods of promoting dance have changed drastically in the past 20 years. Computers make it easy, and cheap, to produce compelling graphics and send cards to friends and family online, inviting them to come to performances. But friends and family will only go so far, and so frequently, toward filling the seats for experimental work. A large portion of the dance audience seems to be other dancers and dance students. It’s great that they’re turning up, but everyone’s future depends on enlarging the spectator base.

As dance presenters discover the utility of maintaining their own mailing lists and blitzing audiences with last-minute e-mail reminders, they invest less money in print advertising; this causes the spiral in which we’re currently caught. Less advertising results in less arts coverage. Less coverage results in smaller audiences. Smaller audiences discourage funders. People who broadcast only to their own lists are increasingly talking to themselves, not reaching out for the serendipitous reader who stumbles across an ad, a review, or a listing in a mass media outlet and decides to invest in a couple of hours of cultural adventure.

For decades, perhaps since the beginning of the ‘60s dance boom, which was fueled by government funding and cheap real estate, dancers and choreographers have operated in a comfortable bubble, insulated from the realities of the marketplace, the media, and show business generally. But newspapers and magazines are structured to reward investors; they rely on selling advertising, and often subscriptions and single copies, to pay their overhead and make a profit. They want to fill their pages with editorial content that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers and advertisers. That’s why so much of the arts space in the Times, the Voice and other papers is devoted to popular music and film. Publishers want to fill their papers with information people can use, and a review of a concert that played twice in a 60-seat theater, and is already closed, doesn’t strike them as particularly useful. Dance writers across the country may get pleasure out of reacting to the ephemeral dance art on local stages, but few publishers understand the value of including such responses in their media mix. The San Jose Mercury News, years ago, took a survey of what stories in the paper mattered most to its readers. Does it surprise you to hear that dance, in that survey, came in dead last?

The Movement Research Journal, In Dance and Contact Quarterly, crucial publications in the field, are non-profit operations. But none are of much use to artists who want to get the word out about next week’s concert, or have that concert reviewed. Free dance events, at any season, can still draw substantial audiences. A break-dance competition among four female crews drew thousands of people to Lincoln Center’s outdoor plaza a couple of years ago, and left them cheering even though the work was not all that “good” by strict aesthetic standards. But free dance events require underwriting by governments and corporations, and paying salaries to grant writers, to technicians, and, yes, to dancers. And raising money requires evidence that the work has drawn critical attention, something that has become increasingly difficult to demonstrate.

Do I sound depressed? It gets worse. After close to 35 years of covering dance on both coasts of two continents, I’ve basically lost my appetite for it. I can now usually tell, just by looking at a press release, whether the event in question is going to be worth my time. I’ve become bolder about leaving a concert at intermission; since I’m rarely writing, I’m not sacrificing anyone’s bid for media immortality. I prefer to use my unpaid time to read, to sleep, or to do my own workout.

What is to be done? Large numbers of gifted dance artists are seeking employment in universities, putting a financial floor under their work and their families, drawing on free rehearsal space and dancers with whom they can build new works. Others do what they’ve always done: find part-time work outside the field, double up in outer-rim apartments, rely on trust funds or other forms of family largesse. Some move abroad. Encouragingly, some, like Karole Armitage, move back.

Dance artists need to figure out a way to run their shows over longer periods, as visual and theater artists do, thus increasing the likelihood that print and broadcast media will find ways to cover their work. They must find ways to show their work on television, where most Americans spend most of their leisure time, and on DVD, so people can find them online, in store bins, and in catalogues, and can give them as gifts. They must attract the young, build a following of people who’ll mature into ticket buyers, maybe via YouTube and video podcasts. They could experiment with earlier curtains, as Broadway and the larger New York dance theaters have done, so people can come to a performance straight from work or school, and still get home to eat and spend the evening with their loved ones and their new flat-screen TVs.

I’ve been speaking, primarily, of issues facing the New York City dance community, but I’m sure that things are, if anything, worse in California, where state support for the arts is negligible.

One thing that has always fascinated me is the disconnect between sports awareness and arts awareness in this country. What do you know about “March Madness”? About the “Final Four”? Can you identify the N.C.A.A.? Are you aware that the college dance world has its own equivalent of the competitive structure of collegiate sports? Have you ever heard of the American College Dance Festival Association, which annually holds gatherings in every region of the country, where college dance students show their best efforts? Professional adjudicators evaluate these works, and the best ones from each conference wind up at the “nationals,” a showing that takes place every other spring in Washington, D.C. Does your local paper or radio station ever report on these performances?

Why are we saturated in news about college basketball, and utterly deprived of information about college dance? My guess is that it has to do with three things: the fact that men run newspapers; that men love sports and are mostly afraid of dance; and that sports is a big-bucks situation while dance is economically marginal.

And frankly, I haven’t the foggiest notion what to do about it. As long as print media manage to hang on, the writers with the most interesting prose styles will get their work published. A few years ago, the Pulitzer Prize for criticism went to a guy who writes a car column for the Los Angeles Times. My editor at the Voice supported that candidacy because the guy was such an entertaining prose stylist. I think we have to interest really good writers in paying attention to dance, because somehow, even in bad times, quality manages to find a market. And whether we like it or not, the market is where we have to prove ourselves.

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of In Dance.

Elizabeth Zimmer writes about dance for Metro, Ballet Review, and other print and electronic media worldwide.