This past June I attended two professional events that offered their shares of stimulation and stupefaction. This year’s Dance Critics Association conference, which I have attended for many years , left me mostly depressed about the future of the field and the direction of the organization. Late in the month, the Dance/USA conference kept me wondering about how representative this organization is of American dance for which it purports to speak. Perhaps because earlier in the year I had participated in a focus group that tried to address some of these concerns, I had high expectations going into the conference.
The Dance Critics Association Conference, hosted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company in its beautiful headquarters on Ninth Avenue in New York City, should have been an occasion for re-charging batteries. Instead, too often I felt my attention draining away by presentations that were too long and unfocused, and audiences that were too small and too disengaged. For me this was symptomatic of a field that is changing, perhaps even disappearing. If it had not been for a few scholarship students and the presenters themselves, the hall might have been even emptier than it was. It was simply depressing to see so many empty chairs.
Maybe it is a sign of the times that the attendance was so poor. There is one professional full-time dance critic left in the country (at the New York Times). Overstressed freelancers and part-time critics simply may not feel they could invest in a trip to New York. This despite the fact that the conferences are held there every second year because of the opportunity to see many (press-ticketed) performances. (I myself decided to attend at the last minute, on frequent flyer miles and with a friend’s hospitality.) Still, the organization has close to two hundred members, and it seemed that even fewer attended than in previous years.
The conference’s organizing theme, 21st Century Dance Writing: Multimedia, Multiarts, Multitasking, should have opened—and I guess it did in a way—a conversation about the nature of today’s and tomorrow’s dance coverage. It primarily pointed out the chasm between “print” and “web” writers. They seemed to have very little to say to each other even though, of course, there is a lot of overlap.
What I missed from the web writers on the panels was a commitment to dance as an artifact that exists independently of its creators. Web writers who strongly focus on dance itself exist; they should have been better represented. For the panelists working in web-based writing, the work itself seems to be but one aspect of their interest in the field as a complex network of social and personal interactions. It was encouraging to see the energy and skill that so many of these dance “entrepreneurs” bring to their endeavors. And some—the gods be praised—even are beginning to make some money. The session, “Digital Dance and the 21st Century Dance Writer,” was particularly informative that way.
It was also informative to see how much more free-spirited—and younger—the web writers were. Mixing types of writing, being involved in the “community”, little attention to traditional standards stood in marked contrast to those who felt beholden to an established framework, provided by long-held critical practices and, of course, editors: the ultimate determiners of what goes into print.
“Snark and Praise: Exploring Why We Write and for Whom,” a continuation of a discussion held earlier in the year in New York, was the conference’s low point. At times crude and condescending, it became snarky itself. At one point, one of the critics present was personally attacked. I didn’t catch that reference but at the end of this conversation, among a group of self-important yakkers, I felt sick to my stomach. The one sane voice on the panel must have felt—and actually sounded—like a voice in the wilderness.
The conference started on an ironically informative note. Two of the participants in “Dance Coverage in a Culturally Changing World” got bogged downed in discussing the difficulty of articulating their companies’ racial identity. While this may not have been all that helpful to the dance writer/critics present, it certainly highlighted the fact that we live in a “culturally changing world.” The panel “Dance/Talk” was handicapped by two of the panelists being only represented by videos and the other two using the opportunity to “sell” their own repertoire.
Two other presentations gave valuable, straightforward information. On the superbly run “So You Think You Can Ignore Dance on TV,” a modern, a ballroom and a ballet dancer gave personal accounts of their experiences on television. Perhaps not surprisingly, they agreed that these fiercely scripted shows aim at one thing only: ratings.
On “Don’t Throw that Away! Preserving your Legacy as a Dance Critic,” librarians shed light on the complications of donating written records to libraries. Understaffed, underfunded, these institutions are already drowning in paper; the only chance for a potential archive is to come with a maintenance budget. I had to chuckle to hear implied what newspaper people have always known: Yesterday’s paper is fish wrap. Though I don’t know whether even the Brits still use it for their fish and chips.
At the members meeting, the suggestion was offered to change the name of the organization from Dance Critics to Dance Writers. It would certainly reflect more accurately the way the field seems to be moving; and yet I would regret the loss of criticism as a serious practice. Dance and dance audiences would be ill served.
Less than a week later, Dance/USA opened its four-day, excellently organized 30th anniversary conference at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and at the ODC campus. Keynote speaker Simon Sinek inspired with the simplicity of his message—“always ask yourself why you are doing something.” No doubt Sinek earned his standing ovation in part due to the audience’s recognition of him as a performer. I am a dance observer and not a dance-maker, so mine definitely is an outsider’s perspective of this conference. The program looked rich and varied, and I was most encouraged when I heard in the opening remarks that “diversity is DanceUSA’s greatest strength.” I was soon to have my eyes opened to a different reality.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment came with “Losing Your Fear: Why is Presenting Non-Western Dance Perceived To Be So Hard?” About twenty people showed up, a good 95% of them were artists. Wasn’t this a discussion designed for presenters? The only presenter I saw was Ken Foster, and he was a panelist.
I could only attend parts of “Urban Folk Dance” which looked a like superior and serious discussion of Hip Hop and its role in various communities. When I showed up there, I counted a dozen attendees.
In the two major Council Sessions, one for managers, the other for artistic directors, only one of them was designed for companies with budgets below $749,000. I wondered what local artistic directors, many of whom had been given scholarships to attend the conference, were going to do with that kind of set-up? One can only hope that other programs I was unable to attend opened avenues for them, such as on how to apply to the National Endowment for the Arts, integrating social media into marketing efforts, and “Dance and Community.”
Two Breakout Sessions I found helpful. Both of them showed a kind of can-do spirit that drives any creative endeavor. The participants of “The Blogosphere: Writing About and For Dance” proved themselves adept at finding a niche for what they wanted to do and ways of financing it. I thought them inspiring not so much for what they did but for the energy and perseverance that they brought to their endeavors. It seems, however, a pity that so much of their work seems to address readers already interested and committed to dance.
In “Let’s Get Together: On Forming a Consortium of Choreographers” the six, very different choreographers of the local Werk Collective, talked about the process which was taking them from a performance space for emerging artists (the Garage) to a mainstream venue (ODC’s B’Way Theater). Their willingness to cooperate and their determination was infectious, I would have like to see that panel after the fact to get a sense of their perspective on the experience.
The closing session, “20/20 Vision a Community Forum and Closing Remarks” was something of a lead balloon. It presented videos from a number of choreographers, perhaps illustrating that diversity exists in dance—as if we didn’t already know that. For their verbal presentation, it seems, these artistic directors had been told to use it as a marketing opportunity. Ouch!
So what made attending these conferences most worthwhile? Performances. In New York, a breathtaking ABT season premiere: Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, surely this choreographer’s unsurpassed masterpiece of wit, imagination and a deep sense of humanity. An evening at 95-year old Mary Anthony’s rabbit warren of a studio, where acolytes paid obeisance and middle-aged dancers performed works by Charles Weidman and Anthony. In the slippery Beginning of the End of the. . ., David Gordon and his formidable performers, with considerable help from Pirandello, nimbly stepped in and out of their roles in a scintillating meditation on art, life and aging.
In San Francisco, not enough can be said about the first-rate potpourri of Bay Area dance that the local host committee put together for conference performances. One big-time funder approached me to express surprise at the quality of these presentations. They were no surprise to me. I was tempted to comment. I didn’t. There is room in this world for silence.
i June 22-24, Joan Weil Center for Dance, NYC
ii June 27-30, YBCA and ODC, SF