30 YEARS: The Dance Community’s Reflections on Rita Felciano

By Community Submission

December 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

EDITOR’S NOTE: What better way to honor a writer—especially one like dance critic Rita Felciano— than to feed her words. Along with Ann Murphy’s article on page 3, the following tributes showcase how the community has been affected by her long history with dance. A fitting way for dance makers and lovers to pay it forward, in words. Following Felciano’s retirement from the San Francisco Bay Guardian in September 2014, Dancers’ Group put a call out to our members for their reflections on her contributions to the Bay Area dance ecosystem. We are delighted to highlight many of the thoughtful remarks on this extraordinary writer, advocate of all things moving and astute audience member. Thank you to everyone that sent in a tribute, we wish we could have printed them all.*

Dear Rita,
I think we will both always remember the moment of our first meeting and how propitious it proved for both of us.

I can still see the seat in which I was sitting on the aisle of the San Francisco Opera House at a ballet performance in 1990 when you tapped me on the shoulder and said you wanted to start writing dance criticism – did I have any advice on how to get started?

That question, and your unswerving dedication to a quest that rapidly became a passion has fueled you for the past quarter century – to the joy and benefit of the entire Bay Area dance community and well beyond. I offered what I had – inviting you to sit in on my dance history classes at Stanford that I had just begun teaching as I transitioned from journalism into academia. I was so happy you were stepping up and looking toward dance history to supplement your knowledge of dance as a practitioner. For the rest of the year you showed up faithfully twice a week, driving from SF to Palo Alto to sit in on those dance history seminars.

I could have guessed then that the depth of your passion to view, reflect on and write about dance would sustain you through what is a career that is light on material rewards but rich in the satisfactions of leaning in on something that truly matters. Brava Rita! How to get started indeed.

—Janice Ross, Ph.D.

One of the things I love about Rita is her investment in the success and artistic growth of dancers and companies. Her tenure in this community has given her such a clear lens and this has made her writing an important tool for me. I am forever in debt to her for her questioning, observations, critique and support. She is a true gem and has been an important member of the dance ecosystem.

—Judith Smith, Artistic Director, AXIS Dance Company

When I came to the Bay Area over 30 years ago, there were as many as ten publications that included dance in their critical purview. The alternative spaces and the art they presented were embraced as part of the essential culture of the region and the broad conversation was lively and continuous. As the years went by, more and more writers were silenced by the demise of the papers or the decisions of their editors. One intrepid writer carried on, Rita Felciano. Hers was the magic of persistent curiosity and devotion to the field. If you couldn’t see it all, you could read Rita. Her generous writing regularly helped me determine my weekend performance agenda. She was always open to the new idea, raw and untamed, brazen and outsized or crystalline and intimate. One tiny memory encapsulates both her humility and integrity… She had written about one of my pieces, saying in effect that she didn’t see the lead up to the final sequence as sufficiently developmental. When she saw the work again a year later, however, she revised her view and, to my surprise, felt no compunction about acknowledging that in public. This is a woman who always put the art first. Her voice and perspective formed the gentle instruction of a generation.

—Brenda Way, Founder & Artistic Director, ODC

Rita Felciano graciously accepted my invitation to add her valuable critical perspective as a speaker in the 2009 Symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Butoh, deepening her role as professional participant in the international dance community. That Rita Felciano enjoyed being an audience member was clear from her critical writings on many different styles of contemporary and traditional dance that were presented locally; dances that were made both with and without funding, including scrappy site specific shows. Unlike other writers whose negativity suggests that they wish to be elsewhere, Rita did not make a critical comment without a specific example from the work being reviewed, and her tone was consistently respectful. Rita Felciano’s distinct voice as a regular feature of our local journalism scene will be sorely missed.

—Christina Braun, SF Butoh LAB

During my time in the Bay area, since having moved here in 2004, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ms. Felciano and have come to develop such respect and admiration for her work as a dance writer and dance scholar. Each time Ms. Felciano has written about my work (I feel lucky to get to say this has happened a few times), I always got the clear sense that she was writing about my work on its own terms – meaning that both the history and context of an artist’s development always play an important part in how she frames the artist’s work in her writing. I am also always so amazed at the breadth of dance styles she is able to do this with – she has a way of writing about the most obscure and the most lofty dance work, and giving each equal ttention and equal value – never downplaying one dance style over another according to personal preference, the way some dance critics are prone to do. This commitment has the effect of furthering discussion and exchange so desperately needed in the field. It’s a real contribution and I hope we as a community will get to continue to benefit from all the perspective she has to share. And talk about showing up for things . . . she really cares to keep her finger on the pulse of the full spectrum of Bay Area dance and beyond. No easy feat, considering how much dance there is going on here. This kind of conviction can only come from a love of doing it . . . and the love of doing anything is what makes it good!

—Aura Fischbeck, choreographer

Rita is a great friend, an insightful colleague, a lovely lady and a lot of fun! Kudos to her.

—Joanna G Harris

Rita Felciano has always been a champion of the arts, especially dance, and a fixture at SF Ballet performances for many years. We will miss her thoughtful and educated reviews and the paper that gave her that platform, but we take comfort in knowing that she will continue to write about dance for other outlets.

—Kyra Jablonsky, Associate Director, Communications, San Francisco Ballet

Rita Felciano’s voice is an absolute gift, both to the local SF/Bay Area dance scene and to the larger performing arts community. Always articulate and knowledgeable, her writing also reflects a rare and deep level of discernment. And her work has balance, not only in its observations, but also in its scope. From highlyestablished companies to up-and-coming choreographers to brand new endeavors, Rita’s coverage of San Francisco/Bay Area dance is well-rounded and complete. She is an exceptional example of a dance writer with a contagious passion for her field.

—Heather Desaulniers, dance writer and critic

Rita Felciano is the Bay Area’s most fierce advocate for contemporary dance (okay, maybe she runs a close second to Dancers’ Group). She has witnessed enough performance to have earned an authoritarian perspective, but she forgoes power-tripping to write instead as an audience member. She makes herself available to work; she is a bastion of receptivity. Her reviews reference past works and performance histories, establishing context and artist identity. I have received repeated support from Rita and am personally grateful to her. More importantly though, I look forward to her articulated insights in all of her reviews as offering potential inroads to discussion. She doesn’t scold choreographers, she questions what we are up to. Her well-earned retirement from the Bay Guardian is a big loss and also a calling for us to step up and keep the conversations attentive and ongoing.

—Christy Funsch, choreographer

Rita Felciano was the most reliable source of dance criticism and attention to progressive dance and dance related activities in the Bay Area. Her consistent concern and attention to Dance Brigade and Dance Mission over the last 17 years help build both organizations into the community hubs they are today. Her work and support made all the difference. Her criticism and attention to the “other” kept the dance community alive and in conversation about what was important. She was generous, insightful, helpful in her critique and she held a sense of community, knowing the importance of how “we were all in this together.” She came and looked at work when no one else would and she often got people’s careers going without a mention or a shout out. Not to mention the wide range of the Goldie’s that she nominated each year. Now with the closure of the Bay Guardian, we no longer have an institution or a critic that reflects what makes San Francisco so unique. Both Rita and the Bay Guardian held strong intuitional memories that cannot be replaced. With that loss we have one less voice, one less paper, and one less chance to spread our ideas and dance work around. We will have to look much harder to find our cultural icons and see them get the press and support they deserve. This is a difficult moment in San Francisco history, heartbreaking really and the outcome for all of us is uncertain.

—Krissy Keefer, Artistic Director, Dance Brigade

Rita’s early Swiss upbringing has given the Bay Area dance an educated, different and insightful point of view that has benefited us tremendously during her tenure at the Bay Guardian. Her deep sense of cultural values and music have illuminated her writings at all times and her positive support of all dance has been clearly confirmed in all of her writings.

—Carlos Carvajal, Artistic Director, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Rita Felciano’s discerning eye is partially responsible for one of the most fun, satisfying collaborative relationships I’ve ever been involved in. In 2000 or maybe 2001, she came to a show I was dancing in with Ken James. He and I had been performing in one another’s work for about 8 years at that point and she had seen a lot of that work. Afterwards, Rita came up to us and said that she thought there was something special about the two of us together on stage and that we should do a whole evening together. That statement got us thinking, and planted the seed for the show that became The Adventures of Cunning & Guile, for which we won an Izzie for Best Choreography. But more importantly, the collaboration with Ken has been one of the most flat-out wonderful experiences of my dance career. And Rita saw that connection before we’d even figured it out ourselves.

—Chris Black, choreographer and performer

Rita is the first dance critic I ever had a real person-to-person conversation with. She is a critic who has made herself a part of the community. She brought her best self to her work, and is one of the first critics to consistently come see Flyaway’s work. She came to the alleys and the off the beaten path shows long before any other critic would dare to. She has helped the forms of aerial and site-specific dance gain validation, and has brought well thought perspective to her reviews. The Bay Area’s experimental performance scene has been so, so blessed to have Rita at our side. Whether she praised the work or criticized it, she showed up again and again, with a poised pen and open mind…

—Jo Kreiter, Artistic Director, Flyaway Productions

Rita Felciano provided thoughtful writing and published regularly about dance here in the Bay Area. There’s a real humanity in her point of view and she comes in with questions – about the immediate work in front of you, about the artist’s trajectory and canon of work, about the infrastructure to support that artist, and about trends she sees across the field as well as digging in specifically at individual curation and venues. I had a conversation with Rita once about her role in the ecosystem and she selflessly didn’t see it that way; instead describing her role as a response to all of our hard work and what we seem to magically generate. Perhaps that’s her greatest contribution to dance, she has been a dedicated witness and unparalleled chronicler of Bay Area artists.

—Christy Bolingbroke, Deputy Director for Advancement, ODC

I know I am not alone when I say that Rita Felciano was the first reviewer to write about my work. The over-used word ‘tireless’ does not begin to describe Rita’s deep curiosity and support of dance in SF and the Bay. When we were young artists, she gave so many of us the basic respect of consideration. And then she articulated it in her measured prose with her open mind. She showed up at our shows and made us want to do better. Her voice will be missed, but lingers in our memories and clippings, and I hope we still see her face in the audience from time to time. Congratulations to a great dance champion!

—Fauxnique / Monique Jenkinson

Rita’s contribution to dance has had an enormous impact on dance-makers, dancers and dance supporters. Her writing about dance has always been thought provoking, honest and full of insight. I always revisited my impressions of a performance after reading her reviews and appreciated the care and thoughtfulness in her writing. Her passion and elucidation elevated the critical response in our community. She was one of my earliest supporters (along with Brenda Way) when I founded Summerfest/Dance (West Wave) in 1991 many choreographers (including myself) from that time, owe her a giant thank you. Thank you Rita.

—Kathleen McCarthy, Lecturer in Dance, San Francisco State University

I always really appreciated Rita’s writing, because I felt she was truly taking the time to really lean in and look at the artwork, and not come to pieces with her own preconceived biases. Because of that, I really valued reading what she had to say about my work whether it was complimentary or critical. Some dance reviewing seems written from the perspective of being subtly aggrandizing of the reviewer, and it seems like a theatrical exercise in how to draw attention to the writer instead of having the lens be more squarely trained on the work of art. With Rita, I always felt the art was important to her, and that in her honesty she is a real lover and defender of the form. She has been a bright point in our dance ecosystem, and I will miss having her thoughtfulness wondering about what it is I am offering onstage.

—Alex Ketley, Choreographer, The Foundry

What is the purpose of a dance critic? From my perspective a dance critic gives insight, history and context to a performance based on his or her deep knowledge of the technique and the history of dance and performance. A dance critic enables the audience to appreciate what may not be readily apparent, i.e. the depth of technique or the clarity of vision (or lack thereof). We now live in a world where dance critics, and the publications for which they write, are beginning to open up and write/print about art forms beyond ballet and contemporary dance. As the Executive Director of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, a North Indian classical dance company, and an advocate for a field that moves beyond its historical Euro-centric focus, it was heartening to see critics like Rita Felciano. There is no way that a critic could have a deep knowledge of the technique, cultural context or history of all dance forms, but there are qualities that are key to a critic appreciating a more diverse dance palate: curiosity and openness. Rita Felciano brought those qualities to her work in spades. Her openness, curiosity and ability to step out of what may have been a comfort zone was key. Chitresh Das is a very complex artist. He is both a staunch traditionalist and a fierce innovator. Rita captured that complexity and I sincerely admire her for it. It is rare that critics or anyone in the media can look beyond and understand the complexity of an artist, especially an “ethnic” artist. I don’t know Rita that well personally—I have had a few conversations with her and, of course, have read many of her reviews. What I do know is that she seems to have something that is this special mix of unwavering commitment to dance, to dance writing, to honesty, fearlessness and a healthy dose of humility. It is that humility, that kindness and openness that makes her critiques so meaningful. I sincerely hope that Rita’s work will leave a legacy of more openness, more curiosity and that the dance community will continue to open up to the incredible depth and diversity of ALL dance. Thank you Rita for all you have done for dance.

—Celine Schein, Executive Director, Chitresh Das Dance Company & Chhandam School

As an artist coming from a distinct perspective combining art and science, I appreciate Rita’s thoughtfulness in engaging with my choreography. Before writing about my work she came to a workshop I taught at Stanford to see some of my ideas in motion. After that we corresponded a bit and then eventually she attended a performance and wrote a review (Game On in the Bay Guardian, 2/26/2013). It is uncommon for a journalist to invest that much time and effort in understanding someone’s point of view. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to intersect with her, however briefly.

—Katharine Hawthorne, dancer & choreographer

Twenty-two years ago, after my first evening length show, Rita Felciano wrote an article about my work. It read “Talent without Focus.” It was my first published critique and I was devastated. A few years later, after my first production as Asian American Dance Performances Artistic Director, Rita wrote that a “Fresh Breeze” of choreographers had blown into town and that I “used a fan like a weapon and a kimono like a paintbrush.” It’s amazing how much power published words can hold. Over the years, I didn’t like the opinion that critics were writing in general nor did I like the power that critics held over influencing audience attendance. For many years I stopped inviting critics to my performances altogether and would not allow reviews backstage. At a concert not too long ago, I bumped into Rita who asked “Am I allowed to come to your next show?” I subsequently invited her to dNaga’s home studio where she watched rehearsal, interviewed me and then honored me with a critics pick. Looking back over these many years I see that her critiques of my work has been her way of providing insight that has fostered the breadth of my work over time. Thank you Rita for your tireless support and for the important role that you have played in our dance community.

—Claudine Naganuma, Director, dNaga

Rita wrote carefully and thoughtfully, respectful of the effort we choreographers put into the work and conscientious about her role in educating the public and giving us constructive feedback. She went to everything. And because of this, I thought seriously about her descriptions of my work as cool and intellectual. She pushed me to consider how I was perceived and why. A necessary push. Thank you, Rita, for helping me and many other choreographers gain objectivity.

—Liss Fain, Artistic Director, Liss Fain Dance

Rita Felciano is a national treasure. She is profoundly articulate, insightful, generous, compassionate, wise and brimming with enthusiasm and total integrity. Rita was the first dance writer in San Francisco to write about me and has since followed, written about and supported my career for 14 years now. From the very beginning, Rita took my craft and my creative practice seriously, and addressed my work rather than my transsexuality (which titillated some critics for some time and often still does). Rita nominated me for the Goldie Award; Rita wrote about me for Dance Magazine’s “Top 25 To Watch;” Rita once wrote a beautiful article contextualizing my work amongst masters like Joe Goode(!) and other “talking dance” luminaries. She has given me grace, courage and belief in myself. Very simply, Rita’s work and heart have changed my life and my career, and I am forever blessed by her grace. Thank you and much love, Rita.

—Sean Dorsey, Artistic Director, Sean Dorsey Dance

*Some responses were edited for grammar and/or length.

This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of In Dance.

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