In Practice: Claudia La Rocco: Distance and Intimacy

By Sima Belmar


The internet threatens to ruin every radio voice for me. Terry Gross, Marco Werman, Ray Suarez, Rose Aguilar—none of them looks like they’re supposed to! But then again, when I think about what faces I expect to match these voices, I can only see vaguely gendered avatars in silhouette. In other words, I expect no sort of face at all, so any face would be surprising and somehow wrong.

Same thing with bylines. Here it’s the literary voice that meets with a shadow image, looking like no one and everyone at the same time. Take Claudia La Rocco for example. Many a theater usher experienced cognitive dissonance when the curly-haired, bright-eyed, twenty-something sought to take the seat with her name on it: “I would routinely sit in seats reserved for The Times and ushers would say, ‘No, that’s reserved for Claudia La Rocco.’ I think they expected a 60-year-old. I don’t know if that was because I was writing like a 60-year-old or if The Times just ages a gal. I think it might be the latter. I hope it’s the latter.”

La Rocco, now 40, and neither looking nor writing like a 60-year-old (but with 60 being the new 40, who’s to say?), became the Editor-in-Chief of SFMOMA’s online and live interdisciplinary platform Open Space in 2016. From January through April of this year, Open Space organized Limited Edition, a performance programming/arts writing collaboration between CounterPulse, The Lab, ODC Theater, Performance at SFMOMA, and Z Space. The program encapsulates La Rocco’s commitment to understanding all art practice—whether Palestinian Dabke or a Keith Hennessey/Gerald Casel collaboration on Ocean Beach—as community-based. Community members make performances and community members witness performances—why shouldn’t community members write about them as well? “We’re just trying to get more smart context around contemporary performance and to look a bit at the ecosystem of these spaces.”

La Rocco and I spoke over coffee at Alchemy in Oakland. I wanted to know the whole story of how she became a dance writer. And I got it. And it’s great. And all you need to know is:

    Just because you major in English, and choose to study “super lucrative” genres like contemporary poetry and Middle English, doesn’t mean you’ll never make a living

    If you get hired to write about, say, biotech for a tech publication, don’t be afraid to ask if you can write a book review column instead (yes, she did that, and they let her)

    Writers learn on the job, so forgive them their trespasses, i.e. being dicks in their early reviews (how gratifying to learn that I am not the only critic “horrified” to look back at old reviews)

    Even New York Times dance critics can feel like frauds

La Rocco is an accidental dance critic, who began writing about dance for the Arts Desk at the Associated Press. While at AP, she wrote for various arts publication including Art on Paper and Art News, mostly about visual art and books: “Dance wasn’t in my experience. My best friend growing up was a committed ballet dancer and I saw her perform a few times. But mostly I played tennis. I read books.” Her first foray into dance writing was to cover Baryshnikov in Eliot Feld’s work at the Joyce: “It was terrifying. I went with a very good friend of mine who is a dancer, Kathryn Enright; she was my security blanket. It was a good deal: she would get free tickets and I would get somebody to be like, you can do this.”

La Rocco says she got her start because of a lack of value and literacy around dance: “You can say well here’s a smart young kid who has no experience, we’ll throw her in, whereas you wouldn’t say, you don’t know about politics, but hey you’re twenty, let’s have you be the political correspondent.” This lack of cultural literacy around dance also allowed her to get to know and own her personal tastes: “At first I was going to the more traditional houses: City Center, Lincoln Center, The Joyce, the usual circuit. I just thought I don’t like dance, or I must not understand it because if I understood it I would like these shows. Then I stumbled into DTW one night, and that was a game changer. I started writing more and more about ‘weird’ stuff that to me didn’t seem weird. It seemed smart and layered and akin to how I think about the world.”

La Rocco became a stringer for The New York Times in 2005, where she wrote about dance until 2013, leaving the newspaper for good two years later: “I stopped writing for The Times about dance because at that point I had been doing it for 10 years as a daily critic, in that treadmill of you see 5-7 shows a week, you write about 2-5 shows a week. I began to feel like I was overly intimate with and exhausted by the form of the 300- to 900-word overnight review. And I just didn’t think I could say something else within that form about Sleeping Beauty or about Revelations. If you’re a Times critic you have to survey the field and it’s no good to walk into something and be bored. It’s not good for the readers, it’s not good for the writers, it’s certainly not good for the art form.”

But burnout was only half the story. La Rocco is a poet and a performer, who in 2008 founded The Performance Club as a “real-time and web-based” space for “criticism that is also, or at least aspires to be, art”. Interviews and conversations with dance artists led to friendships and artistic collaborations, which led to an ever-expanding list of artists she could no longer “feel comfortable writing with honesty about in The Times from the position of The Times and its conflict of interest policy”: “In many ways in our culture we value intimacy: If you don’t know it how can you write about it? If you don’t know this person, if you can’t empathize with her, how can you put yourself in her shoes? But journalism really wants this separation. So when we think about daily journalism faltering as a vehicle for criticism, perhaps a silver lining is that we can finally abandon this idea of the critic as objective, thumbs up thumbs down, non-implicated witness.”

From what I’ve seen, Open Space with La Rocco at the helm initiates from this question of intimacy in relation to performance criticism, and it is this always questioning, ever experimental approach that reveals criticism, history, reporting, and documentation as aesthetic practices in their own right. Asked to describe her writing and editorial practices, La Rocco says she tries to follow in the footsteps of exemplars of the poet-critic tradition like Frank O’Hara, and Bill Berkson, who wrote “as a way of marking one’s consciousness through time”; radical, political experimenters like Jill Johnston; dance artists like Simone Forti, “whose movement and writing and drawing and speaking improvisations are all mixed up”; and editors like Artforum’s David Velasco, “who has that magical blend of structure, sensitivity, and intelligence, who pushes me to experiment but also tells me ‘Hey, you think you’re being experimental but you’re actually writing self-centered drivel that I can’t understand.’ Not that he would ever say it that meanly. But I can send something that I think might be a mess and I trust him to save me from myself or to say, ‘This works.’ He’s a collaborator in the best way.”

La Rocco met her partner, Oakland-based musician Phillip Greenlief, in 2013 at a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, where she assembled her book, The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands 2014). An “embedded writer” position with the Hatchery Project, a partnership between Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, Vermont Performance Lab, The Chocolate Factory, and Philadelphia’s RED Arts Project, supported by major grants from the Mellon Foundation and the NEA, enabled La Rocco to leave The Times against the advice of “several colleagues who told me I was an idiot.” Free from daily journalism’s grind, “restless and itchy,” she moved to the Bay Area, and took the position at Open Space.

As Editor-in-Chief at Open Space, La Rocco isn’t writing as much criticism as she used to. Rather, she is out “identifying the people that I think should write.” Along with Managing Editor and poet Gordon Faylor, and in line with the vision of Open Space founder Suzanne Stein (another poet), La Rocco seeks to produce an artist-centric publication with strong voices that represent aesthetic, geographic, and sociocultural diversity. This is not hard to come by in the Bay Area, but locating diversity of political viewpoint presents a challenge: “The public discourse is so hardened right now. We don’t know how to have good disagreements in public. I’m trying to figure out how to have contrarian viewpoints not for the sake of them but to find smart gray areas. I’m really interested in Open Space being a balance of art, art criticism, and arts reporting. And I want it to be a place where people can really play with different types of writing, where they can take a risk on something that could be a total failure.”

This sort of rigorous openness means you’ll find criticism, performance, poetry, and all manner of digitally supported cultural production at Open Space, all subject to La Rocco and Faylor’s deft editorial eyes. And you will find dance there too: “I’ve always thought of criticism as a triangle between a work of art, an individual experience, and the surrounding culture. It would drive me crazy when people would say, ‘Balanchine works are timeless’ No, they’re not. He created in a very particular time. If a work of art is timeless and its creator a genius and everybody should just bow down before it, then by that logic if the art work isn’t ‘succeeding’ in any one moment, it has to be the fault of the people performing it or the people perceiving it. It can’t be that a thing that was created 70 years ago might no longer be legible in a contemporary context. Performance has to move. So does the writing and thinking that seeks to converse with it.”

To write dancing from a position of intimacy with dancers and with critical distance from the form is a delicate, difficult, and delicious balance to strike. When I awkwardly told Claudia that I would be interested writing for Open Space, she said, “No awkwardness. Everything in life is hopelessly intertwined.”

This article appeared in the May 2018 edition of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to