Dance Discourse Project: Writing About Dance

Dance Discourse Project: Writing About Dance

For me, last night’s Dance Discourse Project: Writing About Dance was a powerful and very mixed experience. Mostly I’m feeling grateful. I’m grateful that four dance writers—Rachel Howard, Rita Felciano, Ann Murphy, and Keith Hennessy— for giving us a window into their world. Rachel talked candidly about the nuts and bolts of her role at the Chronicle, Rita and Ann shared beautifully-written and (I thought) quite moving treatises on their roles as critics, and Keith problematized the act of dance writing in a variety of interesting and provocative ways. I’m also grateful to the packed house of dancers, choreographers, writers and presenters who showed up to take part in the conversation—I continued to be thrilled by the wild success of the Dance Discourse Project (and I’m grateful to Mary Armentrout for the wonderful idea).

Last night was also really challenging. There isn’t one single “Bay Area Dance Community,” and when we gather around a theme like media coverage—where there is so much perceived scarcity and competition—our fissures can reveal themselves. It was hard for me not to feel protective and defensive of our panelists, who I really see as public servants. These folks have been advocating for dance, in one way or another, for decades—often with little to no financial reward. Yes, dancers and presenters are frustrated at a lack of coverage, or narrowness of coverage (I include myself in that category). But it’s sad to see us take that out on the writers, when it’s their editors (and the pervasive corporatization and consolidation of mainstream media) that are to blame. That’s why I’m glad Rachel got a chance to demystify her position for us. Our knowledge may not change the reality of coverage, but a little compassion can go a long way.

Most of all, last night was challenging because it was such a huge topic. The conversation was all over the place (and I take responsibility for that since I was helping to moderate it!). The Dance Discourse Project is an (almost absurdly) ambitious undertaking. Each conversation we’ve had (from multiculturalism to multimedia) could easily be its own 5-part series. I see these discussions as openings, and I hope that eventually each one will spawn more dialogue—not just at CounterPULSE, but on blogs and in living rooms and theater lobbies for years to come. So this was a broad opening, and certainly many of the subjects we touched on deserved their own evening.

Even so, our conversation was limited. The dialogue was heavily tilted towards journalistic print media, and we weren’t able to delve into performative writing or other forms of dance writing such as biographies, books, and academic discourse. Mary and I wanted to include in our panel the most prominent writers in the Bay Area (biggest papers, biggest circulation), while also including actual dancers who write for peer publications. But in that effort, we sacrificed a certain amount of diversity. It was an all-white panel, and there is so much dance and dance writing (from “so you think you can dance” to YouTube and from Facebook to Twitter) that was NOT represented. I’m sure we’ll touch on this topic in a future Dance Discourse Project, and I’d love your suggestions about who to include next time.

Rachel mentioned some of the CounterPULSE blog, including an exchange about Paige Sorvillo’s show here last year. Here’s the link to that conversation. I think it’s a really good example of the kind of thoughtful, critical dialogue that can be made possible by the internet under the right circumstances, so I hope you’ll check it out.

And with that, I’ll close and invite you—whether you were here last night or not—to leave your comments. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

~Jessica

PS—please keep checking back in to this conversation—we’ll have the audio file uploaded soon, and Ann Murphy has promised to post the text of her thoughtful opening remarks as well.

15 Comments

  • LisaRuth Elliott

    As a dancer and a critical thinker, and someone who is interested in the written word on dance being more than just a PR opportunity, I – like Jessica – was grateful for the chance to sit in a room and discuss writing about dance that the Dance Discourse Project #5 provided at CounterPULSE. There was a unique moment presented to be able to hear two local dance critics speak about their craft and motivations, to hear from a local dance journalist, and to find out something of how it appears to sit on the “other side of the pen” from a dancer and performer. I would like to add to the discussion something that Keith Hennessy spoke to, which is about dancers and artists themselves writing about their own art and craft, and in so doing furthering the pedagogy of dance.

    I would argue, as did some gathered, that there is a lack of vocabulary with which to talk about dance, and that yes it is not being fostered to any large degree by reviews and critiques found in the mainstream press. But there is way that on a small scale we can begin to develop and practice this, one place that a conversation can be started between artist and audience on a performance by performance basis. That is in revisiting the artist/dancer bio in programs at a showing. The official program is meant to be an informational handout, sometimes talking about the inspiration or interpretation of the performance, and almost always listing the individual dancers and their qualifications. As someone who knows some of the codex of what it means to have performances in certain theaters, or what a residency at certain prestigious institutions can offer, I have some possibility of reading through the lines. But it is frankly boring to me to see a condensed resume of experience behind the name of each dancer/presenter. I don’t, and someone not familiar at all with the dance world can certainly not, learn anything more about them or their engagement with the particular work except perhaps how noteworthy the names they drop are, and have no idea what has been gained by working as an artist in residence, say at CounterPULSE.

    How about starting here, with this small space of a bio – in 50 to 200 words even – to create a place for insight into dance and its significance? How about we as performers list half as many qualifications, but tell what each one of the residencies or awards brought to the depth of one’s dance practice, or what it taught one about the direction one wants to go in developing one’s craft? Instead of a laundry list of who we know or have studied with, why not create a meaningful connection with companies and forms we’ve worked with and how they have been important in whatever context?

    I see this proposition as a challenge to dancers and artists to step away from the formulaic approach of a simple descriptive take on our careers. It would help us all to learn to talk about dance, its place in our lives, its meaning in society as a larger audience. I know we labor over these anyway, and why not make it something more fun and meaningful to ourselves, with a larger goal of talking more about dance? It would EVEN help many artists begin to learn to talk about themselves more easily in terms of selling their art for funding, for notoriety, or to bring in larger audiences. This seemed to be the hidden focus of the purpose of writing about dance during tonight’s discussion – PR – and I realize the need for it (and also see that my own opening words about tonight might be used in a promotional piece at some point). I also think we need more practice at it, to move more freely into a non-selfconscious place, a place where we take on the agenda of broadening the understanding of dance, and that beginning to re-vision what we present the audience with in written form can be a good start to deepening the discourse on dance.

  • Jess Curtis

    Here is some writing about the talking about Writing about dance at the Dance Discourse Project at CounterPULSE, 4/19/09

    The discussion, as mentioned above, seemed unfortunately much too focused on the very small space for writing about dance that is the commercial press. I would propose that this forum is much too limited for very much more than the kind of accidental outreach that Rachel Howard described as one of her goals at the Chronicle. (Allowing the reader who happens to be scanning the Arts section to be exposed to a glimpse into a dance event.)

    There are other forums, like this one, where we ought to be investing more of our time and energy in terms of generating a meaningful discourse around our dancing. I am personally pleased to see InDance continue to bump up the intellectual level of some of the writing that is going on there (full disclosure they are printing two articles I wrote fro the next issue.)

    What about reading about dance? Who is reading about dance? What are the dancers and choreographers in the room reading about dance. What are the critics in the room reading about dance? What are the academics in the room reading about dance?

    I left with the impression that for many dancers in the room the extent of their vision of ‘writing about dance’ is as a kind of free PR that is going to help them sell tickets, or maybe get grants. How many of us read dance reviews when they are not about us? How often?

    There is a lot of writing about dance out there if you want to read about dance.

    A friend of mine in Berlin recently started a company Books on the Move. She travels to festivals and theaters in Germany and has a table of books on Dance in the lobby of the theater before and after shows. She also has a web site. I’ve been thinking we could try something like this here in SF.

    Check it out at http://www.booksonthemove.eu

    In answer to one of Rachel Howard’s questions at the end of the night – A review in the Chronicle or Guardian helps to publicize my work a bit but it is no guarantee of selling tickets. If there is a sexy picture printed above the review it helps a lot more. Two years ago we got six rave reviews for our piece “Under the Radar” and still had lots of empty seats on the third weekend of the show. Last year’s “Symmetry Project” got one on-line review and maybe a preview from Rita, and we were turning people away on the second weekend. Hard to feel a direct correlation on ticket sales.

    I think our posters with naked bodies on them, and strong word of mouth had more direct impact.

    I mentioned a web site that has a lot of writing about dance on it, mostly by European writers about artists that haven’t been to San Francisco, but if you want to read about dance and imagine what dance writing could be here, check it out.

    http://www.sarma.be

    Yours in writing and dancing,

    Jess

  • Rachel

    Hi Jess,

    Good to read your further thoughts. Perhaps I was simply not a good fit as a panelist for a forum like the Dance Discourse Project. Just to clarify, when I asked whether what I do in advocating for emerging artists or “smaller” shows to be reviewed “helps,” I did not mean ticket sales and marketing. I meant promoting informed conversation about dance among a broader public. Not a “Joe blow” lowest common denominator public as Keith put it. An intelligent, culturally curious public.

    I’ve posted a few follow up thoughts, and comments from Paul Parish, on my blog at http://www.rachelhoward.com.

    Best
    Rachel

  • Jess Curtis

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for clarifying your question.

    I very much appreciate your advocating for the ability to cover newer and smaller shows. It’s essential to the evolution of our understanding of the culture we are creating. It can create the intellectual space for new kinds of work to exist and be seen.

    I would have to say that the limitations of space in the Chronicle limit the depth of conversation you are able to initiate with your readers though.

    I felt like the feature article you write for the Datebook on my work in 2005 (Global Touch, SF Chronicle, 2005) gave you more space to address a range of issues and ‘promote informed conversation’ in a more meaningful way. Many of the issues that Keith raised were covered there. i.e. who paid for the work, what is the artist trying to do, How does the work fit into a larger cultural landscape. That was a much more satisfying experience. of reading about my work.

    The reviews of that work (Touched:Symptoms of Being Human) by the local dance press felt, on the other hand rushed and un-curious. (You politely declined to review but referred your blog readers to Allan Ulrich’s somewhat nasty review) It seemed to me that the people that did write about it had not seen much work like it, only evaluated it based on existing models and didn’t have enough time to ask any questions about or be curious about what had happened.

    And in the rush they displayed a considerable lack of journalistic rigor. In his review Paul Parrish mispelled both my name and got the name of my company and the title of the piece wrong. (Jeff Curtis/Galaxy??? Touched: “evidence” of being human)

    Then Chronicle reviewer Janice Berman referred to the “taped soundtrack” that was in fact being improvised and generated live and looped and re-processed by the onstage musician/composer, not to mention the fact that even in 2005 , no one had used an actual ‘tape” in a theater in about five years. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/article?f=/c/a/2005/06/04/DDGR5D2GHM1.DTL)

    This did not lead me to feel that very “informed conversation” was being promoted.

    If any of them had read your preview and done a little research about where the piece was coming from I think they would have had more ability to ‘make sense’ of it themselves and to pass that ability on to their readers.

    That piece might have sucked, but I think there was a lot to interact with in it if one came with an attitude of curiosity and gave the artists some credit for having made informed choices about what we put on stage.

    The scenario you described for making a deadline for a review in The Chronicle seems supremely challenging, especially in terms of appraising anything that is really stepping out of norms or breaking new ground. The really important new work that I have seen in my life has often taken several days/weeks/months, numerous conversations or multiple viewings for me to really be able to integrate it or be able to say something clear about it.

    I remember reading a review by (long ago) chronicle critic Hewell Tircuit (sp?) about seeing Mangrove doing a Contact Improvisation performance for the first time (imagine, the chronicle convering contact improv!!!) He basically said “I don’t really even no how to describe what I just saw.” But then he went on to try.

    I wonder how much space there is in our weeklies and dailies these days for that kind of candor? I wish more.

    Anyway I just wrote twelve times more than I meant to. ( I could never fit into 300 words.) I hope that didn’t seem like sour grapes. I do appreciate the conversations that are initiated by you and our other literary colleagues when you have the time and space to be curious and informed. I hope we are successful in maintaining and or creating new forms literary space. Space in which those of us who think writing about dance is important can afford to be be thoughtful, curious and creative.

    Warmly,

    Jess

  • Jess Curtis

    oops! reading my typos presents the opportunity to feel some compassion for anyone else’s errors in writing on deadline….

  • Rachel

    Hi again, Jess,

    Writing here quickly as I dash out the door–

    But want to say right away that your thoughts on the “mainstream” coverage of “Touched” are enormously, practically useful to me. I know the Chronicle review you speak of, and I hope the writer of it will forgive me (I have my share of subpar reviews in my clip file myself), but if I were an artist I too would have been disappointed by such a review, and not found it useful. For me the answer is: better dance reviews.

    But also, about the feature coverage having perhaps been useful, this is encouraging to me. The Chronicle is now running Q and A’s. I did one as a preview to Sean Dorsey’s recent show, and was told by Sean that it was helpful both in getting the word out about the show and setting a framework for seeing it. The Q and A answers were all in his own words, though I put much work into cutting and shaping his responses. Perhaps this is a tool for coverage that can be more useful than a traditional review, and maybe a Q and A rather than a review is what I should advocate more for with certain shows.

    I hope the discussion here about how choreographers and dancers can write to and for one another will continue; I don’t mean to co-opt it to serve my own needs. Of course artists read other artists to develop their work and their field, and this conversation is far more crucial to innovation than what I do in the mainstream press.

    As a fiction writer, I know this personally. In my apprenticeship towards my novel-in-progress, I read primarily fiction writers writing for other fiction writers–not book reviewers writing for the broader public. That conversation within the field is the soul of art. However, I’m still grateful to book critics like James Wood–and even the sharp-tongued Michiko Kakutani!–because their work keeps literary writing in the larger cultural debate.

    Looking forward to seeing the further thoughts on how the discourse among dancers and choreographers themselves can deepen.

    Thank you, though, for the practical feedback.
    Rachel

  • Charles Slender

    I agree that some things from Thursday night’s discussion were extremely helpful, but I must say that all of the off-topic ranting threw me into a bit of a fit, so the post I’ve got here reflects how I was feeling after the event had ended – the thoughts and feelings which immediately came to mind. Some responses before I launch:
    1.) The discourse project seems like a wonderful idea, but it could benefit from a bit more structure.
    2.) Reviews, of all kinds, are infinitely helpful.
    3.) Bios and descriptions in a program are a good place to include more information, yes, but they could also infringe up on the independence of the work itself and, would, at best, only represent what the artists think about themselves, not what other people think (this is the purpose of the ‘outside’ critic). Also, while bios/show programs inevitably end up in the trash or recycle bin, articles from the NY Times and SF Chronicle, gentrified as they may be, are widely searchable on the internet. Valuable historical documents are not necessarily those that were the most interesting or informative, just the ones that survived the longest. What follows was largely written Friday, February 20, 2009.

    The well-intentioned community discussion last Thursday night at CounterPULSE, regarding the current state of dance writing, began with a sharing of insightful comments and opinions from a panel of some of the SF Bay Area’s better known dance writers. This efficient and informative beginning, however, quickly eroded into a disastrous Q&A of finger-pointing and scapegoating, with narcissistic and desperate explanations in self-defense against a (perceived) attacker which, instead of adding to the interesting conversation that was underway, threw it way off track. This, to a new resident of the fabled ‘Mecca of Tolerance’, was shocking, disappointing, and sad (although I suppose also extremely educational and eye-opening in its own right).

    It is all well and good to ‘damn the man’ and talk about the ways in which ‘the system’ keeps people down. At best this can be constructive, helping people to gain a clear(er) idea of where they are and where they need to go. Sometimes, however, these explanations are accompanied by such ridiculous melodrama and outrageous accusations that they, in expressing an urgent desire for understanding, actually highlight a gross short-sightedness. Complaining about ‘the white people’ or pleading on behalf of the ‘immigrants’ cannot rightly be done without an entire series of qualifiers. So when someone stands up and makes a vague comment about these groups, my first questions are: Which white people? Which immigrants? Which definitions are you using? By white do you mean WASP? Or do you mean Greek, or maybe South African? (even these distinctions fall incredibly short and barely begin to get us somewhere useful). Immigrants can hail from Central and South American countries, but they can also come from Cambodia, Poland, Iran (or any where else), so while it is typical (I think) to imagine one type of oppressed group vs. one type of privileged group, we should keep in mind that some South American countries and their emigrants have a much higher standard of living than some European countries and theirs, and that there is not really a ‘white’ people just as there is no ‘black’ people. Racism directed towards the perceived group in power is still racism, and it’s not something you can combat effectively while promoting it at the same time.

    Apart from this bizarre boxing of perceived racial/ethnic groups, there was another, similar set of claims that were equally surprising. Two of the artists present at the discussion have done a fair amount of work in Europe, so they would presumably have some important and nuanced ideas about ‘dance in Europe’. It seems to be common for young artists with less experience to talk about the beauty and ease of being an artist in Europe and the sad toiling in the trenches of being an artist in America. Things are great there, and horrible here; American artists are victimized while European artists are hailed as demigods. It is my opinion and experience that the US and Europe are both far too large and varied to make any valuable statements, really, comparing the two in such general ways. Europe does not only include La Monnaie in Brussels or Lucent Theatre in The Hague, but also decrepit, run-down theatres filled with asbestos and other unhealthy working conditions. Dancers in Europe are ALSO dancing for free, just like in the US, and some American companies ALSO have huge budgets and mostly-secured funding. So, when these two artists, who have experience living and working in Europe (these are the people who should know better), start ranting about the glory of Europe and the embarrassing state of things in the US, I wonder how much work they’ve done in poor Europe, or how much interaction they’ve had with some of its less ‘cultured’ communities.

    The moral of the story is this, community leaders in San Francisco should be expected not only to be talented, smart, and driven, but also to be aware of their own prejudices, biases, and ill-founded opinions, and to perhaps keep this in mind before they open their mouths and start criticizing others. Preaching tolerance is necessary and wonderful, but it cannot ever be accompanied by blind intolerance or any sort of community-based/supported hatred. It is good to think about the differences between places, people, groups, etc. – but it is also good to realize that these ponderings are always based upon personal experience (and not much more), and so, just like this review, can hardly ever present observations which are both insightful and objective.

    My proposal to make the next discussion more effective? Keep the Q&A’s, but limit response times. Jessica did a good job of moving people along after they’d commandeered the microphone for too long, but I think creating a system of order that kept comments brief and focused would move the discussion along more quickly and prevent community members from getting side tracked by their own personal issues, which frequently have little bearing on the topic at hand. It will be an exciting day when/if community discussions move away from ‘poor-me fests’ and become better at utilizing the intellectual wealth of the SF Bay Area to really do something, instead of just complaining about things not getting done.

    Looking forward to the next one,

    ~Charles

  • Loren

    my quick response…
    Thank you to CounterPULSE and Dancers’ Group and the panelists for making the event happen – I appreciate the space for this dialogue (live and online) even if it is hard to focus such a broad topic.

    It was really great to see PEOPLE sitting on the panel – people with egos, insecurities, doubts and so many questions. It made me really respect these writers (to answer Rachel’s question “is this important to you?”, YES, though I am not the most avid reader of dance critics, I think dance writing is important, it’s the paper trail of ephemeral art) and recognize you/them as public servants of the “dance/performance community” – I use quotes here because, as was touched upon many times before, I feel it is impossible to actually throw a net on a group of people and call it a community so simply.

    Jessica acknowledged it was an all-white panel. A choreographer in the audience stood up and acknowledged the lack of media coverage of SO many other dance forms aside from contemporary/modern dance and ballet…

    …My question is, who and where are the dance WRITERS of color (and where does this writing show up)? (I know it is part of the bigger system of mainstream media, but really, San Francisco??)

  • Ann Murphy

    I’ve been dropping down in front of the tv lately since i came down with the flu. I’ve been trying to endure the spotty HD signal, looking for juicy news or entertainment but discovering over and over how dreary the pickings are without plug-ins to the great television transmission gods in the sky/ground.

    ironically, making do has its rewards because i watch what i might otherwise pass up. last week i saw bill moyers interview parker palmer, for instance. Palmer is a man whose piety irked me but whose thoughtfulness was galvanizing, the founder of something called the center for courage and renewal. He specifically addressed the recent crop of newcomers to politics, people who shed their past disinterest or disillusion because of the obama campaign’s careful and emotionally connected organizing strategies. the essence of the strategy was to connect individual stories to a larger purpose, then keeping that purpose alive. parker talked about the need as citizens for a constant dialectic between what is and what might be, between the material and ideal; without that, we fall into narcissism and cynicism on the one hand, and delusion on the other. in either case we end up out of touch with the flawed realities of everyday life and disconnected from the changes that can arise from leaps of imagination and belief in the future. my own metaphor for this is making a tortilla: on one side is the real and on the other the ideal. you have to turn the masa harina ball over and over, patting one side then another, until you have something that holds together and can nourish you.

    i came away from the discourse project Thursday knowing that the parker palmer/tortilla notion seemed to be missing from the house. Perhaps the dance community is still in need of a place and means to tell individual stories, because virtually every voice seemed to be engaged in a separate and private conversation. What struck me as unfortunate about this is that the days of complaining about not being covered or crowing about how much you don’t care about being covered are so over. That conversation was robust 25 years ago, when the papers were full of music critics doubling as dance writers (some of them quite good), the Bay Guardian and the other weeklies were yet to cover dance regularly, and no one much liked what was written about them but still desperately needed to be reviewed to qualify for grants or to gain a footing in the community among other dancemakers. Complaining actually had some traction, but even then only a little. Now, the problems are more stark and, in a way, more interesting. Rachel is a strong dance advocate, and although she isn’t, as Paul Parish has noted, given the leeway to do the job she might do, she still makes a silk purse out of a sow’s very small ear. She helps drive attention to dance from people close to and far from the art’s inner circles, and this enhances the ecology of Bay Area dance culture whether the individual dancemakers feel the impact or not. The rest of us–Rita, Paul, Mary Ellen, Mike, Kitty, Janice, Aimee, me and others I don’t even know of–each in our respective venues and in our distinct ways, attempt to do something similar. What distinguishes all of us from the past writers is we do it because we love dance and for little other reason. Certainly not the freelance pay, which is as negligible as it was 15 years ago. Some of us will write for free, simply because we need to.

    Implicitly, some of those who spoke seemed to deny the importance of the shared or centralized conversation (despite being there to engage in it), even as some of those same people bemoaned being ignored by the press. Maybe the problem is how how we define the problem.

    What I want to offer is that we think of an ecology of dance writing, a system that is complex, interwoven, and includes the generalist review down (or is that up?) to the esoteric phenomenological debates by philosophers on the nature of presence. We should be able to create a form that can hold and honor the myriad species of thinking and talking and writing about dance without having to diss one facet of the ecology. This might keep the collective from wrangling over false hierarchies and let us avoid the equally misbegotten divide between “real” dance writing and putatively inconsequential writing. The only inconsequential dance writing I can think of is the badly written and inarticulate stuff or the raving screeds that reveal the fractured mind of the writer. Dance writing is hardly new, but it only became worthy of academic study in the last handful of decades as the culture’s relationship to the body and to women has changed. And some of the most exciting recent dance books are by choreographers and not by scholars. As wonderful as a lot of dance scholarship is, there is also scholarship that is wedded to theories that the other fields moved away from 20 years ago. Some writing is divorced from facts on the ground, making these works a form of intellectual gamesmanship that is hard to square as theory of dance practice or history. Sometimes dance and the body seem to be regarded as “unmarked” territory ripe for “inscription” the way the Brits regarded the desert lands of Arabia.

    Dance reviews create a vital historical record–someone was actually there, strived to describe what happened and by whom and why or why not it matters. At its best it is to dance what participant observation is to anthropology. It may not lead the discipline into juicy self-assessment, and it may not be a distinct art form, but I think that it remains vital to the ecology of the whole. It asserts that the cultural phenomenon needs and deserves to be noted. As Rachel alluded to, book reviews inform us of books many of us feel we ought to hear about, even if we have no intention of reading them. That’s my relationship to science. I want to know about stem cell research, or genetics and race debates even though the last science class i took was chemistry in high school and I don’t know the difference between cytosine and thymine. I read Jill Johnston in the Village Voice when I was a teenager about the downtown NY dance scene even as I schlepped to ballet classes. I looked forward each week to what she had to say because in her writing I found an inventive, iconoclastic and highly personal voice for a world view and a way of being that i was struggling to find for myself. I also learned what Trisha Brown’s climbing the side of buildings looked like (even though I never witnessed it in person) and what Meredith Monk’s work was about, and this was long before I saw either artists’ work.

    A healthy dance ecology would embrace as many modes and vehicles for discussing, noting, notating and responding to dance as possible. We need the in-the-trenches critic who is free to write with wit, insight and immediacy, chronicling dance as is happens. We need the memoirist, the historian, the diarist, the practiioner and the scholar. The internet can incubate all kinds of dance writing; good quality daily/weekly monthly journalism should continue to be among them.

  • Jess Curtis

    Me again.

    To Rachel..

    Yes to Q & A’s. Yes to anything that is interactive and acknowledges the agency of the artist and situates the writer as a creative agent in the process as well.

    I just interviewed Jerome Bel in the latest “In Dance” as a preview for his upcoming show Tuesday night at YBCA and I learned a lot. I hope others will too. (I can admit to being nervous on the “other side of the pen”)

    To Everyone…

    With more rumination I am compelled to re-state that there is a ton of writing about dance being published in the world…in English and with enough space to actually delve into issues in a deeper way. For an example go to this Link: http://www.sarma.be/nieuw/taz/tazlepecki.htm

    …to read translations of what André Lepecki wrote over three years as the contemporary dance reviewer for the Portugese ROCK AND ROLL MAGAZINE, “BLITZ”. Amazing…imagine a weekly contemporary dance column in “Rolling Stone”.

    As far as dance goes we are living in an intellectual “third world”, But even in America publishers like Routledge are publishing books all the time about bodies, movement and contemporary performance. I just got Brian Massumi’s “Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation” If you actually want to read more about contemporary dance there is more than you can possibly find time to read.

    If what you want is more publicity/discourse for your next, or last, show then get in line, work on your PR skills, save your money to hire a more expensive publicist, start a zine or start blogging.

    btw, I was a little disappointed to read Paul Parrish’s remarks on Rachel’s Blog about dance writing getting too polysyllabic. Let’s have all kinds! I like having to look up words when I read. Helps me to believe the writer might know something I don’t. New words make it possible to tell new stories. New stories help redefine the landscape open new frontiers (De Certeau). I want all the writers I read to introduce me to new thoughts and new words, about dance and everything else.

    Thanks,

    Jess

  • Mary Armentrout

    Mary Armentrout here, choreographer-instigator of the dance discourse project, with a few thoughts about this mammoth topic and some of the elephants in the room:

    1. I do think Jessica and I want to keep taking responsibility for this ddp feeling like it went awry; I just don’t think making people feel uncomfortable is really conducive to deep and satisfying conversation, and I want to reiterate that deep and satisfying conversations is what we are after. That said, yes we want to try and broach important topics, some of which have heavy charges, and although some fireworks can be useful, ultimately we do need to find ways to make sure things don’t get too out of control. Up until now the audience participation aspect of the ddps has been something we have be proud of and surprised by – how much people in the “audience” were willing to take the topic at hand deeper, without alot of heavy guiding by us. We will have to think more about how to deal with situations like this, where, I agree, it felt like the conversation went all over the place and out of focus, without any of the participants purposely intending to cause that result, I believe.

    I have personally been quite astonished at the number of people attending the ddps (far beyond my expectations) and the enthusiasm and energy the ddps seem to be generating. I am very happy, and glad we are doing it, but I also think its success is really due to a great pent up demand for this type of experience and opportunity within the larger dance community (I know it makes it sound cohesive, when it’s not, it is a stop gap term we use too sloppily) and hopefully just the fact of the on-goingness of the series will allow some of that demand to get met over time.

    2. Journalistic Dance Criticism and the rest of the universe of dance writing.
    Another thing I would like to make a little clearer is that yes indeed I do think the focus of ddp5 was journalistic dance criticism, which I do not by any stretch of the imagination think is all of dance writing. Although we purposely wanted a spread of people who do write journalistic dance criticism – really wanted to have a choreographer/performer/writer like Keith part of the mix – it was clear to us that we were focusing fairly tightly on just this kind of dance writing and the tremendous transformations that are happening to it these days. It seems like this is a huge enough topic to try and grapple with for one evening, even before we start adding in other parts of the continuum of dance writing. But perhaps we didn’t delineate this clearly enough at the start of the evening. I would dearly love to talk about other kinds of dance writing, I think many of them are at least as interesting as journalistic dance criticism (I don’t think the critics on the panel would disagree either), it just felt like there was this interesting thing happening around journalistic writing that is impacting the dance community pretty heavily so let’s talk about it and see what we can understand about it.

    I agree with Jessica that this is another ddp topic that should have at least a 5-part series, and hopefully we can bear that out. Dance artists who write about dance, their own and others, the whole field of academic writing about dance, how dance writing impacts on culturally specific artists and artists of color, are just three areas I would love to investigate, and hope we can get to in interesting ways. Not that I think there are such hard and fast distinctions between these ways of writing either. And, also, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that journalistic dance writing is the only valuable forum for talking about dance, that would be crazy and silly – it is certainly vital to create many different forums and formats for talking about dance and describing it in other ways (I’ve never been particularly happy with words myself).

    That said, I do feel a little disappointed that folks in the audience didn’t want to stick with the crazy-making aspects of journalistic dance writing in this country a little longer. When I am really reminded of how tough it would be to write that 300-500 word review in the four hours after I get home from the show, no time to mull it over, no room to let my words dig deep and conjure things, I think, yes this is a hell of a job. What a high wire act and a wacko situation – and now even that is getting whittled and whittled down to less and even less. But do we still consider it a constitutive part of how the dance machine works? How is its enervation effecting the whole ecology of that “larger dance community.” Often it feels like all we (as dance artists) do is cry if we get a bad review or no review, feel secretly vindicated when we get good ones – having no interest or compassion for the larger role of the critic, not reading their work or participating in the dialogue they are trying to create – does that not make us contributors to the dysfunction in the system? (I speak here in the royal “we” – from my own experience!) Will we stay too busy heatedly fighting for the few scraps of “coverage” left to notice that the whole structure of coverage is melting or deforming in front of our faces – how can we help instead think about new possible formulations and solutions that would pro-actively take some of our concerns into consideration – like the need that whoever writes about us has for longer reviews and longer deadlines, the need for a plurality of voices to be heard, not simply one or two taste-maker critics, how to reformulate what’s happening on the web to get at some kind of critical critical mass, what are some of the real possibilities for how the internet could change this (large) facet of our lives for the better. It seems to me that would be an avenue towards our own empowerment.

    Also, a few words about the Sarma utopia. Yes, it’s really great, yes wouldn’t it be great if we had it too. But, I think it is either a little bit naively optimistic, or heedless in not really acknowledging the situation on the ground here, in America, in San Francisco, to say ooh wow let’s do that! as if it were that easy, and as if it were obvious that it is the correct model for us too. I love much about the European way of doing things, but I have to say that much of what I come away with from my time of living in Europe is noticing that for better and for worse, I am not European, I am American (luckily not quite as embarrassing as it was before the last election) and I am interested in our own solutions to our (massive) problems. So yes, there is so much that is engaging and inspiring, juicy and potential in creations like Sarma, with a more realistic mingling of different kinds of writings and writers and more of a rapprochement between dance makers and dance writers (this does seem right to me, since we are all, at base, people who practice something I call dance thinking, it just can take different exterior forms). But also, take a look – how is Sarma funded? by a consortium of presenters and state agencies, which in the still more socialist landscape of Europe means $$. Do we have the ghost of a hope for something like that here? Well maybe a ghost, but how exactly will this work. I think you have to realize that there are vast differences between the European and US dance communities – different whole cultures – and so the translation of models is complex. All the same, yes yes! how can we start, how have we already started.

    3. A few words about Rachel/for Rachel (yes I am one of those that still awaits my own Chron review, just to put that out there): it seems she gets to sit in the hottest of the hot seats, and partly that is correct since she has the most powerful job, but it just seems unfortunate if people can’t see her very real and sincere desire to be of service and really help the field, and if people really haven’t noticed that she has made a considerable difference in what the Chron covers and that is a gain for us all. I don’t at all think she is a bad fit for the ddp arena, it is only her depreciating nature that could make her consider that idea. All this against the backdrop of the Chron announcing more layoffs and discussing the potential closure of the paper all together.

    4. Thanks to Rachel for putting Paul’s contribution up – I did want to get to it in the discussion, if there was time, but we know how that went! I do agree with Jess that all writing is (or can be) good – we have so little and it is a hard thing to clothe this non-verbal thing we do in words – so I say bring it on! the more the better, all kinds and flavors. But I also appreciated Paul’s point about the smaller community presses – what other smaller (read “worthless”) situations that may have value are we overlooking?

    5. I guess in hindsight, my only real criticism of our talk and the discussion afterwards is that we just stopped way way too early. Rita said in anticipation – wow we will have to be there until 3 in the morning to even broach all these topics – and I think she was more accurate than I thought at the time. A little time for sour grapes and griping seems ok with me – there is need in this community, and acknowledging that is ok, provided we move on from there with purpose. And many of the issues we wanted to get into in more detail and in more relation to the initial topics are there in all the meanderings of the q&a – I know people are aware of and see the interconnections between all of these things and maybe if we had had more time we would have woven some of this large hole-y fabric together more successfully. I propose we keep going.

  • Charles Slender

    Everything here on this blog, throughout, is exciting, relevant, interesting, and necessary – to me at least, but presumably to others as well. I think sharing spaces where one might find additional readings (like Jess’ post about sarma.be) are helpful, regardless of where they are based…dance IN San Francisco surely has unique issues that concern it alone, but traveling as a dancer quickly reveals that dance is something that can be done anywhere, is relevant anywhere, and can therefore be written about, with relevance, anywhere…though the concerns might be different, some of the greater issues are applicable across the board.

    My earlier post was focused primarily on my gripes about people griping. On some level artists (most of them it seems) are dissatisfied and, like most people in the general public, seem to be more prone to complaining than doing. The blog, the ddp, and all other forums are a useful method of not only venting, but also proposing helpful thoughts/suggestions and most importantly, hearing what others think about them. I know in my own ‘dance writing’ (if we can call it that) I’m learning by watching/reading what you are all posting…this influences how I write and think about dance…so without imposing a ‘way’ or ‘style’ in an authoritarian manner, you’re still helping me to identify ‘good’ writing from ‘bad’ writing…that is, there is a concern that blog spaces will become filled with half-baked, inarticulate mess that no one can sort through…and here we have a space with plenty to read, and mostly of the ‘good’ variety (will I get in trouble for trying to distinguish ‘good’ writing from ‘bad’ writing!?).

    It is difficult, as a new member to the ‘community’, to know that people were complaining incessantly 25 years ago, because I wasn’t here…and like times in the past when people were complaining (insert here any of your favorite civil rights movements), ‘our’ movement, or call to action, doesn’t seem to have been well publicized or documented…and so far as I can tell holds a tiny space (if one at all) in the study/discussion of dance history. Thus, it’s extremely important for those who might be more established, and who have been around for longer, to tell us new kids how it was. The fact that arts organizations are starting to advocate and lobby government/politicians (this appears to be something happening now-ish for the first time, but correct me if I’m wrong) is promising. A good step in the right direction, yes?

    It was thrilling to see how many people were at the discussion, and, in retrospect, to see that so many people had so much to say – that there was an interest in active participation, even if it was sometimes rather nearsighted. I’m wondering how we might include others in this dialogue…if we’re to take this discussion board as an example, why aren’t there 50-100 different people blogging on here (I don’t think it’s because we 8 have an inordinate amount of time on our hands). So, I’m reminded of Jess’ questions about who is reading dance writing…especially in the context of who is reading this blog? Presumably there are more people reading it than posting on it, but what is preventing them from writing? One of the ways to help in issues of underrepresentation is, if you’re underrepresented, to try to represent yourself more, right? It is not the only solution, of course, but is sometimes a greatly effective one.

    So, perhaps at the next ddp, maybe the blog gets promoted more? And also, maybe we should be not only encouraging people to check it out, but also encouraging them to share their thoughts.

    CounterPULSE, as one of the few ‘centers’ of dance/performance in SF, might be on track to creating documented discussions which can later (and now) be used to tell us where we are and hopefully provide us with readily-accessible information about where we might go.

    Keep posting ya’ll.

    ~Charles

  • Andrew Wass

    As an artist trying to play the game and jump through the hoops, I continually try to get a critic to come see my work. Always seems like it is a requirement in Grantworld that you only exist when someone writes about you in a paper. Guilty of being a media hound, if a bad one.

    I remember one of the critics on the panel saying that it was important to have a reviews of shows so that we have a record of what happened. That may have been need 50 or even 10 years ago, but not anymore. We have Vimeo and Youtube and websites for a record of what happened. I, for one, do not like to read reviews that are just a recap of the show. I prefer that the review assumes that I have seen or will see the performance in question. I want to know what someone else thought about the show.

    Which brings me to my next point. I am more interested in what other artist’s have to say about my work than a critic. Yes, the opinion of the critic seems more legit (Grantworld, again) than a dancer or choreographer, but I want to hear what people who are in the mix and making work have to say. I am not saying there shouldn’t be critics. Not at all. There should be more people writing about performances, not just the Holy Handfull we have in the Bay Area.

    I remember once talking to someone about In Dance and asking why someone who worked there didn’t write reviews about performances. The person I was talking to said that that would be a conflict of interest because s/he worked for In Dance. Why is that a conflict of interest?

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