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A Shrivel of Dance Critics.


It has been suggested that dance critics came not in a group but a shrivel, not as a gathering but a smear. All in good fun, of course. (Who, after all, would not be amused at being called a member of a smear of dance critics?)

About 150 men and women who write about dance gathered in New York City over the weekend of July 20 to 22 for the annual Dance Critics Association Conference in an effort not only to define themselves but to discuss the changes taking place in the world of dance journalism.

Dance criticism and reviewing is a relatively new craft that grew up with the evolution of modern dance in the twentieth century, where a need had arisen to explain what the ideas were behind what the dancers were doing onstage. And each generation has produced some splendid writers, pioneers who have helped advance the idea that dance is worth writing about. And dance writing today is more informed, interesting, and better written on a larger scale than ever before.

Haggling over definitions, Clive Barnes, the featured senior critic invited to address the DCA, pointed out that there is a distinction between a dance reviewer and a dance critic. This is an old debate, and those terms, along with dance writer, have been used almost interchangeably for generations. A critic, in the "Barnsean" sense, is that writer who is involved with exploring the principles of the art he is concerned with; reviewers, on the other hand, are tied to commenting on a specific event. And it is the critics, using Barnes's definition, who have dwindled in numbers and are desperately needed in dance today. Can we do something about that? Increase and improve the quality of dance criticism? Do we want to?

As we know, dancing can be quite ephemeral despite our videos and notations, and sometimes the only record left behind of a particular performance or performer is what the dance critic writes. This historical function is complemented by the critical function, which is far more demanding and difficult. To improve matters along these lines and to cut down on the dance writer's sense of isolation and distance from mainstream journalism, the DCA was formed in the early 1970s by a handful of writers that included members of the staff of this publication. Dance writing has improved since then, gaining recognition as dance itself has grown and gained in popularity, but there are still problems with an eternal shortage of print space, low pay, and the problem of finding knowledgeable and supportive editors who can guide and encourage the writers.

Dance writers today have more opportunity to publish than ever before, I think. This is because of the greatly increased number of dance events, compared to two decades ago, as well as the development of the Internet, with its capabilities for research and posting instant (or overnight) reviews.

Right now there is a growing market for next-day reviews on the Internet, and these can be surprisingly good, filled with information that is useful and opinions that will stimulate comparison, discussion, and admiration. The dark side of this development is that material can quite easily find its way onto Web sites that are cranky and destructive, even unsigned and unregulated.

But what about future markets for dance writers? Will, as was discussed at the DCA, dance writing be relegated to specialist journals thirty years hence? Will paper have become a luxury or even a thing of the past? Specialist publications appear to be increasing in the field, but losing the use of print on paper in the future seems unlikely. It's not just an issue of the portability of print by comparison with having to, say, carry your computer around to get the latest news; it's a matter of aesthetics.

The much-loved regional American writer Eudora Welty, who died the day after the DCA conference closed, wrote in One Writer's Beginnings (1984): "I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with [books]--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms...." The same is true of magazines and newspapers. That same kind of sensual, aesthetic approach to the physical aspects of paper, not to mention portability, must strike a chord of recognition in people who love dance, another physical aesthetic experience.

Writing is perhaps the loneliest profession on earth, and writing about dance is not only lonely, but underappreciated, underpaid, underfed, and underencouraged. You may think that there is a considerable amount of bad writing (in the sense of ignorant or biased) out there in the dailies and weekly magazine arts sections. Some writers do have personal agendas, and their taste and knowledge may be limited. And there really is no such thing as objective criticism; the best we can hope for is subjective criticism without prejudice. But the real fact is that there is also a surprising amount of considered, accurate, seasoned, serious writing that fulfills the basic functions of the good dance writer: to inform, stimulate, provoke, affect taste, and prepare.

Where does the writer specializing in dance learn to write? That is like asking, "Where does a dancer learn to dance?" And the answer in both cases is from hands-on experience; being there, doing it. The writer must go to many performances, get to know the details of the art form, and learn enough discipline to work until "the thing shines as a whole," as was suggested in one of the panels. Dance writing has become an art in itself, and the dance writer is an artist of the form.

Editor at Large Richard Philp has been with Dance Magazine since 1970, first as managing editor and then for many years as editor in chief. He is a writer, editor, and speaker, known for his strong support of the arts. He can be reached at
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Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Next Article:The Power of Style.

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