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AMONG the major factors contributing to the health of the dance world-at least the American dance world, although surely, if only by ripple effect, internationally--is The New York Times. Of course, The New York Times is a huge fish in the ever-diminishing pool of print journalism, and still has a significant influence on world affairs--not enough to elect a president, but sufficient to slightly color and flavor world opinion. Most people, institutions, and things would prefer to have The New York Times on their side rather than off it. But in dance matters The Times' influence has become enormous.

History--especially the virtual invention and early sustenance of modern dance--has placed the United States at the center of the dance world. And geography, economics, and cultural climate in turn placed New York at the center of the American dance world, the center's epicenter as it were. And in the New York performing arts, particularly in classical music, opera, and dance, The New York Times reigns supreme. As simple evidence of this, the vast proportion of dance companies and theaters' advertising budgets goes to The New York Times. The influence of its dance reviews, inside and outside the city, is enormous, and the particular tone it takes with dance and dance matters is crucial nowadays.

Luckily, over the years, The New York Times has done pretty well by dance. The dance community has been known to complain of its treatment, but generally speaking that treatment has been generous. It certainly used to live up to one of its advertising slogans suggesting to its readers "Find your world in our world." The paper has printed vastly more words and published more pictures about dance in the past 77 years than any other journalistic source. And why 77 years? Because that was when The New York Times appointed John Martin its first full-time chief (and only) dance critic.

SINCE Martin's retirement, there have been only four chief dance critics: Allen Hughes, from Martin's retirement in 1962 until 1965; me, originally an import from London, from 1965 until 1977; and Anna Kisselgoff from 1977 until last month, when she voluntarily and, in my view prematurely, stepped down (see "Transitions," page 145). She was replaced by John Rockwell, a polymath critic and erstwhile impresario presiding over the first years of the Lincoln Center Festival. His prime area of critical experience, like Hughes before him, had hitherto been music.

It is hardly an unbiased view, yet I feel the four dance critics who were Rockwell's predecessors did a good job. Martin laid the framework of American dance criticism today, championing modern dance from the get-go and later changing gears to embrace America's classical ballet with equal fervor. Hughes extended the range and scope of the dance coverage, a move I continued, making the dance pages more accessible perhaps because, in the other role of chief drama critic for 10 of my 12 Times years, I expanded the dance column's constituency. I also further extended the coverage by encouraging other writers: Don McDonagh, Kisselgoff, and Jennifer Dunning. As for Kisselgoff, she has left as a legacy of her 36 Times years (first as nay deputy, then for 27 years as the head of the department) one of the few major critical archives of 20th century dance.

And so on to the multi-talented Rockwell, who has both nay warmest wishes and highest hopes. However, it must be admitted that he ascends the throne of his minor duchy at a moment that seems altogether ominous for dance coverage in The New York Times. He must keep the faith in a climate where the once great Sunday Arts and Leisure section (which he at one time edited) has been culturally down-marketed to a kind of gee-whiz triviality--notably on its dance half-page. He must navigate a daily paper that, while devoting acres of space and gallons of words to the arts, has also begun to favor softly styled features over hard-headed reviews and to specialize in woozy news stories written by reporters hardly in command of their subject or in touch with their sources. Serious, informed comment on the dance scene has virtually disappeared from the pages of the paper, in what is fast becoming a broken record in arts coverage.

Rockwell, a fine writer and an editor of great discernment, even if one perhaps over-oriented to foreseeing the future rather than curating the past, is very conceivably just the right Timesman--one with sufficient in-paper authority and generalized background-at the right time for dance. I wish him well, for much of America's dance destiny rests, at least momentarily, on his shoulders. He will be more maligned than loved; I know this from experience as well as observation. And he is being given a slightly poisoned (something like "slightly pregnant?") chalice, from which he must drink deeply but wisely. The trick, by the way, is to filter with the teeth and avoid the lumps. God bless him and help him!

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Article Details
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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