Dance Critics Association Addresses the Future of Dance
By Kevin J. Wong
NEW YORK, June 25 -- To address the writings of dance journalists and current problems with dance in America, members of the Dance Critics Association gathered from June 20-22 for the 2003 Dance Critics Association Conference. Held at Barnard College's campus, the conference was entitled "The New World of Dance Writing: Coping With Changes in What We See, How and Where We're Publishing." Combining the views and beliefs of writers, performers and professors, the dance conference aimed to improve what many believe to be a weakening area in the arts.
The conference, which was initiated on Friday with an opening reception, officially began on Saturday with opening remarks by Mindy Aloff, Karyn D. Collins, chairperson of the Dance Critics Association and Janet Soares from the Barnard Department of Dance. The remainder of the day consisted of discussion panels and speeches, most of which focused on print media and the methods it employs to cover dance. Entitled "Cultural Coverage in Magazines of Opinion," "Cultural Coverage in Newspapers" and "Who is Reading Your Words?" these presentations sought to find ways of improving these aspects of dance journalism. Other speakers, such as Francis Mason, editor of the Ballet Review, gave an address to the senior critics of the Dance Critics Association, and Robert Greskovic, a dance writer for The Wall Street Journal, gave a presentation entitled "Happy Discoveries: Moving Pictures and Critical Analysis." The day ended with a performance by the Christopher Caines Dance Company of Stravinsky's "Italian Suite."
The New York Theatre Wire attended the final (Sunday) portion of the conference.
The first panel on Sunday, "The Future of Ballet and Ballet Criticism," painted a shaky yet optimistic future for ballet. Elizabeth Zimmer, the dance editor of The Village Voice, identified ballet's problem as the post-literacy of American society, in which "the art of concentration" needed to sit through a ballet is lost. Ms. Zimmer viewed many classic ballets as being chauvinistic works of art, and she desired to see a more contemporary ballet in which the writer gives the woman a chance to triumph. She thinks that as the arts are taken away from public schools due to budget cuts, ballet will ultimately be limited to the affluent, who will have the monetary means to pursue it.
By contrast, Robert Greskovic has a far more optimistic outlook. Unlike some of the other panelists, he does not view ballet's inability to reach a younger audience as being its problem. Instead, he remarked, like The Washington Post's Alexandra Tomalonis, that the audience for ballet has always been old, and ballet is an art form that many people grow into rather than liking immediately.
The main criticism of ballet that Mr. Greskovic had, and shared with Rachel Howard, former dance critic of the San Francisco Examiner, is in the program choices that dance companies make. They both felt that there are dances being marketed as ballet which are wholly misrepresentative of the art, and younger audiences should not be presented with watered down versions of something that is complex. Mr. Greskovic also commented on the modernity of current ballet, and, while admitting that tutu ballets have gone out of style with contemporary audiences, feels it would be a disservice to remove them entirely from season programs. Gia Kourlas, dance editor of Time Out New York, emphasized a variety of performances, and felt that a shorter, quicker ballet would be easier for kids to absorb rather than a lengthy performance like "Swan Lake."
Martha Ullman West of Dance Magazine hosted a segment entitled, "Three Stories in Dance." She focused on the talents of Trey McIntyre, choreographer for Ballet Memphis, Toni Pimble, choreographer and founder of the Eugene Ballet Company, and Paul Vasterling, former choreographer and current artistic director for the Nashville Ballet. All three of them are mostly unknown to the public, and Ms. West treated her audience to video clip highlights of their works. In particular, Pimble's choreography for "Still Falls the Rain," a performance about an Afghani woman stoned to death by the Taliban, made a deep impression, as did McIntyre's "Grace," a short ballet choreographed with a gospel choir, and a comic take on Robin Hood by Vasterling.
Virginia Johnson, editor for Pointe Magazine, moderated a panel entitled "Balancing Act: Keeping Dance Pure in Disconnected Times." Five panelists each commented on their struggles since 9/11 and their efforts to maintain dance's vitality. Joan Hershey, producer of MetroArts Thirteen (www.thirteen.org), pointed out how Thirteen is advancing the arts with initiatives such as an upcoming Annual Dance Festival. Lasting from August 1 through August 31, the dance festival includes the contributions of nearly 40 participating artists and organizations. Ms. Hershey also explained that high production values are needed to stage cultural events, and that the high costs of production, including sophisticated video editing, are prohibitive for small companies. She said that money is not directed in the right areas, and she views the discontinuation of Thirteen's cable channel as another obstacle in the way of dance promotion.
Janet Anderson, from the City Paper of Philadelphia, spoke about the vitality of Philadelphia's experimental dance community. She discussed, at great length, the past and upcoming Philadelphia Fringe Festivals. The Festival, modeled on the famed Edinburgh one, showcases "risk taking artists" and blurs the lines between traditional disciplines (www.pafringe.com). Ms. Anderson detailed how the event was uplifting to the local economy, bringing an influx of traffic into "streets, galleries and cafes," and enriching the local business environment in a way that has been underappreciated because local leaders have not taken a "long view."
Ms. Anderson also focused on the role of business people in funding efforts, who tended to see artistic events as business ventures rather than works of art. She placed the responsibility of generating more empathetic publicity in the hands of dance critics, and she claimed that their enthusiasm in writing or talking about dance is what unites them with the public.
Other members of the panel included Jane Goldberg, a tap-dance performer and teacher who often helps new artists with "finding their footing" in New York. She related personal struggles since 9/11 and described her strategies to stay "on balance," including moonlighting and the creation of unconventional programs.
Adding to the Dance Critics Association's national scope was Janet Light from the Cincinnati Art Museum. She discussed the collaborative efforts that dance companies can have with other arts intensive organizations, and she remarked that museums and dance companies could share "clear educational missions." One example she gave of this was of the collaborative effort between the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Cincinnati Ballet to catalogue and exhibit the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. What started as the cataloguing of little known costumes and set drawings resulted in a thorough exhibit of the ballet. Frederic Franklin, the artistic director for the Cincinnati Ballet, was consulted by the museum and could accurately identify hundreds of the drawings. The popular exhibit, which debuted in October 2002, ran for three months. Ms. Light also referenced the Cincinnati Library, which will be displaying many of the archived materials over a three-month period.
Jonathan Slaff, a theatrical press agent and Chairman of the arts-business coalition DowntownNYC!, offered two solutions to the problems of audience outreach that dance faces. First, he explained, in detail, the benefits of using rich media--the technology that people use to view media through their personal computers--in ticketing websites. Mr. Slaff cited sales statistics to prove the effectiveness of combining targeted email marketing with a website using rich media at the point of fulfillment, i.e. ticketing. As a case study, he recounted his experience in creating The New York Ticket Wire, a ticketing website using Streaming Media and Flash animation, on behalf of a March, 2001 dance theater production at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. The page created for the production can be viewed at <http://www.nyticketwire.com/silence>. He recounted that by offering a "sample" of this provocative work of visual theater through rich media, the campaign was unusually successful. The targeted emails yielded an 11% click-through rate and a 4.5% net sale. This is high by marketing standards, since the net sale rate from postal mailings is usually less than 1.5%. Mr. Slaff announced that New York Ticket Wire would resume operations this summer, inspired partly by an overall lowering in Streaming Media costs and partly by the ongoing need for such a service, which was evident in the concerns being voiced at the conference.
Second, he described a grassroots arts outreach program that he is starting through DowntownNYC!, a coalition of arts groups and Downtown businesses working for recovery since 9/11 in the previously quarantined zone. The initiative, named ArtsVan (www.artsvan.org), will be a mobile hospitality and ticketing truck. It will channel downtown tourists into the district's arts organizations in order to use arts patronage as a stimulus for the overall Downtown economy. His coalition, he emphasized, has always construed "Downtown" to mean "everything Downtown or Downtown in spirit," so the dance organizations of Chelsea, while lying north of 14th Street, will be served by the initiative along with those in the Downtown area proper.
After lunch, during which the Dance Critics Association held their annual meeting to address budgetary concerns, the conference took on a very 'literary' tone. First, those attending were given a lecture by Susan Jones, Professor of English at Oxford University. Ms. Jones, who specializes in early 20th century literature, gave an informative talk on Virginia Woolf and her use of dance as a metaphor for character and plot action.
By referring to works such as "The Voyage Out," "The Waves" and "Mrs. Dalloway," Ms. Jones called attention to Woolf's use of cyclical motion. She theorized that Woolf would "imagine text as choreography," in which a certain plot point would "move in relation to another." Ms. Jones had a brief question and answer session afterwards, during which she commented that Woolf, being a "bodily awkward person," admired dancers and used them as a vehicle to express her emotions.
The last discussion panel of the conference, moderated by Rita Felciano, a writer for DanceView at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, was entitled "Telling Tales Out of Class: Fiction Writers Take on the World of Ballet." The panel focused upon four women and their works of fiction: Laura Jacobs, who wrote "Women About Town," Yona Zeldis McDonough, who wrote "The Four Temperaments," Ellen Pall, who wrote "Corpse De Ballet" and Adrienne Sharp, who wrote "White Swan Black Swan."
Ms. Pall did 19 months of hands-on ballet research for a New York Times Magazine article she was writing. Ms. Sharp practiced ballet earlier in her life, and similarly, Ms. McDonough took "bits and pieces" from her studies in dance when she wrote her novel. Ms. Sharp called attention during the panel to the "dramatic purpose of dance," claiming that she used dance to "get inside" the characters she created. Ms.Jacobs, who focused upon dance critics in one section of her novel, saw her book as an attempt to "create a contemporary woman" through words.
The conclusion of the conference had a performance by students and graduates of Barnard College. First was Dana Ruttenberg, who danced to Tom Waits's "Take It With Me When I Go." Ms. Ruttenberg, who dedicated the emotionally charged performance to her mother, used nothing but a white shirt and a balloon to illustrate pregnancy, childbirth, death and vulnerable innocence. The second performance was entitled "Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda," and was performed by Marcus Bleyer, Meaghan Daly, Mariah Twigg and Anne Zuerner. Illustrating a single person's indecision and claiming of individuality, their performance was highly energetic.
The Dance Critics Association has other projects in the works, which include another conference in Philadelphia from June 4 to 6, 2004. That event will focus around three upcoming anniversaries: the 30th anniversary of the Dance Critics Association and the centenary celebrations of choreographers George Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton. The association is tentatively participating in regional events, such as workshops and seminars, which will help shed light on aspects of dance and dance criticism. With its dedicated staff and organizers, The Dance Critics Association raises thought-provoking issues concerning dance, and for yet another time in their near 30 year history, they have organized a conference that demonstrates the vitality of their community.[KW]
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