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A Critical Change at The Village Voice

June 1, 2011 · By Deborah Jowitt · 27 Comments

Editor’s Note: The correspondence below originally appeared in the spring 2011 issue of DCA News and is reprinted with kind permission of the Dance Critics Association. The Dance Critics Association received the following letter on May 2, 2011.

Dear Colleagues,

I thought that I should give this news to those of you who haven’t already heard it from me or discovered it via the dance grapevine: I have written my last review for the Village Voice.

The reason? What are often termed “irreconcilable artistic differences” have surfaced between me and Voice arts editor Brian Parks and forced me to make the difficult decision to stop submitting reviews to the paper and its Web site.

Brian—who edits theater, dance, art, and books—is an astute editor and a lovely, tactful, overburdened man. Tiny clues here and there over the past year or so should perhaps have alerted me to the coming impasse we reached not long after I’d finished deluging him with long, March-Madness reviews. Brian’s background, I believe, is primarily in theater. What I write doesn’t seem like arts criticism as he defines it. To put it more baldly: I do not write enough strongly negative reviews.
 
I’m aware that others share his views about my style of criticism. But while I often question my values, my impressions, and my writing, I’ve been doing what I think I should be doing for over 40 years. To comply with Brian’s wishes, I would have to change not just the kind of writer I am, but the kind of person I am.

So, although I’ve been invited to submit ideas for features or interviews to the Voice from time to time, if I wish, I will be looking around for other outlets—presumably blogs or online publications. I’m starting work on a book, but I seem to be addicted to critical writing, unable to quit cold turkey. Any advice will be appreciated.

Onward!
Deborah Jowitt

Deborah Jowitt, an award-winning dance critic and historian whose books and thousands of articles have been published worldwide and a teacher of dance history and criticism, has been part of DCA from its earliest years and has served it in just about every capacity possible to serve; in 2006, she was DCAs Senior Critic Awardee.

 

 

 

 

About Deborah Jowitt’s Departure from The Village Voice
It should be made clear that Deborah’s decision to entirely stop writing dance reviews for the Voice is her own. To explain how we've come to this: After editing her for some time now, and reading her for years before that, I’d become frustrated that Deborah’s dance reviews were almost all generally positive write-ups of the shows she was covering. (This has been an issue for many people here at the paper, over many years.) There were virtually no negative reviews. But of course all of us in arts journalism know that every arts field has all sorts of bad or mediocre work going on, many times by established figures and in prominent venues. This work needs to be addressed and challenged by a paper’s critics, just as the good work needs to be saluted. That’s part of a newspaper’s vigorous critical practice, and what The Village Voice does in all the rest of its arts coverage, from the sections I handle, through our film and music sections. The dance reviews have not been doing this.

So it was my request to Deborah that she be willing to write negative reviews where they were called for. If she could not change her current practice, then I would have to give a bunch of her review space to other dance writers who were willing to practice a more balanced version of criticism. Just as we do everywhere else in The Village Voice. Deborah was unwilling to do this, though, and has instead decided to write no reviews for us at all. I’ve expressed to her my interest in still having other kinds of dance pieces from her—interviews, news stories, perhaps an opinion piece about something noteworthy happening in the dance world. She’s immensely knowledgeable, and I'd be eager to have some of those kinds of pieces. She’ll in fact be doing an interview with Susan Marshall for us in early June. I want to express both my great respect and affection for Deborah, but the dance coverage simply needs to be more vigorously balanced—an obvious journalistic goal.

Brian Parks
Arts and Culture Editor
The Village Voice
36 Cooper Square
New York, New York 10003
212-475-3300 x12040
bparks@villagevoice.com
Brian Parks, an award-winning playwright, is best known for his play Americana Absurdum, which consists of two short plays, "Vomit & Roses" and "Wolverine Dream." At The Village Voice, in addition to his other editing, he also oversees food coverage and supervises the food blog. In the past, he has served as chairman of the Obie Awards.

Photo: David Dashiell

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Tags: Commentary · Criticism · Dance News

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Diane // Jun 6, 2011 at 10:24 PM

    I personally think you are fabulous and should follow your heart... There is no need to write 'bad' reviews ...especially if you don't think they are bad!
    PLEEAASSEE write a book! I will read it!
  • 2 robert streicher // Jun 7, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    I must agree with Mr. Parks. The over-politically-sensitive approach of Ms. Jowitt has not served the downtown dance well ... however long.
    Her overly,"everybody deserves everything" agenda has helped diminish a standard of excellence in favor of a "dance-democracy" built on fairness.
    Politically correct, yet unfocused.
  • 3 bambi // Jun 7, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    I have had the immense pleasure of reading Ms. Jowitt's (amongst many other dance critics') dance reviews since the late '70s, and I think this issue is far more complex then any of us (least of all non dance critics) realize. It seems to me that the very nature of journalistic reporting is to come with a neutral/objective eye. It is not (in my view) constructive to an audience to be told by the reporter what she/he should feel about a work of art before its been seen by that prospective viewer. The idea of journalistic reporting is to report what is seen, and possibly educate, but not to make personal commentary and judgements about the work unless one is writing an opinion page. It is this judgemental style of reporting that I feel has taken the the whole country in a downward spiral politically, both on the left and right. To have this filter into arts reporting is really gravely disappointing.
  • 4 Cynthia Meyers // Jun 7, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    What is criticism for? To document and describe, which is Deborah Jowitt's approach? Or to pass a judgment of quality, a more traditional approach followed by Alastair Macaulay, among others?

    Jowitt tries to provide a service to readers not present at the performance. By describing what she sees, Jowitt provides her interpretative lens. She allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions as to its value. She has always intentionally avoided the passing of judgment, which can obscure our understanding of the actual event. Jowitt takes a phenomenological approach. I can read Jowitt and get some sense of what happened.

    I read Macaulay and learn what he likes. And when I attend the same performance, I almost always like what Macaulay dislikes and vice versa. Macaulay and I have very different tastes in dance. Reading him is to watch him trash what I value, and value what I do not care for.

    Jowitt, on the other hand, allows me to learn about a dance performance without being hindered by her personal tastes.

    This ability of Jowitt's to allow her readers to follow their own tastes is a wonderful thing. It's a service to audiences, not a cop out. I'm sorry her editor does not appreciate it. And I'm sorry I may have to slog through more opinionated dance reviews posing as consumer reports (this is "good," this is "bad").

    I think the dance community is also better served by Jowitt's approach of documentation and description, because dancers/choreographers learn what they convey to a viewer (or did not convey). Reading Macaulay, all we know is what/who he likes, and very little else. This doesn't actually help dancers/choreographers improve the quality of anything.
  • 5 Karen Stokes // Jun 8, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    In my opinion, Deborah Jowitt is one of the best descriptive dance writers living. It would be great to live in a dance world that has room for both the vibrant detailed descriptive writing in the style of Jowitt (which by nature inherently has a critical stance) AND writers who are capable of giving an educated thumbs up/down. The worst kind of dance writing is when a writer feels that it is their duty to negatively criticize without supporting their stance with articulate, educated, descriptive writing. These three things Jowitt has in excess - and I find myself often reveling at how she is able to unveil a piece through her words. The bottom line for me is this: Is pluralism possible in dance criticism? If not, why not?
  • 6 anonymous // Jun 8, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    I've been reading Alastair Macaulay's work for almost three decades, in Britain as well as now, in the Times, and, for this reader, he's a thrilling critic. He does report: He does give a sense of what transpired at a performance, frequently in exquisite, as well as exacting, detail. And his passion and point of view make dancing of all kinds -- ballet, modern, Spanish, East Asian, tap --exciting, even when one sees the performance another way.

    However, I've been reading Deborah Jowitt longer than that, since 1974, when I was in a company she reviewed. We had had a disastrous run at a famous downtown theater, for reasons both within our control and not in our control, and the critic from the Times had excoriated us for it, in what remains a standard for me of what a scalding dance review can be. When that review was published, the brutally dismissive way it was written -- Mr. Macaulay does not write this way -- had a withering effect on each of us, a near-suicidal effect in one or two cases. Then, a few days later, Deborah weighed in at the Voice. Her review reported most of what was wrong with our show -- and with us as performers -- but it didn't touch the core of us as people. It told the truth, yet told it slant. I'll never forget how, reading it, I, for one, felt as if I'd been treated at a hospital and given the diagnosis that, yes, the situation was dark, but we'd live.

    When there were many periodicals in print -- dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies -- there was room for a wide variety of critical approaches. The field of dance criticism was healthy, offering critics for the general audience, for the dance audience, and for dancers. Today, with publishing so contracted, there are too many expectations of too few critics. There is too much pressure to conform; and since criticism, of all journalism, is a genre that depends on uniqueness in the writer, this pressure goes against the very essence of why we read critics at all.

    In this harsh climate, Alastair Macaulay does brilliantly, giving us powerful observation, wonderful writing and integrity. He and his colleagues at the Times have the luxury of covering dance as a beat; yet critics at The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, The Nation, and The New Republic are worth consulting as well. If you add the critics writing on line, you do find a larger field of dance criticism than you may suspect exists. To ignore the diversity of voices even today is to practice willful ignorance.

    Artists read their own reviews at their peril, and I don't believe that it is the job of a critic to be kind, empathic, or, sometimes, even fair but rather, as Edwin Denby suggested, to be interesting; personal taste, based on passion, knowledge and experience, is the core of arts criticism--as it is of art, itself. Deborah Jowitt's approach does indeed convey her personal taste, perhaps not as much in her sentences as in the fact of which companies she selects to review in a given week. That initial selection is a major evaluative act; her wordless exclusions have meaning. Once she commits to writing about a performance, she commits. No one else I know of approaches criticism this way, and I wouldn't want there to be more than one critic who does, but she was the one, and she did what she saw as her job with devotion as well as temperate curiosity. She'll doubtless go on to write on the 'Net and to publish books; but the loss of her critical voice in the Voice is a significant loss.
  • 7 Eric Taub // Jun 8, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    It's not as if Jowitt didn't let you know when she didn't care for something -- she just wasn't sarcastic and snarky about it, as is the current mode in Internet reportage. It may take awhile to learn how to read between the lines of her reviews, but it's not that difficult. It's also not difficult to be bitchy and verbally eviscerative; what's really hard is to describe what's in front of one's eyes, night after night, and week after week, as concisely and brilliantly as Jowitt has, for so many decades. Try it sometime, and you'll see.
  • 8 Toba Singer // Jun 8, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    As dance writers and critics we are obliged to seat our readers in the house, and utilize our eyes, experience, the lexicon that dance gives us and the imagery that each of our lives has gifted us with, to show the reader, in the most specific way possible, what they will see. Our obligation to the performers is to reflect their work back to them accurately, and offer constructive criticism, praise, and analysis that locates their work in the arc of the art form--or outside it, if that's where it falls. Playing fast and loose with the public's trust to swagger, indulge ill-will or contrarily, to rhapsodize or promote, is an abuse of it. We must remember that we are the standard bearers of the art form, and with each critique we educate and document in a material, relativistic way, not only the performance itself, but a certain moment in our culture. The spectrum is broad--the more who investigate its breadth and do so rigorously, the better we are as a profession.
  • 9 Nell Breyer // Jun 8, 2011 at 3:05 PM

    What a travesty to the field of dance, to lose Deborah Jowitt's voice at the Voice.

    What kind of news organization in a democratic country mandates the number of positive and negative opinions a critic should be express?

    Few in our population care, think, read or learn about dance. Jowitt, Macaulay, Croce and a handful of others keep a critical life line open to the art form. They think critically about dance and help raise the level of critical thinking in our national audiences.

    It is a great loss, that internal politics at the Village Voice would lead to Jowitt's resignation, and even greater loss for us all that the Voice will cease to distribute her valuable contributions to the American Dance.
  • 10 Lees Hummel // Jun 8, 2011 at 4:27 PM

    The dance profession (including the dancer and choreographer) is incredibly difficult to sustain and succeed in. Why on earth would you require Deborah, a woman who has a plethora amount of knowledge regarding all things dance, write negatively about dance?? She writes what she knows and what she sees and does so with passion and knowledge. It is a shame that her writing voice cannot continue to be honored.
  • 11 Jody Sperling // Jun 8, 2011 at 10:02 PM

    "Dance criticism is not thumbs up or thumbs down." Read my full blog post response here:
    http://jodysperling.com/uncategorized/critical-change-at-the-voice/
  • 12 Quinn Batson // Jun 8, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    Deborah Jowitt reviews dance, better than anyone else out there.

    "Balance" does not mean an equal number of negative reviews and positive reviews. As Cynthia put it so well, reviews are best when they convey a sense of the piece reviewed, not the opinion of the reviewer.

    There is no need for blatant negativity in reviews. That is almost always lazy and irresponsible. If something doesn't work, say so, as Deborah does, but snarky comments don't deserve praise and column space.

    Negativity is not a virtue.
  • 13 Ray Ricketts // Jun 9, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    Thank you so much for posting (1)the letter from Jowitt and (2)Park's response. You've created a space for some critical dialogue I usually find lacking in the dance world! I too will miss Jowitt's writing, but I've frankly given up long ago on looking to the Voice for substantive writing. I would love to hear more about what people think in general about the ideas behind Park's response--separate from evaluating Jowitt.
  • 14 jane Weiner // Jun 9, 2011 at 5:51 PM

    I have had the absolute pleasure of "growing up" with the incredible writing found in Ms. Jowitt's reviews in the Voice, as well as even being mentioned many moons ago!!!!....what an honor. And, what a writer. Her idea of enticing more people to see live art and be their own critic was a fantastic gift to the art world. I appreciate her style, her humor, her views. You will be missed, but please feel free to come to Houston and write.....we have the awesome Nancy Wozny working hard to do all the writing.....and we would love to have your way with written word used to describe dance here in Houston as well.
    Here is to your next life chapter. What a loss for the Voice....they have really lost a voice!!!!!
  • 15 sue roginski // Jun 9, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    In teaching "dance appreciation" classes for the past two years and puzzling/pondering the/an idea of writing and possibilities of writing in response to live dance I have frequently referred to Deborah Jowitt's article "Beyond Description: Writing Beneath the Surface." I have and will continue to assign students the reading of this inspiring writer and look forward to seeing where the journey "away" from the Village Voice takes her.
    gratitude and admiration toward you Deborah...
  • 16 Blakeley White-McGuire // Jun 10, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    Deborah Jowitt is certainly a friend to the dance artist and the New York dance community. To think that we will lose the partnership between she and the Voice is disheartening indeed.

    Dance is not war or court - it is not a big money game, it is people... dancing. With all of the attacks coming the way of the Arts, we need people like Ms. Jowitt more than ever. Her breadth of knowledge is staggering as is her commitment to the form.

    I look forward to reading more and more and more of Deborah Jowitt's writing in publications which are concerned with the growth, critical discourse, acknowledgment and support for dance as Art.

    Blakeley White-McGuire
    Principal Dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company
  • 17 Matthew // Jun 10, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    This is indeed a sad loss to us all as dancers and creators. If the village voice wants the equivalent of a Simon Cowell for dance (hyper-critical and dismissive without cause and a lack of fairness) in the hopes of reclaiming its position as the "go-to" source for the dance and indeed wider arts community as a whole -- they are making a badly thought through and irreversible error of judgment. We have one Alastair Macaulay, and frankly one is enough.
  • 18 Bonnie Sue Stein // Jun 10, 2011 at 11:08 AM

    I am disheartened with the news. Removing a voice such as Deborah Jowitt from the VOICE is simply a gruesome and obscene sign of the times; snuffing out intelligent, smart writing, in place of opinionated fluff.

    I used to write for the Voice, under the watchful and critical eye of Burt Supree. I can only imagine Burt turning in his grave.
  • 19 Bennett // Jun 10, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    Were I to scribe a response in the vein that perhaps Brian seeks it might sounds like this: "Brian, get over yourself. You're messing up 40 years of successfully selling product for a paradigm. Look at the above comments as first hand market research and wake up."

    Fortunately I subscribe to the more sophisticated view on critique: analysis without succumbing to the common urge to pronounce and grandstand on the podium of opinion. So I would refrain from writing the kind of critique I just wrote above. Oh. Oops. Too late.
  • 20 James // Jun 10, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    I don't know whether I'd want the distinction of being the editor who coerced a legendary columnist to seek greener pastures. It is nonsense to claim that the decision to leave was Ms. Jowitt's. No one with any sensibility wants to work in a hostile environment, no matter how essentially nice or sweet the perpetrators may be. The sense is that the work, though honored, is unsatisfactory.

    My secondary sense is that the Village Voice lacks the teeth it once displayed prominently in the 70's and 80's -- now relegated to yet another source of information on-line and as a freebie out on the streets. Blogs and on-line journals are now filled with opinionation and, certainly, negative reviews. It seems very likely that the Voice wishes to be more controversial again, and Parks the editor is under company pressure to produce -- even if it means marginalizing (and essentially retiring) one of its famous stalwarts -- a writer who is the very embodiment of dance criticism in this country.

    I see the Voice is trying to climb onto the controversial perch of having another bileful John Simon type come onto its payroll -- ready to create controversy and gather the ever-elusive regular reader.

    Park's insistence that "mediocre" dance theater must be unmasked seems to suggest that there are absolutes to be mined -- far more entertaining than facts and impressions.
  • 21 Ani Udovicki // Jun 10, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    This news is so disheartening. All I can say is that Noverre was run out of the Paris Opera and Nijinsky was fired from the Maryinsky. I am sure that Deborah Jowitt's name will be forever celebrated and that future generation will treasure every word she wrote. I have enjoyed and learned much from reading her over the past thirty years and I will continue doing so no matter where her texts appear.
  • 22 Edward // Jun 10, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    As a fellow critic, but in the classical musical realm, I feel that both editor and writer are missing the point here. Criticism is not a game of positive or negative. It is an act of testimony and opinion. You can never ask a critic what to think or write, negative or positive (re: check out the Donald Rosenberg controvesy in Cleveland). The best criticism puts a performance into context and lets the reader read, in strictly opinionated testimony, and in AND between the lines whether it was a worthy, noted or misguided performance. If Jowitt's criticism falls within this category then she has done her job. If it was a game of eloquent, insightful but nonstop glowing reviews then the criticism DNA is tainted. Has Yo Yo Ma aced every performance? Callas? Pavrotti? Of course not. Just because it is noted in a review does not mean a negative review even though a reader will perceive it as such. If Ms. Jowitt observes, say, an underwhelming performance, and does not address it in some way then her positive review is actually a negative one wherein reader, art form, and journalism all lose out in the long run.
  • 23 walt rogi // Jun 11, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    I have enjoyed Ms. Jowitt's writings and insights for over 25 years. I have always sought out any thing she has authored and will continue to do so. Her writings often left me better able to enjoy aspects of dance I might have missed. I shall continue to search them out.
  • 24 Joey // Jun 16, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    A critic should have a strong, supported position. I quit reading Jowitt long ago because her writing was so vague. A writer's job is not to describe what they visually saw on stage, but to comment on it. Writers of any kind are observers with insight. Blog reviewers, and young writers who review their friends, whether performers or choreographers, always begin with two paragraphs of disclaimers. You have to be thick skinned to be a critic and not everybody is up for the task.
  • 25 Ginger Carlson // Jun 22, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    "...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
    -- Shakespeare

    Thank you, Deborah, for your honesty, your intelligence, your depth of knowledge, and for maintaining your journalistic integrity. "Downtown dance" and all of the dance world are the losers.
  • 26 Yimgk // Jun 30, 2012 at 11:42 PM

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  • 27 Philip S. Rosemond // Mar 8, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    I have been a a dancer, a choreographer and a teacher of dance for many years. I also am writer and a critic of dance. I can be very negative in my reviews and general criticism. But, find this to be a personal fault.

    In order to respect the perormances and people of whom we are writing, we must know that we can weild a poison pen that destroys those performances we have trouble with. Or, we stroke that pen in a way helps the stakeholders of a given production see their flaws as well as string points in a benevolent way. This latter model is the strongest, most grounded stance a writer can take, because instead of objecting and objectifying (which is, after all, a subjective point of view), the writer instead becomes objective in seeing what he or she sees from the audiences perspective, but, as well, the performers, creators and production's purview. It also uplifts the show and performers, instead of ruining them, leaving Sardis to prepare yet more CVs and head shots to get another job prematurely. To wield such power should not be the aim of any writer. Instead, benevolence towards a wary potential audience on one hand, and the same towards a well meaning and hard working population of a show.

    To be objective is the end result of critical writing. To turn from this imperitive is to become the jackasses that Clive Barnes and Rex Reed became, leaving only a legacy of hatred after they were gone. How ultimately sad for them.

    Deborah Jowitt was the epitome of the fair critic. She arrived early on at a way of criticizing - often harshly - leaving the performer, the choreographer, the director feeling like they had done a great job, but thinking of ways to improve the show....and it worked. Ofttimes, when generally drubbed by other, Jowitt left the performer with, at minimum, hope, and the potential audience, reconsidering a purchase of a ticket.

    To conclude, Mr. Parks simply does not realize the rare gem he has lost. Jowitt's brilliance comes in a way of treating all with an equinanimous deference, a light touch, adjusting the view of the world on stage, without doing harm. A voice so rare as this might seem easy to toss in the heap of critical history; but I say, no so fast: how many voices can be so kind in a field so mean? Not many.

    So, I have to ask, Mr. Parks, now after a year and a half, do you yet regret your pressuring your betters to step down, simply because you believe a sense of arrogance, as you so elloquently defend in you statement? You should. Because "The Voice", appearently has lost it's upper, higher register.

    Philip S. Rosemond

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