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What Should a Dance Critic Talk About When She Talks About Dance?

November 15, 2011 · 6 Comments

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article initially appeared in Washington City Paper on Oct. 21, 2011.  

By Amanda Abrams
What is the role of a dance critic?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a couple of weeks now, ever since reading an article on the front page of The Washington Post’s Style section in mid-October. The piece, by the paper’s chief dance critic, Sarah Kaufman, confirmed a hunch I’ve had for a while: Kaufman is making an occupation of not writing about modern dance.

Oh, she’s writing about movement, all right. Her October 17 piece—which, at 1,200 words, took up the lion’s share of the section’s front page—contrasts a soccer star’s authentic physicality in the buff with her stiff performance on “Dancing with the Stars.” She’s also done an article about soldiers’ stylized movements, and several that cover how fashion models strut.

Meanwhile, Kaufman, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her “refreshingly imaginative approach to dance criticism,” is barely covering modern dance. Of the 73 articles she’s written since the start of 2011, almost 30 covered ballet performances, while 12 were about contemporary dance—and only three featured local Washington, D.C., companies, those based in the paper’s hometown market. A few more modern dance concerts get reviewed by underling freelancers, but that guarantees them a few inches in the back pages of the Style section and never a feature article.

So I called Kaufman to ask what she’s thinking. She was friendly and receptive, and we talked for almost half an hour.

“I’ve expanded my reach and my territory, absolutely,” she said, adding that there’s been a surge of interest in her new focus on less obviously dance-y movement. But page space is more limited than ever, so while she’d love to fully cover local performances, there’s a tradeoff, she said.

And the fact that she seems to favor ballet over modern? “It’s my responsibility to cover the major events that happen in Washington. If that ends up being ballet over a span of time, because that’s just the way the field is going, then I have to pay attention to that.”

At the end of the day, Kaufman said, she’s writing for the Post’s audience. “We have our readers in mind,” she said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

At first, I found myself nodding in agreement with that last comment. This is capitalism, after all, and the customer—or the buyer, or the reader—is king. Of course a journalist aims to write stories that attract readers.

And to be honest, the focus she’s bringing to the crucial ways we use our bodies offstage is utterly welcome. God knows we in the West need reminding about the profound expressiveness available to us as physical creatures, especially as our lives become increasingly virtual and sedentary.

Take this quote, from Kaufman’s article about Hope Solo, the soccer star who appeared on “Dancing With the Stars”: “As Martha Graham said, the body doesn’t lie. There’s a truthfulness in how we move and how we present ourselves—something choreographers as well as criminal profilers and experts in body language know, but evident to the untrained eye as well, because nothing is more familiar to us than the body.”

It’s a beautiful concept, one that lies at the heart of all dance. What dance lover can’t applaud putting it down in black and white in a popular family newspaper?

Or this observation, in Kaufman’s lengthy May 27 article on the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery: “He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body. It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes…The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men—commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel—alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops.”

Lovely. In analyzing the soldier’s gait, Kaufman hits at the point that all movement can have an element of dance in it—something that can give the general public a better appreciation of dance, whether onstage or off.

But I’m torn. Because while I think it’s terrific that these fun, accessible pieces are highlighting dance in a new way to readers, I also know that choreographers—people who have devoted their lives to creating art through movement—desperately need dedicated and knowledgeable critics. There aren’t enough to go around as it is. At this point, Kaufman is one of the only full-time dance critics left in the country.

So while she’s writing about “Dancing with the Stars” and fashion models and even architecture, companies that could sorely benefit from a critical eye to help them improve are instead going unreviewed. Doesn’t her exclusive bully pulpit confer a responsibility to cover the art form—whether or not the majority of readers are clamoring for it? Frankly, modern dance is becoming an increasingly threatened medium, and it needs attentive, educated critics like Kaufman to help it advance. That she rarely deigns to cover it makes me think she doesn’t actually care if it persists. And that’s an odd position for a dance critic to be in. 
Amanda Abrams is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and dancer. A North Carolina native who attended the University of California at Berkeley, she spent several years working and traveling abroad before moving to Washington to study foreign affairs at Georgetown University. After a few years as the communications officer for an international human rights organization, her life took a left turn and she quit to become a freelance journalist. These days, Amanda covers the Washington, D.C. dance scene for Washington City Paper, while simultaneously writing about real estate, communities, and people for The Washington Post and several other papers. In her free time, Amanda is a member of the company Human Landscape Dance, and can be found improvising, rehearsing, and taking classes in studios around the city.  


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Tags: Artistry · Commentary · Criticism

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Merilyn Jackson // Nov 17, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    That's kickass rather than kissass, Amanda.

    A dance critic (as I have been or the Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years) should feel responsive and responsible to its dance/performance community before it can be responsible to his readers.

    As my husband Arthur Sabatini just said in one of his seminars ranging on his personal and intellectual journeys between Rabelais, Levinas, Wittgenstein, and on the father of performance theory, Mikhail Bakhtin, "for Bakhtin, responding is responsibility. Always. Hence, an ethics."
  • 2 Emma Dozier // Nov 18, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    Thanks Amanda! I'd love to hear what the editors at WaPo would have to say about their perspective.
  • 3 Amanda Abrams // Nov 19, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    Thank you both for your comments. In particular, Merilyn, it's good to hear a professional critic's perspective, as this essay is honestly my open question on the topic (though obviously I have my bias). But you're right: how can a critic be honest if he or she isn't first and above all responding to the work?
  • 4 David Demmer // Nov 19, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    It could be that ballet is associated with highbrow, wealthy culture while modern is not. Ballet has lavish costumes, almost model-like beautiful females and men with fully visible rock hard glutes who leap like racing horses. Modern is associated with older almost hippie-like persons who sometimes are freakishly bizarre while they dance in sweatpants and karate pants.

    Ballet has leg and arm movements that a viewer may never be able to learn in a million years, while pretty much anything done in modern is doable by any stoned hippie at a Grateful Dead concert.

    Ballet is right up there with opera and comes complete with an orchestra while modern is right up there with karaoke.

    Modern is like when your 35-year-old somewhat plump girlfriend who has never danced other than in a Zumba class tells you that she joined this thing called Modern dance and is going to be in a performance in a few weeks. She thinks it is the best thing ever. Thus, you go to the performance to offer her your support and have to say, "It was really great sweetheart" when the whole time you were thinking, "This Bill Evans dance stuff is a disaster."

    Thus, the lack of coverage could result from the fact that modern hasn't gained a certain level of respect yet.
  • 5 Nancy Antenucci // Nov 21, 2011 at 9:28 AM naming the very basic assumptions of Modern dance, you have made the very argument for a critic of Sarah's stature to cover modern dance more thoroughly. Modern has been forged by the sweat and visions of muses htat are far removed from stoned hippies. It may not have thousands of years behind it but the foundation of modern goes far before the '60s. It is not always a pleasing symetrical expression of idea or body structure but that is not the duty of art. Sometimes ideas don't need to be pretty to bring truth. It may not have gained your level of respect but it could speak to our changing times in a way that a "Giselle" or a "Sleeping Beauty" cannot.
  • 6 Emma Dozier // Dec 9, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    David, I'm curious if you're using sincerity or sarcasm to make one point or the the opposite. Either way, you make an interesting argument.

    I, personally, am a modern dancer who prefers to watch ballet and/or dance crazily and encourage other people to dance crazily at Phish (the heir to the Grateful Dead throne) concerts.

    I think you're right - that there are very different audiences for ballet and for modern. But when my modern dance friends and I went to see Cunningham at the Kennedy Center last weekend, we were struck by how strictly his choreography followed ballet technique. And Sarah Kaufman did indeed review that performance.

    I think maybe we could shift the conversation to diversifying the size of audience/company budget/performance venue that critics report on, rather than looking at 'ballet' vs. 'modern.'

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