Culture 2021

Mourning My Profession

It seems wildly counterproductive for producers to hamstring potential reviewers with lists of conditions and expectations

by

Before I ever earned a dime as a writer, I spent a summer running the journalism shop at a progressive summer camp in upstate New York, where a very sharp Black kid, Joey Major, wrote a poem that resounds in my head more than 50 years later. He talked about what he wanted: “… that I be noticed.”

I’ve made a career out of noticing. In the old days, theater reviews were called “notices.” Today, dance companies, and the publicists they employ, still clamor to be noticed. But the strategies for getting attention, and the places where notices are displayed, have changed drastically. After a period of great richness, the space, mindshare, and population devoted to noticing dance have shrunk dramatically, while the media landscape has grown in unexpected ways. Audiences now get the bulk of their arts news and reviews from Facebook.

The dance boom of the ’70s launched a profusion of troupes across the continent. I started writing about the arts for print and radio outlets in the 1970s, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’d studied dance since I was a teenager, but my real skills were verbal. I wanted to be a poet, but rapidly discovered that arts journalism paid better than lyric poetry.

I moved to Vancouver, B.C., and trained my eye and mind watching multiple forms of dance in my new hometown and in Seattle, Washington, just across the border, while writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Dance critics in Canada and the U.S. formed an association that led us to meet and learn from one another.

When I returned to Manhattan, island of my birth, in 1978, I found a network of colleagues ready to hook me up with opportunities at WBAI, the Soho Weekly News, Dance Magazine—even the Village Voice. There were about a dozen good critics covering dance in the city, most of them female. It didn’t add up to a living, exactly, but it was a profession, one in which we were constantly sharing and contributing to the growth of a real dance community, writing the history of an aesthetic revolution. Pointe shoes made space for sneakers; speed and virtuosity triumphed over pale romanticism

Since then, I’ve watched the profession implode. Ronald Reagan cut funding to the NEA, and dance companies began to disappear. Newspapers across the country started shutting down; critics lost their platforms. My first (and only) full-time job as a critic on a daily newspaper evaporated in late 1989, when the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner folded. At that time, there were about 10 full-time dance writers on American daily papers; today, there is one. Hired by the Voice in 1992, after the death of my beloved colleague Burt Supree, to edit distinguished critic Deborah Jowitt, I watched the paper’s substantial dance section, to which I sometimes contributed, shrink from around 2,400 words a week to 675. The paper went free, its ownership changed, and the burgeoning internet, specifically Craigslist, began eating our lunch.

In 2006, 10 senior editors, of which I was one, were laid off in one day. In 2011, Jowitt resigned, demoralized by editorial suggestions that she make her columns more “critical.” For over half a century at the Voice she had reveled in describing and explaining the grand experiments of a generation of choreographers, and she refused to alter her practice to suit the attitudes of others; as space got tighter, she preferred to focus on work she loved. She’s still writing a blog, called Dance Beat, at Artsjournal.com.

In 2015 the Voice was sold again, and I was invited back as a writer; in 2017 it moved exclusively online, where I contributed for a few more months. And then it stood still for a while, and now it is in motion again.

Writing about dance is hard work, a fact that became clear during the pandemic, when I didn’t have to do it. Now that we’re up and running again, I discover that the linguistic gift that allowed me to view a performance and rapidly transmute it into lucid sentences has atrophied. My body rebels against sitting for long stretches without a break, as intermissions vanish in our new reality.

But nothing prepared me for the ire I felt at an email that arrived, twice, from a venerable producing organization in New York City, whose shows I’ve covered often over the past 25 years. The organization, whose name I respectfully withhold, issued a “transparent press policy” designed, it appears, to protect performers from critics. It asks writers to “acknowledge race bias as part of their review,” along with ability/disability status. It instructs them to “treat the art and artists with respect in their language and descriptions, treating their own words as opinion, and not fact; avoiding body-shaming, mis-gendering, and assumptions about cultural, ethnic, or racial backgrounds.” It points out that in a performance with many parts, “all works should be acknowledged … not mentioning an artist and their work is erasure.”

This organization, which recently moved its press and media efforts in-house and hired a young dancer as its new “marketing + community manager,” now plans to “communicate clearly and early our press guidelines and be prepared to engage with reviewers before, during, and after the review process to make sure our expectations are met.”

Wait, what? Hello? Um, no. Just no.

Critics should not be taking orders from the institutions they cover. I sent the document containing these instructions to a handful of arts journalists; their responses were variations on “I just wouldn’t review them.” One colleague observed, “This document takes niche producing to a fascistic level.”

My credentials include decades of deep experience writing about live performance. I’ve studied dance and its history across cultures, and carefully cultivated attention to the details of choreography, of music, and, hey, of writing. I do not practice this craft to attack or “erase” artists. I write about dance for readers, people who care about the art form and who like to read. I strive to illuminate the work itself (using what scholars call “thick description,” handled as gracefully as I can manage), to interpret it in the context of tradition and innovation, to set myself in dialogue with it.

Today there is barely a market for what I do; folks who need to earn a living do not choose this path. Audiences for experimental work are shrinking. The “transparent press policy” will surely triumph, as no humans will be present to block the view. The space constraints under which writers used to operate have largely disappeared in the digital age, but so also have large chunks of our attention span. What we used to call the “mass media” has fractured into hundreds of niche websites, blogs, and newsletters; the odds that someone unrelated to a choreographer will stumble across a review of a performance while it’s up and running are breathtakingly small. The New York Times does still attempt to cover the field for mass consumption. For that I am grateful.

Dance writers provide a unique service to the field, generating the first draft of an essential history. It seems wildly counterproductive for producers to hamstring potential reviewers with lists of conditions and expectations. If such policies are closely followed, if dance artists turn on the critics who take the trouble to notice them and journalism migrates online where photos are primary and critics usually unpaid and unedited, artists will have an even harder time trying to connect with audiences. They will wind up alone in the dark, surrounded by empty chairs, talking to themselves.    ❖

From the Voice October 2021 print edition.

Dr. Lonnie Smith Wove the Funk for Seven Decades

Highlights