A Debate on Snark
OK, I’m rolling up my sleeves. Robert Johnson and I were polite with each other in a “Meet the Press” panel at the sold-out symposium sponsored by Dance/NYC on Feb. 26. Since then, Robert has put his “Defense of Snarky Reviews” in writing.
So now I’m gonna say my side of it.
I have no problem with a critic getting sarcastic once in a while. But I think the snarky negativity has gotten out of hand. Sometimes it’s an automatic response, and sometimes it’s got just a bit more venom than is necessary—under the guise of “just being honest.” When I talk to dance people, the conversation often turns to this troubling topic. People are upset by the uptick in snark in NYC’s main daily paper. Jamie Bennett of the National Endowment for the Arts, who moderated our panel, picked up on this and plunged right in. He asked each of us (me, Robert Johnson, Brian Seibert, and Gus Solomons jr) where we stand on “snark.” (Do I need to define it? I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of snide, condescending, dismissive.)
Jennifer Edwards (introducing the panel), Jamie Bennett, Robert Johnson, me, Brian Seibert, and Gus Solomons jr. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Dance/NYC.
Robert’s point is that if a performance is bad, the critic should say it's bad. Our fellow panelist, Brian, who writes for The New York Times, said that sarcasm is useful when you are trying to write a coherent review of an ephemeral art in a short space.
I can basically agree with both those points. (Though, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, critics have gotten snarky about excellent performances as well as bad ones.) And I appreciate how eloquent both Robert and Brian were about the challenge of putting dance into words.
What I object to is excessive snark, either in frequency or intensity. I don’t think either Robert or Brian is guilty of this. But I think some critics don’t realize when they’ve slipped into a default setting of snark. It’s easy to throw the darts once you get into the habit, and I don’t deny that snarky reviews are fun to read. So I get it that readers and editors want a certain snap.
Robert wants his reviews to protect the ticket-buying audience. But I’ve seen audience members who enjoy a night out at the ballet and then are appalled two days later when they read a totally dismissive review. I’ve heard one person say, “Are the critics trying to destroy the dance world?”
I do think that the snark habit is destructive—not only to dancers’ psyches but also to ticket sales, bookings, and reputations. I think critics should feel free to write in their individual voice, but also have a sense of the responsibility that comes with their power.
And The New York Times has more power than most papers in most big cities. Wayne McGregor told me recently that when he does a premiere in London, there might be 15 different reviews. As Gus pointed out, NYC used to be a multi-newspaper town too. But it’s more centralized now, which is unfortunate. And that’s where the blogosphere comes in; it can add more voices.
In NJ.com, Robert writes, “In my opinion, snark is an especially appropriate gift for the high-and-mighty. It’s the pin-prick that makes over-inflated reputations shrivel and sputter.”
I wish snark were used that judiciously. But let’s face it, there aren’t many high-and-mighty people in concert dance, and the critics who get nasty are pretty indiscriminate. If a critic punctures the reputation of a TV personality or a movie star, it can be entertaining, but it doesn’t ruin a career.
Deborah Jowitt wrote in her collection The Dance in Mind: “Long ago I decided that it was pointless to use heavy artillery on small targets.” I like how she keeps the bigger picture in mind.
I’ve been both an artist and a critic, and I see misunderstandings on both sides. Dancers don’t understand that the critics’ first commitment is to their readers, not “the dance community.” (See the Dance Magazine feature “Why Do They Say What They Say.”)
And critics don’t understand that for dancers, it goes beyond being hurt by an individual insult. When the arrows get slung with venom—or condescension—it’s disrespectful to the art of dance, and that’s what hurts.
I am not asking for critics of big publications to forgo their honesty. But I want them to have some sense of balance, so that one annoying thing about a work doesn’t eclipse whatever is strong about it. (I’ve written about this kind of reaction in a previous blog.) And I want them to have an awareness of how precarious our art is economically.
Gus has breached the dancer/writer divide nicely. At the panel, he said he tries to write reviews that are both engaging to the readers and instructive to the creators, while respecting the integrity of their efforts—however effective or not they turn out to be. I don’t think a critic has to also be a dancer in order to have that basic respect.
Now, here are some of the remarks I’ve gotten about snark through twitter:
• “I think there are plenty of ways to criticize without 'snarkiness' being part of the equation."
• “Definitely value in snark. The worry comes I think when reviewer appears to be glorying in his own cleverness.”
• “What I want from reviews is to learn something about the artist. Snark only tells me about the reviewer.”
I used to have a fantasy of a Devastated Dancers’ Hotline, similar to a suicide hotline. Whenever a nasty written comment cuts you to the bone, you could call in and talk to a nice, balanced person. That person would assure you that the seemingly indelible remark is only one writer’s point of view. But the Hotline attendant would also ask you to examine yourself and your work and see if there is any truth to the critic's perception.
If you have a comment, find me on facebook, or on twitter at wperrondancemag.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.