Op-Ed: Why We Need To Confront Bias in Dance Criticism
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
How can you truly comment on what you are seeing when you have no technical knowledge of a specific genre like African or hip hop? Critics who stand on the outside of a culture cannot write about what they do not know. Artists of color endure reviews that are often reductive or dismissive, especially when the work is "foreign" to the critic. Critiques without in-depth analysis—but with comments about how energetic, colorful or dynamic dancers are—reduces the sophistication and mastery that might be present to a learned eye. Instead, what's read between those lines is "happy Negroes dancing."
The black body on stage is never neutral, and the effects of its inherent politicization as it relates to the subconscious cultural ignorance and biases held by critics is seldom addressed.
The most common microaggressive critique of black artists is the hyperawareness of their bodies. There are critics who wax poetic about rippling, sinewy musculature, or raw sensuality while overlooking the actual dancing. These trope-laden reviews can read as though the writer was critiquing a dancing slave auction. You can barely read a review of the Ailey company without the mention of their over all "buffness," especially that of the men. During the meteoric rise of Misty Copeland, there was little talk of her technique; instead there was great focus her "athleticism," aka muscularity.
Copeland's Under Armour campaign
Even choreographers fall victim to this focus. Take William Forsythe and Alonzo King: Both have extrapolated the ballet vernacular, one from an anatomic/intellectual place, the other from a organic/spiritual one. Early in their careers, Forsythe was heralded for his innovation and daring while King's work was reduced to the beauty of his dancers, never addressing the systematic methodology behind creating his aesthetic.
Donald Byrd is another example of a black choreographer whose early work critics rarely acknowledged for its choreographic intricacies. They consistently used adjectives such as "aggressive," and focused on the "violent" nature of his movement. Byrd was the "angry, black man" choreographer.
Los Angeles Times critic Lewis Segal wrote a particularly scathing review of Byrd's 1998 production of Life Situations: Daydreams on Giselle, stating, "Byrd has never come to terms with his fixation on ballet." The fixation of which he speaks is the same one that Twyla Tharp's 1973 Deuce Coupe was lauded for. Segal was unrelenting: "Obviously, there are plenty of distinguished choreographers who explore ballet technique without requiring toe shoes—Jirí Kylián for starters. But nobody seems as unrelenting as Byrd in his fixation on tests of balance: the heart of pointe choreography." Why should Byrd be required to "relent" when his white counterparts are free to create?
Black artists are often hemmed into addressing culturally-specific topics, knowing that in order to succeed, white critics must be able to properly "place" them. There is an odd power struggle when black artists' voices are dictated to them through the critique of what writers "would have liked" to see or what they "should" do instead of the critics confronting what they are actually watching.
Choreographers are trapped between the rock of being culturally-specific, and the hard place of creating abstract work—or any work not necessarily associated with blackness. 2013 MacArthur fellow Kyle Abraham seems to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. For his latest work for Alvin Ailey, Absent Matter, his inspiration is clearly taken in part from his life in a black male body. Yet The New York Times decided "Mr. Abraham is not fully formed enough as a choreographer to tackle it," implying that he is (artistically) incapable of telling his own story. Meanwhile, for his new work on his own company, Dearest Home, which instead of confronting politics, confronts human emotion, NYT deemed it, "too many tears, not enough art."
Camille A. Brown tried to get ahead of this problem with her BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. This work is dense with the sentiment of growing up as a black girl, and the physical vocabulary is like an encyclopedia spanning from the shores of Africa to the dancehalls of Jamaica and the streets and clubs of America. Cognizant of the overall illiteracy of the audience (because this is information not taught), Brown placed a study guide in the program, and built in a post-show talkback where much of the cultural and historical information was unpacked. Still, writers gave the production a scratch-and-sniff once over, reducing the rhythms derived from Juba to "sneaker tapping" and using trite adjectives to describe the movement: "A sassy, fierce and at times playfully snarky step dance number opened the evening."
A May danceviewtimes review of The Washington Ballet in Lilac Garden unwittingly revealed the exact reasons why there is such a problem with diversity in ballet today.:
"Another issue was racially neutral casting. Ashley Murphy, one of the company's black dancers, was the bride-to-be Caroline. Jonathan Jordan, one of the company's white dancers, was the lover she can not marry. That this became a mixed race pair added a dimension to the story that Tudor hadn't intended in his careful depiction of English society during Edwardian times—a distracting dimension."
I would like to know if writer George Jackson is distracted when white male dancers perform the Moor's role in Othello? Or when white dancers do the Chinese, Arabian, Spanish roles in The Nutcracker? Is he disturbed when humans play swans or when live women are cast as dead ones? Or is his opinion on what he refers to as "neutral casting" reserved for non-white people in traditionally white roles? If that is the case, since traditionally most roles in ballet were cast on white dancers, where would that leave people of color?
Ashley Murphy with her real-life fiancé, Sam Wilson.
His comments on the choreographer's original intent are purely speculative. Ironically, when you watch the ballet, the only nod to culture, class or era is in the costuming and hair (depending on the production); not even the set alludes to a time period. This is what makes the ballet so enduring—it is a universal story of unrequited love. The casting of the interracial couple is somewhat of a Rorschach test, and clearly Jackson did not see a butterfly.
But if Jackson wants to rely on history, then let's do. In the 1940s Tudor worked extensively with African American ballet dancers in Philadelphia. When other white teachers refused to teach them, he welcomed them into his classes. When the likes of Delores Browne and Joan Myers Brown took his partnering class and white male dancers refused to partner them, he was happy to step in. Judith Jamison speaks of her time training with him with great affection. In 1954, he choreographed Offenbach in the Underworld for the Philadelphia Guild with John Jones, Billy Wilson and Delores Browne (the ballet was later done on ABT).
Based on these facts, there is a great likelihood that Tudor would have had little issue with the color of the dancers.
Tudor teaching at Jacob's Pillow. Photo via antonytudor.org.
Black performers, choreographers and directors are never shocked by this; it is what acronyms like SMH were truncated for. But it smarts a bit more when you believe that you are sharing the hallowed, liberal space of the theater where "the suspension of disbelief" is the agreement we enter into when we cross the threshold.
The fact that dance critics are allowed to write their personal proclivities without presenting them as such is a problem. The fact that there are so few dance critics of color working for mainstream outlets is another. The fact that critics are under no obligation to disclose their ignorance, yet are imbued with the authority to write about (or around) the work, or worse, dismiss its validity, is yet another.
Major publications have been printing pieces about diversity in dance, and have yet to look at their writing and editorial staffs. There can be no "marking" in our community if we are truly looking to create equity. It's full out or fail. Starting a conversation about the way work is critiqued should be a part of the reconstruction. And until then we have to call it like we see it. In true New York fashion, "If you see something, say something."
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
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.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.