Wednesday, November 3, 2010

24 hours

Between 7:30 Monday night and 7:30 Tuesday night there were three eye-opening events that made me question the role of arts criticism today. The first occurred at "Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance," a performance so stunning that there was collective euphoria afterwards as people smiled and greeted one another on their way out of The Kennedy Center. The second moment came in a class of Dance History when Dance majors asked pointed questions about dance writing and offered excellent observations about the role of critics. The last moment was the most disheartening: The Kennedy Center hosted a panel about arts criticism and Douglas McLennan, Editor of talked about how difficult it is for him to find decent dance writing to post on his site, then pondered if something should be done about theaters that restrict cell phone use since all the young people today only want to attend events where they can use their communication devices constantly. One of the panelists turned to him and asked "are you suggesting we twitter at the opera?" The discussion seemed light-years away from the brilliance of the performance I had attended the night before and the curiosity and insights of the GMU Dance majors that afternoon. Given the power and impact critics have in shaping discourse, I was dismayed by the disconnect between artists and editors. Fortunately there were some thought-provoking pieces published about "Fly" in City Paper and The Washington Post. And I include some thoughts I wrote for my own memory of the performance.

Only five dancers were on the stage of The Terrace Theater last night: Bebe Miller, Germaine Acogny, Dianne McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Carmen de Lavallade. Yet they brought with them the legacy and accomplishments of 50 years of African-American artists.

Their five solos were exquisite expressions of their innermost feelings, their struggles and achievements, and their beliefs and hopes. Each one possesses an extraordinary sense of dignity and grace. These women don't walk on stage, or even take the stage. They command the stage. Although some of the choreography dated back to 1972, the women made the performance a decidedly 21st century affair. The vibrancy and freshness of their solos were testaments to their sincerity and vigor. The evening was aptly called "Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance."

I was with friend at the performance who did not know much about the artists and she asked how I would describe them: I said these are women who have not compromised their visions. As different as each solo may appear, each woman has held fast to their image of a dancer as someone who is creative, resilient and strong. By the end of the night this had been made visible - five times.

Bebe Miller was the first solo of the evening: her "Rain" dates back to 1989 but bears a contemporary sense of exploration and fragility. On stage was a square blanket of artificial grass - its bright green texture contrasted with Miller's red dress and graying braids. She was a fierce performer. When she turned her focus to the audience her look was piercing and absolute. Her body moved in flickers and swirls. At one point she almost crawled under the grass. Her journey seemed to be about a human being who is hanging on, still present, still here.

"If You Don't Know" by Dianne McIntyre presented a different but equally captivating view of a woman. Dressed in a silky, floor length white skirt with a sleeveless top, McIntyre appeared both angelic and statuesque. Her frame is elfin, but the spirit and energy she sends forth have the force of a bulldozer. Her solo was a montage of movement phrases, voice over from a filmmaker (St. Clair Bourne), and live piano music with singing by George Caldwell. At one point the melody of the song "If you don't know me by now..." could be heard and McIntyre stood resolute facing the audience, staring at us. It was as if the image and melody needed nothing else; it was clear that she has made her stamp on the dance world and that we are indebted to her perseverance and generosity. The audience burst in applause and laughter.

It was fitting for Jawole Wille Jo Zollar to follow McIntyre's solo: Zolllar was a student of McIntyre's in New York before establishing her own company, Urban Bush Women. Her solo at the Terrace Theater shared characteristics with the choreographic works she had made for her own dancers: fierce, triumphant, and determined. "Bring 'Em Home" was a solo that began with her lying on the floor waving a white handkerchief. When she stood she began a series of phrases, pacing back and forth staring at us, the audience. She rarely smiled until the end. At one point she shouted "Bring Em Home." I thought of our troops in Iraq. Zollar is someone who has been a beacon pointing light towards the possibility of dance and community engagement. She, like all the "Fly" women, are pioneers.


  1. this is beautiful! thank you for writing it.

    i also liked the review in the Post today.

    did mclennan REALLY suggest or imply that people should be allowed to use cell phones in theaters?? and what else did he say about his problems finding good dance writing for the site?

    thanks for your observations.

  2. Yes McLennan said that - I think he attempts to look at ways communication patterns change and how culture adapts rather than flipping this relationship and looking at what artists are making and how criticism evolves and promotes/nurtures/creates dialogue with new work.

    I think the reasons why criticism is vital today were totally overlooked by the panel: McLennan was bemoaning how there are 300,000 arts blogs (like this one!) and most are garbage and not worth reading. I have spent two years in DC and have watched how the big publications review well-known artists and the really innovative work being made by artists/performers/choreographers is ignored. The younger artists are the ones who need exposure and commentary in order to sustain their making. No one on the panel addressed changing relationships between artists and critics - it was more about the consumption of criticism. And pretty trite.

    Maybe part of the disappointment was that I thought the panel would be about new perspectives in arts criticism since it was part of "On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh." This is such an awesome and fertile topic: new approaches to theater and performance can be found (usually) in fringe festivals and new approaches and writers tend to emerge alongside these events. Talking about how critics interact with the work, the artists, the audiences, plus their readers is a topic that is exciting and fresh – and, to me, crucial.

  3. sounds like there was a discussion of bending to some of the more noxious recent trends as opposed to actually flowing w/ changes that matter and are intriguing?

    i totally agree about there being so much room for new approaches to art and arts criticism rather than just throwing up one's hands b/c the old ways don't work anymore.

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