Sunday, December 30, 2012

the mutable influences of life

Visiting Philadelphia to see the exquisite Dancing Around the Bride exhibit brought into focus not only the rich possibilities of artistic interactions, but also the ways that DC suffers from a lack of informed writing about current ideas in dance and performance.

The day after my Philadelphia trip I read Sarah Kaufman’s article about the film Anna Karenina. Ignoring for a moment her didactic tone--the way she situates herself as a critic who advises companies and choreographers on how to behave and create—I was struck by her confusion about current dance-makers. She describes the film’s choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as an “experimental choreographer.” She cites his use of arms and hands in the film’s ball scene as unique and innovative. If she were familiar with his 2005 performance with Akram Khan called zero degrees, she would know that this vocabulary--viewable in the first 30 seconds of this excerpt--is part of an aesthetic approach he has honed for years.  

Does Kaufman use “experimental” to imply he is working on the fringes, using new or different ideas? If this is the case, she exposes how unaware she is of current trends in dance and its interdisciplinary influences.

Cherkaoui is well-known in other cities, described as “renowned” by the Avignon festival where he presented a huge production this summer (viewable here), and was commissioned to create a new work on Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York in 2009. He has been around for a while and is exploring ideas that are recognizable if not predictable to audiences of contemporary dance and performance. One of his most recent projects was a music video for Sigur Ros, viewable here.

It may seem unimportant that a dance critic be aware of ideas and approaches that resonate with current audiences. Perhaps Kaufman views her role as more of a judge or arbiter of style, commenting on topics she likes: ballet, particularly story-ballet, and dance that is obvious and borders on pantomime as in the case of Synetic. But a crisis for DC artists and audiences occurs when Kaufman, who has the biggest and most-accessed platform for dance criticism in DC, has neither the ability nor the interest to write intelligently about today’s artists. When Kaufman wrote about the contemporary dancers who performed in October as part of the Voices of Strength program at the Kennedy Center she stated:

 In both pieces, the emotional tension was only fitfully maintained, and they cried out for a director’s discerning eye.”

Unbeknownst to Kaufman, in much of contemporary performance artists play with ideas of duration and indeterminacy. Their works are not meant to be easily swallowed like a story-ballet or pantomime. Shifting states of being that emerge from repetitive movements, singing, and speaking are part of their works’ impact. To see a far more insightful—and more Pulitzer-worthy review of the Voices of Strength program--read Deborah Jowitt.

Kaufman’s myopia makes me think of a great scene in the documentary Free to Dance when dance journalist Zita Allen reads part of a review of Katherine Dunham written by John Martin. Martin describes Dunham’s work as: “It’s not designed to delve into philosophy or psychology but to externalize the impulses of a high-spirited, rhythmic, and gracious race.” Allen says “I asked Katherine about her feelings about John Martin’s take and she said in this lady-like, subdued way, ‘He was trying to be helpful.’” Allen adds “The man’s not trying to be malicious, he just doesn’t get it.”

In her “Best of 2012” article Kaufman notes “our city of international crossroads should roll out the welcome mat” to artists like Khan as well as Hofesh Shechter, who also worked recently with Cedar Lake. But where are her articles about these artists? Doesn’t she have the resources to travel and write about out-of-town productions like she wrote about this year’s Rudolf Nureyev exhibit in California? Aren’t contemporary approaches visible in the programming at Rockville’s American Dance Institute? If this type of work matters to Kaufman why isn’t she writing regular previews of ADI artists to supplement her (occasional) ADI reviews?

“Collaboration is the word of the moment in the arts,” Kaufman writes in her Anna Karenina article. When does the critic become part of this collaborative effort? When does writing enter into the ecosystem of dance in DC as a vital and necessary component in sustaining new ideas? When does Kaufman step out of her preferred role as judge and arbiter of style and recognize the importance of criticism as building bridges and introducing newer artists? With all the discussion of the 50th anniversary of Judson Dance Theatre, how often have we heard about the role of Jill Johnston? If Kaufman is not comfortable writing about current trends in performance does she have the grace to give the print space to someone who does?

There are terrific performances that continue to happen, as well as reviews of Dancing Across the Bride if you cannot make it to Philadelphia. Here is one by Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, as well as a line from the catalogue (which includes a brilliant essay by Johnston) about relationships among the artists, Duchamp, Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Rauschenberg:

“It soon became clear that these relationships unfolded as a constellation that, like Cunningham’s memorial, was characterized more by the mutable influences of life than by a neat set of events so often recited in retrospective accounts.”  
from “Openness and Grace” by Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle, Dancing Around the Bride catalogue, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2012


  1. Why can't The Post have a "best of" arts edition with input from the community? Viewer's choice if you will.
    My 2013 list:
    In: arts analyst
    Out: critique

  2. This article is absolutely amazing and I couldn't agree more!!

  3. Brilliant and inspiring writing, Kate. Regret that we do not have more of this quality of writing. Maida Withers