Monday, February 4, 2013

I got a little riled up...

Ronald K. Brown teaching a master class at Strathmore

When a DC critic suggested that Ron Brown’s work is shallow, I got a little riled up.

I had seen the performance she reviewed, as well as a master class Brown taught the week prior (pictured above). His artistry, generosity, and ability to merge and meld vocabularies and ideas are phenomenal. I left the performance as inspired as I left the master class.

So when I read The Washington Post article I wrote a comment. The paper decided not to post my comment so I share it below. I’m doing this to open a dialogue about what we are seeing and saying. On Tuesday, tomorrow, I will be discussing this performance and review with GWU students who were also there.

I have some guesses about what they will ask and wonder if anyone has some ideas about how to discuss these topics:

1. Why does a critic equate Black artists’ work with “comfort food” and “porridge”? Does she do this with ballet companies and white artists as well?

2. She writes as if she expects to be served by these people and in all our conversations about the role of dance critics through history – champions of the new, arbiters of style, gatekeepers of certain forms and ideas, bridges between artists and audiences – this critic introduces something unusual: she writes about what she expects to see or wants to see rather than what she saw. Why is that?

3. Her aesthetic approach seems to be based on white artists and concepts – is this an example of what we discuss in the course as “whiteness," meaning supplying norms and standards against which other groups are measured? 

This was my comment written in response to the review and it was not posted:

Music visualization is the idea that if Stevie Wonder “howls” a choreographer needs to find a movement equivalent. It’s an aesthetic idea pioneered by Ruth St. Denis early in the 20th century and the fact that Kaufman uses this approach to criticize Ron Brown’s choreography as shallow is revealing. Brown’s concert was a breath-taking presentation of complexities and beauties. Brown’s dancers do not mimic the music but find patterns and dynamics that play and contrast with what we hear. This kind of duality or tension brings to life the pulls and dialectics within our own lives and thoughts. 

To learn more about his approach Kaufman could read Thomas DeFrantz or Robert Farris Thompson. For instance, DeFrantz writes “…understand that the dance responds to the drum, not solely in a reactive manner but within a configuration of collaborative communication….” Kaufman treats dance performances like food to be eaten and subjects them to her limited aesthetic standards. She wants Brown to make stuff that can be easily consumed rather than offer brilliant communication systems that allow us to imagine lives with others that can sustain multiple viewpoints and perspectives. How unfortunate that she not only misses the point of his performance, but also has the audacity to suggest he “should” choreograph in another way. 

His “On Earth Together” is a stunning testament to our lives in 2011: it’s a quilt of music by Wonder and Brown’s deeply lush and polyrhythmic phrases. Watching it Friday night I thought about other landmark pieces that take us on a journey through different emotions and ways of gathering. Alvin Ailey did this more than 50 years ago with "Revelations" and it is still performed today. I bet Brown’s works, in contrast to Kaufman's perspective, offer something so valuable that they too withstand the tests of time.

1 comment:

  1. As a writer and sometimes critic (of art, music, and culture, but not of dance--thus, this comment isn't informed by a deep knowledge of dance so much as it is by writing), I'm a little nonplussed by this reaction to the review.

    1. The whole "porridge" metaphor is bad writing, and my frantic Googling isn't providing evidence that it's racially coded (though often one leads to the other, and vice versa). A quick check of her archive shows that, yes, she did describe the Nutcracker as "comfort food":

    2. She writes, "Great art doesn’t just pull us in from the cold. It needs tension, contrast, texture. Put beauty to the test, I say; put it in the ring with the terrible." That is her metric, or, in your words, "what she expects to see." Without arguing for or against that specific metric, don't we all do this to a degree? Don't we all have SOME sort of prescribed value system for any form of consumption? In your comment, you wrote "She wants Brown to make stuff that can be easily consumed rather than offer brilliant communication systems that allow us to imagine lives with others that can sustain multiple viewpoints and perspectives." I don't think that is what she "wants"--the reason her review isn't positive is BECAUSE she finds it to be "easily consumed." And to go further, the writer's metric is that "tension, contrast, texture" elicits truly compelling art.

    3. Debate about racial coding and narrow/prejudiced/blinkered commentary is critical for everyone. Honestly, where is the evidence for this in this piece? I have the two biggest blind spots for discrimination that one can have (being white and being male) and in this case a third (not being a dancer or a trained dance critic) so, please, I would love to know what I'm missing.

    "The choreography was most interesting in the group sections, for the songs 'I’ll Be Loving You Always,' with its silky, insistent love duets, and 'All I Do,' the spongy footwork perfectly matched to the soothing, jazz-inflected musical rhythms. As Wonder’s voice rises in emotion, as it growls and churns, the dancing stays serene. No hard edges there."

    I read that as saying: "the choreography matched the music, and then it didn't." The one-dimensionality of that commentary aside, it seems that observation at least had some internal logic to it: the choreography was following the music in tone, but when the music's tone changed, the choreography didn't.