Sunday, March 24, 2013

visceral or vicarious

people gather to get into Pink Line Project's Cherry Blast in 2010

Hearing one of your own bones break is a sensation that’s not easily forgotten. 

It happened more than a decade ago when I was rehearsing with a dance company and landing from a jump. Called a Jones fracture, the break split the wider end of my 5th metatarsal from the bone’s shaft. When I tried to get up and walk, the sole of my foot felt viscous instead of solid. Recovery involved a year on crutches, an operation to insert a screw to keep the bone together, walking with a cane, and discovering a newfound appreciation for what it means to move.
During this year I was living in NYC’s east village, close to the Village Voice, so I crutched over each day and sat with dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer who showed me how reviews, previews, and listings were organized. Deborah Jowitt, then the main dance critic at the Voice, had been my dance history teacher as a graduate student: her wealth of knowledge impressed me immensely, but it was the sensitivity and eloquence of her reviews that made me appreciate criticism. By the time I could walk unassisted I was thinking more about writing than dancing and started with short assignments for the Voice, which grew to longer assignments for Dance magazine and then features for the Voice and previews for the New York Times.

I realized that the shows I was attending often consisted of 3 nights at 300-seat (or less) theaters. At best, when they sold out, less than 1000 people saw them. A preview that I wrote for the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section was seen by quite a few more. If readership a decade ago for the Times was about a million, and if 1 in 10 readers looked at the Arts & Leisure section, that was 100,000 people, far more than any of the downtown venues could accommodate. Writing became a way of describing to others the creativity, innovation, and fresh ideas I was witnessing in these tiny theaters. I experienced firsthand why dance criticism was a driving force in the visibility of certain artists, and a crucial factor in how dancing is recorded, documented, and turned into history.

To now live in a city where dance criticism vacillates between snappish (how dare this artist create an experience that makes me feel uncomfortable!) and uninformed (does this critic care about who is performing and why they made this piece?) is a strange turn of events. I’ve heard critics from the Post say they don’t think their reviews have much impact on artists’ careers. I have a friend who says she likes writing about dance in the DMV but not going to performances.

I turned to teaching because I realized it offers a more immediate and generative way of connecting dancing and audiences.

This week in one of my undergraduate, non-major courses we were looking at forms of dance/theater in Japan – Kabuki and Butoh – but my class began with everyone making an origami crane. It was easy for a couple of the undergraduates, but challenging for most of the students. Halfway through the exercise one student exclaimed, “My hands aren’t small enough to do this.” He is a phenomenal athlete, one of the stars of the GW basketball team. He made the class laugh as they realized that when we engage with another kind of movement, another form of eye-hand coordination, another type of artistic expression, we discover our own physical, mental, cultural, and emotional predilections.

This Thursday, after everyone had made an origami crane, or something somewhat resembling a crane, we watched and discussed excerpts of performances of Kabuki and Butoh. Students were curious, discussing and asking questions about what they saw and how it resonated with other kinds of expression and communication. Totally absent were judgment and accusation (“that’s not dance!” or “I don’t like it because it doesn’t fit my criteria for a performance!”). My theory is that when we involve ourselves fully, even momentarily, in another type of experience – perhaps something that takes us out of comfort zones – we diminish the need to assess, judge, and define. We relinquish a sense of control to gain a piece of knowledge: physical, sensory, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.

This brings me back to DC’s Dance Criticism. Its tone may be influenced by this city being home to so much commentary and analysis. People discuss and assess projects and politics, but seem suspicious of encountering the unexpected, entering the unknown. It’s a city that thrives on vicarious rather than visceral forms of knowledge.

This is one reason why I admire Pink Line Project: it’s all about connecting people and events, experiencing life viscerally, bypassing discussion in favor of direct encounters. Philippa gets the importance of connection and engagement, plus she is fabulously smart and fun.

Instead of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, she creates encounters like Cherry Blast, salons, and this June’s SUPERNOVA, a performance art festival in Rosslyn. Her approach  – a mix of creativity and courage – inspires me and make me realize what is missing when I read the snarky and smug dance critics at the Post.

It would be hard for me to invest the time, knowledge, and energy I give to dance if I didn’t care deeply about this art form. I chose this path and am grateful that a bad break opened the doors to my being so intimately involved, from performing to watching to writing to teaching. I see the critics at the Post disengaged not only from the artists and community here, but also from the changes that are making contemporary performance different from modern or postmodern dance. Maybe their writing would be different if they engaged more openly and honestly in conversations, living a little more viscerally with others rather than vicariously through their assessments and judgments.


  1. vulnerablity! it's part of life. great observations Kate.

  2. Thank you Kate, beautifully stated. Also great to learn more about your background & recent teaching experiences.