Wednesday, June 23, 2010

why writing matters

Imagine a theater for emerging artists and new choreography that seats 50,000 people. Difficult? When I was writing for The New York Times, the readership for the paper (in the first years of the 21st century) was approximately 1,000,000 people, and even if 5% of those readers looked at an article about dance, that was 50,000 pairs of eyes on dance.

This past week I had three similar conversations with three different people: where are the articles about emerging choreographers and new performances in DC's major publications?

When I interviewed a poet based in the city and asked him about his recent retirement from the Smithsonian after being a curator for 21 years, he told me about a woman at a party who asked him “Didn’t you used to be Reuben Jackson?” He laughed when he said this, adding “This is the Washington-thing, the need for titles.”

How does it impact lesser-known artists if people in DC determine value by titles and labels? When a creator in any discipline explores new forms of communication, they no longer fit into existing categories, yet audiences and critics here make their assessments about quality based on familiarity. For example, the caliber of a dance company is often determined by how frequently they tour or the size of the theaters they fill or the number of zeroes in their budget.

What would happen if the dance critic of DC’s major newspaper decided she’d review the companies that visit the big theaters, but ignore the smaller companies, interdisciplinary productions in lesser known venues, or performances by university students?

Unfortunately, this is what happens in DC. The largest companies in America are currently the ones most often reviewed, which leads to these being the performances people book and audiences attend… Is it any wonder dance audiences are shrinking? What would happen if a dance teacher said “I only correct the students who will dance with the biggest companies?” What happens to students who do not fit the physical mold of today’s performer but want to become choreographers or directors?

Critics shortchange the future when they pay attention to what is popular today and ignore the rest.

The people who will shift the artistic landscape so that dance and performance remain present and relevant are not being acknowledged. Previews and reviews are particularly essential for the live arts because they open conversations about new ideas and provide recognition. Where in DC’s print publications are writers discussing the next generations of performers and choreographers?

It makes me wonder where younger artists find the feedback and discourse they need for growth, sustenance and development. Websites like Pink Line Project and Widening the I (full disclosure: I enjoy writing for both) cover a broad range of subjects and the whole gamut of artists, from emerging to established. Since artists and patrons of art, music, theater and film read the sites, they are expanding audiences for these artists and events. I decided to start this blog with friends from GMU after I sent a message to a national magazine that covers dance, listed 10 shows in DC that I would be seeing -- including a new work by Nancy Bannon -- and asked if the publication was interested in any reviews. I didn't get a reply. 

Recognition in major publications is key to artists’ perpetuation. When I was a student in the MFA program at TISCH The New York Times reviewed our performances (of undergraduates as well as graduates) and the paper also covered events at Juilliard. Young choreographers had a review in a nationally-recognized paper which paved the way to engagements and future projects.
In the 1960s Jill Johnston promoted and articulated the ideas of the Judson artists through her intelligent, insightful writing for The Village Voice. Even outside the dance world, publications are essential to success: Greg Mortenson writes in Three Cups of Tea about building schools for children – particularly girls - in impoverished places in Pakistan and Afghanistan. From 1994 to 2003, he was working diligently, then Parade magazine wrote a cover story on him and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and support started piling into his foundation – which was close to bankrupt at this moment: “34 million copies of the magazine reached the nation’s readers… never before had such a critical message reached so many people at one time. ‘If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.’”

There is no dearth of innovative people and ideas in DC, but the vitality of a city’s culture dissipates when critics are not aware of their role in nurturing and promoting innovation.


  1. Interesting points! All the more reason people need to start reading and placing more value on well-written, organized blogs that are producing meaningful content.

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  3. andrewzender: thank you for the comment - can you suggest some blogs that you enjoy reading and which you think are perpetuating discussion and new ideas? thank you - kate