Myopia Stunts Art

New York is still the capital of the dance world, at least in the United States, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t rule out work being made in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Austin, Seattle, Washington, D.C., or even Boise.

At the end of every year, people everywhere are compelled by nostalgia and self-importance to register and announce their top however-many items of interest or note in whatever genre or form one could imagine their best-of lists. Few people, however, even those who write for well-moneyed, high-culture publications, ever seem to take Santa’s care with checking their lists twice. Others, indubitably, project their preferences for a certain naughtiness over anything one might consider nice, or good.

The problem with best-of lists, you see, such as the one published in Artforum (Dance | Best of 2010, December 2010), which irked my spirit back from beyond, is that there is supposed to be a difference between the voice of the expert and the voice of the individual. Take it from someone who knows a little bit about dance masterpieces. Author David Velasco comes across more like a precocious teenager on Facebook. No, a list such as this has to be read from an entirely different perspective—one that recognizes the parochialism inherent in it. To answer one of the writer’s own questions: Yes, you are that provincial.

In one of the many streams on social media sites sharing this article, one choreographer commented, “Please guys—don’t settle for this. There are no women—except Ann Liv Young—under the age of 70 even mentioned.” But my umbrage goes much further than that. There is no question that each of the works and artists cited deserve praise—they are all noteworthy. But they represent a very curious and narrow slice of the pie of great dance being made and performed across America today.

What are the critical criteria? The writer provides absolutely no information: neither in summation, conclusion, nor even within the individual citations. A critical reading of this list signals first a New York centrism—with few exceptions it practically mirrors the New York Dance and Performance Awards, fondly known as the Bessies, which came back recently after a two-year hiatus. Maybe Velasco was at the awards and knowingly (or not) was influenced.

New York is still the capital of the dance world, at least in the United States, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t rule out work being made in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Austin, Seattle, Washington, D.C., or even Boise, particularly since Artforum calls itself a publication of international scope: its full name is, after all, Artforum International Magazine. And I’m pretty sure the dance critics still hanging on—such as Sarah Kaufman in D.C., Marcia Siegel in Boston, Deborah Jowitt in New York and Wendy Perron at Dance Magazine, not to mention what’s-his-name at The New York Times—will have their own lists and biases.

What’s worst about this vertically stratified demographic, is that to my impresario’s eye, it reads more like a list of the dances that the writer chose to see based on a very specific aesthetic (or cultural cache), rather that a representative set edited from a larger and broader experience. I’ll refrain from using the term downtown dance, but with the exception of Bolshoi-trained American Ballet Theatre artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky, they all fit that classification. Like the rebranding of Dance Theater Workshop to the awkwardly named New York Live Arts, a result of the merger with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, it strongly signals a preference for movement-based performance over dance. Is this an artistic pushback against the popularization of dance through television? An attempt to carve out an abstract niche that can be called Art as differentiated from anything concerned with technique, unless it’s new ballet? What about the myriad forms and genres represented on stages across this great American expanse that were all but ignored? Fifty years on from Judson, and yet the community on recognized paper in this piece seems to have hardly evolved at all. Either way, such a document is akin to having a film critic mention only horror movies in a best-of-the-year review, plus one big-budget romance; that’s incredulous, but also rather obvious.

My rising from the dead to write about this and not the Sugar Plum scandal has nothing to do with the work or artists on the list, but the critical voice, which is in limbo. The articulation here is neither that of a critic, nor a curator, but a fan. There’s almost zero information in the entire article, mostly hyperbole, silly questions, and cringe-worthy fawning that tells the readers nothing except that the writer has a preference for these “legendary children,” and their “piquant,” “terrific,” and “perfect” stuff.

A forum, by definition, is supposed to be a medium for open discussion among experts. Instead, what we have here is a closed chat—neither journalism nor art criticism—just a bottomless pit of self-congratulating simplification.

Sergei Diaghilev is a pseudonym for a long-time New York-based arts administrator, curator and dance critic. The opinions expressed in this article do not represent the opinions of the staff, board, and members of Dance/USA and its subsidiaries.


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