What Should a Dance Critic Talk About When She Talks About Dance?

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article initially appeared in Washington City Paper on Oct. 21, 2011.  

By Amanda Abrams
What is the role of a dance critic?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a couple of weeks now, ever since reading an article on the front page of The Washington Post’s Style section in mid-October. The piece, by the paper’s chief dance critic, Sarah Kaufman, confirmed a hunch I’ve had for a while: Kaufman is making an occupation of not writing about modern dance.

Oh, she’s writing about movement, all right. Her October 17 piece—which, at 1,200 words, took up the lion’s share of the section’s front page—contrasts a soccer star’s authentic physicality in the buff with her stiff performance on “Dancing with the Stars.” She’s also done an article about soldiers’ stylized movements, and several that cover how fashion models strut.

Meanwhile, Kaufman, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her “refreshingly imaginative approach to dance criticism,” is barely covering modern dance. Of the 73 articles she’s written since the start of 2011, almost 30 covered ballet performances, while 12 were about contemporary dance—and only three featured local Washington, D.C., companies, those based in the paper’s hometown market. A few more modern dance concerts get reviewed by underling freelancers, but that guarantees them a few inches in the back pages of the Style section and never a feature article.

So I called Kaufman to ask what she’s thinking. She was friendly and receptive, and we talked for almost half an hour.

“I’ve expanded my reach and my territory, absolutely,” she said, adding that there’s been a surge of interest in her new focus on less obviously dance-y movement. But page space is more limited than ever, so while she’d love to fully cover local performances, there’s a tradeoff, she said.

And the fact that she seems to favor ballet over modern? “It’s my responsibility to cover the major events that happen in Washington. If that ends up being ballet over a span of time, because that’s just the way the field is going, then I have to pay attention to that.”

At the end of the day, Kaufman said, she’s writing for the Post’s audience. “We have our readers in mind,” she said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

At first, I found myself nodding in agreement with that last comment. This is capitalism, after all, and the customer—or the buyer, or the reader—is king. Of course a journalist aims to write stories that attract readers.

And to be honest, the focus she’s bringing to the crucial ways we use our bodies offstage is utterly welcome. God knows we in the West need reminding about the profound expressiveness available to us as physical creatures, especially as our lives become increasingly virtual and sedentary.

Take this quote, from Kaufman’s article about Hope Solo, the soccer star who appeared on “Dancing With the Stars”: “As Martha Graham said, the body doesn’t lie. There’s a truthfulness in how we move and how we present ourselves—something choreographers as well as criminal profilers and experts in body language know, but evident to the untrained eye as well, because nothing is more familiar to us than the body.”

It’s a beautiful concept, one that lies at the heart of all dance. What dance lover can’t applaud putting it down in black and white in a popular family newspaper?

Or this observation, in Kaufman’s lengthy May 27 article on the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery: “He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body. It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes…The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men—commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel—alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops.”

Lovely. In analyzing the soldier’s gait, Kaufman hits at the point that all movement can have an element of dance in it—something that can give the general public a better appreciation of dance, whether onstage or off.

But I’m torn. Because while I think it’s terrific that these fun, accessible pieces are highlighting dance in a new way to readers, I also know that choreographers—people who have devoted their lives to creating art through movement—desperately need dedicated and knowledgeable critics. There aren’t enough to go around as it is. At this point, Kaufman is one of the only full-time dance critics left in the country.

So while she’s writing about “Dancing with the Stars” and fashion models and even architecture, companies that could sorely benefit from a critical eye to help them improve are instead going unreviewed. Doesn’t her exclusive bully pulpit confer a responsibility to cover the art form—whether or not the majority of readers are clamoring for it? Frankly, modern dance is becoming an increasingly threatened medium, and it needs attentive, educated critics like Kaufman to help it advance. That she rarely deigns to cover it makes me think she doesn’t actually care if it persists. And that’s an odd position for a dance critic to be in. 
Amanda Abrams is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and dancer. A North Carolina native who attended the University of California at Berkeley, she spent several years working and traveling abroad before moving to Washington to study foreign affairs at Georgetown University. After a few years as the communications officer for an international human rights organization, her life took a left turn and she quit to become a freelance journalist. These days, Amanda covers the Washington, D.C. dance scene for Washington City Paper, while simultaneously writing about real estate, communities, and people for The Washington Post and several other papers. In her free time, Amanda is a member of the company Human Landscape Dance, and can be found improvising, rehearsing, and taking classes in studios around the city.  


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