One Approach Is Changing Conversations about Dance in Philadelphia
By Lisa Kraus
Do you ever wonder how the dance artists and events in your city could get better press coverage? Or how dance could be written about more often in a more informed way to stimulate conversation, engage audiences and help artists attract funders and presenters? Over the last four years as co-founder and Editor of Philadelphia’s thINKingDANCE (TD), I’ve given these questions a lot of thought.
When Ann Glaviano sent the following email it nudged me into writing about what TD has been doing and what we’ve learned in Philly that can be useful in other places. Ann wrote:
“I’m a dancer and writer from New Orleans. We’ve got people willing to put up work and, to some extent, to fund new work. However, we have no established public outlet for informed critique. The local media outlets appropriate writers from other beats who have little to no idea what they’re looking at to write 'reviews' that are really dance coverage dressed up as critique — a description of the elements of performance followed by an evaluative statement, which is virtually always 'and it was really great!'
The dance community could do better, and deserves better, with regard to earnest and informed responses to their work. I’m actively performing and producing, so I have been reluctant to venture into the land of public response for fear of hurting feelings and alienating myself. There might be another way to go about establishing a healthy conversation about dance-making in New Orleans. There could be a way to construct a forum for members of the dance community who are interested in building their dance writing and analysis chops. That forum could be a place to think about, learn about, and respond to work without the response being intended as (or perceived as) a take-down. I didn’t know if this was something that anyone else had done, so I googled it, and found thINKingDANCE.
I wish could invite you out for coffee and ask you for best practices about getting this going. If you’ve got a minute to share, I would be very eager to hear from you.”
Let’s consider this a virtual meeting over coffee, then.
I’ve been a dance writer now for 10 years, including seven on the Philadelphia Inquirer. That’s enough time to see that there’s way more to cover than most newspapers or magazines can manage. Print journalism’s column inches and budgets are on an ever-shrinking ice floe. Even when dance gets written about, plenty of times the writer misses the mark. Maybe he/she doesn’t fully embrace or understand more experimental or culturally specific forms or wasn’t thoughtful enough to make a fair account. Pressure is on to treat reviews as a consumer guide for the audience: thumbs up, thumbs down, with little nuance or background.
How does this affect the field? The functions of good dance writing — to inform potential audiences about interesting dance in their midst, to help acquaint presenters and funders with artists’ output, to frame artists’ work within a wider cultural, artistic and socio-political context — all of those vital functions go away.
When writers do an insufficient job or “get it wrong,” there’s not only misunderstanding sown, there’s a spiritual drain too. Making dances is hard enough. To get slammed, dismissed or superficially assessed, even if the writing is positive, is a drag. Dance writing eventually becomes the historical record — including some artists, leaving out others, and capturing what happens with varying degrees of accuracy. We owe it to ourselves, as those most invested in dance, to help ensure that the field of dance writing continues to attract and support intelligent, open and responsible writers. What can we in the field do to buoy up a critical response to dance?
With so little opportunity now for paid dance journalism and with the ease of self-publishing, the time is ripe for do-it-yourself. But “citizen critics” can be shoddy, too, with less than stellar prose, iffy ethics or uninformed notions of the broader field.
Wanting to address these issues, I teamed up with another Philadelphia-based dancer/writer/presenter to build a stronger dance writing presence focused on Philly’s dance ecosystem. We decided to call this experiment — an online dance journal and dance writer’s training scheme — “thINKingDANCE” and chose the tag line “upping the ante on dance coverage and conversation.”
Since our launch in 2011, TD has published well over 500 original articles, has been read in 170 countries, has a vital flow of commentary through interactive features and has helped develop the skills of 35 writersthINKing Dance has published well over 500 original articles, has been read in 170 countries, has a vital flow of commentary through interactive features and has helped develop the skills of 35 writers., including a practicing attorney, a principal at Pennsylvania Ballet, a number of college professors, a philosopher, an anthropologist and a mix of musicians and dance artists of varying stripes.
Before joining forces, Anna Drozdowski and I had both attended the National Endowment for the Arts Art Journalism Fellowship program that dance scholar/writer Suzanne Carbonneau ran for many years at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. Suzanne brought in an array of professional writers to coach us by “workshopping” our writing and talking about their own “best practices” and interests. Anna and I knew firsthand how enriching it is to include multiple experienced voices with different orientations in a writer’s training, so we made that a core part of our project.
The initial year of thINKingDANCE, funded through a grant from Dance Advance (now The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage) covered our honoraria to teachers, the building of our website, some part-time administrative salary for us, and some fees to the published writers and editors.
In the lead up to inviting writers on board, Anna and I divided work so that as editor-in-chief I’d handle about two-thirds of it — the overall editorial area, most external relations, and finances. Anna, shouldering the other third of the effort, handled the technical aspects of getting the website up and running as well as working with our system of shared Google docs, hosting, and more.
After putting out a call for writers, we chose about half of all who applied — the 20 we thought most eloquent with language, knowledgeable, original in their thinking or any combination of those. They signed agreements to write monthly and to attend at least 80 percent of our meetings: five weekend workshops and monthly first-Tuesday gatherings. Those we invited to come on as editors were the most experienced of the bunch.
At the monthly meetings we’d do our assigning of pieces on a shared Google doc and take time for a variety of educational components. Assignments were given hard deadlines and editors. (I worked with each piece as a “second editor” before it went online.)
The first year’s weekend workshops were “intensives,” running Friday evening through Sunday in several cases. We’d often see a show together on Friday, write Saturday and critique those pieces, then have more exercises, readings and discussion. Suzanne Carbonneau had us watch videos and write about them. Long-time Village Voice critic and scholar Deborah Jowitt had us walk in a nearby park and write observations.
Most of those initial guest teachers were folks Anna and I already knew. But we also invited in people we’d heard about, like Tommy DeFrantz, the Duke University professor and scholar whose focus is theories of African diaspora aesthetics. He influenced us greatly when he urged us to “convey the “temperature of the room” in reviews, to write about the total experience and the response from everyone, not solely our own individual responses.
In year one, we tried to distribute different kinds of pieces evenly — you’d write a review one month and something else the next (a think piece, a feature, a preview). It’s turned out to be an ongoing challenge to give enough time and space to pieces that aren’t reviews, because there’s so much that we feel is important to respond to in print.
EVOLUTION AND CHALLENGES
Part of our evolution has been in response to the specter of burn out. Following its beginnings with two people sharing leadership and responsibilities, TD went through a period with just me at the helm. Gradually we spread tasks to more of the group by creating distinct areas: communications, education, editorial and hospitality.
The structure we’ve evolved toward is a much stronger more sustainable foundation. We have three leaders now: a new executive director with oversight on all areas and serving as the public face of TD, the new editor-in-chief, who is in charge of everything to do with the writing and website (assisted by an editorial board made up of the senior editors), and the chair of our advisory board, who has been active in generating new funding.
It’s important to funders that our advisory board includes members from outside our team of writers, something that brings in different skill sets and important perspectives on how to strengthen TD.
Ruling by large group consensus is hard, but so is facilitating communication effectively when smaller groups take charge of particular areas. TD heads into year four with a new leadership team intent on facilitating good communication and broadening the conversations so that decision-making is transparent.
The conundrum of being of the community and writing about that community has been a challenge for TD. Avoiding conflicts of interest and providing full disclosures are both vital. There’s no way to write honestly and not offend some people. On the other hand there’s not much satisfaction in wearing kid gloves. Writing in thINKingDANCE has been criticized as being too soft, and too harsh. The editors play a vital role in helping each writer get to the thing they really mean to say, and to be comparatively fearless about it while coming from a fundamental place of respect.
We know how hard it is and how much sweat and dedication is involved in dancing so we remain on the look-out for any language that’s dismissive, ignorant, flip, cavalier or condemning. We try to base whatever assessments are made in clear description of what was seen onstage. Deborah Jowitt was asked about the seeming difficulty of writing about people who were her friends. She said something like, “I try to write about everyone as if they were my friends.”
MONEY AND OTHER REWARDS
After TD’s first year, we came up dry when seeking funding at a variety of foundations. In that time, loyalty had developed among the writers, and the place of TD in the community was established enough that we knew we wanted to keep it going. We tried to imagine ourselves continuing with or without resources, like a stream bed that remains whether there’s just a trickle of water running through it or a gushing torrent. To do that we needed to distribute the effort in a way that didn’t place too much burden on any one person, and yet covered all the necessary functions of a publication and dance writers’ training scheme.
We’ve gradually learned to share the effort, and how to shape our structure and talk about what we are doing so that we are fundable.
Our first year had a $10,000 budget to bring in our guest teachers. But we now spend more like $1,000-$1,500 a year. An Indiegogo or Hatchfund campaign can easily raise these kinds of funds. Working with the strengths of people within the group is resourceful too.
Writing is hard work, as is editing. In a best case scenario everyone is paid reasonably for their time. But the rewards of the close editing we do (two times back and forth with each of two editors, if needed), and of sitting around the table learning from and being stimulated by each other and guest teachers, has made it worth it for many of us to continue this project, whether dollars are in the equation or not.
It’s very special to connect in this day and age in a way that’s not purely virtual simply by sitting around a physical table together to discuss and practice the art of writing. We’re nourished by the ways we make each other’s writing stronger and also by the ways we know we’re serving dance in our city and beyond.
We have heard from many others, like Ann Glaviano in New Orleans, who long to see dance better served in their communities by effective writing. Our experience with thINKingDANCE shows that you can bring more comprehensive dance writing and criticism to your own community.
For tips on beginning your own collaborative community dance writing project, read on here.
Lisa Kraus’s career has included performing with Trisha Brown, choreographing and performing for her own company and as an independent, teaching at universities and arts centers, presenting the work of other artists as Coordinator of the Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series, and writing reviews, features and essays on dance for internet and print publication. Dancing with the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1977-82, she continues to restage Brown’s work at venues including the Paris Opera Ballet and Venice Biennale. She was on the faculty of the European Dance Development Center in the Netherlands for a decade and has received numerous fellowships and presenting opportunities for her own choreography. Her writing has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dance Magazine, Dance Research Journal and Contact Quarterly among others. She was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and in 2011 co-founded thINKingDANCE, an online dance journal and dance writers’ training scheme based in Philadelphia.
Photo: Johanna Austin
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