The Waning Impact of Dance Critics by Robert Bettmann

The impact of today’s critics is waning. Not only are there fewer critics able to make a living as critics, but those able to stay in the field are wrestling with diversifying job duties (blog posting, social media, videos, etc) and declining impact.

For more than a century, the skilled eyes and pens of arts journalists developed audiences for dance. Dance critics have proven value to the public, and the field.  So what happened? One can find an answer by looking historically at the question: who is reading what dance writing by whom?

I’m currently directing a National Endowment for the Arts-funded arts journalism project. The goal of the project is to increase high-quality arts journalism covering the greater Washington area. The project is necessary because online publication has (paradoxically) reduced the ability of professional arts journalists to connect audiences to the arts.

Twenty-five years ago arts content — as it’s now called — was available on a daily basis via newspapers and broadcast television produced at the local and national levels.

Arts content today includes a massively broader set of news and television options at the local and national levels. The transformation started with the creation of cable news stations, further developed with the rise of professional and personal online news sites (the blog explosion), and continues with the growth of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and on).

Arts content now includes content created from within the arts community, content created to drive traffic for unrelated businesses (content strategy), clickbait (content created to produce ad revenue for the publishers irregardless of subject matter), as well as content from print newspapers and broadcast television (legacy media.)

Arts content reaching the public used to be largely created by professional arts writers with no direct incentive to sell. That independence fueled the growth of dance in the 20th century as a force for freedom and expression around the globe.

It’s easy to see that compared to twenty-five years ago more arts content today is generated with a near-term sales imperative (tickets or clicks.) George Orwell once wrote that journalism is what they don’t want you to write. Much of what passes for new arts journalism perhaps doesn’t actually qualify as journalism – but who has the time to worry about that?

Since the early 1990’s, managers in Classical art fields (including dance) have been concerned about aging and declining audiences. The assumption has been that audience declines are connected to reductions in arts education. However, changes in the media landscape are equally affecting the ability of arts writers to educate and grow audiences.

Current discussions about audience engagement tend to focus on narrowing the gap between audiences and creators. That devalues the training and expertise of professional artists, and limits their functionality to inspire, and have a positive impact. We don’t need to dumb down arts projects. We need to smarten up audiences.

The project I’m directing through support from the National Endowment for the Arts, HumanitiesDC, the University of Maryland, Brink Media, DCRE, and others is just one small project. To address the waning impact of dance critics funders need to recognize the value of the independent art press and integrate that understanding into their strategic visions. The dance industry requires investments in arts journalism to professionally and independently evaluate and describe arts experiences. As Ben Cameron stated at the 2011 Wallace Foundation conference on Audience Development, “[This is about] sustaining what art offers the individual spirit and offers human interaction.”

Paul Taylor’s new vision for American modern dance

On Tuesday, Paul Taylor kicked off his company’s three-week 60th anniversary season, presenting a wide spectrum from decades of work, among them several masterpieces. The octogenarian keeps churning them out, with no apparent interest in slowing down. But on Thursday, he acknowledged mortality and gave thought to legacy, unveiling a bold new vision for the future of his company – and for modern dance.

This time next year, we’ll be introduced to Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. The entity hasn’t been entirely fleshed out yet and few specifics have been provided. But based on a press conference on Thursday and a public announcement at the company’s gala at Lincoln Center that night, the new organization will have a three-fold mission:

–       The continued presentation, and creation, of works by Taylor, performed by his company (currently on fine display on the Koch stage).

–       The commissioning of new works by emerging (American?) choreographers, to be set on, and performed by, Taylor’s company.

–       The presentation of American modern dance classics by Taylor’s contemporaries.

The prospect is exciting, if vague at the moment, and raises a number of questions yet to be answered. Among them, who’s curating the new work and what’s the artistic vision? What kind of dance will “American Modern Dance” champion?

In presenting classics from other choreographers – a worthy effort to preserve historic and foundational pieces of art – are these works to be reconstructed on the Taylor dancers? Performed by guest companies already specializing in some of that work (i.e., the Graham and Limon companies), or perhaps some other alternative?

In addition to these lofty intentions, another grand, and welcome, development: a commitment to live music “when intended by the choreographer,” according to the announcement. Indeed, live music is a noticeable no-show at the Koch right now. If you attend the New York City Ballet regularly, you get used to a lively presence in the orchestra pit and a full-bodied sound in the theater. An empty pit creates a buffer to the audience; it absorbs energy. Filling it back up will make many of Taylor’s best works feel whole again.

Legacy is a tricky beast in dance – both because of the slippery nature of handing down dances in general and because of the single-choreographer company model that defined (and to a large degree, still does) the structure of modern dance presentation. We’ve seen the problems of ownership that arise (à la Graham), the dispersal of a valued repertory (Cunningham) as well as a successful re-birth (Ailey).

Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance proposes a new idea that has the potential to be an important and sustainable home for Taylor’s works, other classics, and serve as a springboard for the next generation of visionaries. We eagerly await details.

Philly’s thoughtful dance-writing model (p.s. We should copy it)

I went to Philadelphia for the first time in October. Summer was refusing to abdicate to Fall, so we drank cold beers under a surprisingly strong sun and looked up at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. When I returned last week, I slid along sidewalks and puffed into my gloves. I honestly can’t decide which version of the city I prefer. Either way, I was still charmed, even more so when I was introduced to its dynamic dance community.

This visit came about at the invitation of thINKingDANCE, a unique two-year-old collective of writers committed to covering the wide spectrum of dance in their town. It was launched by Lisa Kraus and Anna Drozdowski, who got a grant to build a sleek professional website (because we cannot underestimate the value of aesthetics in presenting our writing) and pay writers a modest fee for contributing.

ThINKingDANCE is a clever grassroots response to the downsizing of arts journalism in recent years. It’s citizen journalism for the dance community, by the dance community, but with an eye to engaging folks beyond that community.

It’s not a blog. It has structure, editors and deadlines. It may not have the reach, or offer the rates, of the Philadelphia Inquirer (however much those rates have tumbled), but it’s a bold statement of action when so many are giving in to easy whining.

More than mere coverage, thINKingDANCE is a communal conversation. And better still, it has a stated mission to cultivate and encourage more dance writers, which means more dance writing.

On Saturday, in thefidget space, a cozy yet expansive loft about ten minutes outside the city center, I chatted with ten thINKingDANCE contributors about a range of dance writing issues: How do we consider new templates for dance writing? (i.e., Can we borrow from the listicle craze to attract readers but find a way to imbue it with thoughtful analysis?) How do we navigate perceived or actual conflicts of interest as both writers and creators? How do we consider our audience of readers?

None of these questions are unique to Philly. But thINKingDANCE is. After our daylong workshop, I observed the local writers gather around a spreadsheet to hash out writing assignments for the next two months. It was a long list and there were a lot of columns: author, editor, performance date, due date, etc.

It’s a serious, and seriously impressive, operation. The Philly dance community is lucky to have it. And other communities would be smart to emulate it.