Last week was big for the world of New York City’s avant garde/contemporary dance. Both Tere O’Connor and Deborah Hay put up evening-length presentations, at New York Live Arts and Danspace Project, respectively. These two choreographers are each giants in their own right, and to have them in the city at the same time is a rarity en par with blue moons and midnight suns.
When I caught wind, however, that The New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay had been assigned both performances, my enthusiasm was a little fazed. Of course (with an exception, to a degree) it wouldn’t have mattered much had another critic got the call. The Times’ dance reviews have for some while now sat firmly in the confines of the Mediocripolis.
Like Macaulay, I was lucky enough to see both performances, as different from each other as firemen and monks save that both were rendingly brilliant. Unlike Macaulay, I would never have thought to speak of these works the way he does. This isn’t to say his reviews disappointed. At this point, that’s nearly impossible. His reviews can’t disappoint because the views they express are typical and expected. What they did do was fail: they only rarely, if ever, speak to the artists’ work on terms tantamount to that work.
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Letters to the Editor
Attention: Editor Dance Section
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
December 1, 2012
Dear NYT Dance Section Editor,
The last thing I want is to offend anyone. And yet with concern for the NYC dance and performance community, and with the sincerity that real respect always conveys, I feel compelled to say some things that have been on my mind for more than a while now.
With an exception here and there, the last several years of reviews in The New York Time’s Dance section have been characterized by what I can only call a lack inspiration. A case in point is the two most recent reviews by Alistair Macaulay, one of the Tere O’Connor piece at NYLA, and the other of Deborah Hay’s work at Danspace Project. These reviews exemplify my complaint, and, as well (though I’m not speaking for them, but rather echoing what I’ve heard time and again) the complaints of many colleagues and friends. In short, rather than providing your readers with real analysis and original ideas—artistic interpretations, that is, of the dance and performance at hand—such reviews have given us a steady flow of the descriptive and humdrum.
Contemporary dance isn’t merely a visual presentation. It’s an experiential event that spans multiple references, lineages, and, nowadays, media and forms. Yet when the public sees this work from perspectives such as those in Macaulay’s recent notices, we’re denied an interaction with the work on its own terms. We’re receiving, that is, a purely superficial rendering of an art that’s considerably more nuanced and complex, and which therefore requires greater subtlety of interpretation. But that’s just to start. Typically, to boot, we also receive representations that are irrelevant or outright inaccurate.
In Macaulay’s case, for instance, his frames of reference are often so sorely limited, to say nothing of frequently outdated or immaterial, as to make the work he’s writing about seem other than it is. How useful is it, really, to tell us that “both women wear black shoes with low heels” and that “occasionally they sink onto the floor”? Is it accurate in our age of radical multiplicity and depth to impose on dance the rather staid belief that in it “human beings inevitably suggest drama”? Is it not a bit out of touch, given the range of sources from which dance and performance now draw their material, to refer us back again and again to such ballet commonplaces as “retiré or relevé” or to take up space lazily informing his readership that a dancer’s “feet and legs, turned out, are in a modified version of ballet’s fifth position”? How reasonable is it to hold reservations about a dancer because “in every show he now sports a bold new hairstyle, which can be distracting”?
I am uncomfortably aware of the limitations inherent to a 750-word review. Diminished as the humanities are in this era, with the emphasis on contemporary dance and performance especially so, I don’t expect that to change much anytime soon. Just the same, this shouldn’t mean that more can’t be said in the space we have.
As an alternative to Macaulay’s review of Deborah Hay’s “As Holy Sites Go/duet,” I’ve written a review of my own, hoping to give you an example of what I mean. (For the sake of economy I kept it under 500 words.) I earnestly believe that your readers are hungry for more than they’re now getting, and that it’s a disservice to keep them from it.
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A Review of Deborah Hay’s “As Holy Sites Go/duet,” performed November 29-December 1, 2012, at Danspace Project (St. Mark’s Church), NYC
To watch a dance by Deborah Hay is to watch nothing at all, or, that is, to watch dancers endlessly make something from nothing. This may sound both puzzling and unappealing in our age of the jump cut and half-second frame, a recipe for tedium and tedium’s sister, boredom. But in fact it’s just the opposite.
On a stage that features not a single prop, and, with nothing but their bodies and never a note of artificial sound to accompany them, Ms. Hay’s dancers, Jeanine Durning and Ros Warby, create for us a palimpsest of beauty whose purpose is itself and, of course, its making.
If this seems puzzling, too, it’s because “As Holy Sites Go/duet” is at least in part a dance about the riddle of our existence. Dust to dust, we come from nothing and return to nothing, with only a glimpse, if we’re lucky, into the answer before we go.
In the same way, watching Ms. Durning and Ms. Warby perform is like watching shadows continuously disappear round a corner. Their gestures, by turns playful, furious, anguished, and absurd, arise without any seeming purpose or end, only to vanish before our eyes. But instead of leaving us forever, each dancer returns again and again to surprise us afresh with magic that is as exquisite as it is tantalizing.
Only master dancers have the power and skill to effect such enchantment.
Ms. Durning was tempered in the fires of the downtown dance scene here in New York City, performing through the ’90s and early ’00s with choreographers as varied as David Dorfman and Susan Rethorst. Starting in 2002, she broke out with a series of her own evening-length performances infamous for their hybrid ingenuity and explosive passions. Ms. Warby is a celebrated dancer and choreographer from Australia working for years in the solo form, and with Ms. Hay herself since the late ’90s. Both dancer/choreographers, clearly, have achieved that level of artistry which can’t be reached, as the poet Eugenio Montale once remarked, until we have “forgotten everything [we have] learned.”
It’s no accident that Ms. Hay chose Ms. Durning and Ms. Warby. Without the ability to repeatedly shed habit and belief, her dancers couldn’t execute the “catastrophic acts of perception” required to sustain her dance, what she calls a “continuity of discontinuity.”
In light of these concerns, together with her insistence that it is in the body’s little, quotidian movements that our true meaning lies waiting to be found, we could classify Ms. Hay the dance community’s anti-daredevil or passive provocateur, struggling to escape the shadow of old influence—Cunningham and the Judson School et al.
That, however, would be too easy. It’s more accurate, instead, I think, to see her as an artist who has simply stepped away from the madding crowd, no longer resisting influence or forcing ingenuity, but rather allowing herself to be herself in all her human mystery, and encouraging her dancers to do the same. “As Holy Sites Go/duet” is an expression of just that endeavor, and of the mystery of the everyday.