Save our dance critics

Art Scatter is NOT a lamentation site dedicated to cataloging the disappearance of critics from newspapers. It just seems that way sometimes. And this is one of those times. Though we won’t wallow as we lament.

The specific occasion of this post is an LA Observed post on the resignation of dance critic Laura Bleiberg from the Orange County Register, which leaves the Los Angeles mega-plex with exactly zero professional dance critics. The story says she left the paper to work in the development office of a prominent theater company, South Coast Rep. It does NOT say she was forced out, and it’s possible that the Register will hire someone to replace her. But given Lewis Segal’s buyout from the LA Times and Deborah Jowitt’s departure from the Village Voice (see our post on Jowitt below), I guess that’s hard to imagine.

So what’s missing exactly when the critic at a regional newspaper leaves her post? I did a quick scan of Bleiberg’s recent stories for the Register. She struck me as knowledgeable about her subject, a clear writer, a solid reporter. Is she on Jowitt or Segal’s level? She certainly doesn’t have their advantage of location — they get to see and comment on a far greater array of dance companies, and that’s difficult to compensate for. BUT… two stories stood out among those I read, a preview and a review of an Orange County-based dance company, Backhausdance.

Here is the lead of Bleiberg’s review:

The final ovation showered on the two men and six women of Backhausdance Friday night had a poignant, underlying significance that transcended the normal curtain-call applause.

To this viewer, it heralded a symbolic victory – for both this promising contemporary troupe of homegrown dancers, and for Orange County.

I googled in vain for more reviews of Backhausdance’s concert. Bleiberg’s was the only one. She had followed the company for the five years of its existence; she knew its founder and choreographer Jenny Backhaus and what her aims as a choreographer are; she understood where the company fit into the ecology of dance in Orange County; she was confident enough to make a strong assertion about the company’s importance. For Jenny Backhaus and the potential audience for her work, Bleiberg is FAR more important than Jowitt or Segal, and it’s a blessing to Backhaus and her audience that she’s as good and sympathetic as she is.

What will the Register do without Bleiberg? Probably send a freelancer to review Backhaus’ next show. If we imagine the best, the freelancer will have a good eye and clear voice. But we can’t imagine that she (or he) will have the context of Backhaus’ work that Bleiberg has, the access to the pages of the Register and its website to do preview, feature and news stories that Bleiberg has. Even if the freelancer is as “good” as Bleiberg, she won’t have the impact Bleiberg has. Will the blogosphere sense the vacuum and provide equal coverage? Maybe so, but it’s hard to see where the money comes from to support the enterprise of covering dance, even by unpaid volunteer critics.

The loss we’re talking about must be evident, yes? Sustained, intelligent, organized commentary on art is just as important as it is in any other area of human endeavor. By describing and re-describing what we see, comparing what our descriptions with those of others, working out the differences, we gradually come to a deeper understanding of it — whether it’s dance, how small businesses operate or chess. A good critic, like a good business journalist, helps establish a baseline for the descriptions, a context, the first few tentative stabs at meaning. (This is simply good old-fashioned John Dewey pragmatism speaking here.) If Backhausdance ever comes to Portland and I hope it does (how about an exchange with Mary Oslund’s or Tere Mathern’s or Minh Tran’s company?), I will be in a far better position to enjoy the show thanks to Bleiberg.

One more thought: Modern dance was banned in China in 1980 and only recently has been allowed to resurface. That’s because it’s SO subversive. It doesn’t leave a word-trail. It makes its intentions known, but it leaves wide-open spaces for speculative thought. These spaces are the sworn enemies of those who want to coerce us, in ways direct and subtle. A dance is an invitation to think and then… to dance — to act, to reinvent the world. It’s a Utopian form at heart, I think: Humans acting together, freely and in concert, to make something difficult, art in this case. That’s why I hate stories that document the tyrannies of authoritarian choreographers/artistic directors. It runs counter to the spirit of the enterprise. We don’t need fewer informed people helping us “get” this art form. We need more. For a community to lose one is actually a big deal.

A nod to Artsjournal for the original tip to the LA Observed post. We visit Artsjournal almost every day!