LETTER TO A CRITIC: Finding the Right Words to Say the Right Things
Dear Gia Kourlas,
In July I went to the performance Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray, presented by Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Rose Theater. I left feeling inspired and hopeful for the dance landscape in New York City. The following morning I read your review, published in the New York Times. In complete shock, I was compelled to write you and address my concerns.
Your review claims that the new production is “overly emphatic in terms of theater and breezily limited in terms of dance,” and later that “Mr. Jones alienates his audience with a heated sentiment.” I have to disagree.
There comes a time with all art forms when the reason for creating new work is beyond the limits of a single discipline’s vocabulary. Jones is an artist who likes to research and relish that new terrain. I suspect you were put off by the fact that biography has been included in the work. Perhaps the investigation of the social response to a great president, Abraham Lincoln, seemed too sentimental and literal for your taste—as though there were no room for empathy in pieces of art; as though a performance should not be a platform to stir up the perceptions and experiences of humanity; as though the public would not be interested in understanding the past in order to perceive, in a new light, the present. Perhaps it’s because the work uses text, reenactments, and dramatization—in addition to dance passages—that you identified it as “overly emphatic in terms of theater?” Are viewers really alienated by “heated sentiment” because Jones has an emotional response? I didn’t feel any further from the work just because Jones has a sentimental connection to it. I think your take on the show presented too limited a point of view for someone who should know better.
But let me practice a bit of empathy. Perhaps you wanted to see a “dance piece”. We all like to see those. Sweeping movements and duets that take our breath away, dancers who excel in technique and artistry on a level that transports the house into a timeless existence. Yes, those performances are rather beautiful. Yet, I think we’ve all seen Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet before. But even those ballets have a touch of theater and massive, moving stage designs; yet, it’s okay in that context because it’s considered classical, and no one dares to criticize tradition.
I note the comment you made about the performance, “breezily limited in terms of dance”. What more did you hope for? There were about 10 solos, three or more duets, group sections, quartets, trios. But perhaps you were distracted by the “theater” of the production. Or perhaps it was a language uncommon for you, which made you feel “alienated”; therefore, the few steps and patterns you understood were not enough to understand the sentence. It kept you from seeing the movement language and dance vocabulary, which is unfortunate, because honestly, there was plenty of it.
The overarching theme of the production—in order to understand the present, we must look to the past—was clear to me, but I think you missed it. In focusing on Lincoln’s term and the social climate of his time—examining justice, liberty, democracy—Bill T. Jones was talking about the “now”. How honorable. How audacious. How human of him to want to use his role as an artist—though it be choreographer, and let’s not limit him to dance steps, stag leaps and pirouettes—to say something. Let’s not limit his voice or intonation to the language we expect or want to hear from him. And why be troubled when an artist says “something,” even if it’s gibberish; even if it’s an essay bound together by music, light, and dance, and even text?
It may be apparent, but I am frustrated with dance critics. It seems that you—you and your colleagues—hold on to ideology of dance of a previous era, hoping to freeze it there, without open-mindedness to what might be on the horizon, that exciting future of wonder and possibility.
In dance, where’s the investigation? How does a body move from one position to the next? And why is everything frontal? Why does the dancing look like it’s repeating itself? I have to mention my one criticism of the Jones production: the dance vocabulary is outdated. We are reading Dickens in novels that are being republished, which is fine, but language has changed. New books do not sound like Dickens. Though we revive dance classics, new dance should change, too. Innovation needs to be fostered, and with that sort of work ethic we’ll find inspiration, not only as artists but as a dance community. Graphic design and technology are booming, yet our dances are staying the same.
You wrote, “the talking never seems to stop in Fondly Do We Hope, raising a question about what world Mr. Jones, who just won a Tony Award for Fela!, would rather be part of: theater or dance? His direction doesn’t make a resounding case for dance...” There was plenty of dancing in the production, which is why your remarks confuse me. Was it not the kind of dancing you expected? If so, that’s something else entirely. It falls under personal taste. Your claim that dance happens on a second stage (or “veiled behind drapery”) is not convincing either, since the second stage—in front of and often more bright than the main stage—seemed to highlight the dance presented there.
Jones didn’t make this piece with you in mind; he created it because he’s an artist. And as an artist he molds, shapes, gathers, listens, cuts, and composes something that is whispered to him from some deeper place than the critic’s pen.
The role of the critic and the reviewer is one that needs to see the work for what it is and acknowledge how it sits in this time and place. How that affects us. Not whether you’d prefer soymilk instead of skim. There’s confusion there, I think. Works of art aren’t created to be on a menu that we can modify. If some critics and reviewers take liberty to mention that they’d prefer more dancing or longer group sections, and the choreographer is a new artist, then he might pander to you. He might make his next production with soy instead of whole milk, to please you and get a good review. Because if he doesn’t get a good review, how in the world will he get any funding?
In a sense, critics and reviewers are the educators of the city. The responsibility is great, but it needs to be calibrated. The power of a review in funding decisions is out of proportion.
I don’t often like American dance. I always get the sense that I’ve seen it before, because in a sense, I have. There’s not much out there that is entirely innovative or new. And I think that is because we are not offering the choreographers the space or the encouragement to investigate or research their inner artistic voices. Thank God Bill T. Jones is an established choreographer. He has the freedom to do his work. Because if an upcoming artist had choreographed Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray, he might never use theater again and infuse his work with dance steps after having read your review. And the result of that is an audience member buying a ticket to his next performance, sitting down, watching, listening, and thinking, “I’ve seen this before.”
And isn’t that a shame?
Mario A. Zambrano