I first met Claudia La Rocco in 2009, when I took her Writing on Dance class at what was then Dance Theater Workshop. The course began from the simple premise, a revelation to me at the time, that criticism is an art form in itself. A “review” didn’t have to be the kind of 500-word appraisal I was used to writing. It could be an image, an object, a poem.
“Is she a critic? Yes and no,” writes the poet Elizabeth Robinson in the introduction to La Rocco’s new and debut book of selected writings, The Best Most Useless Dress. The slender tome, published by Badlands Unlimited, reveals the critic-artist slipping between genres or devising new ones: in her monthly columns on performance for Artforum; in her reviews for the New York Times, where she was a dance critic from 2005 to 2013; and in other carefully arranged samples of her poetry, prose, and forms in between.
La Rocco reminds us that the critic is only human. Repetitions and contradictions are some of her sharpest tools. “Everybody misremembers. It’s the job,” she writes. The dress can be the best and the most useless at the same time. The day after her book release party at the Kitchen in September, we sat down to talk about The Best Most Useless Dress.
Siobhan Burke (Rail): At the Kitchen last night, you were talking about how watching performance has influenced your writing. Can you elaborate on that?
Claudia La Rocco: Looking at live art has had a profound impact on me as a writer—most specifically dance, but really all of it. The idea of artists who have time and space as their explicit material is really useful for me. There are these silly notions one can have when starting out writing, like, “I work on this until it’s perfect, and then I send it out, and I publish it, and it’s cast in stone.” And being around artists who are always working with something that is mutable, and the frustrations but also the gifts of that—for a writer, it has been marvelous. So that’s in sort of a macro way. But then also thinking about timing and phrasing and rhythm and all of the textural aspects of dance; I mean, is there a better education that a writer could get than watching Jodi Melnick and thinking about how she phrases a “sentence”? There are of course writers I’m really influenced by and artists in other disciplines. But that sheer amount of time as a daily dance critic—10 years, seeing between three and six shows a week and sometimes writing about all of them—it’s been such a training.
Rail: Were you writing poetry when you started out as a journalist?
La Rocco: I was, but I think my poetry was a lot more conventional. It was more beholden to an idea of poetry trying to capture something. And my criticism was also much more conventional. Both of them developed separately for a while, and then at a certain point I was like, Oh, it’s the same thing! Why am I thinking poetry is something I do after hours, or that criticism has to behave in such-and-such a way? Last night Paul Chan [Badlands Unlimited publisher] mentioned this first piece of mine that he really paid attention to, a review of a film that I did as a poem. That was the start of something shifting in my head, this realization that criticism doesn’t have to behave this way, and neither does poetry. They can be more playful.
Rail: Was there anything in particular that caused you to start combining the two?
La Rocco: Partly it was discovering writers like Jill Johnston and Frank O’Hara, both of whom I quote at the beginning of the book. I learn again and again from Johnston’s criticism—from its formal qualities to the sheer pleasure of the language constructions, and of course its politics. The writing isn’t housebroken, it’s not properly trained in a certain way, and I found that so liberating when I first read it. And O’Hara, he worked as a critic and a curator, but you can look at his poetry and see the way in which something like “Why I Am Not a Painter” is also great criticism.
But no, I don’t think there was a single “A-ha!” moment. Although, I remember doing a lecture at Arizona State University a few years ago. Prior to that I hated writing and delivering lectures, and again, it was because I thought a lecture had to behave in a certain way, that it had to be this linear document issued forth from a voice of authority. And then I thought, What if a lecture thought it was a poem? How would it behave? Really simple things like that have been thunderbolts for me.
Rail: Can you talk more about Jill Johnston? How has she inspired you?
La Rocco: She is inspiring on pretty much every level. She’s one of those people I had to stop reading for a while because whenever I would write something you could clearly tell I had been reading Jill Johnston. I had this phase where I was reading her, and I was reading Eileen Myles—of course, you can trace a line right from Jill Johnston to Eileen Myles—and I was like, I have to just not read these two women because I’m going to incessantly plagiarize them.
But to actually answer your question, I find her syntax dazzling. The moves she makes in sentences and phrases, the way she moves between registers, tones. I love her biases, the stuff she’s interested in. I love how unruly she can be, like writing a poem to Alan Kaprow as a means of disagreeing with him. I could just keep going. Everything is good. And I should also say, I really love her politics. The politics of her craft but also the feminist and queer politics that you see developing in her Village Voice column over time. Those are really present in her writing. I think it’s very easy for critics to hide behind a certain veil of authority and just sort of sit back and pretend that they’re not implicated in what they’re doing, but she’s always implicated, and I love that about her.
Rail: I feel like you’re similar in that way. I mean, you don’t hide behind the veil of authority. I’m thinking of a line from “A Merce Cunningham Dance Company Quickie” about the last performance of Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR in 2011: “I don’t know what it looked like at the premiere in 1993. I wasn’t there.” What would you say are the critical conventions that you consciously reject or that totally irritate you?
La Rocco: I’m sure no matter what I say, there’ll be examples of places where I totally failed to do that, but—I don’t know if this counts as a convention, but I really don’t like the use of criticism to build a case against something and issue a verdict. I know I’ve written those pieces, and I don’t want to dismiss the intense difficulty of writing an overnight review, the pressure of that. But I do think in reviews there’s a lot of teeing something up so that you can smash it, and that bugs me. It bugs me when I see the places where I’ve done it. Though if I really object to the politics of a work, that feels different. To take on Michael Flatley in a show where he has women appearing like strippers, and he’s wearing leather chaps, I don’t feel so bad about smacking that. That was a piece for the Times that got me accused of being anti-Irish. But what he’s doing is so anti-Irish!
Rail: The “Celtic Tiger” (2005)one?
La Rocco: Yeah. And I think related to that—and this is hard, depending on what publication you’re writing for—but there is a way in which major publications want you to have that mantle of authority, and trying to resist that is really important, to remember that any judgment I am throwing down, whether good or bad or in between, is filtered through my own politics and biases and insecurities. So I try when possible to have that stuff be present, not so that it becomes all about myself, but just so that it becomes a bit more of a conversation, with more breathing room, and it’s not just like, “Wow, you did that, and that’s your problem, and I’m gonna tell you what’s wrong with it.”
There’s also the critical desire to anoint things or say: “This is the best thing ever!” or “the best choreographer in the world!” or “a timeless piece!” Like, “This dance, we can all agree, is timeless.” What does that mean, and why can we agree on that, and why should we all agree on that? Opinions aren’t that interesting, on their own.
That’s one thing Cynthia Carr wrote about that was very important to me. When she started investigating the 1980s club scene in New York that nobody was covering and nobody wanted to touch, she said that she spent a year just teaching herself how to look and paying attention to the response she would have. So she would have a really strong response to what she saw, and then say, “But that’s the easy part. Now the hard question: Why?” Figuring out the “why” behind the response, not just stopping at, “Oh, this disgusts me” or “I love this.” It’s hard to do that, especially with work I love. You fall in love and you don’t question it as much.
Rail: There’s a lot in the book about endings, life ending, mortality. Does that have to do with the impermanence of dance and the other art forms you’re dealing with?
La Rocco: I’ve always thought a lot about mortality, since I was a kid. I think one of the gifts of performance is the sort of practice for being human: nothing stays, it all goes away. There’s some kind of solace in that. I was realizing last night that there’s also a lot of religion in the book—but not formal religion, more an idea of faith and doubt and these unsolvable questions—and the way in which art can be a sort of faith or communing.
I think all art can offer that, but to me it doesn’t offer that when it’s trying to solidify something and is caught up in this timeless-greatness-pedestal business. In Inferno: (a Poet’s Novel), Eileen Myles has this perfect passage about what poetry can really give people, when it stops “being such a damn collector.” I think about these poems in which somebody is trying to capture all the details of a magical hour at dusk or something. She says that as soon as a poem stops doing that, “it becomes an invite to the only refuge which is the impossible moment of being alive.” So I guess I would say that art is a momentary respite or antidote to preoccupations about mortality, which are always around.
Rail: There are other images and phrases—not just about dying!—that recur throughout the book, sometimes whole lines that repeat. Elizabeth Robinson talks about that in the introduction, how you steal from yourself. Is that something you do intentionally?
La Rocco: Yes, all the time. And I think a lot of writers are doing that all the time. I started thinking about the idea of cannibalizing and how one can repurpose phrases and shift them a little bit. There’s the line about “killing your darlings,” when you’ve written something and in order for the whole to work, you have to take out a line you’re attached to. I was thinking about doing the reverse of that, when you look at a piece and think, Oh this work is terrible as a whole, but this line is great, or if I repurpose this passage it will mean something else—how to use salvage as a compositional tool. The poem “They Always Ask for Water” (2012) is probably the clearest example of that. It takes a line or two from other pieces that show up in the book in their entirety.
Rail: You’ve written a few pieces that you call “improvisational poetry,” which you compose during the span of a performance. How did you start working that way?
La Rocco: Until recently I hadn’t thought about myself as an improviser or what that would mean for a writer. If you’re writing something that goes through drafts, even if it’s a draft that happens in the span of a couple hours, you’re still finessing things and refining and trying to get it to a place where it feels like a “product.” I remember watching people improvise, like the first time I saw Ishmael Houston-Jones, and the fineness of his decision-making, how he could flow in and out of things. Or Vicky Shick or Jon Kinzel or even those fuzzy old films of the Grand Union—I love the worlds these artists create in the moment. The idea of improvisation in dance being less meaningful than set choreography always kind of irritated me. I never understood that hierarchy.
Of course, when we’re going to shows, we’re taking notes, which is a similar type of thing. I remember Tere O’Connor once questioning why critics take notes and saying that they should just be present, and I always thought, But that is one way to be really present. Your hand is moving; it’s this physical act that’s mooring you to this live thing. My eye concentrates so much better when I’m taking notes, and my mind moves more nimbly. I became interested in the ways in which notes create this imperfect and failed chart or photograph of the mind as things are moving through it, these things you half-catch or really land on, or how you trail off or contradict yourself.
I’m still not sure that “improvisational writing” is the right label, and it sounds a little pretentious so maybe it’s not, but it’s what occurs to me. I started thinking, What if I saw a show and it’s an hour long and I only would have that hour to write the piece? And I wouldn’t edit it. Would that count as improvisation, or what would that be? Would that be criticism? Would that work as criticism? Would it be poetry? “Leisurely Promenade,” which I wrote while watching a Richard Foreman play, felt like a pretty successful attempt at doing that. It wasn’t continuous writing, there were times when I would stop, but if I wrote it down I kept it there.
You could read it and say, “What does this have to do with Richard Foreman?” All the things people might say a review has to do, it doesn’t do those things. But what it’s trying to do—and I guess it’s not for me to say whether it actually does this—is to communicate the experience of being in time with another work. That idea of criticism being in conversation with another art form—it’s trying to chart experience. The poetry that I love the most, that’s what it does also. It’s trying to capture these things that move through you more so than nailing down an experience with description. One criticism of my dance writing has always been that there’s not enough description, and I think that’s pretty much directly tied to the way I feel about straightforward description in poetry. I’m just not that excited about it.
Rail: Was it scary to publish something so raw and unedited?
La Rocco: It used to be, but it’s not anymore. I remember publishing some of that stuff on The Performance Club [La Rocco’s blog and performance-going collective] and being unsure whether it was interesting, or just weird, as in out of the ordinary for my usual approaches. But at the same time it felt pretty safe, because it’s not like huge numbers of people are reading that site. But in a certain way, I just got over it. The worst that happens is you publish something that isn’t good or that some people don’t like. It’s okay. I think daily criticism is a good training ground for not being too afraid or precious about stuff. You have to just decide, I’m going to say that this is my interpretation of something, and people are maybe going to say I’m ridiculous—but you have to do it. You have to get over yourself. If you can’t, it’s all hopeless.
Rail: Your columns in Artforum also read improvisationally to me.
La Rocco: But there’s also a way in which the Artforum writing is really stylized. It’s a delicate balance—like, how far do I push this tone? It’s great to hear that it comes out that way, and sometimes it does seem to just flow out, and then other times I’m really carefully trying to construct something. I also have the extreme luxury and privilege of working with David Velasco, the editor there. I can send things to him trusting he will save me from myself but won’t muck around with the text just to muck around with it. He’ll make it better. And that creates a freedom, I think. It’s a blast for me.
Rail: What else do you want people to know about the book?
La Rocco: The individual pieces stand on their own, I hope, but I’m really interested in thinking about it as one composition. Often when I talk about these different genres, I find myself sliding into the dangerous territory of, Oh it’s all the same! And I don’t mean to say that. All of these forms behave differently, and within them there are different types of creatures. To talk about how poetry behaves is a silly thing because it depends on what school and time and area you’re in. But it’s really meaningful to me that this book is not making categorical distinctions. I always use the word “jostle.” I want things to jostle.
You said before that you read it straight through, and that’s great. I had the pleasure of working with both Paul Chan and Elizabeth Robinson on the construction of the book, and a lot of care went into thinking about, okay, there needs to be a blank page here. Or when does an image happen? Or the notes—the copies of my own handwriting—how do those function both as images but also as pauses or openings? One big task for me was trying to create all of these echoes and crossovers. For better or worse, everything in there is made by me. I could have included pictures by other people and used them as illustrations. But the illustrations aren’t illustrating anything. They’re all trying to be part of one conversation.
SIOBHAN BURKE writes for the New York Times and Dance Magazine. She teaches at Barnard College.