I just heard (belatedly) that after 40 years of writing for The Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt has decided to stop contributing to that paper because she felt pressure from the editor to submit more negative reviews. (Her open letter explaining her thoughts is posted here, along with the editors response: http://www.danceusa.org/ejournal/post.cfm/a-change-at-the-village-voice)
Dance criticism is not thumbs up or thumbs down. What Deborah has done consistently over the years, better than any living writer, is to see and respond to dance. She is one of the most articulate observers of the form and this is her genre of criticism. It takes much more skill to be able to understand a dance than to slam it.
I studied dance criticism with Marcia Siegel who drilled in us the power of observation. To write about a dance, you have to have the ability to conjure it up for the reader. Then you can analyze its form and evaluate its success or failure. The writer’s imperative is, first and foremost, to share the experience of the choreography. If you can hold off the rush to judgment–not an easy thing to do–you might actually discover something unexpected about the work. It’s also possible to develop an appreciation for choreography that rubbed you the wrong way at first.
Having written reviews (for The Voice, ages ago, among other publications) and having taught dance writing workshops, I can say how hard it is to delay passing judgment long enough to open the mind to seeing. Deborah’s sustained generosity of vision is a singular gift. I don’t know how she manages to sit through so many performances without her writing growing dull or her spirit jaded. I certainly don’t have that kind of tolerance.
I’ve been lucky enough to be reviewed by Deborah a few times. The experience was of being seen in print. What I got from her response to my choreography was positive, yes, but not uncritical. I could tell where she felt the work succeeded and where my choreographic vision was not quite fulfilled.
Writing a negative review every now and then does not constitute “balanced” criticism any more than balanced journalism means quoting, say, an advocate for climate change intervention and a climate change denier.
We live in the age opinion, where editorials substitute for reporting and punditry proliferates. In criticism and in journalism, there should be a quest for the TRUTH. Let’s value and respect the truth-seekers, Deborah Jowitt, among them!