the end of dance writing

Around the time I was thinking about i want your dance, I stumbled across this excellent article on ImPulsTanz by Elizabeth Zimmer, the former dance editor at The Village Voice. (As an aside, I spent much of that afternoon reading the entire features archives on ImPulsTanz; I’m such a sucker for well-written essays on dance.)

She dissects her hopelessness with the dance scene in New York that for people living in Australia is gut-wrenchingly familiar. The death of serious, intellectual coverage of the arts in the mainstream media of English speaking countries is almost tedious to watch, better perhaps to put it out of its misery than maintain the pretense.

The legitimacy of an artist’s performance and consequently their reputation however, is inextricable from column inches obtained in the press, a press that will only review work that has received presentation funding from whatever arts organisations, in turn having a not inconsequential influence on gaining subsequent funding. All round, it’s unhealthy for the people making art.

It’s frustrating then that artists here seem so categorically glacial in their adoption of technology that could make this issue more-or-less background noise. As much as I abhor MySpace, it’s really not that arcane to set up, or WordPress, or … yes, as Elizabeth says, PodCasts. The lack of engagement from artists in what they are doing as a consumable entertainment product – yes that sounds dirty, get over it – is baffling. The model ever since I was a student making work was email+jpg flier, print some A6 fliers if you have the money, and word-of-mouth. Little has changed in eight years, and really, when it’s so easy to participate in the endless swirl of new media, a media that primarily is about communication, there’s not much excuse.

And lets not forget blogs. There are some people, like Alison at Theatre Notes, who I think are singularly responsible for my not reading the papers anymore – and check out her Arts Blog Primer. But artists writing about their work, especially in the performing arts, and doubly so in dance – it’s like the map of the world connected to the internet, and while Europe and the first world blazes with light, everywhere else is black.

It was not Elizabeth’s intention to paint a facile death-of-print account, though death-of-dance is something that still looms large. Certainly if more artists here attended to and were responsible for their own appearance in a media that has long ceased to be passive and one-way, I would feel more confident that it wasn’t all a grave-digging exersise.

And someone should be running courses – free courses – for artists to learn how to use this stuff. It’s actually really easy. (I think I just volunteered myself, no?)

A Veteran Dance Writer Surveys the Scene. By Elizabeth Zimmer.

(Re-print from Movement Research Performance Journal #30).

As I write it is late August, 2006. I have just been laid off from my 14-year stint as dance editor at The Village Voice; my duties will be assumed by arts and culture editor Joy Press.

Things are slowing down in the New York dance scene. The 675 words of space for dance writing available weekly in The Village Voice is enough, for this moment, to cover a single major event.

There’s no space at all to deal with dance events at the American Living Room Project, at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, at the various site-specific festivals that abound this time of year. We didn’t cover dance at the New York International Fringe Festival, Galapagos, the new Ailey studio, various places in the Bronx and Queens, on Fire Island, or the new Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport. A few things at Jacob’s Pillow will catch Jowitt’s attention, but that’s because she can’t resist checking them out even during her vacation. She has a summer place nearby; she also has a salary here at the Voice and gets the same money no matter how many concerts she reviews; lucky for the dance community that she has a strong sense of duty and a hunger for the new. The Voice’s website accepts anything she wants to write, but won’t let anyone write for nothing and won’t pay for additional dance writing.

Arts criticism is in trouble in print media across the country, and invisible on television and radio. It’s burgeoning on the web, though generally in situations where remuneration is tiny or non-existent. I’ve been contributing, under a pseudonym, to one of the city’s free dailies (its arts editor is a former intern of mine—who says there’s no such thing as karma?), but it will only accept reviews of shows that continue to run, which lets out 90 percent of the city’s dance presentations. And I sometimes get work writing feature stories—interviews, for the most part—for an Australian daily, about dance artists scheduled to appear Down Under. But the newspaper from which I drew an editorial salary for 14 years regularly rejected most pitches from me, and other writers, for longer stories on dance subjects, and has over the past 15 years reduced our space from about 2400 words a week to the aforementioned 675. It eliminated our annual dance supplement, after shrinking it, over the past two decades, from 12 pages to two. I had to lay off all the other writers who’ve been contributing to the section.

“How many people in the city do you think are really interested in dance, Elizabeth?” my former boss frequently asked me. Every time I answered him I inflated the number by another 10,000, but you could tell this sports nut was skeptical. He once told me to avoid using the word “choreographer” in dance stories, as he didn’t think people understood it. He has, mercifully, left his position, but the new owners of the paper have not as yet come through with more space or resources for dance. I got half a page a week for listings, and the designers just enlarged the type face, which means I could run about 10 percent fewer listings than before; when the season’s busy the space does not increase, and if people actually buy advertising they sometimes slap the ads into the dance listings columns, necessitating further cuts. I spent my time at the paper recycling my listings onto the website, editing sex writers and our astrologer, going to see concerts that for the most part bewildered me, and working with Deborah on a kind of triage: figuring out what single item, out of the diverse bouquet of 30 or so events available to us every week, we wanted to feature in the paper.

Things are a little better at The New York Times, where two staff writers and a rotation of capable freelancers are giving dance a lot of attention in six issues a week and online. But when those staff writers, both of whom are past 60, retire, it’s unlikely that their positions will be filled. Dance writing will become what it’s been for most people in the field for decades: an avocation, something you do for love and mad money, not for a salary. Over the past three decades, not only have fees for dance writing not increased; in many places, relative to inflation, they’ve actually been reduced.

Where does that leave the dance profession itself? Who are contemporary choreographers trying to reach? What are they trying to share with audiences?

One thing the downtown community—in fact, any “lively arts” community–needs to face is the fact that it’s in the entertainment business. It’s competing with books, feature films, cable television, video games, glossy magazines, and the Internet for consumers’ time, money, and attention, not to mention the gym, fine wine, and destination restaurants. Some members of what used to be the dance audience actually have children. People who’ve recently invested in cell phones, premium cable, and DSL are probably less inclined to leave home of an evening to sit through sketchy performances by people they’ve never heard of. People over 40—increasingly the only ones who can afford to live in Manhattan or nearby communities—are reluctant to spend evenings in bad folding chairs, or to take off their shoes in order to sit in a loft studio. People under 30 are infatuated with reality TV, and unwilling to subject themselves to the sometimes taxing thought processes that go along with deciphering new dance. Everyone is accustomed to multitasking, and less willing to sit in the dark and concentrate on something complicated; check out the number of cell phone screens visible in the average darkened dance theater. And friends and family only go so far, and so frequently, toward filling the seats for experimental work. A large portion of the dance audience seems to be other dancers and dance students. It’s great that they’re turning up, but everyone’s future depends on enlarging the spectator base.

For decades—perhaps since the beginning of the ‘60s dance boom, fueled by government funding and cheap real estate—dancers and choreographers have operated in a comfortable bubble, insulated from the realities of the marketplace, the realities of the media, and the realities of show business generally. Newspapers and magazines are not, for the most part, non-profit organizations. They’re structured to reward investors; they rely on selling advertising, and often subscriptions and single copies, to pay their overhead and make a profit. They want to fill their pages with editorial content that will appeal to the broadest spectrum of readers and advertisers. That’s why much of the arts space in the Voice is devoted to popular music and film. Publishers want the paper filled with information people can use—and a review of a concert that played twice in a 60-seat theater, and then closed, doesn’t strike them as particularly useful. Deborah and I, and dozens of other dance writers across the country, may get pleasure out of reacting to the dance art on local stages, but few publishers understand the value of including our responses in the media mix. As dance presenters discover the utility of maintaining their own mailing lists and blitzing audiences with last-minute e-mail reminders, they invest less money in print advertising; this causes the spiral in which we’re currently caught. Less advertising results in less editorial coverage. Less editorial coverage results in smaller audiences. Smaller audiences discourage funders. But people who work from their own lists are increasingly talking to themselves, not reaching out for the serendipitous reader who stumbles across an ad, a review, or a listing and decides to invest in a couple of hours of cultural adventure.

Do I sound depressed? It gets worse. After close to 35 years of covering dance on both coasts of two continents, I’ve basically lost my appetite for it. I can now usually tell, just by looking at a press release, whether the event in question is going to be worth my time. I’ve become bolder about leaving a concert at intermission; since I’m rarely writing, I’m not sacrificing anyone’s bid for media immortality. I lust after time to read, to sleep, to do my own workout. And now, it appears, I will have that time.

The Movement Research Journal and Contact Quarterly, two crucial publications in the field, are non-profit operations. But neither is of much use to artists who want to get the word out about next week’s concert, or have that concert reviewed. Free dance events, at any season, still draw substantial audiences—a break-dance competition among four female crews drew thousands of people to Lincoln Center’s Plaza last week, and left them cheering even though the work was not all that “good” by strict aesthetic standards. But free dance events require underwriting by governments and corporations, require paying salaries to grant writers, to technicians, and, yes, to dancers.

What is to be done? Large numbers of gifted dance artists are seeking employment in universities, putting a financial floor under their work and their families, drawing on free rehearsal space and dancers with whom they can build new works. Others do what they’ve always done: find part-time work outside the field, double up in outer-rim apartments, rely on trust funds or other forms of family largesse. Some move abroad. Encouragingly, some, like Karole Armitage, move back.

Dance artists might figure out a way to run their shows over longer periods, as visual and theater artists do, thus increasing the likelihood that print media will find ways to cover them. They might find ways to get their work on television, where most Americans spend most of their leisure time, and on DVD, so people can find them online, in store bins, in catalogues, and can give them as gifts. They might find ways to attract the young, to build a following of people who’ll mature into ticket buyers—maybe via video podcasts. They could experiment with earlier curtains, so people can come watch straight from work or school, and still get home to spend the evening with their favorite TV shows.

Beyond these I am, at the moment, stymied. I hope these words open a dialogue with the field.