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Poison Pens and Pirouettes

by Lewis Whittington

"In this rat race, everybody's guilty till they're proved innocent!" is the plum line uttered by Bette Davis playing Margo Channing in that bitchiest of backbiting stage movies "All About Eve." It came to mind when I was reading the press brochure for the Wilma Theater's 3rd annual Danceboom! Festival, in performance for three weeks starting January 21st.

At the end of the 30-page brochure laying out the festival's aesthetic goals, programs, events, and mission, there is commentary about the artistic purpose titled "Nine things that Work in the Philadelphia Dance scene"…and then there is this salvo aimed at the band of local dance writers titled "And Three Things That Don't" which states, "There is little intellectual discussion of dance," penned by Headlong Dance Theater dancer/choreographer Andrew Simonet, who has obviously has been watching White House Press briefings.

Among Mr. Simonet's sideswipes, he sums up the published dance writing in Philadelphia this way -- "alternates between P.R. and peeyoo." Ouch! I feel like standing in the corner in pointe shoes counting out Nijinsky's steps to "La Sacre du Printemps." I can understand the frustrations of any serious dancer and choreographer in today's marketplace. And I certainly don't blame anybody being suspicious of journalists today. Andrew has shaken things up with his assertion, and he should have a full forum to explain his position. But as it appears, to quote "All About Eve" again, "You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point" (that one uttered by the venomous fictional critic Addison DeWitt). What I'd like to know from Mr. Simonet is the specific evidence to support his claims.

Danceboom! (DB), the annual ambitious dance fete that brings together cutting edge, cultural, ethnic dance, is changing and challenging Philadelphia dance-theater. Curator Nick Stuccio and Dance Advance have introduced independent and non-categorized dance in a mainstream venue. It's a big deal.

Local press has responded in an otherwise hostile environment where dance coverage is at the bottom of the list. Still, the small corps of dancewriters have fought for space in every publication. DB! has been previewed, covered, critiqued, and otherwise supported in toto by journalists. So Simonet's comments beg the question -- why this slapdown? Even if he gives the regular stable of dance writers the thumbs down, that is not what is objectionable; rather, it is the way in which he does it. The festival program is not the professional forum in which to attack critics.

Dance writers try to bring attention to a largely ignored art form and do so with purist motives. Not only do they try to report what they have seen onstage -- a formidable task in itself -- they try to translate a purely visual art that occurs in the moment and to make it meaningful for a readership. To do this with any authority, we have to know the history of dance and every current trend in all disciplines.

Many arts writers like myself were shocked last year hearing about the crimes and misdemeanors of New York Times star writer Jayson Blair, considering how arts editors do not look kindly on factual mistakes, much less making up whole stories.

Like performances, reviewing is a craft, sometimes right on the money and sometimes not. But, for most who attempt it, the passion is always there -- even if in the end there is not, as Andrew asserts, an intelligent "discussion." It's not for the lack of trying. There is a dusty adage shared by many publications that everyone reads about the theater but no one reads about dance. Personally I don’t believe that, but dance writers still have to fight for their craft, even knowing that their work might be the first thing on the chopping block.


Edited by Lori Ibay

Read Lewis Whittington's review of DanceBoom!

Read related stories published in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.

 

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