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Recycle/ Reuse/ Renew

Arts Critic Octavio Roca dismissed from the Miami Herald

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 30, 2004 -- San Francisco

Late Wednesday night, word began seeping out to the dance community that Octavio Roca, the once formidable dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who left to write for the Miami Herald, has been relieved of his new post amidst accusations of plagiarism.

Roca is alleged to have taken whole sections of his writings from previous articles and reused them in new articles without any indication that he was repeating or quoting himself.

The Florida New Times’ Tailpipe section reports, for instance, that his florid paragraphs on Baryshnikov, "He does not disappoint his fans. It is even endearing to see how the program's sole double pirouettes -- dazzlingly youthful, incidentally in the middle of Cesc Gelabert's 2003 dance 'In a Landscape' -- can bring out the biggest applause..." appear nearly word for word in both a June 23, 2003 article in the Chronicle, and a February 27, 2004 piece in the Miami Herald.

Plagiarism is perhaps too strong a term for what is more like slipshod journalism, as well as a foolish thing to do, since in this day and age it’s so easy to look up a person’s past writings online in news archives. But lies and half-truths are told all the time -- in far graver situations that involve life, death, war and money. Roca’s version of recycle/ reuse/ renew doesn’t seem as scandalous as, say, the Jayson Blair case – and indeed, we might say with a shrug, Roca is only accused of plagiarizing himself.

However, the news comes at a time when dance criticism has been reduced drastically, with many media outlets not even questioning the value of carrying dance coverage, but rather just cutting it outright. The Chronicle has not hired a full-time dance critic since Roca’s departure, instead relying on freelancers. The New York Times, which boasts three regular dance critics, has reduced its once extensive Sunday dance coverage to two and often only one dance-related article, as though there were so little going on in the dance world that merited attention.

In the San Jose Mercury News only recently, dance reviews by, Anita Amirrezvani, one of the area’s most observant and talented writers have recently been reduced to something around 300 words per article. That’s scarcely enough space to recount one’s breakfast, much less comment on an often complex and thought-provoking art form. By contrast, in the Contra Costa Times, I am continually fortunate to be accorded three, sometimes four times that amount – and with it the kind of space and latitude that is necessary to really engage in criticism.

Roca’s style of renewable reviewing is surely an open secret in the Bay Area dance community. Early on, as a young critic doing research, I realized the extent of his recycling after reading through five year’s worth of his Oakland Ballet “Nutcracker” reviews. Laid side-by-side, one plainly sees phrases -- sometimes whole paragraphs -- cut and pasted from one year to the next with only the names and verb tense changed.

But even though there must have been other people who noticed, none of us mentioned it, and thus shared in a kind of complicity.

For dance companies, perhaps they feared retribution in Roca’s reviews. For better or for worse, poor reviews in the largest newspaper in the area have a powerful influence. Companies rely on reviews not only to sell tickets, but also as proof of legitimacy to donors and granting agencies. Why, a donor might ask, should I give a thousand dollars to a company that receives only bad notices?

The controversial Pamela Rosenberg of the San Francisco Opera recently announced she would not renew her contract in 2006. And while one can’t say that it was entirely due to the scathing assessment she received at the hands of Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman -- he devoted a Sunday Datebook article entitled “Opener dims hopes for Rosenberg: Heavy-handedness of 'Giardiniera' portends ill judgment by general director” (SF Chronicle, 5/5/2002) to his fears about her shortcomings -- that sort of thing certainly didn’t help her reputation.

But getting back to Roca, what about the rest of us -- his colleagues, or readers, or anyone else who noticed striking anomalies in his reviews? Why didn’t anyone speak up? Was it laziness on our own part? A shake of the head and a “Well, that’s how these things are nowadays…” Maybe we -- and he -- thought no one would care. Companies got their names in the paper, so they had nothing to complain about. And since he was only giving what had been his opinion once, and could be his opinion again, maybe it just a way of saying “It still looks the same to me…”

Excuses, excuses -- but ultimately, Roca’s recidivist writing diminished dance criticism -- which should document performances for future generations. And it was an immense disservice to the readers of his paper -- who want and need to know about the rich cultural life of the Bay Area. If he were so jaded as to have nothing new to say, maybe he should have left it to someone with an appetite for writing about dance. Even with trenchant dance criticism on the decline in major media outlets, the internet forums and online magazines are littered with knowledgeable, incisive writers who certainly could have found a fresh take, even on “The Nutcracker.”

San Francisco dance-goers deserved better than Roca’s recycled opinions in the past, and they deserve more than just scattershot dance coverage now. One can only hope that the Chronicle will at last hire a writer with a passion and love for making the arts fresh to readers in the Bay Area – if they hire anyone at all.

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Edited by Jeff.

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