Stranger Than Fiction, or, Sex in the City
The Dance Critics Association’s Conference 2011
9-12 June, hosted by Pacific Northwest Ballet
by Dean Speer
Imagine my surprise when the answer to my innocent question as to how one of Seattle’s weekly print newspapers could afford and keep full-time arts writers was, "Sex ads." Not only that, The Stranger, according to its critic, Jen Graves, sponsors an annual amateur porn festival that sells out weeks in advance. And its sex-advice columnist is one of its owners, Dan Savage.
Even though I’m a native Seattlite, I confess to never having picked up this tabloid, partly due to its blue and sometimes red newspaper racks being continually graffiti covered and often dirty – conveying an air than if I did pick one up, I might have to hold it well out in front. Okay, okay. In the interest of full and complete transparency, I did pick one up once at the behest of the UW School of Law but only because one of our more prominent graduates, Court of Appeals Judge, The Honorable Betty Binns Fletcher was featured on the cover – that and I only had to walk one block holding the thing.
I suppose this is not too bad, considering, I’m told, some of the critical donor money to support the Royal Ballet came from a donor, who made her money in a girly theatrical, Laura Henderson and her Windmill Theatre and its tableaux vivants.
Its funding base notwithstanding, The Stranger does have a handful of gainfully employed arts critics, which is great news, and is apparently the only weekly in the country to be able to do so.
The overall, arching theme of this year’s DCA Conference was not on procreation but rather on re-creation – of reconstruction and revivals in dance, centered around Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of the 1841 Romantic classic, “Giselle.”
The renowned Ann Hutchinson Guest was our principal speaker and presenter on the first full day of the Conference, and let me tell you, at the age of 93, she was moving and dancing and demonstrating with such zest that would move much younger things to hang up their tutus. Her story of her career and how she came into notating and reconstructing dance was inspiring and historic – she founded the Dance Notation Bureau in New York in 1940 and also spent 10 years working with George Balanchine on notating his ballets, sometimes being in on the creation of them.
Her stories were interesting and lively, such being an original cast member of Agnes de Mille’s “One Touch of Venus” and how, when not too busy, would notate the dances, until de Mille “...became suspicious.” We enjoyed her demonstrated comparisons of the important of intent – is a turn and look of the head slow or sharp? Is a glissade, piqué arabesque, faîlle to another arabesque slow and languid, such as one might be in the second act of “Giselle” or is it quick and attacked?
Another of the liveliest panelists was Baroque Dance expert, notation reader and reconstructor, Anna Mansbridge, who also got up and showed us examples of both the steps and [posted on the wall] notation. She was so clear and authoritative about her material, infusing it with light humor and wit. Interesting and fun, she reminded us of how important and how much port de bras was used – even with limited range of motion available to the dancers due to the period dress/costumes.
Other quite interesting panels included PNB Giselle Project, which was “A look into the resources and process behind this new production of an old work” with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, Marian Smith, and moderator: Betsy Cooper; Reconstruction panels [20th Century American Ballet] which tackled the challenges of reviving the recent past with James Jordan, Francia Russell, Carol Shults, Kent Stowell, Paul Vasterling, and moderator: Martha Ullman West; Critical Practice Now which was a roundtable discussion on the continual shift in dance writing practice with Eva Yaa Asantewaa [via Skype] , Tedd Bale, Marcie Sillman, and moderator: Marcia Siegel; a Giselle Today panel, which took a look at the role this 19th century ballet fills in the 21st century repertory with Reny Martinez, Marian Smith, Vera Altunina, and moderator George Jackson; and lastly a Curating History panel which addressed the topic of “How We Create the Past - The act of reconsideration in writing and choreography,” with Donald Byrd, Jen Graves, Tonya Lockyer and moderator: Libby Smigel.
Martha Ullman West of Portland, Oregon, who is also another soon-to-be University of Florida Press author with at book about Todd Bolender and Janet Reed, was given the Senior Critic Award, and gave an address that regaled with her charming and warm delivery of her story of how she went from New York youngster to one of today’s most read, thoughtful and respected dance critics.
Additionally, PNB generously made discount tickets available to “Giselle” and many participants, this one cheerfully among them, took advantage to see more than one cast. Local arts groups extended invitations too, including the Seattle International Dance Festival.
DCA provides a forum and critical mass for writers who are committed and passionate about what they do...and who share a common love of dance.
The organizers need to be recognized and thanked for making everyone feel welcome, for recruiting and directing lively discussions, and for making the whole enterprise appear seamless and smooth, and for making it fun. Among the volunteers were Lodi McClellan [who made a super display of books and print materials] and Sandi Kurtz, who chaired this year’s edition and who kept everybody on their prose.