Dance As Dialog: A reader responds

C.C. new BFF and company member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, David Leventhal, emailed me regarding this post, where I wryly commented on a little piece he wrote for The Times about the trials of touring in a big dance company. Below, I post his first email to me. Followed by my email to him. Then I’ll post his second email to me. Then I’ll respond. Then, you’re going to post some wicked cool comments.

David Leventhal:

Thanks for your comments on my dispatch to the Times about life in the air. I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while.

Here’s something interesting: though your blog professes to counter the literati-dominant criticism of the NY arts scene, you sarcastically attack a column written by a modern dancer, a member of a constituency that rarely gets any voice in the NY Times or any big media organization. On top of that, the article is actually trying to subvert the glamorous image most people have about what it’s like to tour by air, an image that’s constantly glorified and disseminated by the dominant corporate (big media) culture that fetishizes travel, speed, and globalization. I guess I could have talked about meeting new people, dining with dignitaries and celebrities, and meeting funders worldwide, but the contrarian vein seemed less predictable and more interesting. Which makes me wonder what it was, exactly, that you would have preferred to see in the column, given your status as a respected counter critic.

Counter Critic replied:

Thanks for your response. I definitely appreciate it.

Would you mind if I posted your comments on the post in question? You raise legitimate concerns, and I really prefer the idea of creating public conversations.

If not, that’s totally okay. Then I’ll respond to you directly, since you took the time and effort to respond to what I wrote.

Thanks for reading…

David Leventhal:

Thanks for your response. Yes to dialogue and public conversations! I’m fine with you posting my initial response (and especially this following response as well), since I guess I’m really addressing more general, perhaps intellectual questions about where the blog, and all of us in the community, are positioned regarding the “center” or “mainstream culture.”

I have no illusions that many artists consider a dancer in a large, professional company to be positioned well within that mainstream, and I do understand that perspective entirely. Yet when I step back for a moment and consider society at large, even the arts/culture/media complex of NYC, modern dance is still on the fringes, and I would consider any media representations about dancers’ working lives to be somewhat radical and transgressive, even (or especially) if appearing in the NYT. The radical nature of this representation is exacerbated by the fact that by and large, dancers are trained to be seen and not heard (with a few notable exceptions). The fact that the Times reached out and encouraged a dancer’s voice to speak up and say it like it is should certainly be acknowledged within the context of these existing dynamics.

My other reaction to your blog posting concerned the idea that dancers with wonderful, relatively stable jobs in major companies shouldn’t complain about something as regular and mundane as air travel–the sarcastic “poor baby” response. In other words, the message seemed to be that we should just shut up (seen and not heard) and appreciate what we’ve got. I feel extremely lucky to be able to do what I love every day and be able to pay the bills too. I adore the creative and performing aspects of the work, and they are very rarely drudgery. But my artistic passion wasn’t the point of the Times’ weekly Frequent Flier column, which specifically addresses the ways in which road warriors of various sorts confront the less glamorous parts of their jobs. Anyone familiar with the column would have understand those parameters.

Counter Critic responds:

First of all, I appreciate the assumption (from your first email) that I’m respected! We can strive pretty hard here to ride the lowest common denominator.

I will say, in regards to writing sarcastically about dance, it has always felt a little weird because of the perception of dance as having marginal cultural status. I can understand how it could seem like picking on the little guy. But my overall position is that regarding dance as meak, under appreciated, and marginal, only promotes peoples’ reluctance to take the industry seriously.

For the past two years, I’ve been steeped in the contemporary dance world; as an artist, friend and writer. And without fail, every dancer I know complains rather frequently about how tough their jobs are (if they are fortunate enough to have found a steady postition with a major company) or that there is no money in dance (although non-dance folk wouldn’t know it just by looking at the amount of work that gets produced). Dancers and choreographers tend to be very negative about dance’s place in the world. I’m not saying they’re making things up. There is definitely a plight when it comes to Americans’ awareness of art dance. But the last place you want to end up at the end of a long hard week is at a round-table discussion about why dance doesn’t get attention.

Making fun of the article, that, to me, rode the cliche of the dancer’s complaint, makes the article important because it is something to poke fun at. I never meant to suggest (as I don’t think I did) that dancers should be seen and not heard. If anything, I thought it was a missed opportunity to really communicate how touring dance companies fulfill an emissary role to countries around the world, and that the dance community, with its little-known (at least in the public eye) connections to dignitaries, funders, and audiences world-wide, cultivates a positive view of America and American culture. A view that is hard pressed to find after seven years of foreign policy that has done nothing but foment outrage and ill will.

Personally, I love dance, and I advocate for it. I love that dance as theater can go far beyond the conventions of the play. And I love that dance as athletics can astound more than the fastest sprinter or the highest high jumper. And I love that dance music has been at the cutting edge of musical thought for nearly a century. But why should dance’s economic realities prevent me from treating dance and media representations of dance with the same impulsive scrutiny I would apply to the opera or symphony or play? To me, it honors dance by regarding it with equal esteem. What makes this site funny (I’m told) is that slapping Gawker-style irony on arts criticism elevates arts criticism beyond its real position. Media blogs are really only to deal with what’s big news, you know, what’s hot and happening and worthy of gossip. But most people don’t read critical reviews. That’s why making fun of it is not only funny (I hope), but also elevates it to something worthy of notice, comment, and debate, just as much as the latest Lohan-capade or Rupert Murdoch takeover.

My signature contention with arts discourse is its refusal to allow the casual and the academic to coexist. If I can accomplish anything with countercritic.com, I hope it is to tear down the snobbish monopoly currently in practice in mainstream criticism. How can people be expected to approach an art if the rhetoric that is meant to explain it does everything it can to present itself as elevated, elite, and sanctimonious? To be clear, I am speaking of the large portion of writers who make up the critical world, and not your article: I understand that you are not personally a member of “the literati.”

There have been a few strong reactions to the tone I take on this blog. My feeling is that if I can make dance un-precious, it might give it stronger legs to stand on in the public eye. And I try to find a balance between taking things seriously (my Ann Liv Young and Jeremy Wade articles), and knowing when to let loose and call someone a douche bag.

I can’t say that I always get it right, or that I will ever please everyone with this method, but I do hope readers have a clearer idea now that, even in slighting something, I mean to confer importance. And that I am fundamentally an advocate for all of the arts. But I firmly believe that to convince this country (if that is even possible; if that is even a desirable course of action) that the arts are worth the attention and the money, we need to find a way to speak plainly about it. And that’s why I thought your article came off as the complaint of a person of privelege, which, I hope you undertand, and appreciate, that as a dancer for one of the most highly regarded companies in the world, you are exactly that. (I do mean that in a good way.)

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3 Comments

  1. CC person: I thought the article in the Times was pretty great because it was in that paper’s business section and how often does dance or any art form make its way there? That exposure helps to reveal a dancer’s life and lifestyle (as told by a dancer) a bit more interestingly to readers of the section who rarely read about the arts or venture out to see a performance. Dancers in a business context shows that they’re in a serious profession and should be taken as serious professionals. That’s commonly not the case. I think your slam on the dancer’s writing shows a lack of understanding overall of what it takes to be a performing artist. Everyone’s entitled to complain (even those in “glamorous” jobs — if you only knew). And if you don’t have a complaint about air travel, then you must be brain dead (or a bloggist with a severely limited sense of comfort).

  2. Your slam on me shows a lack of understanding of what it’s like to be brain dead. (If you only knew)

  3. Ok, Molly. I’m back, and I’m over being annoyed that your comment charged what was meant to be an open, friendly dialog with an icky attitude. So I forgive you.

    No, I’m not brain dead. I just think that there are millions of people suffering from crueler work conditions. That’s all. The funny thing is that The Times Business section would never publish an article written by any other kind of “employee” or “worker.” They’re not gonna publish an account of a sweat shop worker’s day, or how a migrant worker spends an afternoon, or even how a generic office worker counts the hours away. Any such article would be written by a journalist in an effort to investigate working conditions, more likely in an attempt to critique and affect change. What is telling about David’s piece is that there is a complaint about the drudgery of the business, and yet no call is made to ease the stresses of these uncomfortable working conditions. It goes with the territory, and it is allowed to go with the territory because it is art; because it is privilege.

    I can see how some Americans, who are so saturated in “comfort” that we all sleep at night like the Princess and the Pea, would be aghast to hear about the how physically taxing it is to sit in an airplane for eight hours while making your way to perform in the Paris Opera House.


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