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Kleiman's Missteps

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I am writing this letter in response to Kelly Kleiman's review of the "Equal Footing/Equal Earing" festival which was printed on June 21, 2002.

This is not a bitter artist writing a retort to the criticism of a piece that she created in hopes of getting back at the critic. This is a letter to begin dialogue about the state of dance criticism in Chicago, especially criticism of contemporary, experimental, and theatrically influenced dance forms.

Obviously all experimentation and new art is subject to intense criticism and this is for the most part welcome. It is through the writing and historicizing of dance art that the field grows and defines itself. I believe that it is the duty of a critic to state his or her personal aesthetic preferences within a historical and cultural context. In this case that means having an understanding of the art form beyond the 1950s, beyond postmodernism, beyond the 1980s and 1990s, and into the present day. This knowledge of dance must also extend past Chicago and include knowledge of what is happening nationally and internationally.

This being said I would like to point out a few disturbing facts in Kleiman's review; this is not to negate some of the valid points and criticisms she made about the concert for which I think she deserves credit, but to address how she failed to uphold the standards mentioned above.

First, Kleiman devoted her entire opening paragraph to an outdated understanding of the "downtown" New York dance scene. For some reason Kleiman would like to draw a relationship between cutting-edge performance taking place downtown in both New York and Chicago. It would have taken a short conversation with the curators to realize that there was no meaning behind bringing this experimental concert to downtown Chicago, other than the venue happens to be downtown. Her discussion on this matter did not help the reader place the performance in any kind of context. The experimental dance scene in New York has not been referred to as the "downtown" scene since the late 1980s. Experimental and cutting-edge dance is now happening all over the city and often in Brooklyn.

The second comment I would like to make is that Kleiman made two references to the use of "hip-hop" in the pieces she saw being performed. I am not sure how she defines hip-hop and I would have liked further discussion on these references since it is a culturally specific and codified dance form that should not be tossed around as a synonym for sharp, angular, or gestural movement.

Furthermore, Kleiman states that one of the more theatrical pieces on the program wasn't quite dance because the musical "score offers no rhythmic or melodic matrix." I feel that this does not give proper deference to the countless choreographers and composers, throughout the history of dance, who have forgone traditional conventions of music in search of something else. Kleiman goes on to show her considerable lack of knowledge about the cutting-edge world of music. Sounding very much like a prim rock 'n' roll censor from the 1950s, she holds that the experimental music of the highly regarded Carol Genetti is simply something between "a yelp and a gargle," unworthy of the time of dancer Asimina Chremos.

The only historical references in the critique are to The Rite of Spring (choreographed in 1913) and to Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (a story ballet choreographed in 1968 by George Balanchine). Are these really the best examples one could use in discussing collaborations between contemporary choreographers and composers? An analogy of her comparisons would be a discussion of the work of the contemporary sculptor Liz Larner to the work of impressionist painter Monet. Maybe an interesting discussion could ensue by comparing these two artists; especially a discussion about how dissimilar their work is. But Kleiman did not use her references with such panache.

What should have been discussed in Kleiman's writing is the relationship of the dance and music pieces in the festival to other contemporary artists of the same genres. If Kleiman wants more information on what is happening in the world of contemporary dance, many of us would gladly take the time to open a discussion with her on this subject. Admittedly, artists could make information about their work more available through postshow discussions, program notes, and preview materials, but barring this, critics are always welcome to ask questions on their own.

I will not deny that writing about contemporary dance is a difficult proposition. It takes writers who have respect and genuine interest in this contemporary form; not writers who really prefer traditional jazz dancing, story ballets, or modern dances from the early 1900s and use these preferences to influence their writing. It also takes writers who have actively sought out past and current knowledge about contemporary dance and are able to make use of this information in their writing. These are the writers who can criticize as much as they like, for they will have the respect of the artists being reviewed.

Lisa Wymore
Dance Artist

Kelly Kleiman replies:

If I understand the objections articulated by Mesdames Chremos and Wymore, they fall into two categories: that I don't share their taste and that I don't share their vocabulary. To the second I readily plead guilty: though it's not a point of pride, I've never pretended to have an academic dance background. Rather, I'm a critic--a writer with a honed sensibility about artistic product--who's enthusiastic about dance and therefore covers it (something in relatively short supply in this town, they may have noticed). As my self-education continues, I'll probably say "hip-hop-inflected" less often when the proper term is "angular," and that will be a good thing, but that's hardly a central concern as I strive to improve my dance criticism. The challenge--now, then, and always--is to communicate the artistic and emotional content of a visceral experience to people who weren't there, and to assess the experience based on that artistic and emotional content.

Which leads to the primary objection, namely, that I don't share the writers' taste. That, too, may be so. But, again, I've never been at pains to conceal that I prefer beauty to ugliness, engagement to nihilism, and dance that responds to rhythm and melody to dance that ignores them. And if this means I don't understand, that just makes my case: when an art form fails to communicate, it's the art form and not the audience that needs interrogating. There are plenty of structural impediments to filling a Chicago auditorium for a dance concert, including a lack of press attention, but dancers and choreographers also need to own their part of the problem, a tendency to produce work that mystifies and excludes anyone but the elect.

As for Ms. Wymore's objections to my mentions of "downtown," she seems to be taking literal-minded exception to a riff. Of course there's dance in Brooklyn (or wherever), but if Alissa Solomon in the Village Voice can refer casually to the "downtown dance scene" when she means contemporary work, I hardly think that my doing so can be counted as one of my embarrassingly ignorant faux pas.

Are we having a dialogue about dance criticism yet?

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