The Death of the American Dance Critic

Why are there so few mainstream outlets covering the art form?

Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

Misty Copeland has become something of a household name in recent months. In late June, she became the first black ballerina to be named principal at American Ballet Theater, one of the most storied companies in the U.S., and her success is a milestone in the predominantly white world of ballet. But while her legacy is endlessly analyzed, her technical, lyrical, and theatrical abilities as a dancer are less frequently discussed: She can attack steps with fierce intensity, plays a great Juliet, and possesses unparalleled comedic timing. This is because hardly any of the countless stories published about Copeland have been written by dance critics—a dying breed of writers uniquely capable of offering informed commentary on the singular talents she brings to the stage.

Over the course of the last 20 years dance coverage—and dance criticism in particular—has been decimated in the mainstream press. This past April, Gia Kourlas left Time Out New York, where she had been dance editor for 20 years, after they eliminated her stand-alone section. The New York Post stopped commissioning regular reviews from its critic Leigh Witchel in 2013, and Jennifer Homans left The New Republic last year. The Village Voice and New York have both let go of their regular dance writers and editors in the past 15 years. The trend hasn’t been limited to New York, the dance capital of the U.S. either: Both the Los Angeles Times and the Orange Country Register laid off their critics, and the San Francisco Chronicle hasn't had a full-time dance writer since 2004. “There aren't many outlets to begin with, and every day you hear about another [critic] going down,” said Marina Harss, who writes about dance for The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Which leaves very few publications with house critics and editors who are dedicated to the art form. Today there are only two full-time dance critics in the country: Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times and Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post. Some freelancers continue to publish reviews, but more likely than not the space for this kind of writing has been cut significantly. One could argue that though this trend is unfortunate, it’s almost expected given that dance concerts cater to small audiences, and the constituency reading about them tends to be even smaller still. But for a medium that can be difficult to understand, generalist coverage remains vital to the accessibility of the dance scene.

As Deborah Jowitt, the former Village Voice critic, put it: “If art is valuable as a reflection—of a time, of a place, of a creation—then dance is just as important as literature or film, even though the audience for it is smaller.” And because critics ask choreographers and dancers to appraise their work from a different perspective, pointing out the strengths and flaws in their blind spots, their decline is also a blow to the art form itself.

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A look at history can offer insight into why dance is having a harder time than other art forms. “Dance is the least respected of the fine arts,” said Joan Acocella, The New Yorker's dance critic. “That's been the case ever since the fourth century when the church took over the arts and banished dance from public religious ceremonies.” The physicality of the medium and its associations with sexuality and femininity meant that through the early part of the 20th century, dance received little attention in the press. When it did, the reviewers were music or theater critics who went to the ballet reluctantly, and when they wrote about it they did so by ignoring the dance itself.

The U.S got its first dance-exclusive critic in 1927, when John Martin joined the staff of The New York Times. His visual sensitivity alerted readers to the significance of what was happening onstage, and by doing so he greatly expanded the viewership of dance, and modern dance in particular. People would not remember Martha Graham the way they do now if it hadn’t been for Martin. Still, the stigma persisted. Robert Greskovic, who covers dance for The Wall Street Journal, told me that when the former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce first started writing about ballet, another writer likened her aspirations to “being serious about candy.”

During the 1960s and 1970s America came under the influence of the “dance boom,” in which a rash of dance companies flourished with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and a culture-hungry middle class. The sexual revolution brought about an era in which “we were all in love with our own physicality,” said Elizabeth Zimmer, a former dance critic at The Village Voice. Dance allowed the body to come into full and fleshed-out consciousness. And by sheer chance this happened to be one of the most innovative periods in the history of choreography. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins pushed the avant-garde of ballet, while the post-modernists of Judson Dance Theater turned the medium on its head with pedestrian movements (sitting, walking, running) that didn’t look like dance at all. Some of the most influential artists of the 20th century—Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown—were working at this time.

With so much happening in the genre, dance solicited unprecedented attention in the press, with up to 10 professional critics writing up a single show. This allowed for “a conversation to take place between the spectator and the artist,” said Lynn Garafola, a professor of dance history at Barnard College. “It's a conversation that, in the public realm, is conducted by the dance critic—someone who has a deep knowledge of the art.” In the same way that Susan Sontag noted that films could only be “just movies” until “people with minds” gave them attention, when dance was processed in writing it could finally be considered a legitimate means of artistic expression.

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Putting dance into words isn’t an easy science, dependent as it is on the sensory-rich language needed to recreate the feel of the movement in the reader's imagination. The Balanchine visionary and poet Edwin Denby wrote that though the “pioneer” dance critic could “plant a rose bush in his wilderness ... he’s not going to win any prizes in the flower show back in Boston.” Yet some of the best writing managed to do just that. “We admired Arlene Croce because she elevated criticism to the level of art, with reviews that were virtuoso writing,” said Holly Brubach, a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Brubach did so, too; she won a National Magazine Award in 1982 for her essays on Balanchine and Taylor, published in the pages of The Atlantic.

Dance critics have to be “people with minds,” but they also track the history of the most ephemeral art, their theater-going experience serving as memory banks invaluable to the form. It’s widely acknowledged in the dance community that video recordings fail to capture what happens in situ. Such recordings can negate the immediate, visceral response in the viewer, not “mindlessness but the state beyond mind that moves us in perfect dancing,” as Croce once wrote. In writings on dance one finds a unique marriage of head and heart, intellect and intuition. However difficult it is to articulate, this mind-body axis holds significance for everyone. “Dance is, at its very essence, the movement of the human body which we all inhabit,” said Kaufman of The Washington Post.

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Today, unless a choreographer presents her work at a major venue like Lincoln Center, she’ll be lucky if she gets a single professional review. And the review will be a short one; when critics do write, they do so in less space and with less breadth than their predecessors. The weekly magazine The Nation, which once featured a dance column every other week, now does so twice a year. In October 2014, word counts for New York Times reviews were reduced by 20 percent (they average about 400 words), and freelance contributions downgraded from 10 to 6 per week. At present Acocella devotes as many words to dance annually as Croce used to on a monthly basis.

How did this happen? For one thing, the dance boom of the ’60s and ’70s was followed by something of a bust. Many of the major choreographers (Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Cunningham, Graham) passed away, leaving behind a creative vacuum. On the other hand, the journalism industry itself has been struggling with shrinking newsrooms and changing business models. Arts sections are always trimmed under this kind of crunch; from the beginning of 2007 to the middle of 2008 alone, 25 percent of American journalists covering the arts were fired. “I don’t think that [The New Yorker editor] David Remnick has come to dislike dance in the last 12 years,” Acocella said when speaking to possible causes of the severe cuts to The New Yorker's dance column. There are just fewer pages available all around.

Perhaps the most significant factor shaping this trend: Pop culture has superseded high culture as the locus of the critical discussion. “Criticism tended to aim a bit higher in terms of subject matter, more often about ‘art’ than ‘entertainment,’” Brubach said. “Now entertainment qualifies for in-depth analysis.” If films were once “just movies,” they are now the yolk of the cultural egg. Kim Kardashian’s selfies tend to get more serious coverage than dancers who have dedicated their lives to their form. New York still has an art critic, and theater commentary runs aplenty on the magazine's entertainment site, Vulture. Other burgeoning areas of interest (video games, food, even candy) have gained rather than lost a critical following through the years.

But with the human effort required for live performance, dance is considered hopelessly elitist. As is its vocabulary: While at the Village Voice, Zimmer’s boss told her to avoid using the word “choreographer” for fear that readers wouldn’t understand it. This sentiment has only been exacerbated over the course of the last decade; the less dance is written about for the generalist reader, the more niche and patrician it appears to be. When Jowitt was fired from her 40-year-long tenure at the Village Voice, Nick Denton at Gawker wrote this was “fair enough” since “dance is increasingly irrelevant, culturally.” What he was perhaps trying to describe is known as the “graying of the arts” phenomenon, first documented by the NEA in 1997. Denton’s generation and those that followed are not going to dance concerts, and consequently not reading about them, at anything close to the rate that their parents did.

When dance does make an appearance in the mainstream, it’s marketed as a visual or athletic thrill. “I can’t pitch a dance story if there’s not a great dance photo to go with it," said Pia Catton, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. “The goal of every publication is to get clicks,” Harss added. “And how do you get clicks? By using the dancer's body as a sort of lure, and it leaves people thinking that's what dance is—this sexy body."  USA Today and The Huffington Post have written about ballet as a sport. In the wildly popular Under Armor commercial released in July 2014, Misty Copeland tells us “I will what I want,” bringing ballet into the Internet spotlight in an unprecedented way—but it leaves viewers knowing Copeland’s muscular rather than her artistic strengths. Profiles of dancers continue to be published, but when they focus on back-stories or personal habits (as in what’s in a ballerina’s handbag), they don’t exactly count as dance coverage. “Sometimes profile pieces end up talking about the performing art in every other way than the performing art itself,” said Sanjoy Roy, who covers dance at The Guardian.

Given the steady decline of mainstream exposure to dance, one might think that the dance community would fight for more attention from the press. “The companies need that external check, that expert pair of eyes—I wonder what they would do without it,” said Catton. “But then—who wants a critic?” There’s a rivalry in every field between the artists and the critics who write about their art, and dance is no exception. Cunningham reputedly said that “speaking about dance is like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” and Balanchine declared that “ballet will speak for itself and about itself.” Dance Magazine, by far the largest monthly for industry insiders, put its reviews on the web before doing away with them entirely in 2013.

Then again, the artist can only deny the importance of the critic when the critic is around. I asked the choreographer Bill T. Jones what he thought of the fact that many of the works shown at New York Live Arts, where he serves as artistic director, will not be reviewed. (Jones is also perhaps the most embattled of choreographers; Croce’s piece about her refusal to review his “Still/Here” performance in 1994 strongly damaged his trust in critics.) “There’s an adversarial relationship that many of us have had with the critics,” Jones said. “But the idea that the adversary could disappear in the future—that makes my palms sweaty. I can't imagine this world without them.”

Of the 12 critics I spoke with for this article, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kaufman is the only one who remains optimistic. “We have to be flexible with the times,” Kaufman said. "I don’t know what the future of journalism will look like, but I feel very bullish on arts journalism in general. There will always be an audience for it because it draws passionate people.”

Kaufman is right, in a sense. But the way this passion manifests itself on new media platforms can have the disadvantage of being far more inaccessible than anything in print ever was. Try looking at the ballet (it is mostly ballet) blogosphere and you will be met with an abyss of French technical terms and lobby gossip written by and for fans. Many of the reviewers appear to have gone postal. “If a critic is just someone with a big megaphone, than everyone can be a critic,” Witchel of The New York Post said. “That’s any asshole with a blog.”

Dance reviews aren’t going to start winning media popularity contests anytime soon, and newspapers and magazines don’t function as charities; they can’t exactly open up their coffers for people to start writing about dance seriously again. This means that dance is becoming another item in the experiential supermarket, a thoughtless art without a memory. As emerging choreographers come onto the scene—and there’s some very substantive work being made today—it remains unclear as to who will have either the expertise or the outlet needed to discuss the importance of these developing artistic voices. If the last 20 years indicate anything about the next 20, there’s a chance “we’re going to lose a conversation in the culture about this beautiful art—a conversation for the general public,” said Acocella. “We read articles on Iraq, we read articles about whales that are stranded on beaches. I want to read articles about dance. I want it to be part of our world."