Criticism and Controversy | Guest Post by Phoenicia Pettyjohn

Merce Cunningham said that writing about dance can be like pinning down jell-o. These critics prove that some jell-o is slipperier than others.

Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here" Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons

Bill T. Jones’ “Still/Here”
Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons

In 1957, Louis Horst wrote a piece for the Dance Observer of Paul Taylor’s 7 New Dances. It was a deconstructed dance using not only everyday gestures and repetition, but also absolute stillness. In one section, the curtain went up on Taylor standing and a young woman sitting. After four minutes of this frozen posture, the curtain came down. Horst’s review began by stating that Paul Taylor performed at the 92nd Street Y, followed by blank space and his signature at the bottom of the page. The review made Taylor famous and infamous in the then tiny world of modern dance.

In 1994, noted dance critic for the New Yorker, Arlene Croce, wrote “Discussing the Undiscussable,” the now notorious and controversial essay in which she announced that she was boycotting Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here, a piece of performance art about real people suffering from terminal illnesses, in the belief that the advent of ”victim art” would eventually prove disastrous for art in general and dance in particular: “I can live with the flabby, the feeble, the scoliotic. But with the righteous I cannot function at all. Instead of compassion, these performers induce, and even invite, a cozy kind of complicity.” Because it was an expression of “victim art,” she considered it impossible to review “by putting dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism… I can’t review someone I feel sorry or hopeless about.” Jones responded by saying that Croce was narrow minded and ill informed. The work went on to become one of Jones’ greatest successes.

"Poem" by Tere O'Connor Dance Photo by Andrea Mohin

“Poem” by Tere O’Connor Dance
Photo by Andrea Mohin

Tere O’Connor became a controversial figure (among critics) and a hero (among dancers) for having written an impassioned, angry unpublished but widely circulated letter to the New Yorker in August 2005 in response to a fairly positive review “Mystery Theater: Downtown surrealists” of one of his dances by Joan Acocella in which she labeled four NYC choreographers “downtown surrealists.” O’Connor, finding the comparison “intellectually porous,” referred to Acocella and other dance critics as “literalists” and out of touch.

In light of challenging economic times for dance makers and critics alike, now might be the time for mutual advocacy and a really juicy controversy.

This article previously appeared on the bathroom stalls of ODC, as part of the Bathroom Education Program.

Phoenicia Pettyjohn is the Director of Bathroom Education at ODC. Conceived as a program that broadens dance education at ODC, “Bath Ed” includes short educational pieces posted inside the bathroom stalls that Pettyjohn researches and writes on a weekly basis. Happy to research and skulk around the bathroom stalls, Pettyjohn took over the project as a volunteer in 2006. Describing herself as “something of a dance nerd,” she has a personal dance library rivaling most institutions. For her, the search for more information is inspiring and challenging. Even more challenging is how to write an educational and hopefully entertaining piece for the wide variety of people and ages at the Commons. To date, she has written over 120 pieces on anything and everything from Gumboot to Parkour and Black Mountain College to American Bandstand. Ideas come from brainstorming in the school office, watching late night television, things she has always wanted to know more about, and amazing suggestions from the Commons students and staff. Click here to access the Bath Ed archives.

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