Sunday, March 8, 2009

More on the Blogger vs. Critic Conundrum

I was recently asked to speak on another panel about dance blogging later this spring, and after last week’s conversation regarding Alastair Macaulay’s power trip of a review of NYCB, I got to thinking more and more about the blogger vs. critic theme.

As a culture, the internet has given literally anybody with an internet connection and a few fingers to type the ability to produce – whether it’s homemade videos on youTube, Photoshopped party pictures on Facebook, or snarky opinions on a blog. But just because everybody CAN have the means to create (and distribute) doesn’t necessarily allow them to stand their own in the online media ecosystem.

Speaking of dance criticism in particular, one critic noted that the internet has allowed almost any ballet fan to become a critic. Here’s where the fun part comes: what’s your definition of a critic?

I like food. I mean, I REALLY like food. I eat out in Manhattan way more than my budget tells me I should, and I grew up in a big, healthy Italian family where eating is the primary task of the day. I know next to nothing about food preparation or high cuisine, but I definitely have opinions about food. In fact I’m a very picky eater and only want the good stuff. So if I ramble on about how good or bad a particular restaurant was just from a single meal experience, does that make me a food critic? I have an opinion, I write it, I’m critical. A critic am I?

In reality, nobody would care to read why I didn’t like Famiglia’s pizza. And I certainly wouldn’t have any influence on their chef at hand.

My point is, one cannot simply “become” a critic just because they have the password to a Wordpress account.

A critic has an audience, a duty, a context within their field, a unique insight to offer, a reason to be writing, an INFORMED opinion, a respect from their readership. It doesn’t happen over night. One critic last summer at the DCA conference argued that it takes 20 years before you see enough to become a critic.

In the dance world, there are many many many balletomanes with vastly varying opinions about the different companies, dancers, and issues today. Some of them sound off on message boards or in everyday conversation, and no doubt word of mouth matters. But few – very few – are critics.

For the purposes of conversation, let’s just focus on the New York dance scene and critics. Of the relatively few dance blogs out there (I count maybe 8 worth reading) I’d say only two post performance reviews as regularly as a print publication would (ie. The NY Times, maybe the only one left with regular print coverage). Neither of these bloggers are compensated for their writing, so you might not term them “professional critics.” But I’d argue that they know what they’re talking about.

Those that have been successful have started from scratch, built their audiences on terms of honestly and intrigue, marketed themselves smartly, and spent probably more uncompensated time (and money on tickets) than they should have. Yes, they (we) do it because they enjoy it, but blogging is not for everybody who simply loves dance. It’s an unpaid career where gratification comes not from the check or the byline in black and white, but from sparking conversation amongst readers, a thank you note from an artist, or a quote or link from other respected websites.

Following a lead by Cedar Lake Dance in early 2008, dance companies have begun to include bloggers on their press lists, seeking reviews from a new source that is most certainly the future of dance writing. We can beg and hope the economy and the publishing industry will turn around (God knows I do, after just finishing my master’s degree in the seemingly obsolete field) but the truth is most of those fabulous print critics are critics no more. If they don’t cross that jagged line to blogger and send their thoughts to cyberspace readers, what more impact can they have on the arts?

I tumble somewhere between the two poles. I became a blogger and a paid print freelancer writer just about simultaneously, but by no means do I compare with the experts in either medium. I’ve been paid for online reviews, and I’ve been paid by a print publication for a review. I’ve written features for quite a few of the dance magazines, and I’ve established my own online readership (all for which I am extremely grateful).

It’s not really the fight for the title “critic” that bloggers are looking for, I don’t think. It’s more the acknowledgement of their writing and it’s importance to today’s evolving landscape of criticism – acknowledgement from dance companies and fellow dance writers. Their readers, no doubt, already value that.

I’m not saying we should lose all professional criticism, by any means. I have enormous respect for the great dance critics, the depth of their knowledge, and their admirable writing abilities. But there’s no need to ignore the new voices broadcasting their love of dance online.


Anonymous said...

You should get paid! You are a very talented writer and quite intuitive for such a young sole.

Anonymous said...

Taylor, I'm finding your posts on this topic very interesting and timely. I, myself, have been writing about dance for not quite a year now. My blog is focused more on educational topics. However, because of the blog I have begun doing some reviewing as well, publishing on a local level.

I think it will be a long time before I could consider myself a critic. I do not have that depth of experience in seeing and writing about dance works that professional critics do and must. But, as you point out, dance companies are realizing that bloggers are important in bringing attention to their work and I have been given the opportunity to write about some of the dance happening in my city.

I see criticism as a communication between the writer and artist. Critics, with their knowledge and years of experience, can push artists to further refine and define their craft. When I write a review, I don't necessarily strive to advance or push the artist themselves (although if something I've written does so, great). I strive to help the audience "see" the dance - perhaps helping them decide if this is a performance they'd like to attend for themselves or even giving them some insight into the work or artist which they may not otherwise have noticed or been aware. I try to reach out to the dance "layman" more so than those literate in dance because it is my desire that the everyman/woman be able to watch and appreciate dance. I hope with my particular, although certainly not definitive, knowledge of movement, its history, and the art form of dance that my writing can help connect the artist to their audience.

Based on these, my own loose definitions, critics and reviewers have two different roles in the dance world and, in my humble opinion, both are valid and necessary for dance art to survive and thrive.

Taylor said...

Thanks for your insight! I definitely agree that there's a difference between a reviewer and a critic.

I think, as you kind of mention, it might be easier for the layman to read about dance from a blogger's perspective rather than a critic, mostly because it often comes from a more personal perception of whatever work is being seen. The other thing is that online we have more space to explain and write in more detail (though wordcount is certainly not endless...readers can only take so much).

Love your blog :)

Deborah said...

Very interesting indeed. I've been following posts on your site and on a few other blogs (trailerpilot, Swan Lake Samba Girl, etc.) about related issues, and I've been thinking a lot about these topics as I myself venture into print media to pay the bills (well, part of them) and as I see what blogs are submitted to

I wonder how many of us dance bloggers would actually use the term "dance critic" to describe ourselves. I certainly don't consider myself a critic (and I'm having a harder and harder time figuring out what labels I do feel comfortable with; my occupational identity is probably better described with a tag cloud than with one, two, or even three words). But I *do* wonder if we're more often perceived by others as critics. I think we have an interesting, complex path to navigate as dance coverage in print media diminishes and as the dance blogosphere grows in size, strength, and recognition. Who knows what's ahead . . .

Philip said...

Excellent writing and a very thought-provoking topic, Taylor!

I have been keeping a diary since 1963(!) about performances I attend. For years it was just opera, then it extended into dance. When the idea came to me of blogging, the blog became simply an open version of the diary (editing out some graphic passages and naughty language). I never expected even a tenth of the interest that has been shown, nor to be taken seriously and even quoted, nor to have it generate press tickets to events and invitations to rehearsals, etc.

Unlike paid writers, writing is not my job. I'm not on assignment. I only go to things I feel pretty sure I will enjoy. You'll never catch me at a Broadway show, for example. Some people feel my 'reviews' are meaningless since they are invariably positive but as I do not go to things that would likely produce negative write-ups, that's how my blog ends up. (I can be pretty nasty about the opera sometimes, but I feel my knowledge and experience in that field is far more extensive than in dance).

Basically I believe in a positive attitude; far be it for me to tear down the choreographic or performing efforts of people who do things I could never dream of doing. Of course there are mediocrities in the dance field but I always try to look for positive aspects. It expands my horizons to watch something and try to connect to it even if at first glance it is off-putting or even shallow. When I see dancers I know can do better giving a substandard performance I feel bad having to mention it. I don't believe in attacking people's weaknesses or brutalizing dancers nearing the ends of their careers. I know what dancing means to dancers and how hard a life it is, filled with risks. I am always dismayed to see the lack of respect some writers show, though - admittedly - I can be pretty disrepectful of opera singers. But it's a different realm altogether.

Currently some of the major print opera and dance reviewers seem to have nothing of real interest to say. They tend to give more background than is needed and not to focus on details of the performance at hand. I almost never read anything in the professional sector these days - basically from lack of time.

Blogging is very time-consuming and it costs me money every month that I basically can ill afford. I am not sure sometimes why I keep doing it, but then something exciting like last night's Wheeldon event at the Guggenheim will reassure me.

I feel it is up to the readers to decide what 'voices' they want to hear from among the print and blog writers who are available. I don't see why we can't co-exist, though I can understand that critics may feel their livelihood being threatened by the 'miasma' of blogging opinion.

It's a changing world to be sure.

Taylor said...

Thanks for you comment, Philip. I think your point about not being "on assignment" is an important one. In that sense, we bloggers are more like editors assigning our own stories, our own reviews, our own sense of what we feel is important to our own readers. We don't necessarily have to cater to an assigning editor and their ideas (for instance, an online review I wrote for a print publication was edited SIGNIFICANTLY from what I had written initially because they wanted a completely different angle on a REVIEW, an OPINION. It made me think...)

Anonymous said...

For those interested in these issues from the professional critic's perspective, a connection with the Dance Critics Association might be helpful: