Photo by ADF/Sara D. Davis, 2008
Take 14 dance critics and one eminent critic/leader, seat them around a table for hours each day speaking with guests including dance writing’s best practitioners plus presenters, artists, new media mavens and managers, send them out to see and cover a mix of popular mainstream and well-established contemporary dance within a major festival, continue for three weeks (with one day off) and at the end what do you have? Journalists ready to resume their berths at newspapers and web platforms all across the country to report on dance in a more effective, eloquent and possibly experimental way.
The National Endowment for the Arts deserves kudos for having the wisdom to fund this convening of critics over the last nine years. Officially named the NEA Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, this was the first of what are now several separate Arts Criticism Institutes for different art forms.
Within the dance ecosystem good-quality written commentary is crucial. Critics inform audiences about what they may experience watching different kinds of dance: why it matters, what they might take away and what the context for it is. They bring audiences to the work. They create a record in a form that’s evanescent, writing history. And for funders and presenters, their accounts become a way of identifying new artists to produce and endorsing ones worthy of support.
I was a participant in the Institute for Dance Criticism’s final voyage, just ended. It is not slated to receive any funding in next year’s cycle and so faces extinction. This is a shame. People doing terrific work like Claudia LaRocco at the New York Times and Theodore Bale in Houston have been past participants. While critics convene in weekend conferences, in no way do those replace the intensive input offered at the Institute. Suzanne Carbonneau who has been its leader for nine years cultivates not only writing chops, but also attitudes that engender supporting the field as a whole, maintaining allegiance to the reader while remaining respectful of artists and open to all forms.
Thank you National Endowment for the Arts for the great experience I had. I’ll better serve Philadelphia artists and audiences through what I’ve learned. I’m just sorry that a continuing stream of other writers and their communities will not enjoy those same benefits.