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Bhumi Patel. Photo by Shinichi Iova-Koga.

Dance Cast S02 E09: To Review or Not to Review? With Bhumi Patel

Sima Belmar

Listen to the episode here and check out our latest episode below👇

Sima Belmar:

… tableau, and then we start. Is that what’s supposed to happen? Okay, great.

Welcome to Dance Cast. I’m your host, Sima Belmar. Today’s episode is a live recording of a conversation between Bhumi Patel and myself about the state of dance criticism today. This conversation was part of ODC Theater’s Art & Ideas event, which we called “To Review or Not to Review.” Bhumi B. Patel is the artistic director of pateldanceworks and is a queer, desi artist/activist who creates intersectionally feminist performances from a trauma-informed, social justice-oriented perspective. So Bhumi is not only a dance writer, but a dancer and choreographer herself.

Bhumi and I travel in the same dance writing circles. They’re very small circles. She recently guest edited a couple of issues of In Dance. She writes regularly for Life as a Modern Dancer blog. And we have a really lively conversation about the state of dance criticism, and our enormous audience, wink, wink, wink, asked excellent questions. So I hope you all enjoy this edited conversation. You can hear,, no, you can see the entire event on ODC Connect.

Don’t know what ODC Connect is? Well, I’ll tell you real quick. It’s a curated collection of digital content on a customized video on-demand platform. The original library includes featured dance films, archival works from the company, ODC theater artists, behind-the-scenes, documentaries, dance and fitness classes for all ages and abilities, cutting edge short films from our youth and teen programs, unique family friendly activities, and interviews with artists, instructors, and health experts, including me and Bhumi, the super dance writer experts. We don’t really believe in expertise, but you know what I’m saying. Find out more at odc.dance/connect. Whether you watch us or listen to us, we are happy you are here.

Sima Belmar:

Well, here we are, Bhumi.

Bhumi Patel:

Thanks, Sima.

Sima Belmar:

Thank you for coming.

Bhumi Patel:

Thank you for inviting me.

Sima Belmar:

Sure. I mean, we talked about, you and I, how few dance writers there are.

Bhumi Patel:

More specifically, we tried to think of dance writers of color.

Sima Belmar:

That’s right.

Bhumi Patel:

And we couldn’t come up with anyone.

Sima Belmar:

That’s what happened, yes, in the Bay Area, who were local. So we’re going to start by introducing ourselves in our dance writing capacities. All right, so I’m just going to go first really quick. I started writing dance criticism in the 90s. I was the first dance-specific arts writer intern at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Because there were arts internships, and it was like, You can write about visual art or music or whatever, and they didn’t even mention dance. I was like, Can I just write about dance? And they said, Sure. That’s how that started. And because this conversation is a lot about reviewing and whether or not one should review, To Review or Not to Review, I wrote a lot of reviews in that period, and I regret most of them.

At the time, I totally accepted the position of critic as an authority and being evaluative, even though I always thought that I was writing for dancers and choreographers and for the art form. I still had absorbed a little bit of that snarky movie critic voice. And I look back on it and it’s horrible. And I was called out on it a few times, and had some really interesting conversations with people about that. And that started to change the way I thought about writing dance criticism.

And then in 2009, I wrote a piece called, I think, “Disobedient Dance Criticism,” where I was just, I am very close to this artist, we are like best friends–it was Randee Paufve–and I am going to write from that position of intimacy and not pretend that I have any kind of critical distance at all. And that launched a change in how I wrote about dance. And then when I wrote the “In Practice” column for In Dance for several years, it was very much in relationship with artists, always sending the writing to the artist before I would publish anything, which, I have an art critic friend who was like, You do what? You let them have say in what gets published about their work? And I was like, Yeah, that’s what I do.

And now here, I’m the podcaster in residence at ODC, and it’s been an interesting journey to think about talking to artists and what they want to talk about, and then switching that to more thematic concerns. And yeah, that’s my basic dance critic journey, and I want to hear yours.

Bhumi Patel:

I’m going to age myself. In the 90s, I was writing short stories with my sister about taking hot air balloon rides on green construction paper.

Sima Belmar:

Nice. So basically, you’re aging me, but I get it. It’s okay. It’s okay.

Bhumi Patel:

I’m aging myself a little bit. I feel like I’m in a weird in-between space as a current practicing artist and a current dance writer. They both run parallel to each other. It’s not like, Oh well, I used to have a movement practice, and now I only write, or, I used to write. Now, I have a movement practice. They’re very, very much together, so I often end up in this weird, not weird, I mean, maybe it’s a little bit weird, but this position of reviewing and being reviewed, maybe not simultaneously, sometimes simultaneously.

In terms of journey, I did my undergraduate in dance and creative writing, thinking I was going to go into journalism, and I just fell very much in love with dance. I got a master’s in dance, and then I moved to New York City. And I was in this program where we had to go to four to five shows every single week. That was the assignment of the program. So I was literally Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday at a show every single week.

So I did what any millennial does. I started a blog. Don’t look it up. It’s not available on the internet anymore. But I started a blog, and I was like, How do I just write about the things that I’m seeing? Because I’m intaking so much information, I need to put something out and process it. And none of it’s very good, right?

Sima Belmar:

That’s okay.

Bhumi Patel:

It was a practice rather than a product, but I enjoyed doing it. So then I moved to the Bay. I was doing a little bit more writing. I got connected with Jill Randall who started asking me to write for her blog, which then just led to other gigs with other publications. But now I exist at that intersection of, I do a little bit of academic writing, I do some dance criticism writing, I do some non-dance criticism writing, but it has to do with dance. It’s about dance, but it’s not criticizing dance. I do a little bit of performative writing sometimes in there. And it all just makes a bunch of overlapping circles, a Venn diagram where I’m in the middle.

Sima Belmar:

It’s funny. I didn’t even say, because again, it does speak to generations possibly, that I was also dancing and choreographing a little while I was being a dance critic. But at the time, I compartmentalized mostly and didn’t think about it, like, that someone might write something snarky about me. I was just like, Why would they? But I did do an MFA in dance precisely to just get on that side of choreography and to realize how difficult it is, impossibly hard. And I wanted to have that more empathetic relationship to it, how hard it is to make a dance.

When I applied to graduate school for the doctoral program at Cal in performance studies, my paper was on my favorite dance criticism scandal, which is when Joan Acocella, who was The New Yorker dance critic up until very recently, wrote a review of Tere O’Connor’s work. She did not write a mean review, but she categorized him as a “downtown artist,” and he got so mad and wrote this amazing scathing response on a website that was called The Dance Insider, that no longer exists. Paul Ben-Itzak, I think, was the editor.

The Dance Insider was articles by dancers, for dancers. By dancers, for dancers kind of thing. And he just shredded her. But his main point was, If you would just have talked to me about the work… You don’t understand it. You didn’t get it. You should be talking to me. And then all these critics came out, including Deborah Jowitt who were like, No, we don’t have to get it. We don’t have to know what you meant to do. It’s our prerogative to have our own experience.

So I wrote this paper to get into graduate school. It was my writing sample where I talk about that whole kerfuffle. And I asked the question, Is it important for a dance writer to be a dancer? No one asks that question about visual arts. You could be a stick figure artist only and write about Jackson Pollock all day long or whoever you want, Georgia O’Keeffe. You can not be able to play a single instrument and write about classical music. But there’s something about dance and this feeling that certainly some dancers and choreographers have that why can’t the writer have some insider knowledge? It feels really important. And I came around to just feeling like it is important. It’s not necessary, but it does offer a perspective.

So you were mentioning that being a dancer/choreographer helps you in a certain way or offers you something. Can you speak more specifically to what does it offer you as a dance writer? What’s happening when you’re in that seat looking on?

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. I feel like I am looking for process sometimes. I feel like I’m looking for the mechanics of what is happening on stage so that I can understand what the choreographer, what the performers are trying to get at. And this ties in a little bit to process, maybe related to me being a choreographer, maybe not. But I had a professor who said it’s really easy to approach all of the texts that we are going to look at in this class very critically, particularly when we’re looking at things that were written in the 70s, in the 80s, in the 90s. It’s really easy to just say, They were wrong. We’re in 2022 now. They’re wrong. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

And she said, Can we instead take the perspective of critical generosity? Can we instead be critical and generous at the same time so that we understand the context in which this is happening? We are giving them our, she didn’t use the phrase benefit of the doubt, but taking what they’re saying and trying to really see what they mean by it. What is this artist trying to explain to us about something? What are they trying to express to us about this topic? And can many things exist at the same time? Can their vantage point about this topic, and my vantage point about this topic, and the person who’s sitting next to me’s vantage point about this topic, can they all exist together and all be okay? That really comes into the practice, trying to keep that critical generosity at the forefront, which is why I think, and this is something we’ve talked about before, a lot of my dance criticism or dance reviews ends up being a lot of questions.

Sima Belmar:

Yes. We were talking about this difference between criticizing and questioning, that we both view asking questions of a work and of an artist as a generous act and as an invitation to dialogue and an invitation to expanding the discourse around dance. But not every artist feels that way and responds that way. They feel the questions as criticism. And we were talking about how the Liz Lerman critical response is all about asking these kinds of questions of an artist to get them to find a way to articulate what it is they’re doing to be clearer, which is a feedback session. The review doesn’t tend to be thought of as a feedback phenomenon, but I think we both do think of it that way. And this is where the question has arisen: well, if artists don’t necessarily think of it that way, what are we doing?

Bhumi Patel:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

How do we go forward with writing reviews, and why do they matter? How are they being received?

Bhumi Patel:

Do they matter?

Sima Belmar:

Do they matter, right. Because we talked about the fact, at least in the Bay Area, that a review is not going to get people in seats usually if it’s a one weekend run, right? And even if you do stick a review in between a two-weekend run, I don’t think they function so much that way. I don’t know how much they help with grants anymore. I don’t really know. Other than documenting a moment and getting into dialogue and expanding the discourse, I’m not sure what they serve.

Bhumi Patel:

Is the social currency of a review still as valuable as it has been in the past? I don’t know. And is it different in the Bay compared to other parts of the country? We were talking about The New York Times for example, and their turnaround is really fast. So someone could go see a show, go see a preview on a Wednesday, publish the piece on Friday morning, and potentially maybe, who knows, use that as a marketing piece to get people to come to the show Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. We don’t have that kind of turnaround here. So then does it hold currency to have a piece of writing from someone that you may or may not agree with published two, three, four weeks later? I don’t know.

Sima Belmar:

A question was asked of us by text, and this was Jill Randall, who is the publisher and editor of Life as a Modern Dancer where we both publish reviews and previews. And I mean, it’s an incredible blog actually, because it’s also artists’ statements, hundreds at this point of artists writing about themselves and answers to questions Jill asks. It’s an incredible resource for dance, a real document that is very generous and caring toward the form. But she asked, as a publisher and editor, she asks whether or not she should publish a review if an artist hasn’t asked for it. Because artists often come to her and say, Hey, can you get someone to write about my show? Or she’ll reach out to an artist and be like, Oh, I’d love to send someone to review your show. And then if she doesn’t hear back, does she not do the review?

And so she brought it up as a question of consent, the review as requiring consent, which blew my mind. I was like, Oh gosh, I never thought of it that way. And so it made me think about… Well, you mentioned, and you can talk about this, about artist agency in this case. And then also, if you can talk about what artists have asked you to do recently as a dance writer.

Bhumi Patel:

The piece of artist agency there is, I think, that asking an artist, Do you want someone to come and review your show, that does feel like a really important question, and it does allow an artist to say, Yes. It allows an artist to say, Yes, as long as this person is within my identity categories, as long as this person has maybe not embodied knowledge, but any kind of knowledge about the form that I’m presenting, or, No, I am making this work for X, Y, or Z reasons. There does not need to be a written document about it. And so I do think that’s important. And the flip side of it is if you don’t hear a response from an artist, it is this kind of precarious situation of well, it would be nice to get to have someone write about it, but do we just let it go? Okay, we didn’t hear anything. We let it go. Maybe another time, maybe another show.

But then to the other question about things that artists have come to ask me to do, so I think that in the Bay in particular, there’s not a singular outlet or one or two outlets for dance writing. I lived in New York for a little while. You lived in New York. I feel like a lot of people were like, Okay, The Village Voice, The New York Times, The New Yorker, maybe there are a couple of others, right? Those are the outlets. Those are where the dance writing goes. And here, it’s dispersed a little bit more. There’s the SF Arts Monthly where it’s usually just a really short preview about something. It’s not really a review. Chronicle sometimes has dance reviews.

Sima Belmar:

There are digital publications, Stance on Dance and things like that.

Bhumi Patel:

And so what has happened is I have had artists reach out and say, I know you write about dance. Can you come and write about this piece? And I was like, Oh, okay. I have some questions. How much are you paying me? What do you want me to do with it? Sometimes, the artist will say like, Okay, well here’s the commission fee. And then I want you to submit it to X, Y, and Z as potential outlets. And sometimes they’ll say like, I just want it as a document for how someone is viewing my process. Because of the way that I write in this questioning format ends up being this dramaturgical document where it’s like, Okay, I’m coming in. I’m not in the process with you. And I’m not there from the beginning, but I just come in and I’m like, Okay, I don’t know what’s going on here, but here are some questions that I have.

One time, the artist was like, This is great. I’m just going to hold onto this, and maybe I’ll make a zine about the whole process at some point. And in that process, the artist had someone who is sketching during the show, maybe had someone who was engaging in some other visual art medium, like maybe painting. And there was also a photographer who was there more for an artistic purpose than a documentation purpose. And then I had another artist who was like, Oh, I don’t want to do anything with this. I just wanted feedback on the process because this was step one or phase one, and we have phases two and three in the next three years.

At first, when it first happened, because I was like, Oh, okay, this artist is paying me money to write about their work, how critical can I be of their work? I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And then I turned in the interviews, and the artist came back and was like, You’re asking such good questions. I want more of this. And so I felt like I had a little bit more permission to be like, Okay, well, I’m asking these questions about this section because here’s where it’s not working. Here are the ways in which it’s not working, because what I’m reading in your program is not matching up to what is actually happening in the piece. Where is the disconnect for you?”

And so I feel like it’s been like a weird journey to navigate through. What do you do when an artist comes to you and is like, I want you to write about my work, without feeling the pressure of like, Okay, I guess I can do that for you, but are you going to be happy with the thing that I write? Do I need to be really particular about what I say? And maybe that’s just a conversation I need to start having with artists when they reach out.

Sima Belmar:

Well, yeah. And I’m sure you do. I mean, I’m sure you have some communication happening before you just start writing all kinds of stuff. But that brings us to the amazing Elizabeth Zimmer piece. So Elizabeth Zimmer is a long time dance critic for The Village Voice, and it seems like every 10 years or so, she writes a piece about the death of dance criticism. It’s like, It’s dead. She has a complete flip out about it, and it’s funny.

And so the last one was 2021 November, but what’s fascinating, I’m going to read a little piece of it, what’s fascinating about this is she received an email from a quote, “venerable producing organization in New York City whose shows I’ve covered often over the past 25 years,” and she withholds the name respectfully. I’m just going to do my… Oops, video. Scare quotes. I’m not just doing a podcast where I have to be like… And now I’m gesturing with my elbow, okay. She said that they issued a quote, “transparent press policy designed, it appears, to protect performers from critics”.

So I already loved this. The critic is like the lion, and the performers are like lamb. And so in this email she received, it asks writers to quote, “acknowledge race bias is part of their review along with ability, disability status.” It instructs them to “treat the art and artist with respect in their language and descriptions, treating their own words as opinion and not fact, avoiding body shaming, misgendering, and assumptions about cultural, ethnic, or racial backgrounds.” It points out that “in a performance with many parts, all work should be acknowledged, not mentioning an artist and their work is in erasure.”

Okay. So she writes a little more and then she goes, and I quote, “Wait, what? Hello? No, just no.” She was like, What? How dare there be any kind of block or any kind of restriction on how I’m going to go forward. She doesn’t recognize that all they’re mostly saying there is that for the last bazillion years of dance criticism, it has been racist. It has been biased. It has been body shaming. It has been all these things. If you are going to do that, we don’t want you to write about us, which seems totally legit and fair.

When I read this, I thought, How could Zimmer, and others, because then, Marina Harss also said dance criticism was dying. A week later, another article came out. I was like, If it’s dying, why are there all these articles about it? It seems like it’s alive and well. But the death of print media and all that stuff. It really just made me think that like with every other white person’s reaction to being asked to be a better human being, not every other, but a very common response is like, I want to be free to be a jerk if I want to be a jerk. That’s really what it seems to come down to as opposed to, How can I find a way to engage with this work that isn’t offensive and upsetting?

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. So I talk to Gerald Casel about this a lot, this idea of white landlordship and white ownership over everything, right? So there’s this idea, I can go into any space as a white person and own it. I don’t need to know anything about West African dance. I can go in and own it by writing a review about it, and my criticism is the gospel. I don’t need to know anything about Bharatanatyam, but I can watch it and I can have ownership over my opinion. And it feels like this institution is saying, You can’t do that. You can’t just claim that you have ownership over something that you may or may not understand. By all means, write about it. And okay, say you don’t understand what’s going on on stage. That’s fine. But you can’t just walk in with the entitlement of, I know everything about this. And her response is like, How dare they?

Sima Belmar:

Oh yeah.

Bhumi Patel:

How dare they think that I don’t know everything?

Sima Belmar:

And that’s when you were talking about coming in and not knowing anything writing a review, you were referring to the Gia Kourlas review of DanceAfrica and then Charmian Wells’ response.

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. So this 2017 article, I wrote down the title so I wouldn’t forget, “DanceAfrica Excels With Tradition: Why Go Beyond?”

Sima Belmar:

Stop right there in tradition, please. Don’t do anything that makes me not understand what’s happening. Yes, go on.

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. And I… Ugh, this review made me feel very icky. The title probably makes everyone feel icky because it completely demonstrates an entitlement to what traditional African dance should look like, what sort of pigeonhole DanceAfrica belongs in. And it gives this like, Don’t get too big for your britches. Don’t try to make contemporary dance when we already know you’re good at this one thing. You may not go outside of this one thing that you’re good at.

And so Charmian Wells responds “Strong and wrong: on ignorance and modes of white spectatorship in dance criticism,” and goes through this idea of how whiteness and white supremacy imbues this entitlement to white critics to come in strong and to say, No, you’re wrong. I have no context for your cultural tradition. I have no idea what’s happening in your area of the dance world, but you’re wrong. I’ve decided.

Sima Belmar:

And now we both will never be allowed to write for The New York Times. It’s over.

Bhumi Patel:

I don’t think they’re going to hire me anyway.

Sima Belmar:

Me neither.

Bhumi Patel:

But Wells starts with this great quote from Eleo Pomare, which I wrote down because I love it, “In my opinion, artists don’t need critics or reviews. A reviewer can easily hurt an artist through bias, or worse, through ignorance.” And I feel like ignorance is so often invisible, particularly when we live in a white supremist structure. The ignorance of having the ability to say, I have no idea what this form is. I have no idea what’s happening in this contemporary moment in this form, is just reinforcing this white ownership thing.

Sima Belmar:

Yeah. And it’s making me think of this other problem with dance, which is concert dance, broadly construed. What do they call it? The bastard stepchild of the arts or something like that. There’s a way that we try to get audiences in. And there’s two ways in a way. One by trying to educate, right? Dance appreciation and program notes and, Here’s the way and look how it’s made, and really helping people to get that. And I think that’s helpful. But then there’s this also like, You don’t have to understand. You can come in and have your own experience. But that’s what’s dangerous because depending on how people claim their own experience, they can do more or less harm responding to what they’re seeing.

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. Which this, I think, circles back to that question of artist agency because I feel like there are times where I have made things as an artist and at a certain point have been like, I don’t think I care if this is legible. And with those pieces, I’m like, I don’t actually care if anybody writes about this because I don’t know that I care that it’s legible. For whom the work is being made about and for, I think I’ve done the work of legibility. So that if I can’t find those people to write about the work, does it really matter what somebody who can’t read the dance thinks?

Sima Belmar:

Right. Who is the work for? I remember at some St. Mary’s class, I asked choreographers, Who do you make dances for? And the most common answer is, Everybody. I want my dances to reach everybody. And I’m always like, Not possible. It’s helpful to know that exactly, to have agency around who you want to respond to your work.

And I was just talking with Emily Hansel and her dancers, and she had asked me, Hey, can I be on the podcast? Which I’m always like, If anybody wants to be on the podcast, hear ye, hear ye. Come and tell me. And nobody tells. Nobody writes to me or calls me, but she did. And we made it happen because we came up with a conversation we wanted to have. And that just meant that she knew what I did. And so it made sense for her, to her, to have a conversation with me specifically. And I think a lot of it is like, Can somebody, anybody, please write about my work? Can I just please get some kind of press? I think that artists, they’re close to their work, and it does feel personal and it is personal. And so it’s silly to think that there’s going to be some kind of objective, cool stance away from it that can happen.

And when you were talking about whiteness, I was always also like, For the audience who doesn’t know, dance criticism has been white people in this country. And it’s been first white men, and then it transitioned to white women. And it has been heavily dominated by white women. One of my chapters in my dissertation is about Bill T. Jones’ relationship with his white female critics and how he keeps trying to create a call-and-response relationship with them. And they keep saying, Shut up, over and over again, and it’s been his lifelong practice. And you couldn’t believe, you look at Dance Critics Association meetings, all these different things he comes up, it’s not just the Arlene Croce affair, which for people who don’t know, where she wrote about his work without seeing it–I don’t have to see this work because I already know what it is–which is just like the craziest thing anybody’s ever said or done.

Oh actually, Louis Horst. I think he reviewed Paul Taylor and just wrote a blank, there was just a blank, nothing, and then Louis Horst, which actually I think is hilarious. To be honest, I loved that. Is there another, anything else we didn’t touch upon before we turn it to the mob that is furious about what we’ve been talking about?

Bhumi Patel:

I wrote something down about the way that I do criticism that didn’t come up in practice, and there is this critical generosity. But I think about this with dance writing. I think about it with my work as an activist. I think about it as in my work as a choreographer and my work as an educator. All of it comes from the softest place of me. I have written reviews of people’s work and then heard from other people that they were very unhappy with it, and that’s okay. They can be unhappy with it.

And I think you do this too. It comes from this soft place of maybe wanting to understand, maybe wanting to give voice to things that are happening, maybe tying what’s happening here to what lineages this is coming from. Who are the ancestors that are being called upon to bring this work into realization? And I feel like that’s not talked about enough. And I feel like that is a very particular I-am-a-queer-woman-of-color thing that I do. I don’t play the power struggle thing that I feel happens in white dance criticism.

Sima Belmar:

That’s beautiful. And I mean, I definitely feel that I do that now, but I did not do it in my twenties. In my twenties, I was mean. I mean, and I didn’t think of it as mean. I thought I was the dancer’s critic. And then I looked back, I knew there were three really bad ones. I processed one with the choreographer. We are friends now. I did not process the other two with the other folks, and that’s okay. But I knew they were mad because I heard about it from the community, which I love about this community. I went to some event and people came up to me like, Mm, half this room hates you now. I was like, Okay.

But even the ones that weren’t mean still had this authoritative thrust that I didn’t even recognize in myself, and would never at the time of thought about it as a whiteness thing. Because as a Jewish person, even though I know I have skin privilege, I couldn’t even claim, I’m like, How can a Jew claim white supremacy when that’s what Nazis are? You know what I mean? It didn’t compute at the time. Now I get it. But I think that’s really beautiful and a beautiful place to rest and sit with, to let folks know that we love the form. We would never be doing this because it is not lucrative in any way to work. But I think dancers and choreographers are the greatest of human beings. I really do. But does anybody here have a question for Bhumi or for me or for both of us? Or a comment?

Bhumi Patel:

Or a thought?

Sima Belmar:

A thought. A feeling.

Bhumi Patel:

An anecdote.

Sima Belmar:

And Greg told me to repeat it, and I’ll try more or less. The question is that it seemed like when I was talking, there was a little bit of a contradiction between what I said about dance criticism being alive and well, because there were people claiming it’s dead and they were always claiming that, and the fact that people want reviews but they’re not getting them. And then the third part was related to what Bhumi was saying about artists asking her to write about them. That if this writing is happening, that somehow maybe it’s not connecting, like that the dancer choreographer community and the dance writing community or the phenomena are not meeting somewhere.

The terrain is shifting, and so that’s why we originally said this was called To Review or Not to Review, because it’s really that that genre feels like, or that form feels like, it’s in crisis, truly is in crisis now. Not crisis like, Oh no, the review’s dying. Maybe it should die. That’s the question. But these other kinds of dance writing I think are happening a lot, especially with the digital world. And Kate Mattingly is someone to read. She wrote her dissertation, and maybe a book will happen, articles, about the history of dance criticism, and then the digital sphere and what it has afforded dance as a field.

Bhumi Patel:

I would agree that there is an evolution that’s happening. And I feel like this happens with so many things. Newspapers are being read on iPads instead of in print–Media is dead! People, critics, are getting involved with the process and giving artists more agency–Criticism is dead! We’re like, Really? How do we culturally shift our mindset to believe that evolution and growth… Okay, maybe it is the death of something, but maybe the death of something isn’t so bad. I feel like that’s the thing about it.

And to this question of people want to get reviewed but aren’t getting reviewed, I think because we’re having this kind of shift while we’re trying not to rely on these publications that have historically really excluded a lot of forums and a lot of people and a lot of people who hold identities that are outside of the status quo, it’s harder to see where things are happening. And I’ll say this with my artist hat on. If we are still asking for validation by way of the Times, by way of the Chronicle, by way of these publications, okay, maybe that is dead. Maybe it is.

And maybe that’s not the thing that we’re going to get. But if we start to evolve our thinking and say, I’m going to ask four or five different people who maybe haven’t done any dance criticism before, but I’m going to ask them to come to opening night of the show or the second night or whatever it is and write about it. Maybe that’s the new thing. And that’s okay. Because it does keep going back to this question, What is the point of criticism? If the point of criticism is this feedback process, okay, let’s shift our thinking into how we get feedback. There are definitely a handful of people who I am like, I very much respect you. Will you come into my rehearsal process and offer feedback to the work? I don’t need to rely on a critic to give me feedback.

Sima Belmar:

And if you’re an artist who’s like, If there’s any writing about me, I want it to be totally laudatory. And I want to be fabulous in print, then I feel like the artist can say that to the critic, and then the critic can be like, I can’t do that. I can’t. I saw your show and I can’t write about it and then be okay. And they can maybe have a private conversation, but maybe nothing has to be written at all. But yeah, that’s a really good point.

And is the critic an authority on anything? I feel like the people who know me sometimes want my feelings about it because I’ve been watching dance for a long time. But I mean, I can get it completely wrong. I mean, I can love something and nobody likes it. I can hate something and everybody loves it. I mean, what?

Yeah, Andrew [Merrell]. So Andrew said, People do dance for different reasons. Not always pristine in Western white forms, which he mentioned that he’s in, involved in. And then the question about if critics are shifting from this authoritative position, he asked, How are we teaching young choreographers to make work, and then finding that young choreographers who you work with feel this need to be understood in a language-based way and that he doesn’t feel like he needs a critic to validate him that way, but that he’d be curious to know what happened for you? And can it be a community discussion?

One thing I want to say about that right away is that as a dance writer, because I was dancing too and was part of the, I felt like I was part of the community, so it would always surprise me and hurt my feelings when people in the community looked at me as a writer and saw me as needing something from me or wanting something and they’re getting mad at me. And I was like, Yeah, but I’m like you. We’re the same. And they’re like, No, we’re not. And that was painful. And I feel like that has changed since I’ve moved away from reviews. That’s changed. Now, I feel like people do see me as a community member that they can dialogue with, whether it’s podcast or writing or just having a conversation.

And I also just wanted to say that I wonder, this desire to be understood feels like it started in the 80s or 90s, that identity politics dance, if you want to call it that, the movement away from, and I’m talking right now about postmodern, modern dance, concert dance stuff. I can’t speak for the other forms, but because these are the histories I’ve read more and they’re more of the histories have been written. Here’s part of the problem. But that, before, if you were a line in space, it didn’t matter if you were understood, if it was gotten right. Then if you were a pedestrian, sweatpants-wearing, contact improviser, task person… Wait. Oh, oh. If on the podcast, you could only see our fake Trisha Brown moment that we’re doing, which probably… And I had a nice extension.

Anyway, developpe from the chair. Once one’s identity, and these were often identities that were not being recognized, not being looked at, not being read, written about, being discriminated against, all that stuff, to have the dance be misunderstood was violence. So I’d be interested now to trace that lineage to now. And what are Gen Z-ers, if you’re thinking about Gen Z-ers or millennials feeling like they need to be understood, if that’s still part of that identity lineage or something else is going on.

Bhumi Patel:

It feels like a legibility question. And what came up for me as you were talking about young choreographers is I feel like there is a desire, and I only say this because I teach in higher education too, there is this desire to complete a task that is understood to get a grade, which is not how art making works. You know what I mean? That’s just not how making art works.

I tell all of my students, If you do the assignment, you get an A in the class. I don’t care what your grade is. You tell me what grade you think you deserve for the amount of effort you put into this project. Now, let’s have a conversation about what’s happening. Here’s what I got as the instructor of this class. Also, a learner, because I’m learning from all of you. Here’s what I received from the thing that you presented. Why don’t you tell me what you were interested in presenting? And we can collaborate on this to figure out where like, ‘Mm, we’re losing you over here from my perspective.’ What did your peers think? What did other people think? Were you on board? Was I off the train?

And so I feel like to this question of young dancers wanting to be understood, it relates to this identity politics thing and the violence of not being understood. But I also think it relates to the violence of education, you know what I mean? The violence of grading young people in the arts. Because it is.

Sima Belmar:

Or anything. Grades.

Bhumi Patel:

Yeah. Who has the authority to say, Your art is good. Your art is bad, when in fact, we see in the world that there is space for almost everyone’s art to happen in some community of people. So why are we acting like this institution, this educational institution has the answers for what art is?

Sima Belmar:

That’s a good point. That’s why universal basic income for artists, then everybody can make whatever trash they want, and beauty and amazingness. Maybe we should just give letter grades as reviews. Just be like, I saw your show. A minus. You can talk to me after class.

Bhumi Patel:

I think we should start writing five-star reviews.

Sima Belmar:

Yeah, that sort of thing. That’s right. Well, when I was writing for The [SF Bay] Guardian in the ’90s, they definitely thought that dance reviews were going to be more like movie reviews, film reviews. They were kind of like, Aren’t you writing for audiences to let them know whether they should go or not? I’m like, I don’t think so. Pretty sure no one’s going to go anyway even though I loved it. Talk to us, David [Herrera].

So I’m just going to quickly say, repeat this amazing, great question about feeling like dance writers are still inaccessible to choreographers and that they’re still gatekeepers. And there was some reference to the Chronicle. And then the final question of how can we break that cycle of gatekeeping and how that critics say no a lot, writers say no a lot. The dance card is full. How do dance writers hold one another accountable?

Bhumi Patel:

I think there is the risk when an artist responds to, even if an artist is clearheaded and they’re all of these things, there is the risk to be read as emotional or too invested, because you are responding to something about your own work.

Sima Belmar:

Yeah. And we had a moment where you wrote something, the artist got upset, and then when we talked, when we Zoomed, I said what I thought about what you wrote. And I was like, I didn’t read it that way. And we had our own moment of support, mutual dance writer support. I do want to say, and I really think this is part of just the obfuscation of professional life in this country in different fields, Rachel Howard, she can’t choose what she writes about.

I mean, if we’re talking about the Chronicle, they assign that stuff and they are incredibly resistant and they don’t care about dance. So just know that if she’s going to get to write, if she wants to write, she’s going to have to keep writing about Mark Morris pretty much. Very hard to get anybody else in those. They don’t recognize smaller companies. They’re not interested in other dance forms, unless it’s the ethnic dance festival and they could say something umbrella-ey like, Let’s all get it all under one umbrella, that kind of thing.

So I guest edited two issues of In Dance. Bhumi guest edited two issues of In Dance. It was a ton of outreach finding people. And I believe you helped too, David. I can’t remember. I know Gerald forwarded people to me. I was like, Who wants to write? Who hasn’t gotten their voice out there? I don’t know everybody. How do we do this? And I can’t speak for Bhumi, for me, it was a wonderful experience, and now it’s over. I don’t have the platform anymore. A lot of the gatekeeping is happening from the publication, and that makes it for the writer hard to get a space. So then it’s like, Okay, have your own blog or have your own thing. And just from my point of view, I have 45 jobs, and I can’t do another thing, especially unpaid.

So I’m really appreciating you bringing it up though, especially this question of how can writers respond to writers. And I think it’s also just what makes me go, Ooh, and like, Oh,” and I’m having physical responses to these questions is the same response I have to asking hard questions and being really critical about dance. Because I think dance gets no love already. And plus we’re so insular as a community. It’s hard to be honest. You know how it is. I mean, conversations are happening. People are talking about all kinds of stuff happening in the community and it’s very delicate and tricky. So it is a big question, unanswerable. I certainly can’t answer it now, but I really appreciate having it on my radar. You want the last word on this? That would be awesome. Because we’re past time because this crowd is wild for dance criticism, yeah.

Bhumi Patel:

So not to overuse Audre Lorde but, The master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s house. And so I often feel like the way to change the system is to build our own house. How are we actually decentering some of these institutions and publications that are held in regard?

And instead of trying to claw our way in… And I did, I tried to claw my way into the Chronicle, and I published one piece in the Chronicle and then I emailed the editor and I said, Here are seven different shows that are coming up in the, I don’t know how many fingers, seven different shows that are coming up in the next three months. I will literally take time out of my life and write about every single one if you will publish every single one. None of them were ballet. None of them were the acceptable ethnic dance. It was all experimental work that was happening at places like CounterPulse. It was performance art. It was all of these things. And I got a response back that was something like, That’s not within the scope of our publication. And I was like, Okay, I’m out. Thanks. Thank you very much.

But what I think is so beautiful, and I only know this because I was listening to the process, what I think is so beautiful about what you did with your show, David, is that you gave these writers who are maybe a little less experienced, and this relates to the way that I curated in dance as well. I really wanted people who don’t have a huge following in their writing practice. But there are folks who are either new to writing or just don’t have these platforms, these larger institutions. And you not only invited them into the process, but you made it this collaborative effort. And then ultimately, they went away and they wrote about the experience that they had.

From my vantage point, there was no expectation that it was all going to be complementary, but they had information. And so it felt like there was an opportunity for the work to be legible beyond I came to the theater at 7:45. I sat down in my seat. It was dark. I maybe jotted some notes on my lap. Then I went home and I click-clacked on my laptop. And then I sent it to my editor. And so it feels like that’s a way to build a new house. We’re going to keep trying to decenter these institutions and these publications that don’t want us.

Sima Belmar:

Thank you so much, Bhumi–

Bhumi Patel:

Thank you, Sima.

Sima Belmar:

–for joining me and this amazing audience and ODC.

Bhumi Patel:

Do you have a sign off?

Sima Belmar:

Well on my podcast, I say, “Until next time. Dance on,” which now that I say it in front of people, is very cheesy. Sounds awesome on the podcast.

Bhumi Patel:

I gave a conference paper three and a half weeks ago that I ended with, it was about RuPaul’s Drag Race. I ended the paper presentation with, “As for the queens, I hope that they’ll dance on.” We are equally…

Sima Belmar:

Maybe we should start a publication called Dance On.

Bhumi Patel:

Yes.

Sima Belmar:

And write in the ways that everybody needs.

Sima Belmar:

Dance Cast is an ODC Theater production, curated, written, and edited by Sima Belmar, that’s me, with creative consulting from Chloë Zimberg and Sophie Leininger, and additional support from Matt Shrimplin and Garth Grimball. Please subscribe and rate our podcast wherever you get your podcasts, and tell your friends. You can find a transcript of this episode and all Dance Cast episodes replete with hyperlinks to related content at odc.dance/stories. Until next time, dance on.

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A collection of articles about ODC and the world of Dance.

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Dance dispatches from the most active center for contemporary dance on the West Coast.

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