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Reviewing the Reviewer: A Conversation Between Choreographer Paula Mann and Dance Critic Lightsey Darst

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. Here is an excerpt of Darst’s critique of the show for mnartists.org, about Mann’s dance […]

Production photo for Far Afield by Jack Dant, courtesy of Time Track Productions. Pictured: Penelope Freeh (front) and Paula Mann (back)

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis.

Here is an excerpt of Darst’s critique of the show for mnartists.org, about Mann’s dance work, in particular:

Paula Mann’s O The Humanity …[is] a very busy duet with a noisy collage score and an ensemble of highly reflective young women, moving screens for Steve Paul’s video collage, new order caryatids. It’s clever and allusive, and the central couple goes crazy in the comfort of what I take to be their suburban avant-bourgeois media cave, like everyone you know. . . Or, wait a minute: who are these people? They told us our devices would make us mad, but it hasn’t happened to anyone I know: everyone I know is going crazy the good old-fashioned way — work, love, grief… But even if I don’t buy the plot, I still believe the crazy because Mann dances it. Mann can be a slow burn; it takes a while to notice how wickedly fast she is. But with her eyes made up like she’s been crying all week, and the mania flaming out from her bones, she’s a bonfire now. The question is: what moves her?

A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response to the piece; then, Lightsey wrote her back, and asked if she’d like to embark on an experiment, a conversation about the work, between the reviewer and reviewed, undertaken for publication here. And so began a fascinating, weeks-long exchange between the two — on art and dance and the balancing act of bringing critical judgment to bear on both; on audience perception and creative intentions, and the mettle-testing value of flopping in public. We’ll publish their back-and-forth in two installments. The first of these is below; look for the second early next week.

On a related note: Lightsey Darst has a piece just this week on the mnartists.org homepage, reflecting on a new collaborative, multimedia dance work by Time Track Productions, Here and After, featuring choreography by Paula Mann and media imagery by Steve Paul, with original music by Michelle Kinney (Jelloslave). The work was performed at TEK BOX  in Minneapolis September 27 through 30, 2012. You can read the review of this new work, Here and After, on mnartists.org now.

*****

From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Your mnartists.org review of ‘Far Afield’

Hello Lightsey,

First of all, I want to thank you for reviewing our concert ‘Far Afield’ on Saturday night! In the tradition of Doris Humphrey (she wrote back to the famous critic, John Martin responding to his reviews of her work), I thought I would send you my thoughts on your review. I realize this is not often done in our small little dance-world bubble, but it seemed a good idea to try it. I have respect for both your writing and thinking process about dance and performance. I have tried to keep my distance from reviewers, so as not to influence and confuse the issue of friendship/nepotism. Caroline [Palmer] and Linda [Shapiro] are friendly acquaintances of mine, but I knew them both before they began reviewing publicly. The most thoughtful review I ever received was from the Jack Anderson when we performed at Dance Theater Workshop in New York in 2009; I did not know him personally at all (his review is still online).

I want to thank you for your compliments [in the recent review, “Dancing it True”] about my own dancing. I’m 53, and I know I don’t have many more years left as a performer, so it is nice to hear. Dancing and performing (translating my own ideas into movement for my own body) is truly my love. Choreography is hard work, but dancing is filled with ease for me after all these years.

I think the problems you had with the work (speaking only for myself and not for Penny [Freeh]) are the problems many have had [with our dances] over the years. Strangely though, for this show I heard less of the “too busy, too noisy” comment from the audience, than I normally do. I am sorry you felt that way, as we were really striving to achieve a very difficult balance with movement, media and sound all playing together. The main thing, for me, is the creation of a work that looks like nothing else, something that that no one else could achieve, that is uniquely ours. Also, the addition of media allows us to develop a broader audience for our work; more men and non-dancers came up [after the show] and talked to me, and I appreciate this.

I was a little sad that you didn’t seem to notice the movement vocabulary in the duet, as I put special attention to making that particular vocabulary speak to the intention of the relationship we were portraying. I see many companies in our community that hire the same dancers (all wonderful, of course), and basically allow the dancers to create/inform the movement; but they don’t shine a light on specific movement, don’t use the tools of craft to change the qualities, and therefore affect the overall meaning, of the work. And so, the actual movement of these very fine companies all looks alike for me. I realize this kind of attention to the movement that is actually created and performed is not everyone’s interest. But it is mine. Perhaps the media [accompanying the dance] was just too overwhelming for this to come solidly through?

The plot (that was not bought by you) is this: What are the circuitous emotional journeys that occur in a long-term relationship over many years (at least over ten years)? Steve [Paul] and I have been together 20 years, and this is the first time I have ever tried to get enough distance from our relationship to inspire a piece. Perhaps this is an age thing; if you have never experienced the falling in and out of love that happens in long-term relationships, then [this storyline] might not translate to your own personal experience. Robert and I have been working together since 2003; I realize his skills don’t always come into focus if you are looking at the virtuosic, technical side of dance only, but many others commented on how connected we were as we danced together. The whole middle section (moving through the screens) was structured improvisation, and there are not many people who can partner and perform improv like that.

The comment that confused me most was [what you said] about going crazy over the onslaught of media or the old-fashioned way, grief, love etc. Again, perhaps this is a media problem with our work, but I see this happening constantly. Media coverage of everything in our world creates it’s own presence in our brain, and if we don’t take steps to counteract it on a personal level, our brains (evolutionarily speaking) will become mushy and filled with the only the highly superficial — no more deep thinking. I teach, so I see this happening in the classroom. Last semester, I had a class that was so distracted, I thought I should start tweeting them the class information they needed so they might pay more attention.

On a last and personal note, Steve and I are not dirt poor, but we certainly are not bourgeois. We have been working artists for 25 years.

Thank you, with regard and respect,

Paula Mann
Time Track Productions

*****

From: Lightsey Darst
To: Paula Mann
Subject: RE: Your mnartists.org review of ‘Far Afield’

Hi Paula,

Thanks for responding! You know, when I was first writing dance criticism, it bothered me how rarely anyone responded to anything. I thought of my writing as a communication, but it just fell in a black hole, for all I knew. I’ve gotten used to that now—so, it’s good to be reminded that people are out there.

Reading your email, I find myself thinking back over the experience of watching the piece and then winnowing down my reactions and thoughts to the (ouch) single paragraph I wrote about what must have taken you months, if not longer, to create. That must sound self-flagellating, but maybe I’m feeling less self-flagellating than genre-flagellating—I mean, this convention of the review, the thesis statement or general unity of the paragraph, the single point of view, etc.

To be more concrete: I did notice Robert’s dancing. I remember watching the two of you on stage and wondering whether you met each other the same time I met both of you, in your modern dance class at the U in whatever year that was—2001?—and thinking how your dance partnership had lasted and grown, how Robert was really moving with you, really accompanying you. But when I came to write the review, that note about Robert fell out because of the bridge I made between one paragraph and another, and because I felt I really wanted to write about your dancing. So, let’s see: I opted to leave him out rather than make the writing awkward and pay him what I felt would come off as a backhanded compliment.

The result is that, in what I suppose is an official record of the event, he doesn’t exist. What do we do with that? I’m really not interested in being a “critic of record” — though I suppose sometimes I am the only critic covering an event, and so we could discuss whether or not I can choose to give up that documentary responsibility…

What’s more interesting to me is changing what criticism means in the world, broadening its scope and practice. I like that your note is basically another review of the work. I mean, it includes things that don’t go in official reviews—intention, audience reaction, the pronoun “I”—but I find it worth reading, it tells me more about the event, I learn something, I have thoughts and questions afterwards—which isn’t true of a lot of official reviews. I’d like to see more writing like this. Wouldn’t it be great if a show generated a lot of different views—from audience members, critics, and participants alike?

Now, I’m just being naive (or self-undermining: I get paid to do this, after all). But maybe a shift in how reviews are viewed is possible. Question 1: If a review were more clearly seen as the compressed thought of one person, one time, would that alter the feeling of being mis-reviewed? Question 2: How can reviewers encourage that sort of reading?

I see I’m doing exactly the same thing I did in the review—skipping lots of stuff to focus in depth on one thing. So, to the other stuff:

1. Movement vocabulary. I perceived it—sort of. Maybe not. I can still see one move in my head, and you have characteristic movement, I know that. But unless these things come out strongly in images, they become very hard to render on the page. . .

2. Plot. A-ha: I knew there was something about long-term relationships in there! (That’s actually what I meant by “going crazy the good old-fashioned way.”) Or, I should clarify, I knew that there was a non-technological impetus behind the work. But (awkward) I wasn’t sure you knew it. Or, that the piece knew it.

3. Does technology make us crazy? I’m not convinced. But you are. Now what? I mean, if I don’t buy the premise for a work I’m reviewing, as occasionally happens, then—?

4. Oh nuts, I didn’t mean that you were bourgeois! That’s terrible (wince, wince). I meant the characters you were portraying must be, since they have enough technology to drive themselves crazy … but now that I put it that way, it occurs to me that all my students are soaking in technology—big TVs with a gazillion channels, cell phones, tanks with sound systems—even as they’re in school to escape minimum wage jobs…

Let’s keep talking.

Lightsey

*****

See below for a video of the work Lightsey and Paula are discussing, as recorded during the performance in late January 2012:

Check back soon: You can read the second installment in this two-part exchange here, next week.