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Reviewing the Reviewer: The Conclusion of our Conversation Between Artist Paula Mann and 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. A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; […]

Steve Paul, Cyclotron from The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely. Pictured: Paula Mann. Photo by William Cameron, courtesy of Time Track Productions.

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.

A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; 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’re publishing their back-and-forth in two installments.

You can read the first half of the conversation here.

Find the second half of their exchange below.

Related links and information: Lightsey Darst’s column on local dance last week reflected 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.

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From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Where’s a forum for artists to talk about what they’re attempting to create?

Hi Lightsey,

First of all, just want to say that I think this conversation is immensely valuable to me as an individual artist and hopefully to others in the community. In fact, it has taken me a while to respond because there is just so much I want to say. There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create. After working with young artists for over 20 years, I’m going to venture the following generalization: Most dance artists are extreme perfectionists. And, of course, we are all trained that way, and there are real-world reasons for this; the same thing applies to creation of a work. Initially, I live in the world of ideas while creating; it’s an exciting place where anything is possible and perfect. Then, you actually have to make the work, with whatever limitations are present — be they money, time, or energy. I’ve never had a piece turn out exactly the same way as I imagined it (‘O, The Humanity’ was supposed to have 20 extra people in it, etc.), and because I value the imagination as a real source for my work, there is always an uncomfortable gap between what I wished to create and what was actually created. I would like to get better at this (big sigh).

Now, on to the question of reviewing dance for public education and/or consumption: I hate to admit that I was around back then, but in the 1980s and 90s we all read reviews, and they seemed to have an impact on our careers. A good review could mean more audience, money at the box office, getting noticed by a presenter and, it could add to your artistic persona. At least, that was the game we all seemed to be playing. One person’s opinion (educated or not) had some power then.

Who reads reviews now? I can’t be sure. I know I do. It’s difficult to get my students at the university to read reviews, unless it’s required in the syllabus. Is there just too much information to consume and not enough file space left in our brains?  And getting back to your question about the real effects of technology, I’m going to step out on a proverbial limb here and say we (as humans) might have just reached a state of total brain-fry. Or maybe we will soon. Jump cut to me as a teacher, trying to help people create choreography, which requires some inward reflection. To heighten creativity, research has shown that we need to cultivate a more diffused consciousness at times, contrary to the minuscule focus necessary to watch and respond to and on our techno-devices. Simply put, we need to let our minds wander more, silence.

But the question of the purpose of reviewing and recording an event persists. How much weight does an opinion in print have? I know artists who never read reviews. More power to them, but I can’t seem to manage that, and…. I’m curious. Now, with the potential for many more voices to enter the conversation through online blogs or tweeting out short statements, I think it’s a good time to reevaluate the [critical] process.

So, a review could be a starting point for a discussion (among many diverse voices) — about the work itself and about making the work and the overall effect and place dance/movement/performance has in our society. If an audience knows more about the artist and the process used to create a work, how will it affect the audience’s experience?

A small anecdote: In 2005, Steve and I made a piece called The Train Wreck Is Proceeding Nicely — a mess of a piece to be sure, but it was so much fun to try. I think I was at my most creative, really taking risks by doing things I did not know how to do well — and I take full responsibility for that. I did try to edit the work when I realized how much information I was trying to impart, but I ran out of time and, quite frankly, perspective. Camille [LeFevre] (writing then for the Minneapolis Star-Tribuneabsolutely hated it, as it did not live up our last piece; I think your review of that show, Lightsey, was mixed (which is always OK). And after watching it, Philip Bither [performing arts curator for Walker Art Center] has not come to see any of my work since.

Ah, the harsh realities of our world. You might say, “So what, you kept working?” — and so I did, but am I working a little bit safer and thinking about audience reaction more [after that experience]? I learned a valuable personal lesson then, and I won’t go into detail, but I’ll say this: If you’ve never had a public flop, you really ought to try it — it tests your mettle.

1) About movement: I’ve looked at the role of movement vocabulary from a multitude of perspectives, and I’ve experimented a lot, too. I was trained in choreography at NYU by modernists and post–modernists. There, I saw these methodologies intertwine. Movement was developed to deliver the emotional content of the piece and sometimes the movement was just there, its reason for being not always apparent. I’ve always been able to create movement through how I move. In 2000, I stripped out all extraneous movement except what was driven and devised by character. But lately I’ve been revisiting the question of movement: What is it for? How does it function in a piece? Certainly, there’s a specific movement vocabulary — but it’s also about structure, ideas, and the movement all woven together into a whole. Your question remains: How can I, as choreographer, help the audience perceive, know, and understand what is important about that vocabulary?

2) Even though I love technology, or the images that it produces, there is always a non-technology impetus [for my work]. That said — yeah, I admit to sometimes being overwhelmed by the collaboration [between media and disciplines]; and in O, the Humanity, Robert and I were working a long time before media entered the picture. In fact, we didn’t add the media [to the work] until much later. And by saying that you weren’t sure “if I knew it or the piece knew it,” I think that might translate into: I could use more clarity; that is, to be very sure of what I was saying or say it better.

3) Yes and no. And I have no idea if the sci-fi wanderings of my imagination (or Hollywood screen writers) will really come to pass. I do wonder where we are headed as I walk down the street, and everyone I pass seems preoccupied with some device. I guess, I’d rather be occupied by the musings of my own mind, but there it is: What a difference a generation can make. Even if I’m smart enough to control the craziness of my own technology, I can’t separate myself from the rest of the world, or observations of how we, as a people, might be changing. And besides, I’m curious to see how it all turns out. About not buying the premise of the work: Well, that is the most difficult of all concerns, because the premise is my life, and the reason for that is probably my own choreographic blind spot. Now, if I could only figure out what that reason is…?

4) I probably reacted too strongly to the word “bourgeois,” which means, as I understand it, to be part of the elite. I’m a white, middle-aged, low-income artist who often wonders why she didn’t make smarter financial choices when she was younger. I consider myself a part of the 99%, and I’d like to see real change happen, socially and economically. But everything seems driven by commodity now, even art. How are we being controlled by what we think we should buy, or the art we think we should make? A student recently asked me to play ‘Words with Friends’ with him. I had to ask, “What kind of device do I need? An iPhone? Sorry, I have only a regular cell phone. iPhones are too expensive and seem like a waste of time.: Student looks at me and blinks, not knowing how to answer. For sure, I’m an alien creature (a.k.a. old).

I did kind of sense you were talking about the characters as being bourgeois, but since we use media as a way to deliver images, primarily, we are making a statement about technology simply by using it. And to use it, to be driven crazy by it, you have to be able to buy it.

Let’s keep talking,

Paula

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From: Lightsey Darst
To: Paula Mann
RE: A new paradigm for reviewing?

Hi, Paula!

I pulled this line out of your letter, because I find it really compelling: “There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create.”

Someone’s bound to object that the program notes are exactly that forum, but we know it isn’t true. What you’re doing in this exchange, how you’re thinking about what you put into the work and how it turned out, we don’t get to see that at all. But why not? It’s fascinating and it’s instructive. Even being “on the inside” I’m not always sure how things work, what’s pivotal for an artist’s career and how that affects the artist’s development, etc. How could we know more about this?

Your email hints at a way: We can alter the reviewing paradigm to include just this sort of exchange we’re embarked on as a regular part of the discussion around dance… except, that it’s possible no one will read it. Because, as you point out, who reads reviews now? Well, I’m not sure. I can say that when I post my articles on Facebook (more technology, I know how you love that), the articles that get the most response are invariably the personal ones — articles that go in-depth with my or someone else’s experience, that pursue the intimate side of art.

Articles, in short, like this one …

And, to make a possibly over-neat bridge (I think I’ve revealed my weakness for the smooth transition) to the topic of technology, perhaps the saving grace of all this technology might be its capacity for intimacy. Here are all these new spaces, and, yes, they tend to drive us into shallow and commodified communications; but they also allow us (if we’re persistent and clever) a lot of freedom. Hmmm: How does that relate to what you’re saying about using the technology to critique it?

A deeper idea’s coming out for me as I reread your emails: Criticism can be helpful. You’re clearly constantly looking for ways to improve your work, and it sounds as if you’d like to use public and critical perception and feedback for that purpose. It sounds obvious, but I hardly hear anybody say anything like that. Choreographers and artists don’t seem to want to admit that they could use help, and reviewers (this one included) would rather not assume such a presumptuous role. And it seems to me that we usually treat a performance as a thing in itself — accomplished, complete — rather than as part of an artist’s ongoing development.

I’m wondering how this feels from your side: Is there a prohibition on commenting on your own work this way, in public, on revealing your side of it?

Yours in dance,

Lightsey

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From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Power to the people

Hi Lightsey,

Our final exchange and I still have so much to say (and not much time)!

Here goes: I think it’s interesting that most people don’t have the opportunity to understand the process of making art, an insider’s view, so to speak. What actually happens when creating something from nothing? I’ve been fascinated by this process, in myself and others, for some time. (I’m researching where ideas come from: intersections of brain science and creativity.)

In my mind, generally speaking, a piece has unending potential to evolve. One could work on a piece throughout a lifetime and never finish, the work being a constant reflection of your consciousness at that time. (I think there was a movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman that took on this topic.) This wouldn’t work, for practical reasons, but sometimes I like to fantasize about what kind of art would be created if the limitations of money and time were out of the picture. But limitations can sometimes produce a heightened awareness and great results: You know you’re working against time, and you absolutely have to make something happen. I’ve spent many years awake in the middle of the night, thinking through my rehearsal for the next day.

I’m glad you feel that making this (process-oriented) information available to the public would be helpful. I don’t think this kind of response can completely covered by a talk-back with the audience or in program notes, but maybe in another format…Likewise, I think it is important for artists to get a glimpse of their work through another’s eyes. And, yes, I would like my work to get better, but one has to ask: Better for whom? For what audience? I know the marketplace, and thinking about that doesn’t make me feel more creative. I think we all want people to like our work; if you truthfully don’t care, I would like to award you with some kind of Detached Creator award. So, I care, but as I get older, I do care less. I fully understand that all opinions (no matter how educated) are subjective; each person registers experiences differently, through their own unique perspective.

Finally, as to effect of technology in our personal lives… this is way too complicated for me to take up in the space I have left here. But I agree with you about the potential change in intimacy level allowed through social media. I’m truly excited that people (assuming they have access) around the world can voice their support and cumulative political power to change our world (to start a revolution, for instance).

Growing up near Detroit in the 1960s, I heard this phrase constantly: Power to the people. Sounds a bit outdated, but I think it’s happening now.  People are taking their power back. The awareness of the creative spark that exists in each of us is fundamental to understanding this innate power.

Thanks for a great exchange — I hope we can do something like this again in the future!

Paula

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Below are some scenes from the 2005 performance noted above, The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely: