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First We Take Manhattan: Four American Women and the New York School of Dance Criticism. By Diana Theodores. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996; 180 pp.; illustrations. $78.00 cloth. $30.00 paper.
Dance criticism in this country has rarely been considered a literary practice, so it's no surprise that the genre has barely established a literature of its own. We have a very modest library of anthologies by twentieth-century critics, ranging from pioneers such as H.T. Parker, Carl Van Vechten, and Lincoln Kirstein (John Martin's reviews remain uncollected) through to contemporaries such as Arlene Croce, Deborah Jowitt, and Marcia B. Siegel. But only Edwin Denby and Jill Johnston are generally acknowledged as serious writers, rather than just dance critics. Denby was a poet, and his reviews and essays reflect that penetrating and imaginative sensibility. Johnston, caught up in the experimental blast of the early 1960s, pressed the limits of criticism by treating it as a primary, rather than secondary, literary genre.
Wesleyan University Press has reissued Marmalade Me, Johnston's classic collection of Village Voice reviews from the 1960s. In addition, two recent academic studies have significantly forwarded American dance criticism as a practice to be documented, theorized, and critiqued.
This trio of books, along with a much larger number of dust-gathering theses and dissertations, bespeaks an impatient longing for recognition from the larger domains of art and criticism. Judging from the choices in Maurice Berger's The Crisis of Criticism (1998), however, that validation remains but a schoolgirl fantasy. This anthology (which inspired a New York Times article exploring the decline of American arts criticism [Dobrzynski 1998]) was prompted by Arlene Croce's infamous temper tantrum about Bill T. Jones's Still/Here in the New Yorker back in 1995. ("Discussing the Undiscussable" was Croce's way of taking her marbles and going home, because artists had dared to move from the '50s to the '90s without requesting her permission.) None of the respondents in the volume is a dance critic. The good news is, we've caught the attention of bell hooks and Homi Bhabha. The bad news is, we'll for a long time be known as the folks who gave the world "victim art."
Of the three volumes, Lynne Conner's Spreading the Gospel of the Modern Dance: Newspaper Dance Criticism in the United States, 1850-1934 speaks most potently to the uncertain and uneasy relations between today's critics and choreographers, despite the fact that it examines the historical period furthest removed from ours. Conner treats that period of dance criticism as an institutional practice and defines dance as a community. If Croce's diatribe proved anything, it was that contemporary dance has lost any sense of community in which criticism claims a necessary function. (Certainly, the journalistic "general readership" has no use for it.) Conner's refiguring of modern dance as a …