Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

An Experiment in Criticism

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Red Sweet"

In March and April, I’m the guest editor of Minnesota Playlist, and pretty much have free rein to do whatever I like. Minnesota Playlist does not publish previews or reviews. Still, when I proposed a series of perspectives (or reviews, if you will) on Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s first Minnesota performance, written not by dance critics but rather by an architect, a playwright and a theater critic—with an audience-response audio segment created by one of my arts journalism students thrown in for fun—the package was a go.

As the contributors convened before, during and after the performance last Tuesday (March 8), which was part of the Northrop Dance Season but occurred at the State Theater in Minneapolis, everyone’s intrigue, excitement and even nervousness was palpable. My advice to those I talked into embarking on this adventure? Just have fun!

So today begins this experiment in critical perspectives, with contemporary ballet as our subject. No doubt many of you are wondering: Why? For several reasons, one of them being: Why not?

Dance and theater are often not-so-strange bedfellows. Movement and spatial configuration are integral components of staging, whether the art form occurring on stage is theater or dance, and choreography of various kinds is often incorporated into theatrical performances. Ballet as a genre found its footing in the French courts of the 17th century—under Louis XIV—as it broke away from opera and theatrical spectacle, and many ballets (the Romantic story ballets certainly) incorporate dramatic elements from sets and scenery to the singular telling gesture.

The body moving in space is also an integral component of good, useful architecture. I’ve written a lot about the correlations between architecture and dance, from the work of site-specific choreographers who originate movement specific to the historic structures in which the performance takes place, to architects (including Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava) who’ve created stage designs for dance performances (and sometimes theater, as well).

With that in mind, I was thrilled with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s opening piece, “Uneven,” because of its rigorous, intricate structure. The first U.S. work by Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto, set to music by David Lang, with cellist Kimberly Patterson performing live on stage, “Uneven” is a study in rapid geometry with an almost feral quality. The piece is an architecture of lines and angles by which the dancers fold and unfold their limbs and torsos across, around and against each other with extreme flexibility and articulation, as if origami-like prototypes of post-human athletes. What will architect Phillip Koski write about this bold, sexy piece, performed with absolute certainty?

Or what will playwright Tom Poole make of “In Hidden Seconds,” choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, with its soft melancholic feel, and circular momentum? Or the work’s slated black-fabric curtain, through which the dancers emerge and retreat to John Tavener’s lush string score?

“Red Sweet,” the young, fresh company’s signature work choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Vivaldi and Heinrich Biber, is a luscious, intriguing piece full of playful gestural detail and smart inventive partnering. At times grounded and fluttery, at other moments buoyant with fleet footwork and breathtaking lifts, “Red Sweet” is a “theatrical” work in its use of mime, action/reaction, and other communicative movements that remain humorously quirky, never gimmicky.

Theater critic Ed Huyck may have other ideas about “Red Sweet” and the overall program, which I’m eager to read. And my student Cristeta Boarini has compiled her interviews with audience members–including a schoolgirl, a high-school senior and two long-time dance patrons—into an audio document that takes the “man on the street” perspective to a new level.

Those are my thoughts and impressions, anyway, as a dance critic. Please check Minnesota Playlist over the next few days to read or listen to the insights and perspectives the contributors submit for this prismatic experiment in critic


March 11, 2011 Posted by | Criticism, Recent Work, The Wild West of Arts Journalism, The Writing Docket | , , | Leave a comment

Beck vs. Richardson, Opinion vs. Critical Thinking: How POV and the personal manifest in criticism

Last week my students were drafting and revising their first major writing assignment: a film review. During class, I presented them with various challenges in considering (and articulating) the different ways in which commentators (I hesitate to say journalists…you’ll know why in a moment) “review” (in this case, movies and theater).

I started class with this video excerpt: Glenn Beck (I know, I know…just hang on) bloviating on Julie Taymor’s Broadway debacle “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” from the Huffington Post. (scroll down to the second video)

Then I had them return to a review they’d read of “Black Swan” by Kartina Richardson, in which she takes a personal, almost scholarly, and unique approach to analyzing the dualities and multiples in the film, complete with screen shots like the one to the right:

The point of this exercise was to consider how each of these “reviewers” established a point of view; how each one addressed people with a different point of view; and how each expressed the personal in their review. i.e.: bluster versus articulation and explanation; opinion versus critical thinking.

At the same time, of course, I was subtly engaging the students in a dialogue about civility in public discourse, and in the value of self-awareness in being able to clearly substantiate an opinion…and in Richardson’s case, using another’s point of view as a jumping-off point for engaging, well-considered analysis.

We also discussed the evolution of film criticism in print and on television, especially with regard to the new “Ebert Presents at the Movies,” the latest iteration of the Ebert/Siskel/Roeper franchise, which debuted last week with Richardson as one of its commentators. Our reference texts: Ebert’s “Film Criticism is Dying? Not Online” and A.O. Scott’s “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All.

My takeaway from these articles is Scott’s eloquent defensive of criticism and its value: “Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life–a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.”

January 30, 2011 Posted by | From the Classroom, On the Media, The Wild West of Arts Journalism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Criticism? continued

Given the comments, thus far, to my last post, clearly the topic of arts criticism generates passionate responses, ranging from the financial power of critics to boost (or diminish) the monetary value of art to what exactly constitutes a work of art. Curiously, responses thus far are mostly from those concerned with the visual arts. Which brings to mind several conversations I’ve had lately about criticism (the topic on which, for now, these posts are focused).

Last week, Scott Stulen (visual artist and project director of mnartists.org) and Alan Berks (playwright and originator of mnplaylist.com) ended their visit to my class with this call: The Twin Cities needs a visual arts critic, with tough skin and well-honed critical abilities, to really address the work being created here. Artists may not like this person, but they’ll respect him/her.

I heard a similar call later in the week, while talking with two artists who are friends. The lack of thoughtful, well-substantiated criticism, they said, leads to mediocrity. This speaks to the belief that criticism is integral part of the art making, promoting, consuming and appreciating ecosystem. My questions are these:

What form should criticism take in the digital age? Meaning, what should the writing read like?

How do we critics negotiate the public’s hunger for entertainment and critical assessment, for the growing distaste for “elitist” critics (and what does that mean, anyway? That readers don’t like critics who know what they’re talking about?), and for access to arts criticism that creates thoughtful discourse?

As more critics migrate to pr, and pr takes on a more journalistic role (in terms of providing insights, education and in-depth access to artists, as my students did with our blog for the Southern Theater’s “Lush Life” show http://southernsongbook.tumblr.com/ ), where will criticism be published and who will write it?

I look forward to your comments.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | From the Classroom, The Wild West of Arts Journalism | 4 Comments

The Wild West of Arts Journalism

Since launching this blog last week, I’ve received enthusiastic feedback and intriguing commentary on what this blog could be or become. Who knows? It’s an experiment, an exploration, an investigation into arts journalism for the 21st century.

As Doug McLennan said in this 2009 article (http://www.miller-mccune.com/media/will-critique-work-for-food-3878), “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be an arts journalist. We’re in a sort of Wild West of invention.”

To be a working arts journalist today–especially a freelance one–you need to continually move, adapt, rethink, reconsider, integrate and innovate. Like the artists and arts groups we cover, we need to continually assess what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and whether our work is relevant. “For arts groups, constant shapeshifting is a crucial means for survival. Applying it to arts coverage isn’t far behind,” as Christopher Blank said in this 2003 article (http://www.poynter.org/uncategorized/18407/taking-the-tweed-out-of-the-arts-journalism-wardrobe).

So: in the coming months, this blog may begin to:

*Include criticism, reviews and articles on the arts. Should this be only my own writing, or work from others as well? Would any foundations or arts organizations be willing to fund arts journalism on this blog? Should the blog accept advertising? How do we define conflicts of interest in the Wild West of Arts Journalism? Talk to me.

* Integrate arts, academia, entertainment and popular culture. As some of you know, one of my academic areas of study is dance and the transformative body in science fiction film and television. I’m eager to write about “Black Swan” and the rigors of ballet training, ballet and insanity from  “The Red Shoes” to “Black Swan,” the erotic in ballet’s fairy tales, were-swans and automatons in ballet. Curious?

* Investigate the ever-blurring lines between promotion (pr) and reporting/criticism. I do both. And the firewalls are constantly shifting. How old-school are you? As long as one provides complete disclosure and transparency, is any combination possible?

Whatever this blog morphs into, I’m committed to open, integrative explorations of art in relation to everyday life, the world and the contexts in which art is created. I’m also committed to the development of the next generation of arts journalists.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism,” Clay Shirky wrote here in 2009 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/apr/13/internet-newspapers-clay-shirky). He added, “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

Let’s experiment together. I look forward to your comments.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | The Wild West of Arts Journalism | 1 Comment