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

Visual Arts: Recent Writing

From the show at the Bockley Gallery

Over the years I’ve covered visual art for Minnesota Magazine, mnartists.org, and various other publications. In late 2010, I was asked to write about the visual arts for City Pages. My assignments are largely A-List items (of about 200 words) on upcoming openings and exhibitions. It’s not criticism, but occasionally I’m asked to contribute a longer piece on a visual artist, which allows me greater freedom to bring my critical faculties to bear on their work. I love writing these mini-essays (which is how I think of them) because I challenge myself to intertwine my own perceptions of and opinions on an artist’s work with a bit of cultural context and (hopefully) some wit. Let me know what you think.

A sample:

The Spectacular of Vernacular

Jim Proctor, my choice for an artist of the year

Sean Smuda: Blueprint Series

Yves Klein

Soft Chaos

January 27, 2011 Posted by | Recent Work | , | Leave a comment

Arts Criticism 2011

The Critic as Artist: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.” — OSCAR WILDE 1890

In preparing my syllabus for a new semester of JOUR 4171 Covering the Arts: Backstage at the Guthrie Theater, I’ve decided to focus more firmly and thoroughly on criticism (reviewing the arts is always part of my curricula, but I feel a new urgency to intensify the critical thinking component). Here are some reasons:

* While teaching last semester, the boundaries between pr and journalism further dissolved before my eyes. Arts journalism is seemingly more concerned with entertaining and enticing (and sometimes educating) the consumer with previews (whether of blurb length (100-250 words) or 700-1000 word “advancers”), which is what I’m advocating arts organizations need to do via their own digital platforms as an integral part of their marketing and pr efforts. Already, media outlets produce such advance stories in order to solidify partnerships with arts organizations and secure their advertising.  Arts organizations consider previews an essential part of their pr plans. The critic, meanwhile, an integral part of a community’s arts ecology, moves to the endangered list as fewer readers understand the differences between preview and review.

* A considerable portion of the arts-consuming public still wants, needs, craves arts criticism that’s clear and concise, provocative and well-substantiated, professionally crafted and contextual. (During a panel discussion on arts journalism sponsored by the Weisman Art Museum last year, we panelists were asked where to find arts criticism other than the lone voice at the Star Tribune. Go online, we emphasized over and over (!), citing such local resources as mnartists.org). At the same time, working arts journalists and educators, like myself, are charged with formulating a methodology for crafting and teaching arts criticism that encourages and empowers students to develop a point of view;substantiate it with description, interpretation, context and evaluation; and acquire the flexibility and adaptability to write (with a strong sense of style and voice) for a variety of media and word lengths.

So I was heartened after reading the Sunday New York Times Book Review, on January 2, which published a series of essays on literary criticism, one of which I’ll be using in my class: Katie Roiphe’s “With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority.”

Starting with a hilarious and self-effacing historical caveat about how we critics are always bemoaning the demise of critical thinking (so true!), Roiphe then confirms what my colleagues and I have repeatedly argued as our culture sags under the saturation of digital opinions, instantaneity, and the attention-grabbing proliferation of screens:

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies — with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone — that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.”

My heart leapt; my resolve quickened; my commitment to continually improve my own writing returned.

“….critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence. There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style.”

So simple and so difficult.

As my students delve into writing from a critical (the meaning of which includes absolutely necessary or essential, as well as expressing or involving a detailed analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art) point of view, I’ll be advising, correcting, cajoling and questioning them as they strive to “write on a different level” than they’re used to reading or writing. To give Roiphe the last word:

More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.”

January 14, 2011 Posted by | From the Classroom, On the Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment