Dance writing around race


The following is an edited transcript of a meeting November 16, 2018 among the members of the Dancing Around Race cohort, led by choreographer Gerald Casel, and three writers who cover dance and performance in the Bay Area: Heather Desaulniers, Claudia La Rocco, and Ann Murphy. Members of the Dancing Around Race artist cohort include Yayoi Kambara, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sammay Dizon, Raissa Simpson, and David Herrera. HMD Director Hope Mohr was also present at the meeting. Dancing Around Race is a program of HMD’s Bridge Project.

In advance of the meeting, Gerald Casel sent the following prompts to the writers:

1) Please tell us about yourself and your work.

2) How does your work relate to/support/highlight struggles for cultural, political, ethno-racial, and/or economic equity in dance?

3) How does your writing practice address issues regarding equity?

4) What work, large or small, needs to happen to advance equity in the Bay Area arts landscape?

In advance of the meeting, Casel also asked everyone to watch videos of two works by Jumatatu Poe: Catch 68 (2015) and another from a 2018 residency at MANCC. Casel asked everyone to write a brief response to Poe’s work. Casel also asked the group to read an article by Miguel Gutierrez called Does Abstraction Belong to White People?   In response, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sent the group two articles: Negar Azizi’s Revisiting Edward Said’s “Orentalism”  and Coco Fusco’s Censorship, not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till.


Gerald Casel: Thank you for coming. We want to get to know you. Please give us an understanding of your writing practice and its contextual framework.

Ann Murphy:  I began writing about dance because there was no one to talk to my in my part of the dance world about work I was seeing. People said they liked or didn’t like work and that was it. I needed to understand why John Cage and David Tudor turned up the decibel levels in their music so that I felt like a rat in an experiment. So I took myself to a Merce Cunningham concert, watched intently, and had an epiphany—the titles told you what to look for. One of the works was called “Arcade” and the entire dance was full of cantilever shapes and arches made by bodies. I saw that it was both abstract and human. I spent the weekend writing a review, then slipped it under the door of the Daily Californian. The article appeared later that week, and that’s how I began.  Dance writing for me has always been a personal attempt to understand what I’m seeing that’s made public. And it’s political--I’ve been political since I was 15--because I can’t really understand things unless I can put them in context, and that includes politics and history.

Casel: Let me read the prompts for our meeting again. [Reads the prompts sent to the writers in advance of the meeting].

Claudia La Rocco: I don’t come from a dance background. My training is in poetry andI think of myself as a writer, which is different (in subtle but important ways!) from identifying as a dance critic. My first encounter with dance criticism was being asked to review Baryshnikov. That resulted in me taking adult beginner dance classes. It’s impossible to write about dance and it doesn’t need any writing. That ongoing failure and possibility became a delight for me. These days, I’m not writing as much criticism, but I spent many years writing for the New York Times and other publications. A lot of my awakening politically came from seeing how I was treated, as a young woman in an old boy’s club; certain things were not available to me, and certain things were asked of me that I was not comfortable with. Then I  began to realize the old boy’s networks that I am a part of. I’m continually chagrined with older pieces of mine. Writing is like a spotlight: you can choose how to focus people’s attention. You can look at deep gender and racial inequities, body issues, and what is the actual language we use when talking about dancers. It’s important to always be cognizant of your subject position. Who is doing the writing is as important as what is being written about. I’ve now been in the Bay for two and a half years. At SFMOMA, one of my first acts was to get my department (Community Engagement) W.A.G.E. Certified, to make sure a wide range of people could afford to contribute to Open Space, and weren’t subsidizing our platform with their labor. Who is doing the writing funnels whose gaze is on the work. 55% of Open Space contributors are women and roughly half are people of color. I think a lot about whose perspectives are represented.

Heather Desaulniers: I’m an independent. I do dance criticism two-thirds of the time. The other time, I teach classical piano. I was an undergraduate technical dance major.  I learned through that program that dance and choreography are not the only paths. I started seeking out publishing options eight to ten years ago. I write in Dance Tabs, In Dance, Critical Dance, and SF Arts. My main response is that I try, and I don’t always succeed, to see and write about a lot of different stuff. I try to represent what is happening in the Bay Area dance landscape, not just the big names. I’m excited to take assignments about forms that I know nothing about.

Murphy: The best job I’ve had was writing for 12 years for East Bay Express, where I could write up to 1500 words—it allowed for deep investigation into work. I no longer have time to write on a consistent basis and can only review what editors want me to review. I have seen the market-driven decimation of journalism—hedge funders and libertarians buying up the leftist weeklies around the country, for instance, so I feel so constrained by the limitations of the outlets. The vehicle one writes for is a vital issue--it’s can be like a lid on what can be expressed. This is part of the mystery of writing: the vehicle you are writing for affects your voice because it represents a particular audience. You can attempt to write under the outlet’s radar or around it, but each media outlet has a style and a point of view, if not an ideology. Then there are the editors with points of view you have to deal with. Voice is a critical issue--who is writing, what is being seen. It’s important to note that we [the writers present] are three white women. We have to ask: Who has the luxury to review? Whether one is self-taught or one is plucked out to write, it is not a reliable system for opening the field up to other voices.

Desaulniers: I have gotten comments from editors like, “I don’t want you to describe the dance” or “this is too jargony.” You have to respond to that. Writing about dance is not like describing a book that someone can go out and buy.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: What about the idea of writing about performance, rather than dance? My practice has more to do with language and politics. It’s important to de-center the idea of dance.

La Rocco: Since I don’t come out of a dance background, it wasn’t ever centered for me. When I started watching dance, I was assigned to watch concert dance--some of it was great, but a lot of it was the sort of dancey dance that isn’t pushing any envelopes. And I often thought: maybe I don’t like dance. It wasn’t until I found PS122, DTW and the Kitchen [New York venues for performance] that I started to fall in love with the form -- which, really, is just time-based art; it can look and behave however it wants. Criticism can also do this. I believe very strongly in criticism as a space where citizens can speak. It’s a useless space in terms of capitalism, and that creates some possibilities.

Murphy: I think of everything as a translation. That may sound glib, but I don’t mean it to be––I mean that every encounter leads to a response, which is a translation of what just happened....I used to grow weary of going to concerts because I was seeing the “same” dance night after night. In the past, people didn’t think of dance as a vessel for ideas, but that has shifted, and that’s has helped foment a hybridization of forms. Artists are now saying, “Moving is not sufficient for what I want to say. I need props, performance, and enactments.”  Although criticism is useless space in terms of the market, it is absolutely vital for that reflexive loop between the sentient and astute observer and what has occurred. And it’s a historical account. Critiquing says: “this happened.” It’s vital to have someone as a witness.

David Herrera: When I watched the Jumatatu Poe piece [Catch 68], I thought, I’m picking up some things here that I don’t know if my white counterparts would pick up. They were making a lot of points about queer, brown and black bodies. Why were people in the audience laughing? I can see this laughter happening here in the Bay Area. Are they not taking it seriously? Do they think the artist is poking fun at something? Do people do this when they see my work?

Murphy: I had a class a couple years ago see Age and Beauty by Miguel Gutierrez. One of my students who is queer wrote the most mind-blowing piece. He was able to read the language in a way that was unattainable for me. There were elements of queerness that I didn’t know about. That was thrilling. There were also nonqueer students who saw more than me. About people laughing at the Poe piece: People feel anxiety and I don’t think anxiety is a bad thing. Laughter can feel offensive. Laughter can be contagious. Something subterranean is happening, so the audience is activated. Activation is really the goal.

Raissa Simpson: What I saw in Poe’s work were my friends, my uncle, people that I grew up with, people like family. I watched the video without sound, so I didn’t know people were laughing until someone brought that up. The point that choreographer wanted to make was that there are moral dilemmas around the black body and queer body and these are wrapped around the gaze of white people. I wanted to know more. If I were a critic, I’d want to ask him, what is your piece about? Critics use euphemisms and try to interpret something they don’t understand. There’s an answer: get to know the artist. Critics who are not from the artist’s background need to go deeper.

Bhutto: Raissa, you said something that really struck me: the language of queerness is wrapped up in whiteness. Can you speak more on that?

Simpson: A lot of my dancers feel like they don’t fit into San Francisco’s queer community because it is so white. My first introduction to queerness was through white gay men, when a gay friend of mine wanted to do blackface. I had to explain that yes, we’re both coming from oppressed communities, but the perspective is different. After watching Poe’s work and writing about it, I felt bad that I made his sexuality invisible by not writing about it.

Murphy: I responded to Poe’s idea of explicitly setting work done by women on men. And a raced aspect of voguing. I felt a diluted, controlled provocativeness that is taboo in mainstream dance. The work was challenging those taboos in a very sophisticated way through repetition. I felt that these were black bodies grappling with gender through the physical language. The way that language was being manipulated recontextualized it.

Casel: How do you know when a work is sophisticated?

Murphy: The manipulation of the material through formal means. That could be through rhythm or repetition. Repetition is a powerful tool that transforms material over time. I see layering in the work. It’s not just the physical language, but also how the physical language is being thought about through use of space, time, unison, counterpoint, duet voice, trio voice. The work had a lot of Africanist elements, not just in the language itself, but also in the relationships between the group and the individual.

Desaulniers: Repetition has both an emphasizing and an anaesthetizing power.

Bhutto: There’s something interesting in the use of queer language in Poe’s work. What gayness does is depoliticize lived queerness. There’s something very tragic within queer communities of color. I’m thinking about Jose Esteban Munoz in Cruising Utopia talking about Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Heterosexual communities of color for a long time have not taken queerness seriously, it’s often considered a white thing and in white communities it’s fetishized, desired, and feared. The laughing people in the audience want to feel disarmed. Black male bodies doing nightclub motions--it’s a confrontation. It’s a snap your fingers in someone’s face. Same as in the dance world: people feel uncomfortable with women of color. The queerness element is essential.

Simpson: Black women have to constantly affirm to people that we are feminine. We are not the Mammy image. To see Poe translate black women as feminine was exciting.

Sammay Dizon: Heather, you said you were excited when you get an assignment about a piece you know nothing about. That’s problematic. It’s so important to have someone versed in the work writing about it. We need criticism to forward the work. When there is a constant dissonance between the writer and the artist, the writing feels so impersonal. What does criticism do to serve the artist? Or is it not meant to serve the artist? The critic gets the last say. It feels like a dead end. I don’t have a lot of experience with my work being written about.

Herrera: After watching Poe’s work, I thought, “I got it right.” But there are people who don’t know this history. I also thought, “I hope the artists got the chance to talk to the audience.” I want the artist to tell the audience what they want us to know about the work.

Casel: Why do you think you have to be “right” about the work?

Herrera: I wasn’t missing some of the point.

Hope Mohr: Some artists don’t want people to “get” their work. They want their work to be ambiguous. For some artists, success is not when people “get it.”

Bhutto: There is getting the work and then there is due diligence. I recently made a work reimagining a queer liberation. Someone reviewed it who wrote a few things that were offensive. He said I was “clumsily climbing” one of the set pieces. That didn’t feel critical as much as it felt resentful. I was in the work as a ghost speaking in Urdu. I really tried hard to be correct and poetic with the language. In the review, the critic said that I was speaking in Arabic.

La Rocco: That is someone not doing their job. That is just a lack of fact checking. About Sammay’s comment about the critic having the last word--sometimes that is true. However, there’s also that saying, “Criticism is the rough draft of history.” There’s a lot of hubris in that statement, but it also speaks to the fact that criticism does get corrected as time passes. It’s always more fruitful when the conversation can continue. And when it can prompt the gaze of someone who doesn’t know about the work, but is excited to learn. That’s valuable and important. It’s important that criticism be part of an ecosystem, and it’s an editor’s job to make sure the conversation is balanced, expansive, far-ranging, etc. When I was working as a daily newspaper critic, I would see five to seven shows a week. It was an accumulation of knowledge. You should see a progression in a critic’s writing, if that person is present and paying attention. We have the emerging artist label, but we also need an emerging critic label. The good thing about arts journalism imploding is that now we have a lot of new voices. Criticism isn’t journalism and shouldn’t necessarily be inside of it.

Desaulniers: When I am writing about something I don’t know, it is important for me to say, “This is new to me.” With the diligence issue---I saw something recently that the dance company called “traditional Aztec dance.” I emailed the press person to ask if I was using the correct language in talking about the work. It can be as simple as that. But there are times when it is more complex. I’m really interested in taking to choreographers not necessarily because I want to “get it.” Sometimes I feel there is a contentiousness between artists and critics.

Herrera: When Hope made that comment that sometimes people don’t want to the audience to “get” their work, I thought immediately, well, Hope is not a person of color. Is ambiguity a white aesthetic?

Yayoi Kambara: Is ambiguity safer?

Herrera: The work I do cannot disassociate from my identity. Ambiguity is a luxury. I have tried doing that before and I felt like I was lying. It made me uncomfortable. Does abstraction belong to the white community? Are critics taking into account their positionality as well as that of the artist?

La Rocco: You can’t take yourself out of where you are and where you come from. There is a false pretense of universality sometimes in dance. I just saw a performance in Chicago by three Black choreographers -- Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Ishmael Houston-Jones -- three artists who most definitely deal in ambiguity and abstraction.

Herrera: I did a piece about Latinx women’s experiences based on my mother’s experience. After one of the shows we were doing a talkback and an older white gentleman in his late 60s said, “I didn’t care for the show because you told me too much.” I said to him, “I told you what I needed to get across.”  But in response to the same show, I received a lot of positive response from people of color to the clearness of the story. Who am I doing the work for? Whose perspective do I want to absorb?

Dizon: We need an ecosystem of criticism. We need more writing. Is there mentorship for young dance critics of color? How can we make the field more representative of our community?

Simpson: I want to speak to the tension between African Americans and critics. There’s always been this tension. Stereotypes have damaged not only the artists, but the whole community and our image as a people. It makes me feel like a second class citizen. Every time I complain that I don’t get reviews, someone will say, “Alonzo [King] didn’t have reviews for 20 years.” Alonzo’s work has been called “from jive to jete.”  In one work I was involved with, we had talkbacks with the audience and some white audience members stood up and critiqued the work. That’s not what we’re looking for. We need critics of color. The best writing about my work has been from students in a class led by Halifu Osumare’s black dance class. Someone was talking about repetition in Poe’s work. That’s called call and response. That’s the preacher.

Kambara: The equity training I did last summer really changed my aesthetics. Writers, have you had any similar experiences?

La Rocco: I’ve participated in a little bit of equity training (not nearly enough, I need to do much more!) and yes, it has changed me and so it’s of course changed the writing.  

Murphy: I haven’t done any equity training in the arts, but elsewhere. What has changed me is having to go out of the box to teach dance history. The first year was textbook. But now I start with minstrelsy as the foundation of American performing arts. Now I see things in relation to that beginning. The tension with race and class is built into the performing arts in the U.S.. You could include music in that as well. I find diving into performance history to be really enlightening. It complicates things. It keeps me humble. There is an elevation of the critic as an authority. You can’t run away from it, but I also refuse it.

Desaulniers: I have not done any equity training. In my dance training, we never had any conversations about equity. There need to be these discussions in dance studios. There need to be conversations in studios and conservatory programs about gender roles, the assumed rules, and why they are there.

Casel: The landscape of dancemaking has become so collaborative, rejecting singular genius voices. Has dance criticism also evolved? Or is there still a singular bequeathing of yes or no--successful piece or not? Dance writers qualify the work and then evaluate it. It feels like an empty process.

La Rocco: A lot of what we’re talking about is journalistic criticism. That is only one specific mode with a specific set of values. There are other forms of criticism. MANCC now allows artists to have embedded writers with them in process, for example. And at this point most of the artists I write about are my friends, so I’m writing explicitly in the context of a relationship.

Murphy: Dance criticism is not monolithic anymore. There should be many different genres of reviewing. We need to be mentoring young writers and having people embedded in dance companies. Not for PR. It can be scholarly.

Desaulniers: How does the format change how I watch? The questions I ask? I love it when I get to write different kinds of reviews. There is a feature in In Dance started by Rachel Howard where you go see a show, but you do not write a review. Instead, you meet with the choreographer and talk to them about the show, and then transcribe, without editing, what was said.

Murphy: Artist to artist conversations are really important. The best criticism is not about judgment, it’s about inquiry. That is implicit in the artist to artist conversation.

La Rocco: That is something I’ve tried to do at Open Space. If there are young people interested in talking about writing, I’d be very happy to meet with them. Also, people need to get paid for their work.

Bhutto: Can we talk about Miguel’s article? I’d like to antagonize it a bit.

La Rocco: Zulfi, I was really glad you sent us those other articles in response to Miguel’s piece.

Bhutto: It did feel too easy.

Herrera: What do you mean by “easy”?

Bhutto: On a surface level.  What I mean to say is the content was purely experiential. I felt like I was floating in the experience. I wasn’t seeing how the written form tied back to abstraction.

Murphy: That was the point. He was giving a visceral rendering in which theory was embedded.

Bhutto: The success of it was that it made me think about other things. Such as Edward Said’s work. It’s good to point out appropriation, but sometimes you have to just sink into the melody.

Murphy: We need to be careful that our criticism does not replicate the binary. These are confrontations with no easy resolution.

Herrera: That was the beauty in Miguel’s article. It was a conversation across communities. There is a difference between coming at someone with anger versus empathy. Empathy can combat divisiveness.

Casel: I’ve stopped trying to figure my audience. Now I focus on the work. How can I get it to the most legible place? For years, I wanted to be an abstract maker. But now I am trying to underscore my queerness and brownness.  When Alan Ulrich reviewed my response to Trisha Brown’s Locus, the only thing he could read or point out were the classical aspects of the work, not the voguing or the Filipino elements. I was so frustrated. I don’t give a shit what he thinks.

Dizon: When you write, do you do so to elicit response?

La Rocco: It depends.

Desaulniers: Not purposefully.

Murphy: Almost never. That would assume I know who I’m in conversation with. It’s more like dropping a pebble into a pond. I don’t get feedback, which is too bad. Dance writing has always felt quite isolated. It’s a very solitary endeavor. It feels hilarious that anyone would endow it with power. There is a disjunct between that and my subject status--taking notes in the dark.

Bhutto: I like what you said Gerald, that you are now making work so it’s legible for yourself, for your own critical group. The journalistic approach is so essentializing. So many artists are concerned with press. It’s troubling. A lot of artists want superstar status with press and media being constantly viral. It has taken over artmaking. And it’s quite ugly. I curated a project at SOMArts and the show got press. Technically it was good press, but it was essentializing. My priorities have shifted. I have become cautious.

LaRocco: It is personal brand versus being really seen. That goes beyond the arts. There is something beautiful about being seen and that is something that writing can do.

Mohr: Being seen is what artists crave.

Herrera: Yes. Why do we want a review? It’s not about bad or good review, it’s about visibility. I lived my whole life not seeing any brown or black bodies being talked about in the press unless it’s a bad story. I just want to see someone who is not a white choreographer being talked about and not in an essentialized fashion.

Simpson: I just want a writer in my process like Susan Manning and Reggie Wilson.  So I asked a friend to come in and write about my process. Identity is what a lot of choreographers are working on. But I really want to talk about: how do we future the black experience? I have given up on getting publicity. Finding somebody who can write about my process is essential.  


Be a part of the conversation. The third and final Dancing Around Race public gathering is Thursday, February 28th  at the Eric Quezada Cultural Center, 518 Valencia, San Francisco, at 7:30 PM. Featuring group discussion and Gerald Casel in conversation with Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of African and African American Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University.
FREE But Reservations required

This gathering is held in the spirit of long table discussions. In the words of Eva Yaa Asantewaa:

A Long Table conversation--as first conceived by theater artist Lois Weaver--is initiated by an invited core group of participants who "set the table" with food for thought, but it is open, throughout, to other folks, sitting around the perimeter, who can come up and take seats at the table to share their experiences, ideas, questions and insights in a non-hierarchical, non-panel/Q&A setting. They are not so much "audience members" as a listening and contributing community. In this spirit, guests to the gathering are invited to bring a snack or food item to share.


Dancing Around Race READER
Building accountability in the dance field
Dancing (In)Equity
Freeing craft
Sima Belmar and Gerald Casel in conversation about Dancing Around Race