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What’s the role of a dance critic?
I’ve been asking myself that question ever since reading the lead article in Tuesday’s Washington Post Style section. The piece confirmed a hunch I’d had for a while: Sarah Kaufman, the paper’s chief dance critic, is making an occupation of not writing about modern dance.
Oh, she’s writing about movement, all right. Tuesday’s piece—which took up the lion’s share of the section’s front page—contrasts a soccer star’s authentic physicality in the buff with her stiff performance on Dancing with the Stars. She’s also penned an article about soldiers’ stylized movements, and several that cover how fashion models strut.
Meanwhile, Kaufman, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for dance criticism, is barely covering modern dance. Of the 73 articles she’s written since the start of the year, almost 30 covered ballet performances, while 12 were about contemporary dance—and only three featured local companies. A few more modern dance shows get reviewed by her underlings, but that guarantees them a few inches in Style’s back pages and never a feature article.
So I called Kaufman to ask what’s going on. The deal is this: “I’ve expanded my reach and my territory, absolutely,” she said, adding that there’s been a surge of interest in her new focus on less-scripted human movement. But page space is more limited than ever, so while she’d love to fully cover local performances, there’s a tradeoff.
And the fact that she seems to favor ballet over modern? “It’s my responsibility to cover the major events that happen in Washington. If that ends up being ballet over a span of time, because that’s just the way the field is going, then I have to pay attention to that.”
At the end of the day, Kaufman said, she’s writing for the Post’s audience. “We have our readers in mind,” she said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Well, that’s tricky. On the one hand, it’s great that she’s bringing a focus to the crucial ways we use our bodies offstage. We need to be reminded about the profound expressiveness available to us as physical creatures, especially as our lives become increasingly virtual.
But she’s a dance reviewer, after all. In fact, she’s one of the only full-time dance critics left in this country. Doesn’t that exclusive bully pulpit confer a responsibility to cover the art form, whether or not the majority of readers are clamoring for it? Frankly, modern dance—which is becoming an increasingly threatened medium—needs attentive, educated critics like her to help it advance. That she rarely deigns to cover it makes me think she doesn’t actually care if it persists.