In conversation with Deborah Jowitt

New York-based Deborah Jowitt is one of the world’s most eminent dance critics. She wrote for The Village Voice for 44 years, is a biographer, speaker and lecturer, and has been in Melbourne to conduct a workshop as part of the Keir Choreographic Award. As a performer in the 1950s and 1960s Jowitt worked with some of the art form’s most influential choreographers, starting a study of dance that has lasted more than 60 years. From this unparalleled position she talks about criticism in the digital age, labels (she hates them) and how to look at dance.

Jones: It would be good to talk about the distractions and resources of the internet. Has critical writing changed? Has dance changed?

Jowitt: During the first decades of my writing career I, like many of my colleagues, was influenced by Susan Sontag’s influential book of essays Against Interpretation. I would focus on what I’d seen and felt about a particular dance (unless it was, say, one with an obvious story to tell—such as Swan Lake or Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra). My heroes (and Sontag’s) were Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. They and more radical choreographers like Trisha Brown said in so many words, “what you see is what you get”. Or “if you want to interpret it, feel free to do so”.

For a critic in the digital world, “interpretation” is no longer a “feel free” matter; it’s often a challenging obligation in relation to the kinds of dances we’re looking at. Adventurous art, as we know, changes with the times. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Martha Graham was proselytising her early dances, she spoke of a new tempo that been prompted by the development of machines. It was a quicker, harder rhythm, and the city streets of New York intensified it.

Deborah Jowitt, in a still from “Every Day a Little Death,” one of seven short movies from Dancing Sondheim, an App by Richard Daniels. Photo: Richard Daniels / Dances for an iPhone.
Deborah Jowitt, in a still from “Every Day a Little Death,” one of seven short movies from Dancing Sondheim, an App by Richard Daniels. Photo: Richard Daniels / Dances for an iPhone.

The rhythm of today, however, has a flickering energy—suggesting a world of sudden transitions, of disparate elements layered over one another or butted together. We are multi-taskers; we tweet; we comment; we join chat rooms; we seek online for the best or cheapest products or ways of removing callouses. Our computer’s desktop may have enough open windows for a castle, and the sidebar is there to lure us into new territory.

There’s almost no such thing as a sell-by date attached to material posted on the internet. Cyberspace never fills up. I have access to things I couldn’t always find before—or thought I needed to find: relevant sheet music, analysis of the score, YouTube clips or vimeos of past performances, bios, headshots, company history. I can get hooked on this information glut and the speed with which I can, say, virtually enter a museum to check a painting that inspired an image in a dance I’m trying to write about. No editor helps me—only knowledgeable friends who e-mail (sometimes within five minutes) to point out post-publication glitches that I can correct. A writer in total (sometimes terrifying) control.

Oh, and, by the way, for this, I am paid … nothing.

Jones: There used to be well-known gatekeepers. Now the critical field is fragmented. Is there something interesting and useful about the proliferation of voices?

Jowitt: Dance being somewhat the stepchild of the arts, I feel that it’s profitable—if sometimes alarming—that people are weighing in about what they like and dislike. I love the fact that a real dialogue can sometimes get going about a particular work. That doesn’t happen in print journalism, when comments (if any) arrive when everyone has all but forgotten what they pertain to.

Jones: You call dance “the stepchild of the arts”. Why?

Jowitt: Because more people go to galleries and museums and attend performances of opera and classical music than go to dance performances. At least, that’s my impression, and it used to be substantiated by surveys. In terms of funding, dance has been low man on the totem pole, except for the major ballet companies. In the US, it seems to me that independent choreographers spend a lot of time hustling for money. Decades ago, they could live and rehearse in re-purposed former industrial lofts. Now they rush from one rent-by-the-hour studio to another.

Jones: The words modern and contemporary seem to be used interchangeably these days. Do such definitions have much meaning today, particularly with the greater mingling of contemporary dance with ballet?

Jowitt: The confusion may have begun with America coming up in the 1930s with “the modern dance” and Britain using contemporary to mean pretty much the same thing. You know what? I hate terms. That is, I hate spending time trying to figure out how to categorise a dance. And I try to avoid doing it. Nowadays “modern dance” tends to relegate a work to classics of the past. “Contemporary” seems more neutral. Then there’s “postmodern.”  Once I called certain kinds of work “balletomodern” (usually with a pejorative edge). Quite a few choreographers who have had nothing to do with ballet contribute works to ballet companies. I think of Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday being performed by American Ballet Theatre.

Jones: You have written of choreographers’ “willingness – indeed, their frequent mission – to challenge the expectations and sensibilities of the public or to present unsettling images of contemporary life”. Then shortly after you write about “hybrids” and that some ballet-makers have a more contemporary outlook than some certifiably modern dance choreographers.

Jowitt: Hmmm. Those “hybrids” may be the “balletomodern” works I mentioned. I put Glen Tetley in that category once. I have thought of some of Balanchine’s ballets being bracingly contemporary, in line with the music he used. Say, Stravinsky’s twelve-tone music (I think) for Agon or Xenakis’s for Metastaseis and Pithoprakta. My Tetley example (not entirely fair to him) as “balletomodern” aligns him with works that use modern dance’s penchant for invention to make ballet look sexier and more down to earth, while employing the virtuosity and theatricality that would make a work fit a ballet company’s profile.

Jones: That’s a great term – balletomodern.

Jowitt: Feel free to appropriate it.

Jones: You have called ballet “a powerful monolithic entity”. Have you changed your mind on that score given what seems to be an increased communication between ballet and contemporary dance?

Jowitt: Ballet companies have definitely become more experimental in developing a repertory. And there aren’t that many excellent choreographers using the classical vocabulary beautifully. But I may have been referring to the fact that, in terms of dance, many ballet companies are big, corporate establishments or, in Europe and elsewhere embedded in national theatres. They have budgets and executives and powerful boards and (in America for sure) big donors. Often, depending on the establishment, the company has to worry about what will sell, whom it might offend or shock in a not-good way.

Jones: And an associated question, in my mind at least, relates to Alexei Ratmansky’s work on getting as close to Petipa’s style as possible in The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Is that an academic exercise or something important for audiences right now?

Jowitt: I can’t speak for all audiences, but I love Ratmansky taking that step. Those two ballets in particular have accrued so many changes, deletions, and additions over the centuries—with those in charge shifting the music around, catering to the demands of principal dancers, and going in for trendy updates with bizarre costumes and sets.

Jones: I love the Ratmansky explorations too. And I love that in the contemporary world there are many, many interesting women but in ballet it’s become quite a topic of conversation lately, and it’s news that Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite will make a work for the Royal Ballet next year. Any ideas why women are so under-represented as ballet choreographers? And what effect does that have on the art form itself?

Jowitt: I can only guess that the masculine domination of ballet is in part a hand-me-down from the 19th century and before that. Male choreographers were the leaders of European ballet companies, probably because it was assumed that they knew more about business and authoritarian rule than women had any right to know. Only rarely did a woman run a company.

Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Martha Graham et al could afford to experiment (and live in partial poverty) because they weren’t entrusted to run big companies (meaning ballet ones), and they weren’t interested in choreographing musicals. So, in a way, “modern” dance and all the experimenting that went on was a woman’s game to begin with. Interesting though that, beginning in the late 1950s and early sixties, men ran the largest contemporary companies, e.g. Paul Taylor, Alwin Nikolais, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham … More recently, we’ve had Violette Verdy at the Paris Opera and Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland with their own ballet companies.

Don’t you think this is somehow in line with women in the business world making less money than men when holding down the same position?

Jones: It’s been an incredibly persistent hand-me-down. I think perhaps the highly authoritarian nature of the training (dancers have to be very obedient in the classroom) has something to do with it. Perhaps with a few more women running prominent companies – English National Ballet, Miami City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Paris Opera Ballet coming up – things may move a bit more quickly.

Which brings me to the ephemerality of dance and the question of legacy. We’ve seen the various ways in which the preservation of the work and ideas of key 20th century choreographers, including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and now Tricia Brown and Paul Taylor, is being handled. But is the really important thing the less tangible legacy of the influence great choreographers have on others rather than the ability to reproduce works that will inevitably start to look and feel very different?

Jowitt: Some of those ways of preserving a legacy are better than others, and no one can predict what Paul Taylor’s venture into a diverse repertory will become after his death. However, I’m not about to put one of your definitions above the other. Yes, of course, it’s inevitable and enriching that some great choreographers’ contributions live on—transformed and personalized—in the work of the next generation. But I’m happy to see companies mounting works by Cunningham, for example. Properly overseen, they will be of fine quality, even if a bit different from their original state. So far, Pina Bausch’s company has been looking good.

Change and possible deterioration, by the way, are also inevitable in those legacy companies. The original step may be forgotten or modified in ways that alter its impact. A dancer wants to make her own contribution and tailor a role to fit her.

Jones: You’ve been to Australia several times. Were you able to see much dance here? Or the work of Australian choreographers elsewhere? Which leads to the question of national style, if such a thing exists. People do like to slap labels on things and you’ve already said how much you hate them, but is there a little bit of truth in the idea of national style, impulses, subject matter, whatever you might want to call it?

Jowitt: I’m not sure I can speculate about an Australian style. I’ve seen the Sydney Dance Company and works by Libby Dempster, Rebecca Hilton, Hellen Skye, Meryl Tankard, Helen Herbertson, and others. I’ve also seen and admired Lucy Guerin’s work here and in Australia.

But these people aren’t all alike. It would be inappropriate (not to say dangerous) for me, as an outsider to speculate on what might be “Australian” about those choreographers. Maybe when I see the performances this time around I’ll perceive common themes, but that’s not necessarily so. I should have mentioned, too, Russell Dumas, whose work I know well and admire greatly. He focuses on movement and form in ways that both heat up and relax the dancers’ bodies.

Jones: Finally, one often hears people say they don’t understand dance, that they don’t get it. I suppose that’s why audiences for dance are lower than those for some other performing arts. Do critics have any responsibility to help guide audiences to dance?

Jowitt: I understand the problem. I don’t see myself “guiding” audiences or trying to “educate” them. That would mean writing in a particular, perhaps condescending way.

Jones: On your blog you write: “You can only say what you saw, what it seemed to express, what traditions it connected to or broke away from, and what you thought of it.”

Jowitt: That statement is pretty bare-bones, but I’ll stand by it.

A shorter version of this conversation appeared in The Australian on April 22.

Deborah Jowitt blogs at

The 2016 Keir Choreographic Award semi-finals continue at Dancehouse in Melbourne until April 30. The final will be held at Carriageworks, Sydney, May 5-7.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dear Deborah Jones – The image you are using of Deborah Jowitt needs to be captioned and credited immediately, as you are currently using it without permission. Caption: Deborah Jowitt, in a still from “Every Day a Little Death,” one of seven short movies from Dancing Sondheim, an App by Richard Daniels. Photo: Richard Daniels / Dances for an iPhone.

    Please correct immediately. Image theft is a serious issue.

    1. Dear Mr Daniels, many thanks for alerting me to this. The photo was supplied without attribution for use with this piece by those who arranged the interview. I apologise for the lack of credit, which is now in place.

      1. Thank you! Much appreciated!

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