A Conversation with Deborah JowittMar 1st, 2012 | By Steven Weisz | Category: Dance Headlines
by Kat Richter, MA for the Dance Journal
Today, the name Deborah Jowitt is synonymous with dance criticism and every dance major in the city of Philadelphia is bound to have come across her work at one point or another. The former Village Voice columnist, however, wasn’t always the revered critic that she is today. In an open conversation hosted by ThinkingDance at the Live Arts Brewery on Sunday, February 26th, Jowitt confessed that she was “a young smart ass” when she first started writing about dance nearly 50 years ago.
“I was cavalier about ballet,” she recalled, “I was cocky and irreverent when I should have been intimidated.” But that was back in the 1960s and there were, as Jowitt informed attendees, “no books when I was growing up in dance.” All knowledge of dance writing and dance history had to be acquired “on the run” and even when Jowitt and her former student Sally Banes began teaching dance history, they just barely managed to keep ahead of their students.
Although Sunday’s conversation drew a smaller crowd than did last year’s event with Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron, it raised several questions concerning the changing role of dance criticism and the relationship between dancing and writing about dance. Jowitt began to perform professionally in the 1950s and first showed her own choreography in 1962. Over the course of her extensive career, she’s written for numerous publications including The New York Times, Dance Magazine, Ballet Review, and Dance Research Journal. In addition, she has been teaching in the Dance Department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts since 1975.
In an interview prior to the event, Jowitt explained that in her opinion, the role of a critic is “to try to convey something about the essence of the dance to the reader; to talk about what it is, what it seems to be, what kind of movement is being done, what’s it all about.” These sentiments are echoed in Jowitt’s blog, DanceBeat, which she introduces with the following explanation:
This blog acknowledges my appetite for devouring dancing and spitting out responses to it. Criticism that I love to read—and have been struggling to write ever since the late 1960s—probes deeply and imaginatively into choreography and dancing, attempting to capture in words the essence of a particular work. You can’t translate dance into sentences on a page the way you might translate a poem from one language into another. 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.
When asked if she feels her primary responsibility as a critic is to her reader or to some future historian—or perhaps even to the budding choreographer whose work she is reviewing— she explained that her “major concern is to write for the here-and-now reader, although I have to be aware that dance criticism is sometimes a contributor to dance history.” With regard to the possible impact of her work on the choreographers and artists involved, she remarked, “if they find something illuminating in my work that’s fine but I’m not here to tell them what to do.” During Sunday’s conversation she added that the notion of constructive criticism is “misleading because I never presume to give advice.”
Although the award-winning critic proudly asserted “I’m not on Facebook and I don’t Tweet” she does blog and enjoys the freedom blogging allows, especially with regard to word count. Nonetheless, she has concerns about the deterioration of print journalism and mixed opinions about the usefulness of social media. “I don’t know if it’s producing better criticism or not. [Facebook] is the electronic version of word of mouth but that doesn’t mean the information is reliable.”
Despite the uncertain future facing the publishing world and dance criticism in particular, Jowitt had plenty of advice to offer aspiring critics, including the importance of reading up and resisting the urge to emulate other writers. “I think [it’s about] cultivating your eyesight: looking at things, not just walking down the street with your eyes straight ahead so you don’t bump into something […] but looking at the buildings, the people, the architecture, training your eyes to really see.”
More on Deborah Jowitt at http://www.deborahjowitt.com