DIYdancer contributors Alejandra Iannone and Claire Salant sat down to discuss Wendy Perron’s Through the Eyes of a Dancer: Selected Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 2013). Below are some excerpts from their conversation about the book.
On the experience of reading the book:
Alejandra: This was a big book! It looks a little daunting in size, so I was surprised to see it was actually only 327 pages. It is primarily a chronological presentation of reviews, memoirs, blog posts, feature stories, and interviews covering the 60s through 2012. Super engaging stuff. Once, while reading on the subway, I became so engrossed in the material that I missed my stop!
Still, it took a while to get through. After receiving my press copy, a week passed before I started reading in the first place, and picking back up after having stopped reading for a day or two wasn’t easy. I ended up kind of binge-reading the book, actually.
Claire: At times I felt myself wanting more of her, and less of her clippings–not because they were boring, but because she herself was so much more fascinating! In some ways it felt like there was a memoir hidden in her introductions to articles and sections, but these brief glimpses into her life and point of view could be more illuminating that the articles themselves. On the other hand, her writing, especially in the beginning, is very personal, and at times even laugh-out-loud funny. Though she only reveals snippets of her life in her articles directly, like her friendship with JD Salinger, the little she does get to in the in-between sections shows a woman who has been through incredible challenges both personal and professional, but who can also look at herself honestly and critically, with experience and humor.
This book is interesting in its own right, but I do hope that she writes a memoir, and I can already say if she does–read it!
On dance history:
A: Reading names of teachers, directors, and choreographers that I learn from and dance for made me feel linked to the history of my art form, perhaps for the first time. It reassured the idea that I am part of a deeply rooted, living artistic history. But, this is not a comprehensive glimpse. I imagine that a reader outside of New York City would not have the same experience as I did.
C: I can definitely see that. As a dancer in New York City, it made me feel more connected to history as well, especially since I trained in communities that sprung from events she describes attending or participating in.
Additionally, I thought about the cycles that young artists go through, and I liked seeing someone I view as established in the dance community as a young performer, feeling as eager and confused as many young dancers I know now, and at important points in dance history without always knowing it. I also saw this in her interview with her idol Susan Sontag: she’s clearly looking for a model, and even suggests rearranging her life to match what Susan is saying. And Susan’s response is just to say, absolutely don’t change anything, it’s all a balance, you’ll figure it out–which she does, not so many pages later.
On writing as a dancer:
C: I was thinking about this one while reading. You asked about this at the panel [for the release of the book], and everyone just talked about craft and discipline. At the time, I had a similar reaction–being a dancer doesn’t change how I write. But I think especially in her early writing, where she’s writing about her own community, it really is different. Sometimes she’s looking for things she wants to be able to do herself, sometimes she’s writing with a sense of possessiveness when new people come to town, etc–there’s a hunger in it. She’s writing from the inside of something, so when she describes different downtown movements or fads, she includes herself, and describes her own choreographic process. When she writes about going to improvised performances by the now famous Grand Union group, she’s as giddy as the rest of the audience. It puts you there in a different way than some of her later writing.
A: I found myself much more interested in what she wrote during her dancing years than in what she wrote afterwards. Perhaps this is because I can directly relate to her in that moment in her life, less to her in the years following her retirement as a performer, and not at all to her life from the year 2000 on.
I might have been less interested in the later writings because it is nothing new for a non-dancing individual to write critically about dance. Writings like this are neither hopelessly flawed nor useless, but they have been done, ad nauseum.
What I gather from this is that, at least for the sake of trying something new, it is so important for currently-dancing dancers to engage each other in genuine, open dialogue about their field, whether by writing critically about dance or through some other channel. University, conservatory, and other dance programs would do our field a great service by incorporating dance criticism courses into their programs of study.
C: I didn’t have that same reaction at all, but I’m also a dancer who isn’t dancing right now, since I’ve been working through a serious injury. Maybe thats why I saw the later writing not in terms of dancing or not dancing, but instead as from an outside–but informed–critical eye, rather than an inside one. I’m also loath to decide for another dancer when that term no longer applies. Perron herself still identifies as a dancer, and writes from that perspective. When you asked her at the panel, she was absolutely unequivocal: she is a dancer, down to her bones, who writes.
But regardless of what terms she claims, I don’t think we as a community want to decide that a dancer’s expertise and experience is no longer relevant to writing about dance when he or she is no longer performing to a given standard. More importantly, I don’t think we want to decide that only dancers can engage critically with dance, in criticism or otherwise. Our audiences are so small already! If part of the job of dance critics to bridge the gap between the performers and the public, they have to be educated about the form, but they also have to be able to relate to a wider audience. While I agree that it’s important for performers to talk about their field–the internet has been extremely helpful for this–that doesn’t serve the same purpose for me.
I actually found this idea about the responsibility of critics to be the biggest difference between the early and later writing in the book. Perron comes back to it several times over several decades, and I think it weighs on her. When she first started, she could say whatever she wanted about any performer. But can the editor of Dance Magazine say that a dance made her want to throw up?
On favoritism and criticism:
A: I think this book reflected favoritism of certain dancers ( i.e., Wendy Whelan, Sara Rudner), choreographers (Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp), and dance forms (post-modern dance). As a dancer, dance writer, and audience member, I’m less inclined to trust a critic who is operating under obvious preconceived notions (positive or negative).
C: I see what you mean, and I think when she was younger, she definitely had a Soho-centric view of the dance world. But I don’t see that in her later writing, and I don’t think she has more of a bias than other critics.
That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any. When I read The NYT, I can often guess if a review will be positive or negative, or neither, based on who was assigned the review. As a dancer herself, Perron is writing from a specific history, with her own relationships, preferences, and ideas. I think that’s what she meant when she said, “Who do you read and why?” At this point, when I read criticism, I feel like I have to know what someone’s preferences are, rather than looking for someone who doesn’t have any–and I definitely choose to read people whose preferences, and whose ideas about what criticism should be, are more in line with my own.