What is dance writing, anyway? It often involves seeing a mediocre performance, taking notes on a steno pad in the dark, asking a choreographer/publicist/dancer a few specific questions (the requisite “can you spell the principal dancer’s name?”), and then dashing into a makeshift office to knock out a review in 75 minutes to meet the overnight deadline. Frantic calls to the editor follow… “Did you get the fax/email/file?”
Thirty years later, mixed in with some features and in-depth interviews, and the occasional luxury of a review with a 12-hour deadline, you’ve got the Cliffs Notes version of Margaret Putnam’s career.
Oh, did I say mediocre? Sorry about that North Texas. Stop your blubbering; in a whole lot of cases it was just true. Many great dancers/choreographers migrate to New York or Europe out of economic necessity. Those who stay behind marry a breadwinner, have a trust fund or scrounge to fight the brave fight. How else could they survive?
Anyway, what’s so bad about being mediocre, besides being Margaret Putnam’s meal ticket? Not everyone can hold a penché en pointe or choreograph like Pina Bausch or George Balanchine. Not everyone can be world class. (Though to be fair, you’ve got Bruce Wood, Leticia Oliveira, Ben Stevenson…to name a few.)
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthy things to review. In fact, everyone who dares to put themselves on stage or on canvas, is passionate about creating art and following his/her vision, no matter how lukewarm the results, deserves a standing ovation and a write-up in the paper. Especially in today’s hostile anti-art, anti-funding environment. Every artist is a piece of the mosaic that leads to a culture that eventually produces a Picasso or Pavarotti or Pavlova.
But it also doesn’t mean that a critic shouldn’t hold mediocrity to a higher bar.
And let’s face it, Margaret Putnam, has not held her tongue.
As someone who has survived 45 years of Margaret Putnam’s merciless scrutiny (“Justine, you should really curl your eyelashes”), and as a guaranteed agent of mediocrity in multiple art forms, I can vouch that while she’s not that subtle, or oblique, she is more often than not, right.
Back in the days when I attempted to dance, Mom threw a hissy-fit when Dallas Ballet used “World Class at Every Turn” as a tagline. Imagine walking into the Dallas Ballet Academy to take class when your mom has just dissed the company. This was Dallas’ only major ballet company. How dare she put it down in such a public forum? There were days when I wanted to sidle up to Flemming Flindt and ask him (for a small fee) if he wanted me to put itching powder in mom’s undergarments or hide her car keys before the next review.
When I was older, I began to see Mom’s point. As anyone in the arts community knows, it’s all-consuming trying to build and sustain an audience, particularly for dance. Mom’s beef was that if you presented dance as “world class,” when it was truly a terrific regional company, was telling people this was as good as it gets. Even Dallas Ballet’s suave and commanding principal dancer of yore, Kurt Hathaway, would concede he was not on par with Baryshnikov. Mom believed in truth in advertising to protect dance, and ultimately, its precious audience.
Like any critic, Mom has had her biases. She’s no fan of unitards. She rarely likes modern performed on toe shoes. Dance put to lyrics is tricky. She shakes her head in disapproval upon seeing choreographers repeat themselves―like when a dancer runs solo in a circle, chest thrust forward, arms held behind, chin lifted―in at least four different pieces. Another pet peeve is extraneous moves in modern pieces like long-held arabesques.
She doesn’t care for dance that is gimmicky: dancing in life-sized pillowcases, banging on trashcans or European nudity. Few tap artists inspire her, though there are exceptions to every rule, such as Savion Glover; and she finds the kitschy Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo a hoot. Creating multi-cultural events to be multi-cultural rather than authentic ethnic expressions rile her. Mom abhors artifice.
Yet, despite her biases, Mom attended performances as often as she could convince her editors she should. Even if it was guaranteed to bore her, Mom had tickets. She made it her mission to find some redeeming aspect of the performance, even if she would pull no punches citing the flaws. She wasn’t motivated by the paycheck; given the ratio of hours to compensation, Mom subsidized the Belo Corporation when she was freelancing for Dallas Morning News, and not the other way around.
With scant pay and onerous deadlines, dance writing is obviously all glory. No different from the reviewees, dance reviewers require tough skin, too. One brutal letter to the Dallas Morning News from a high school English teacher complained that Mom’s knowledge about both dance and English was marginal, adding that both her personality on paper and in person “were most unpleasant.” I remember sharing that low opinion briefly until her feature on Houston Ballet’s Cleopatra was published by The New York Times.
Few papers find writers with a dance background, and Mother remains over-qualified. A dance-student for five decades, she has a PhD in English and taught at the university level―evident in her insistence on active voice, and favoring words with onomatopoeia, like sizzle and pep. Whatever her credentials, she had zilch desire to temper her observations to make them palatable.
Margaret Putnam wants to write about dance, not because it’s her job to “support” the artform or help build a dance audience. Her job―biases in check―is to report and reflect the artistic integrity and experience. She is just as apt to say “boring” to Bill T. Jones as she is to say “Wow!” to a night of Punjabi Banghra. Critical feedback is crucial to any company or performer: mediocre or world-class, ethnic or classical.
One of Mom’s big secrets is that she has always found writing itself tortuous. She dreaded the process of searching for words, laboring to convey nuance―an even greater challenge following her stroke in 2000. Someone who once had a near-perfect score on the verbal SAT struggled to recall the word “cat.” The odds of remembering a plié or attributing a contraction to Martha Graham seemed slim. For a while she was an editor’s nightmare, substituting words like “crap” for “crab.” She willed herself to improve, and did so by writing continually, the very task she found frustrating and tedious was fundamental to her recovery.
Since the cancer demons have taken hold four years ago, Mother still attends dance performances, notepad in hand. Often it would be her only outing, apart from infusion rooms, and has fainted weak from chemo, only to write a review from her hospital bed. The snobby daughter of a dance critic would ask “Why do you bother going to that crap (spelled with p not b) anyway?” Mom would reply along the lines of “Dance is the most ephemeral of the arts. It is like smoke, hovering, tantalizing, and vanishing in a second. That makes it all the more important to have a written record, something that will kindle memories or incite curiosity.”
Greatness is not limited the 212 area code. It is, however, statistically impossible for every artistic endeavor to be breathtaking and astounding. For every David Parson’s “Strobe” there are 10,000 Miss Tina’s Tippy Tappy Toe Shoe recitals―in Dallas, in Manhattan, in rural China. However justified of an eyeroll or sneer, these valiant and determined―albeit amateurish or forgettable―stagings are essential to keeping art alive.
The role of a critic is to validate and document the fearless efforts, but also use critical feedback to keep the eye on the prize: art as a transformative experience. Not everyone will succeed in that goal, but every artist contributes, as does the dance writer. A career in dance writing is both chore and calling; the fruits often unwanted, yet an artistic necessity.
◊ Justine Vanhilt Putnam currently lives in Antwerp, Belgium. She and many fans and supporters of Margaret Putnam gathered on Jan. 29, 2011 at the Sammons Center for the Arts to honor Putnam’s career as a critic, and a new scholarship in her name intended for dance writers. The event was presented by the Dance Council of North Texas.
Margaret Putnam continues to review for TheaterJones, look for her next review coming this week.