On becoming a better dance writer

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I’ve been writing about art for ages – I started writing for my college paper in 1993 (a two year long gig in which I wrote about everything from music to politics to plays), then picked it up again in 2002 when I started writing for Tablet, a bi-weekly, free Seattle arts newspaper that folded about three years later (and has since had its entire online presence entirely erased – meaning I should have kept my clips*!).

I noted at the time that I was able to review plays easily, but I only showed real genius when I wrote about art, as in “art in galleries.” That was probably due to my extensive engagement in the contemporary alternative arts scene starting back from my days in Phoenix when I worked at a place called Crash (and later The Icehouse). Maybe, then, art is what I should be writing about nowadays, but what happened in the meantime (as in “after I moved to London”) is that my personal habits changed, and I started going to plays a lot more. By a lot more, I mean weekly. Well, actually, no, I mean about twice a week, and sometimes three times a week. In fact, if you look at my records from last year, it looks like I went to see a performance about every three days. Nuts, huh? And I was writing about them all the time in my personal blog (not this one), often more than I was writing about my life.

Then one day I decided I needed to start this blog, mostly because I wanted to be free of the limitations of not boring my “audience” (my friends on the other blog site) with excessive detail about the shows I’d seen. I enjoyed writing my reviews; I wanted to really plunge into it wholeheartedly. And, truthfully, I wanted to have a venue in which I could focus on improving my skill as a writer. Successful blogging, to me, frequently depends on expressing personality, and I wanted to focus my theater writing not so much on my life (as in “where did I go out to eat before the show and who saw it with me,” not that my list of the best pre-show cheap eats hasn’t been my number one most popular post of all time), but more on just writing, and writing well, in a way that captured my voice but wasn’t about me.

I think I’ve managed to do this fairly well over the last two and a half years, but as I’ve tried to expand my reviews to cover all of the artistic events I enjoy, I’ve found a hole: my dance reviewing is weak. I’ve been trying to improve all of my reviewing through the time honored method of “doing it;” no one can write better unless they make an effort to practice their writing! I have also tried to improve my writing by getting feedback from others, but no one seems willing to say much of anything (not sure if people are just too polite or if they don’t want to give away their secrets). I did manage to get some tips from Roy Peter Clark, who had three recommendations, “READ, WRITE and TALK.” Well, he also recommended seeing shows twice, but this isn’t something either time or budget allows.

So. Write I have; talk I am trying (but really need to work on more); this leaves READ. I need to read more writing, think about it, and try to figure out how to make mine work better; not to imitate the voice of good writers, but to think about what it is they are doing that makes their writing work well. And I had the opportunity to ask my god of dance writing, Clement Crisp, whom he thought I should be reading (before a dance performance at the Linbury; meeting him broke my concentration so hard I was barely able to pay attention to ). His answer: Edwin Denby, Richard Buckle, and Deborah Jowett. I’ve bought Deborah Jowett’s The Dance in Mind: Profiles and Reviews 1976-83, but also
Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen’s What Is Dance (as recommended by Judith Mackrell); now it remains to read these books, a hard thing when I’ve got Charles Stross and Charlaine Harris begging for a chance to take my subway ride and turn it into a trip to Disneyland.

Now you, dear reader, I ask: what can I do to improve my writer-craft? Where can I talk with other people about writing, rather than just gossip about shows (not that I’m not looking forward to the next Twespians meeting)? What can I do? What do YOU do? I have achieved volume; please help me raise my own bar. I realize I will never make a living as a writer; the field is already very competitive and just getting worse. Still, I want to be excellent; my dream is that some day, even if it is still twenty years in the future, that I too will write as memorably as Mr. Crisp does, even if I shall never be as elegant; elegance is not in my voice. I want a voice that makes dance sound as exciting to the reader as it is to me; and if I do that, I will have achieved my goal.

(Supposedly they’re on a hard drive somewhere. Meanwhile, here’s one clip I posted on my old blog. Ooh, and here’s an actual art review, fancy that!)

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