An Interview with Inquirer critic Merilyn Jackson

Published by The Dance Journal, republished with kind permission.

merilyn jackson interview
Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has been writing regularly on dance for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and prior to that on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European and Latin American fiction in many publications. More than 700 of her articles have appeared in publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Warsaw Voice, The Arizona Republic, The Phoenix New Times, Scottsdale Life, MIT’s Technology Review, and Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, Broad Street Review and Explore Dance.

She has been a member of the Dance Critics Association (DCA) since 1997, serving on its board from 1998 – 2004. She co-chaired their 30th Anniversary Conference in its founding city, Philadelphia. She has received a Literature Fellowship from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for her food-driven novel-in-progress, O Solitary Host, and a National Endowment for the Arts Critic’s Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism in 2005.

Jackson consented to an interview with Steven Weisz of the Dance Journal, offering her insights on her long standing career as a dance journalist, her view of the dance scene in Philadelphia, and the role of the dance critic in the ever changing frontier of journalism in the electronic age.

Steven Weisz: How did you first become involved in writing on dance? What drew you to this genre of the performing arts?
Merilyn Jackson: What drew me to dance was the very trite American story for little girls of my generation: I was taken to see Moira Shearer’s The Red Shoes when I was only five years old. It’s a terribly inappropriate film for a five-year old, but it sped up my precociousness in regard to love, sex, romantic longing and ballet (I didn’t think of it as dance then) and also the development of my esthetic. I like to say, in my flippant bios, that dance was my first love, but when I discovered writing (at age11) I began to cheat on dance.

I studied dance primarily at Jay Dash Studios for ten years and stopped after a back injury and my mother’s death. As a struggling young mother, I didn’t go back to study at the time, but I never stopped seeing dance. I still have my programs from Maya Plisetskaya’s first farewell tour in 1968 with the Bolshoi and John Cranko’s Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet in 1974, both at the Academy of Music. From 1984 on I’d go up to New York to see Pina Bausch every two years. Pina and Merce remain my touchstones for all dance I see.

Locally, I began seeing modern dance in the 1970’s with people like Terry Fox, Group Motion, Ann Vachon, and Terry Beck and Ellen Forman, (I went back briefly to her classes at South St. Dance Co. and we became friends when she began to visit my cheese shop down the street from her studio.) In the early 1980s I met and saw Deborah Hay at Yellow Springs Institute for the Arts where my husband, Arthur Sabatini, had designed the artist residency programs for performance groups. Watching Hay in collaboration with Pauline Oliveros (and later Ellen Forman and Alice Forner, also in collaboration with Oliveros) compelled me to write about what I saw, though I didn’t attempt to publish. Time and again, I was moved to jot notes about dance I saw — Melanie Stewart, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Leah Stein. I saw Bella Lewitsky’s company at Randy Swartz’s series at the Walnut Street theatre and vividly remember writing that her dance — about the Kennedy assassination — was a docu-dance, and how excited I was to discover that modern dance could tell a story in so much more nonlinear form than a story ballet. But it was the act of writing that eventually brought me back to dance. I felt I could dance with my pen as my partner. Now, with my laptop, that notion is, of course, far more abstracted, but the metaphor still dances in my head.

SW: In your previous life, you were a pastry chef for several Philadelphia restaurants, and then ran publicity for the Relâche Ensemble. How did this prepare you, if at all, for a career as a writer and dance journalist? How important is it to be schooled in dance, music, theater and other performing arts as a critic?
MJ: Very important. You must have a zest for life, the arts and learning. The experience with Relâche was invaluable in schooling me in New Music which so many choreographers use. This was the era of the Glass-Childs and Reich-Laura Dean productions. My upbringing in classical music via my mother’s impressive record collection and my living room improvisations, my vocal lessons, the Saturday afternoon Texaco opera program and just living in Philadelphia gave me a background, of sorts, to hear music, at least as it is used in dance. I rarely write a review without some reference to the music.

As for the food thing, I was a baker by the time I turned ten and owned and operated two cheese and gourmet food shops for ten years while bringing up my kids. I gigged as a pastry chef after I sold the businesses. The food business gave me an entrée into international cultures and I like to say I can cook in any language. So I love it when I see a company cook cabbage soup as part of their dance and any food elements are sure to find a place in a review.

SW: What do you find most exciting about the current dance scene in Philadelphia?
MJ: I think we are in a holding pattern just now. The remarkable artistic, intellectual, social and political works made from the mid-90s through the last decade by Headlong, Green Chair, Kun-Yang Lin and by many fine individuals like Niki Cousineau, Myra Bazell, Nichole Canuso, Paule Turner, Gabrielle Revlock, Nicole Bindler, Charles Anderson, to name a few, are now maturing. All have continued to produce substantial work, but, in general, I haven’t seen anything off the charts lately. The kick-ass dance styles of Koresh, RHAW and Philadanco are still strong. And BalletX towers above the Pennsylvania Ballet with its commissioning of innovative choreographers. Even with less than their top-shelf choreography, seeing BAX can be more exciting than going to a Cinderella rehash at the PABallet. I’d rather see PABallet’s fine dancers fail making a passionate effort at something that challenges their talents and our minds and esthetic than watch them phone in another story ballet. So perhaps the most exciting thing on the current dancescape might be the PABallet which seems on the cusp of entering the 21st Century. Plans for a new touring program and more commissioning were recently unveiled.

Nick Stuccio always finds some new gold nugget to bring to FringeArts, and that often sparks off into other interesting work. Nora Gibson, Annie Wilson, Megan Bridge and Alie Vidich interest me a lot.

I see arresting starts, and I think, wow, they’re really onto something, but then not a whole lot of follow through. Yet I still find that, given the phenomenal talent and potential from our region’s dance schools – UArts, Temple, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore — that this is the top dance city in the country. All in all, it is remarkable to be in a city with so much dance.

SW: The role of the dance critic/journalist is quite often misunderstood by artists, who seem to clamor for positive feedback and one-line briefs to quote. Can you elaborate on what you see as your role as well as its relation to your intended audience?
MJ: I go into the theater hoping to be blinded by the sublime, to be rendered speechless by the spectacle, to fall to my knees weakened from the wondrous. But with such high hopes, crashing disappointment can occur. I leave the job of positive feedback to the friends of the dancers and bloggers and stick to giving as fair an evaluation of the program as I can for my readers. My job is to inform the public about what I saw –or think I saw – during the performance. I ask if the choreographer made her intentions clear, how well I think she met them, and how well her dancers channeled her material. If an artist finds an insight in my review that is helpful to them, I am shyly pleased when they let me know, but it is not my intention to offer them advice. I do not think that is any more the critic’s role than it is for the artist to advise us on how to write.

DJ: The trend of dance writing/criticism these days seems to be towards detailed description of work. Literally the journalist is telling us what occurred on stage, along with key highlights. Unlike, say movie reviews, there is little commentary on the actual work or artists themselves. Is there an advantage to this style of journalism? Do you see this as a trend or is this more of a regional phenomenon?
MJ: Well, as any company will tell you, I never leave a theater lobby without asking who danced what. I try always to name names and not just say ‘the man lifted the woman.’ Usually that is because I want to highlight the way someone danced a particular move. All reviews must have some descriptive elements because we are writing for readers who may not have seen the work and we must make the attempt to create imagery that will bring the performance to life for them. With space restrictions at my paper of under 400 words, it’s always difficult to fit all that in. In fact, if you have a very long three word name I might choose to write about someone with a shorter name. Well, that remark is in jest, as of course, name or not, if you did something spectacular, I’d have to find a way to squeeze it in. Critics like Alastair Macauley at the Times have the luxury of writing deep criticism and then are often hated for it. Deborah Jowett seems to have lost her job at the Voice because she didn’t write enough negative criticism. I refuse to be very negative unless I have space to make my argument. The exception to that would be something really amateurish or unrealized from beginning to end. Then, I let fly.

DJ: With the internet and electronic age, there have been major shifts in the field of journalism and use of print media. What do you see as the positive and negative aspects of this shift as it relates to dance/arts journalism?
MJ: The WWW. opens the field to possibly wider audiences, certainly. But those are often niched. We’re seeing newspapers and their professional staffers being decimated by their owners in order to beef up their online versions. Those online versions are not always staffed by professional journalists and knowledgeable editors, but more, it seems to me, unseasoned IT people who haven’t developed critical sensibilities. There’s a certain dumbing down that goes with that. Take this site called the Examiner, for instance, and a recent “review” of the Joffrey Ballet. The author clearly knew little about dance and less about writing and was not edited. I’m not providing the link because the more hits the piece gets the more this guy gets paid and the more bad dance writing gains credibility, at least among readers who go to such sites for their information.

DJ: In Philadelphia, at least, more and more dancers are jumping in to the dance writing and journalism arena, either with more known dance blogs or even their own personal sites. What distinguishes the professional dance journalist in this new environment? What do you see as the differentiating factors?
MJ – Foremost is knowing how to write, knowing your subject in its entirety (not just the friend’s work you’re saying is so amazing), having background and training as a journalist and savvy editors, copy editors and fact checkers who have your back. You must do a lot of reading and research. A certain objective distance and an understanding of the history and trends in dance writing must be maintained.

Dance blogs are fine and I’ve seen some damn fine writing and startling insights on some of them. The problem is, if the readership is mainly other dancers, most bloggers are preaching to the choir. If they are on sites that reach dance audiences so much the better and new critical talents may develop.

DJ: You write for a variety of publications. Do you find you have to alter your style for certain publications?
MJ: Very much so. For local publications like the Inquirer and Broad Street Review, I can pretty much keep to my own mix of Fairmount-chick street talk and informed dance writer. For the national magazines, it’s editing by committee and even the freshest journalism grad on staff wants to put her finger in your pie. There is a kind of whitewashing of personal style to fit what the magazine sees as its image. They are far more informational than entertaining, more like trade magazines.

DJ: Do you find interest in reading about dance increasing or decreasing with overall arts readership? How does this affect the role of the dance critic in the current market?
MJ: I don’t think I have a way to measure that. I do know that the lack of interactivity between the dance community (and its supporters and readers) and the publications that write about them reinforce the notion that dance is not an art to be taken very seriously in Philadelphia. Where’s the passion for what they do? If you look at letters to the editor on music and theater, dance measures as a more passive community. Clearly, the Inquirer still has a great deal of influence. An enthusiastic and informative preview feature or good early review can sell out houses. So someone is reading, if not the dancers.

DJ: Looking towards the future in perhaps an idealistic but yet pragmatic manner, what would you like to see develop in the realm of dance journalism?
MJ: Look, anyone who still remains in this field or has ambitions to come into it would like to see staff critic posts reinstated at dailies and on online sites. I don’t see that happening unless and until the newspaper industry does a rapid U-turn and online sites start paying more.

I’m also seeing more composers and dancers turning their hand to criticism. That’s interesting because they can bring insider information and the artist’s perspective. But there are limits to that and I would think it gets a bit dicey when you run up against critiquing a colleague. For new and individual voices to emerge, the main thing writers must do is to develop an eye for dance, to learn how use language imagistically, metaphorically, informatively, and entertainingly — and of course, to love dance in all its endless permutations.

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