Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Critical Read: Natalie Axton on Repositioning Arts Writing

In the spring of 2012 I took a hard look at my so-called writing career. I’d been trying to make it as a freelancer for the past two years and ever since a famous book editor in New York sat me down a a cafe, looked at me sagely over coffee and told me I was a writer.

From 2010 to 2012 I dutifully wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of what I produced was crap. What I learned from all that writing is that I like journalism. I also learned that I am committed to one of the field’s least lucrative forms: arts writing. I grew up in a ballet studio. I was on a professional stage by the age of 13—working with dancers, musicians, set designers, costumers, stage managers. Would that I had grown up a Brazilian bikini model! How many more opportunities would I have for getting published if I felt passionately about the gender wars or . . . food. Alas, these were not my journey, as my book editor friend would say. And I’m fine with that.

Still, as a writer I’m always trying to “make it better.” And so, on the two year anniversary of the fateful coffee meeting I thought about the big picture: Why is writing about the arts so hard to place in general interest magazines? Is criticism the best format for arts writing? Can writing about the performing, fine and literary arts sustain a digital publication? And in today’s media landscape, where there is a premium on “storytelling,” why are the arts excluded?

I had an idea: why not create an online home for highly readable guides to works of art? Pair an expert writer with an artwork, take advantage of the innovations of digital publishing, write in a way that privileges narrative. In theory we could provide a service. Anyone interested in say, Giselle or Agnes Martin, could read about the work before venturing to the museum or theater. Over time we could create a library that might serve as an alternate world history. (One of the consequences of the marginalization of the arts in American society: there are tenured New York City history professors working today who cannot name the constituent organizations at Lincoln Center. You don’t need to be cultured to be an intellectual, but come on.)

Critical Read is designed to solve the problems facing arts writing. That criticism—not opinion!—has disappeared from mainstream daily/weekly American publications. That arts practitioners have become disciplinary specialists. That a pool of very talented writers in this country has no opportunity to write long.

Our stories are all features and they are curated around periods, ideas and styles. Our first three stories look at art created in the 1980s. One of those works is a ballet called In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. It was made by the choreographer William Forsythe in 1987 at the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet is vigorous, athletic and it radically redefined the look of contemporary ballet. It’s not overstating to say In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is the most important ballet of the second half of the twentieth century. And yet, until now no one has written about its creation.

Our writer, Zachary Whittenburg has written the first history of this ballet. Zac has written about dance for over a decade. He is a critic and dance historian based in Chicago and he and is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine. He’s of a generation that came of age with the work of William Forsythe, not George Balanchine.

For his story, Sudden Grace, Zac spoke with the people who know the ballet best. People who worked with Forsythe and continue to set the ballet on companies around the world. He tells the story of how the ballet was made. What decisions, artistic and otherwise, contributed to its form.

What Zac also does is show readers how to “read” a ballet. When you go to a dance performance these days, you have to be prepared for anything. There’s no telling what will happen on stage. It could be a tights and tutus number. It could be a theatrical piece employing dancers. Or it could be an athletic number that seems to have more in common with Cirque du Soleil than ballet.

Zac explains that In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was designed as a very formal exercise in theme and variations. Two of its dancers are locked in a kind of competition. Its dance vocabulary extends the classical shapes of the dancers—and the original dancers are Paris Opera Ballet, ballet’s echt-classical technicians—in a way that increases their range without distorting their shapes. Reading this sheds light on so many contemporary ballets and dance works.

Critical Read is an experiment in repositioning arts writing. Some of our features will be personal narratives. Later this year we’ll have a story about a composer’s attraction to the toy piano and another about a writer’s confinement with a reclusive American poet. We’re open to other ideas. Please check out our site and get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.


Natalie Axton is a writer, editor and now publisher living in New York state. She loves watching people do crazy things on stage. Contact her at Natalie at criticalread dot org.

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