Visitors to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts can meet some fascinating figures in the dance world, not just onstage but in twice-weekly intimate gatherings known as PillowTalks. These are a series of hour-long interviews and presentations hosted by the festival’s scholars-in-residence: two scholars are on site throughout the festival’s ten-week season, and this year I’m one of them.
To promote her new book Through the Eyes of a Dancer (Wesleyan University Press), Wendy Perron, the noted American choreographer, dancer, writer and editor, participated in a lively and wide-ranging conversation with colleague Maura Keefe. After serving as editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine for a decade, and presently serving as editor-at-large, she seems to take great pleasure in talking about dance, expanding on her ideas about making dance and writing about it. In a recent blog entry on her personal site (wendyperron.com), she states that she wants this book “to encourage other dancers to write.” I have contributed freelance articles and reviews to Dance Magazine over the years and been edited by Perron. I found her to be a welcoming editor, but, with an eye for detail, she could be penetrating in her editing. After all these years of correspondence, it was great to meet her in person; she’s affable, and the famous frizzy, curly hair that she describes in the book was en forme on a perfect Berkshires afternoon.
The book is a chronological compendium of selected reviews and essays that spans four decades of writing selected from SoHo Weekly News, The New York Times, The Village Voice and Dance Magazine, among others. Perron’s writing itch began with noted dance scribes Deborah Jowitt and Marcia Siegel, at the former Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Arts Live). Their classes transformed her life, helping to channel her ideas and observations onto the page. She admits that she wasn’t a standout writer at the start, but says “I wanted to talk obsessively about dance.” And so she does, in understandable, clear terms.
In this PillowTalk, she speaks more or less the way she writes: insightful, knowledgeable, unpretentious, playful and curious, and with an authoritative voice. Her writing is not objective and it doesn’t try to be. As she reveals in her book, “Although writing and choreographing are very different physically, they both hold you in their mental grip. The stream of decision making won’t let you go; it haunts you; it keeps you up at night.” Perron doesn’t just provide an old-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down review; she gives valuable insight into the work she’s seen “whether it’s what you love to see and dance versus what’s not your taste.”
As a dance artist and teacher, Perron was in the thick of New York’s burgeoning downtown dance scene in the 1960s and 1970s, and she mines her experience of that era in the early writing. There’s gold in these pages, and she evokes the excitement and energy of the times. In its memoir-like introduction, Perron reveals how she was shaped by dance early on, learning modern as a child at her mother’s creative dance studio in New Milford, N.J.. There she learned how to “clap out rhythms” and “fly across the room in the ‘Isadora skip.’” Classical dance followed, and by age fifteen she was on scholarship with Martha Graham. She graduated after subsequent dance studies at Bennington College in Vermont in the late 1960s. Tastes change, of course, and she moved on to become a dancer in Trisha Brown’s company from 1975 to 1978. Her immersion in the city’s booming days of postmodernist performance, when loft spaces, church spaces and Merce Cunningham’s Westbeth studio were the hot spots, galvanized her career. Brown, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Simone Forti, were among the exciting, thought-provoking choreographers challenging existing definitions of performance and freeing themselves from tradition. At the same time, Perron began her writing about dance. “New York in the 1970s was like the 1960s,” she said during the talk, capturing the democratic tone of the times. New York wasn’t just the centre of the dance world; there was also a “sense of newness,” as she says, in the air. The city in the 1960s was a “paradise of experimentation,” and the eclectic dance community maintained that edge a decade later. Ground was still to be broken, to paraphrase Yvonne Rainer, and artists like Perron were standing on it at the ready. The city’s unmatched creative and radical energy was key, with fluid borders between disciplines, and room for a diversity of voices to coexist.
Perron successfully contextualizes each section of the volume with present-day commentary. The book covers specific shows and plunges into larger social issues, including the crossover between ballet and modern; global traditions; diversity in dance; the impact of AIDS on the dance community; the question of a critic’s responsibility (and how they handle or abuse their authority); Natalie Portman’s body double, Sarah Lane, in Black Swan; Perron’s friendship with J.D. Salinger; and, in the last chapter, how the Internet has changed dance journalism.
This collection of writing reveals different facets of her voice, starting with her happy origins as a dance lover and writer. “I could see a freedom I had at SoHo News; it was personal journalism,” she says. She was writing for the “Concepts in Performance” page, and reading those varied entries now, you can sense her independent expression popping off the page. When she arrived at The New York Times, the arts section editor, John Rockwell, also gave her full freedom to write her essays in the way that she wanted.
The eighties were her most active period as a choreographer and teacher, though it was her least prolific time as a writer. She didn’t compromise one for the other. “Writing was always marginal for me,” she recalled. As she tells it, she made a slow “cross-fade” when she arrived at Dance Magazine. The job there made sense for a number of reasons, personally and professionally. “It is easier to preserve writing than choreography,” she concludes. It’s a given that dance is an ephemeral art form, but Perron equally understood that her writing could, over time, be as easily forgotten. There’s breadth and scope to her voice, making the articles and essays she writes worth reading.
One sticking point for Perron is dance critics who “slam with impunity,” and she rails against those who write malicious, mean-spirited reviews. “Careers are broken through that kind of criticism,” she says. Early on she felt she identified more with the performers, and less with critics, and that’s clear in the book. Today, after writing and editing regularly, she sees both sides. “[It’s] great when a critic wants to be fair … and generous,” she told the crowd.
Perron expresses the need for public discourse, but questions the resonance of the written word within the community. “Dance eludes words,” she says, though admits, “Maybe that’s the way that I can participate.” Forever a “dance addict,” she says. She may not be actively creating work for the stage, but some part of her will always be a dancer. As someone who loves to dive into history and ideas, I am grateful to have Perron’s vivid, companionable guide. This is not, as you might have guessed, academic or theory-based criticism. She doesn’t try to cover all points of view, just writing her own thoughts in a voice that’s impassioned and articulate. There’s a lot packed into this volume, but with integrity, conviction and panache, she invites us to join the conversation.