Crossing genres: a critical dance


(c) Joan Marcus

COME FLY AWAY features Charlie Neshyba-Hodges as an airborne waiter in love.

Once more there is a conversation in the ArtsBeat blog between critics of different disciplines, in this case Charles Isherwood and Alastair Macaulay, on the subject of the Broadway dance musical "Come Fly Away," choreographed by Twyla Tharp to music of Frank Sinatra. I have been lapping it up.

Isherwood has called "Come Fly Away" a "major new work" of theater, and Macaulay has decried its dance as "intimacy perverted into exhibitionism." I am interested in the discussion that is developing over the nature of Tharp's work, for what it is and what it isn't, breakthrough or compromise, as judged from the perspective of these critics who write about related but different genres. Here's the link to the conversation, best read from the bottom up.

For the record, I saw "Come Fly Away" in one of its last previews. I found it exhilarating, and I would have been happy to tell you why over a bottle of wine after the show. But because I was a classical music critic for years, I would have felt self-conscious writing about it. I admire Macaulay's ample and precise vocabulary to describe what he sees as a dance critic. I am aware that I don't have that. Of course, one responds to an artwork whether or not one is able to articulate that response in words. But for journalists comfortable in their own fields of expertise, there is a tendency to avoid plunging across boundaries, even if that's where art itself is going.

Certainly it was a humbling experience for me when, as a mid-career writer interested in the impact of technology on the arts, I found myself immersed in the exploding industry of video games and its vigorous artistic culture. Humbling, but also heady. Those teenagers and young adults who fiercely desired to influence story lines in real time were at the cutting edge of the computer industry, making demands on interactivity, resolution, speed and memory that no single-tasking writer on a five-inch floppy had dreamed of. (When you watch a live broadcast today by the Metropolitan Opera on HD, you owe a debt to the artists who pushed through technical boundaries at Myst and  "Command & Conquer.")

I'm not urging video games on my colleagues who write about the arts, but it's clear that historical genres no longer contain a good deal of the art that is being made, and we need the vocabulary and experience to write about that. As MJ Andersen previously noted, one result of shrinking space and diminishing staffs at newspapers and magazines has been that journalists are forced to double and triple up on beats.

For a longtime critic, this broadening may be beneficial, one upside of a changing journalism industry otherwise plagued. For young arts journalists, it will mean that expertise in a traditional field such as theater, ballet or classical music is harder to come by. Newspapers and magazines no longer routinely afford a young critic the access and focused time, let alone the travel, necessary to acquire that expertise. But there will still be arts writers, with cross-genre experience as their norm, and I will be interested to see what that means for the continuing discussion.