Think Global, Act Local: How a South African festival changed this American dance writer

Two years ago, I spent just shy of three weeks in Durban, South Africa. I’d been asked to co-facilitate a critical dance writing workshop in conjunction with the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Veteran dance critic Adrienne Sichel conceived this workshop series and festival publication, called Khuluma (meaning “to speak” in isiZulu), more than a decade ago, which in recent years is directed by dance and theatre scholar Clare Craighead. Our five young writers, all honours students in the Performance Studies department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (which houses the JOMBA! festival), spent an intense two weeks attending workshops and nightly shows, churning out overnight reviews after each of JOMBA!’s 13 days of performances.

As I sat each morning editing their reviews, drinking strong coffee on the terrace of my B & B, I asked myself daily how I got here.

Not just “here,” as in, how did I come to be in South Africa. That part is relatively simple: My wife was the production stage manager for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in 2013, the first time the company performed at JOMBA! Deeply Rooted was the first American company to appear in the festival, made possible through an arrangement with the U.S. State Department. Five years later, festival director Lliane Loots asked us both to come for the 20th anniversary of JOMBA! as special guests in our respective areas of expertise, through support from the U.S. Consulate in Durban.

But the idea of trying to capture and communicate dance criticism as a practice is not something I felt prepared to do, particularly in a way that felt positive and generative.

When I started writing, there were full-time dance critics at three Chicago newspapers. Now there are none. American dance critics spend a lot of energy lamenting this reality, consoling each other as we mourn the death of criticism (a narrative that started in the '80s). It’s a depressing and negative operating space—we're critics, after all. Too much time is spent trying to convince people who don’t give a rip about dance to make room for us to write about it. Or molding dance writing into a format that's "appealing to the general reader" ... whoever that is.

I met Adrienne Sichel on that trip to Durban. She’s a white woman of a certain age who, like her American contemporaries, was a prominent voice in a newspaper—The Star in Johannesburg and, earlier, the Pretoria News—and saw dance coverage in these publications slowly fade away. 

“There’s not very many of us,” she said to me, anxious to bond with a fellow critic. More specifically, Adrienne wanted to talk to someone who “got” contemporary dance. She has little patience for dance writers who stay exclusively in their comfort zones. In South Africa, that generally meant white critics writing about ballet while contemporary dance—an amalgam of Euro-American modern dance and indigenous forms—was practically undocumented. By the time apartheid laws were repealed in the 1990s, Adrienne was a seasoned dance critic. Contemporary dance, largely viewed as a non-western form, is where Adrienne focuses her energy and the majority of her writing.

Khuluma is an attempt to align the written word with the distinctive artistic outputs of Durban-based artists and the wider ecosystem of choreographers and companies that flow through Durban each year as part of the JOMBA! festival.

Even while editing those reviews on my terrace, I knew this was a model I wanted to implement in Chicago. The goal of both residencies—we just finished the inaugural See Chicago Dance Critical Writing Fellowship last Sunday—is not to make new dance critics. It’s not a career development program for careers that don’t exist. 

Rather, we ask questions about the residue of arts journalism. We acknowledge both the help and the harm dance criticism has imposed on dance and dancers. The existential “crisis” of criticism is not that careers in dance writing aren’t possible; it’s that those who’ve gripped and held onto power in the field lack the humility and creativity to find another way forward.

As I reflect on a magical 19 days of workshops, discussions, writing, editing and watching dance, I consider, again: How did I get here? How did I get so lucky, to spend nearly three weeks in this space—twice!?

The SCD Critical Writing Fellowship was originally designed to take place over two weekends, with a cohort of writers taking three workshops on the mechanics and ethics of reviewing dance. We planned for them to write reviews of Dance for Life and the SummerDance Celebration, which we knew would be happening across two weekends in August.

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed this plan completely—thank goodness for that. Instead, more than 20 writers from three continents gathered for the workshop series on Zoom, with discussions led by writers and scholars from Chicago, Durban, Johannesburg and London. Our cohort wrote two reviews a piece from the wide array of offerings hosted at JOMBA!'s first ever digital festival. We published much of this work here on See Chicago Dance. Ash Davis, Jordan Kunkel and Gregory King's work will appear in JOMBA!'s yearly digital magazine. I encourage you to live vicariously through us by reading their exceptional writing and getting to know the extraordinary artists featured in the festival. It was a joy beyond calculation, and all of this without the 28 hours of flying required to get to Durban in person. Though, by the end of the residency, I think many of us can’t wait until next year, hoping, by then, that “IRL” is possible.

We didn’t fix dance criticism. Rather, experiences like these only affirm the impossibility of truly capturing the complexity of dance on the page. Still, we try.

Finally, it is my distinct pleasure to welcome two SCD fellows, Felicia Holman and D’onminique Boyd, as freelance critics at See Chicago Dance. As we enter a fall dance season like no other, we’re excited to be a growing platform: a robust, comprehensive resource for Chicago dance audiences to engage with our city’s vibrant artistic communities. Stay tuned.