A Tense Issue
or No Time Like the Present
To me, after it’s over, the experience of watching a dance still exists behind my eyelids. I see it clear as a bell and I want others who weren’t there to get as palpable a re-telling as possible. That’s why, like Deborah Jowitt and many other hero writers, I choose to write as though the work is unfolding in front of me. In the present tense. Sure, you can look at Edwin Denby and see that he sometimes switches tenses depending on whether he’s writing about a general truism in the work or a momentary event. That careful distinction is on display in a bunch of writers. And yes, there are writers who choose to place their writing primarily in past tense.
Until now in my encounters with editors at Dance Magazine, the Village Voice and the Dance Insider, they have argued for consistency in the use of tenses within a piece rather than dictating the use of one or the other. But it turns out there are some who argue that because a performance is over, it took place at a fixed time that is no more, that necessitates past tense.
Why does that distress me so? Dance, the most evanescent of arts, seems a poor sister in so many respects, and yet it’s the art I have invested my life in. It is in conjuring images of it that are lively in the imagination (present) rather than contained and finite (past) that dance is properly honored and appreciated. As a reader I want to feel what it was like to be there rather be presented with a view of an embalmed corpse.
It is encouraging how many positive responses I have received about my dance writing from people who are accustomed to reading writers who perhaps don’t know dance as deeply as I do or who perhaps don’t write about it with as much passion and respect. There is a mission here – to raise consciousness about dance, and to let the dances live longer than the brief moment they are onstage, which is infinitesimally short compared to the years of preparation that went into developing the necessary skills and the months or years to develop the actual work.
Yes, a dance concert is history. But the work itself is no more history than an extant painting. Maybe you can’t see the dance before your eyes anymore. But behind them, it lives.
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Some recent examples of ‘present tense’ dance reviewing:
Gia Kourlas (NYTimes)
Jennifer Dunning (NYTimes) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/arts/dance/15offe.html
John Rockwell (NYTimes) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05E2DD103DF930A35750C0A9639C8B63
Deborah Jowitt (Village Voice) http://www.villagevoice.com/dance/0512,jowitt1,62267,14.html