And then there was one.
In 2015, The Atlantic published an article called “The Death Of The American Dance Critic.” It lamented the fact that, with Gia Kourlas’ departure from Time Out New York, we were down to two full time critics covering dance for major news organizations in the United States: Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times, and Sarah Kaufman at The Washington Post. Since then Kourlas has replaced Macaulay.
And then there was one. Sarah Kaufman was laid off by The Washington Post in the last week of November 2022.
Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, author, journalist and educator. She has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, a Princeton University McGraw Professor of Writing, and Ferris Professor of Journalism. She serves on the faculty of the National Critics Institute and mentors young writers through various programs. She joined The Washington Post in 1994.
When I spoke to Kaufman she said that she wasn’t angry or bitter. But as a member of the DC metro dance community, and as a consumer of journalism, I am. Whether you agree with her or not, the absence of a critical voice is a loss for the industry, and the city. She makes a more effective case for the importance of this kind of work than I can. “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Our conversation ran nearly an hour and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you feel like there’s a side of the story as to why you were laid off at The Washington Post that didn’t get out into the world?
There will never be a way to understand why. This is the point I’ve come to. It really was out of the blue, there was nothing leading up to it. I was in the office the day before excitedly compiling a list of stories I was going to work on. I talked to my editor about them, and we were both eager to cover certain things. I had literally that day been sending out requests to talk to certain people about upcoming stories. I had just written a big piece for the Sunday section and so I was starting my new things, and then boom. That’s the way it happened with everybody. I was laid off on the same day as the entire Sunday magazine staff and then a few weeks later there were further layoffs. Similarly, there was just no preamble. I can only understand it through my lens on what issues The Washington Post was facing— how it operates and that kind of thing.
I don’t want to come across as bitter or angry, because I’m neither one of those. I just see the forces at work and it’s disappointing. I know the reality that these decisions are fixed in, even though I disagree with them. I’m perfectly happy with what I’m doing now. I love teaching. I love writing. It’s fun to have my own writing projects now to dive into. I’ve always had things that I’ve tried to fit into the margins of the day and now I can devote all my time to things I really want to do.
Your time at The Washington Post saw you covering everything from the NYCB abuse scandal to the taking up of arms against Russia by Ukrainian ballet dancers. You have a huge body of critical reviews, but I have always thought of you as more of a journalist covering dance than just a dance critic. Did you come to The Washington Post with that as an intention, or was it something you grew into? Do you think that covering the dance scene in the nation’s capital, which perhaps has some more overtly political vectors to it than dance scenes in other places, was a contributing factor in the way that you write about dance?
Well I came to The Post with the complete journalistic toolbox, having written a lot about dance as a critic for years for various publications; having been an editor; and having been a reporter. I had gone to Northwestern to get a master’s in Journalism. I had covered sports. I had done so many other types of reporting that I saw that as part of my mission. That was part of what I could bring to readers: to uncover stories and present analysis and to show so many full dimensions of the field of dance and how it intersects with our lives.
At The Washington Post, the thing that was great as far as being a critic was that every critic was kind of a one-stop shop for that art form. Our theater critic writes theater news and essays, as well as reviews and criticism. Our music critic does the same thing. It’s a little bit of a different breakdown than what you have at The New York Times which is a much larger operation with a lot more staff who can specialize just in breaking news or Sunday features and where the critics only write criticism. I always felt that the latitude I was given at The Washington Post was just tremendously enriching and satisfying to me as a writer. The more I reported on the dance world and understood the people in it—the trends, the challenges from economics to politics, to gender dynamics and the kind of medieval practices which the ballet world has carried over for decades and decades—the whole enchilada really informed my criticism.
You’ve gotten to see a cross section of Washington area dance over the last 25 years, maybe more than anyone else. What are some of the standout moments or interactions that will stick with you?
I don’t want to go back too far, so let me start with maybe some more current moments. Misty Copeland danced her first “Swan Lake” on American soil as part of the The Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center with Brooklyn Mack. He was a star of the Washington Ballet and she was a rising star of American Ballet Theater—not yet a principal dancer. There was the context that they both happen to be African-American dancers leading a cast of “Swan Lake” and it happened right here. When had that happened before?! It was a beautiful experience. You could just see so many details, and so much that she had invested in the role and in understanding it.
I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Giselle with Alessandra Ferri decades ago, back in the 80s (Read Alan Kriegsman’s review here). I’ll never forget that the moment before the ballet started when he parted the curtains and came onto the stage. Everybody went ballistic. This was when he was having knee surgery and there were frequent cancellations of his appearances because of his injury. He came out to give simply a loving tribute to James Cagney, the actor and dancer who had just died, and he dedicated the performance to him. Then he and Alessandra Ferri completely swept the audience away. That’s the kind of performance I remember only as a dazzling white light.
I’ve also been so absorbed in the experience of seeing the development of The Washington Ballet. Septime Weber made it this interesting creative cauldron with a lot of personality, novelty, and imagination. I went with The Washington Ballet to Cuba. I think it was the first American ballet company invited since the revolution, and it was a major moment for The Washington Ballet which had this enormous artistic and political impact. Then Julie Kent came in and very quickly made her mark as the leader of the company, developing this classical excellence. She has nurtured so many new dancers and presented so many, really refined productions of great works.
Another choreographer I have watched grow is Dana Tai Soon Burgess. His work is magnificent and I’ve been so thrilled to see him recognized nationally and internationally since he’s arrived here. By establishing his company here, long term, he has deeply enriched the local dance community and beyond.
Then there are the smaller companies at venues like Dance Place. For example Joe Goode from San Francisco. He’s such a great storyteller in dance. He came to Dance Place early in my career and I’ve seen him many times since then. He left a mark. Local performers like Deborah Riley and her group—she was so profoundly in tune with the needs of the community and certain members of the community. She worked with homelessness and created a beautiful dance with umbrellas where every umbrella was like a little dome of shelter (read Lucy Hood’s review here). There were so many beautiful works that were created by local artists that I had the privilege to witness.
Sometimes I come across a review that I wrote and it’s like I’m right back there. In some ways, there is a bit of a permanence, a part of history, and a body of knowledge that I helped to create that still exist. You can find these reviews and read them—that kind of semi-permanent trace that reviews leave of the shows.
Do you think that is part of why dance criticism is important?
In the mid-90s, I taught a class in dance and theater criticism at American University. It was my first teaching experience, and this was before YouTube and the internet. So in order to provide my students with models to follow and be able to talk and write about dance, I went to the Library of Congress and I looked at microfilm. I looked back to get reviews of, for example, Martha Graham, and to get reviews lots of different writers had written. I realized that this was a history. These critics had compiled a written history when it wasn’t as easy to just type an artist name into something like YouTube and come up with a quick sort of visual archive. Now we have ways of looking up excerpts of dance, but that doesn’t give you the fullness of the experience. There is nothing that quite captures the choreography and some of the performance quality as well as film or digital video, but words capture the quality in a different way. A critic provides not only the description of what happened, but puts it into a social, political, and cultural context. A critic can measure the performance against past performances and against the moment when the piece was created vs. the moment now when we’re seeing it. They can do the same thing with regards to dance artists. The critic analyzes the factors that go into the making of the work of art and presents that analysis, and a way of thinking about what you’re seeing. It’s a different form of preservation and a different form of experiencing the art, but I feel like it is crucial to building an audience and fostering a body of knowledge about the art form.
In the 2015 Atlantic article: “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” you were the only one of 12 dance journalists interviewed who was optimistic about the future of dance criticism. Are you still optimistic?
I am teaching a class right now through the Harvard Extension school on reviewing the performing arts. I have taught every summer for the past several years at the National Critics Institute. I come in and we go up to Jacob’s Pillow where I give a workshop on viewing dance and writing about dance. I’m optimistic that there’s an enthusiasm for journalists and critics, and even casual writers, who are interested in the arts. There’s an enthusiasm for learning about dance writing.
I’m not optimistic about the future of dance writing in mainstream media in news organizations. As a journalist for so many decades, this is my area of specialty. I don’t know how much to go into it without sounding terribly dire. There’s the mentality of profitability driven by selling advertising online. This means that anything that does not deliver a lot of potential consumers of the advertising can be cut off from what the news organizations deliver to their readers. Dance is very vulnerable there. It’s not that there’s no readership for dance reviews, but it’s a somewhat smaller readership than for some of the other arts.
I can understand having a business model, however this is journalism. Especially a news outlet like The Washington Post which has a mission. It’s meant to serve. It’s meant to disseminate information, truth, and stories and information about the community—about people’s lives. It’s not the same as Target or Best Buy. It should not just be about looking at the bottom line. There’s a mission definition. Journalists are protected by the Constitution. That right there says there’s something unique about journalism and its service to the public and to the citizenry of this nation. Cutting off coverage of one of the great art forms practiced by every civilization on Earth, that’s a major act. It does not reflect the fullness of readers’ lives.
So why should The Washington Post have a dance critic? Let’s remember this is the nation’s capital. We have The John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts—a memorial to a slain president who believed deeply in the power of the arts, and probably the busiest presenter of the performing arts in the country. It brings in different companies from around the country and the world all year long. This city also has The Washington Ballet, a very well regarded ballet company of our own, of some size. The Washington Post has had a dance critic going back decades, and the only two dance critics to ever have won The Pulitzer Prize for criticism have written for The Post. The Washington Post had more reason to continue dance coverage than maybe any other paper. There’s such a vital dance community here. There are dance artists who want to read about what’s going on in their field. There are people with a casual interest in dance who just want to know what’s offered in their community. So it’s surprising on that level. I should say, I have such profound respect for my editors and for my colleagues at The Washington Post. These decisions—including the Sunday Magazine reporters, and editors and photographers in the newsroom who were let go—were made many levels up from the newsroom.
What do you think your legacy as a critic for The Washington Post is going to be?
I do things traditionally but also a little bit differently. I’ve done all different types of journalism and that feeds my ability, my interest in seeing dance on stage and off stage, and not even anywhere near the stage. It’s like the dance of everyday life. For example, look at cooks in a restaurant kitchen; servers in restaurants; people just walking around crossing the street and interacting on sidewalks; and riggers and roadies at rock concerts. There are athletes that have a certain gracefulness like Roger Federer or Muhammad Ali. They have a way of moving that’s captivating, elegant, and smooth in ways that deliver the thrill of watching a dance performance. Writing about those kinds of things has been a great field of research for me and a great field to explore as a writer. Along with the traditional dance coverage that I’ve offered, I feel like that’s just part of what I’ve been able to deliver to readers in a way that’s perhaps shed some new light or just shown ordinary things in a new way.
What do you think the responsibilities of a dance critic are? If you could give advice to the next generation of dance critics what would it be?
The responsibilities of a critic are pretty much the same if you’re covering any of the performing arts. You want to give your full attention to what you’re seeing. You want to arrive with a sense of pleased expectation that you’re going to be delighted. You don’t want to come thinking it’s going to be a miserable experience. If that’s the case you shouldn’t be there. I think you have to arrive with a sense of cheerful optimism and a love of being there, and then you need to allow yourself to be absorbed in the performance, but you also need to remain somewhat detached so that you can be analytical. You need to find a balance between total absorption—like a regular audience member—and being detached and analytical. But you can’t be too detached because then you’re not allowing yourself to feel.
You also need to keep in mind the various factors that go into performance that you’re watching. For example, there are economic factors and how much risk a company can take. That’s going to be different if you’re watching a small experimental dance group that doesn’t have a lot of funding (nobody in this world has a lot of funding) versus a well endowed ballet company. And then you want things to be excellent, so you need to have a standard to measure works against.
What’s next? Should we be on the lookout for a memoir, or a collection, or for a new book?
I have two other books in mind that I want to write. The book I’m working on now is about writing, and then the others are in furthering my interest in dancers and in body art. People who use their bodies in artistic ways just fascinate me. Maybe we don’t see them as dancers, but they have a dancer-like attunement to their bodies and the expressiveness in the body. I’m very interested in that, and I’m very interested in how that plays out gender-wise. Women are sometimes admired and celebrated for using their bodies but then, in a lot of cases, that’s not seen as serious art.
I am interested in Ginger Rogers who was only considered Fred’s partner—of course, a very accomplished creative artist in her own right—to Beyoncé. Beyoncé is, of course, an important musician and an important voice. But her tremendous physicality, her athleticism, and her strength in performance in using her body in her performance, and her expressiveness with her body are sometimes not evaluated in the same scheme of excellence and seriousness. So those are my interests—continuing to be creative and to focus on the creativity I see around me.
For more information about Sarah Kaufman click here.