What is the role of the arts critic in a pandemic?

Each month, I preview upcoming dance events for See Chicago Dance, highlighting the productions that excite me the most. My job is to entice dance audiences to circle a date in their calendars, to make room for dance and to experience something they might otherwise not have tried.

Large venues closed in mid-March as the COVID-19 health crisis found its way to Chicago. By the end of that month, nearly everything was shut down. Many Chicagoans have more room than ever in their calendars. I write trips to the grocery store in my planner so I can feel as though I accomplished something that day. And artists necessarily pivoted, reacting to the crisis by venturing into digital forums to continue to make work. 

This column is not a critic’s pick of online dance concerts, because I don’t intend to watch any.

Over the past several weeks, I talked to many dance leaders. While it’s clear that dance is struggling, it is the nature of dancers to make it work and present an air of optimism. I felt this acutely in private conversations and in an online convening gathering leaders from Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Links Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, High Concept Labs, the Harris Theater, Pivot Arts, and others to report on the state of their organizations. I heard nothing but certitude, even as they spoke about postponed productions, cuts in staff, vanishing grant money and cancelled galas.

Legacy organizations like the Joffrey Ballet, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Ensemble Espanol, each with more than 40 years of history, have weathered many storms. None quite like this. They may survive by remembering what it was like at the beginning, trimming the fat and whittling down to the core of their missions.

Then there are those who will view the crisis opportunistically. With dance universally leveled, here is a chance for smaller venues and independent artists to get ahead, since they will be able to open sooner. Here is a once in a century window of hibernation in which to reimagine the arts, and to fix that which has always ailed it: Could the pandemic serve as a springboard to abandon scarcity models once and for all? Can a diverse coalition rise to ensure a more equitable, sustainable future for the arts?

But doing that largely depends on the economic structures that surround the arts, and how patrons’ values, priorities and pocketbooks shift as a result of the pandemic. The “poor dance” dialog that has pervaded the field for decades cannot fail to recognize that, while the arts might be accustomed to running on fumes, whole other sectors—those which have duct taped dance together—are in shambles, too. Zoom fundraisers and email campaigns are simply distractions, like patching a pin-sized hole in the boat as we steam toward an iceberg.

I don’t know if waiting can save dance or prevent artists from having to start over from scratch. I don’t know if funders will forgive artists who decide that their work hinges on public gathering and refuse to churn out hastily made pandemic dances in their living rooms. All I know is I’m not interested in watching those dances.

The live arts have a singular advantage over other forms of entertainment. Going to a concert entices willing participants to turn off their phones and sit in a dark room with strangers. We do it because the arts help us to understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. There’s a palpable transmission of energy and empathy that simply cannot be felt gazing at the screen of a laptop. You know this. Social isolation is part of why you feel so “meh” right now.

I’ve questioned whether my aversion to a new barrage of digital content means I’m falling out of love with dance. In theory, it sounds nice to be able to pause a dance concert, or chomp popcorn, wear sweatpants and live tweet with no ushers racing down the aisle to tell you to turn off your phone. And that just might draw a whole new kind of audience to dance. Artists now have access to patrons who live more than a stone’s throw from the theater. So many of the barriers that keep people away are mitigated when the experience of watching dance resembles that of Tiger King.

As someone who’s spent a couple nights a week in the theater for almost a decade, this is a crushing blow. I’ve built my life and career around an insatiable desire for dance. I miss it. And it’s that longing that will entice me back to dance, which will inevitably return at some point, in some way. Letting us miss dance might be the only way to ensure its survival. 

Reviewing dance on film is, historically, a mortal sin for a critic. So, what is the role of the dance critic with no live dance to watch? I, like everyone else, am hamstrung. It’s quite possible that Chicago’s rich legacy of cultural criticism will not survive this. 

To that, many artists would say, “Good riddance.” They’ll say this is no time for criticism anyway. That the mere production of work—any work—is an accomplishment worth celebrating. While I suppose that’s true on some level, a critic’s role is in service to the audience. It is not now, nor has it ever been, about anything other than providing the public with an intriguing window to the form, divorced from self-interest.

I haven’t fallen out of love with dance, I’m just willing to wait for it. Those of us who really feel the loss of not having live performance in our lives for—well, who really knows how long it’ll be, at this point—will be the first to go back. I will be among them.

When we go, venturing to the theater is going to feel risky and vulnerable. Many will judge us for doing something so unnecessary. We will question if it’s safe or rational to be there. We’re going to ask ourselves whether or not it’s worth it.

Make it worth it.