All Things Seen: Claudia La Rocco in conversation with Marissa Perel


Renowned dance critic Claudia La Rocco discusses her journey into the profession, the culture clash between the dance and visual art worlds, her hunger for discussion about performance and the invention of P-Club, and why the starving artist model is gross. “I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky to have stumbled into performance and the way in which the field has activated my writing and changed it…I think that that doesn’t get acknowledged enough by writers, how there’s an immense debt that you owe your subject.”

Interview Date: February 16, 2012 (at Veselka’s)

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Marissa Perel: How long have you been writing about art?

Claudia La Rocco: My first official freelance gig was in college. I graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 2000 and I started either my junior or senior year, freelancing for a local paper. Do you want the whole arc of things? I could give you the long story or the short story.

Marissa: I want the arc.

Claudia: Well, I moved to New York right after school and I thought I was going to be on a magazine, work my way in and become an editor. I got a job as an editorial assistant at a high-tech magazine, and was catatonically miserable. I hated it! I hated being in an office. I didn’t know anything about the high-tech world, didn’t know the DOW from the NASDAQ. It was a disaster. The only good thing that happened was that they let me do a book review column. I was supposed to be doing just high-tech related things, self-help books and computer-related stuff, but I also reviewed things like Jeannette Winterson’s Powerbook. It was really ridiculously tangentially connected. Anyway, I got out of there and started working part time at the Associated Press because I knew that I wanted to be writing about the arts, and I knew I wanted to freelance. I don’t like desks and I get bored easily, although I’m still in front of the computer all the time, but on my terms, in my pajamas. That makes a difference. At AP I was working half-time as an editor and then as an arts writer the rest of the time; one day my editor called me into her office and asked me what I knew about dance, which was not that much at the time.

Marissa: What year was this?

Claudia: That would have been maybe 2002 or 2003? I really naively said, “If you give me six months, I’ll take classes and read books and then I’ll see if I can try a review.” My editor, this grizzled, great AP lifer named Dolores, was like, “No, no, you’ve got to review Thursday, Baryshnikov is dancing and I don’t have anyone to cover him.” So my first review was Baryshnikov dancing in Eliot Feld’s work at the Joyce. It was a terrifying experience. I embarrassed myself for a long time. Writing about dance is impossible. But at a certain point I fell in love with the impossibility of it instead of being terrified about trying to get it right.

Baryshnikov performing Eliot Feld’s XYZ, 2003

I thought, “you actually just can’t get this right, and it’s not about getting it right.” It’s about finding a way to meet it. I had to find a way to meet it on its terms and on my terms, because writing is my art form. I don’t come to criticism as a choreographer and I’m not going to follow the middle-aged-male-European thing, “Oh I’ll become a critic and then I’ll become a dramaturge and then I’ll make my own dances.” I’m not on that path. So really it’s, “What can my art form say to your art form? Can they have a good conversation?”

Marissa: When you’re watching something that you’re going to write about, how do you record the experience for yourself, and experientially, what is it like to watch something and write about it especially when you have a deadline very soon after you have seen it? How do you digest it?

Claudia: That’s gotten much more fluid as I’ve gotten more comfortable doing it. I used to take a lot more notes. I don’t typically refer to my notes anymore. I usually can’t read them. For me there’s something activated—moving my arm as I’m writing makes my brain work in a particular way. So the physical act of the hand on the page taking notes focuses me in a certain way, and that level of engagement is the thing that is important to me. I’m a much better watcher when I’m taking notes. I remember a few years ago Tere O’Connor wondered why critics take notes; I think he felt it knocked us out of the experience when we should be fully engaged. But for me—I’m much more fully engaged when I’m writing.

Marissa: What is your creative process when writing about dance?

Claudia: Well, I guess I would say first that I don’t think of myself as a dance critic. I know that’s important for a lot of people who write about dance, that that adjective is really important, but I actually don’t think of myself as a critic, I think of myself as a writer engaged in various forms, including criticism. But I’m not so interested in having a style like, “this is what criticism looks like,” or “this is what a feature looks like,” in comparison to what a poem looks like, or what an essay looks like. Preconceived notions are the enemy. At the same time, when I’m writing for publications they have their expectations, and I have to respect them.

Collage review by La Rocco, 2008

Marissa: I notice with the [Brooklyn] Rail you’re much more creative with that than you can be at the  [New York] Times.

Claudia: Yeah, well—structurally creative. The Times is structurally conventional compared to the Rail, but the writing can be full and experimental and playful, even if it looks more straightforward, and I try to think of that space. So yes, in the Times, of course, I’m not going to hand in something that is a diagram or a poem. There are journalistic conventions I have to follow. But the aspiration is always towards art, and towards the poet-critic tradition. I’m sure that I fail at that much more often than I succeed, but the aspiration is what interests me. I want to be able to do justice to the art form of writing, but also do justice to a specific work by another artist, working in a different field. So it’s a dual thing, and I like that about criticism.

Marissa: Did you finish what you were saying about your creative process?

Claudia: When I’m writing criticism or poetry I’m really going from my gut, so I want the internal logic to dictate the structure of it and to dictate where I go. It’s not as if I’m hitting all these points, whereas if I’m doing an interview with somebody or I’m writing a feature, there are things that I have to follow. Although I think actually I’m weakest as a features writer, and I think that if you look at people who really excel at that—like what David Foster Wallace was able to do within the journalistic space of an essay—you know he was just able to explode it—and Joan Didion was able to do that in a very different, quieter way. I’m not there. I maybe will never be [laughs]. So it’s a little bit less organic for me—awful word—it’s a little bit less fluid for me, writing a feature. And there’s more stuff you have to take into consideration. But yeah, when I write I just sort of sit down and hope that something good happens.

La Rocco Floorplan Review of Whitney Biennial 2008

Marissa: You don’t see yourself as a critic. Tell me more about that, and your feeling of what your role is as a writer, in a public way.

Claudia: Well, obviously I am a critic, so it’s not as if I’m saying I’m not that. The first thing is that I don’t see myself as a dance critic which means that I’m also happy writing about theater, visual art, or books. Dance is what I happen to be mostly writing about right now, and I adore it. But if somebody said to me tomorrow, “Well, you’re never going to write about dance again,” it wouldn’t be the end of my writing. So I don’t know if that distinction makes sense, but for me it’s an important one. Writing is the most important thing for me, even though I can’t stress enough how much dance has given me, and what it continues to give me.  But I see the definition of being a writer as more all encompassing, as a way of working that suits me.

Marissa: I want to talk more about the possibility in defining your role as a writer as opposed to a critic. If you do see your role that way, what is the place of your writing a public way? You still have to reflect what the work was for a reader who might not have seen the work.

Claudia: I guess the distinction between writer and critic is that I don’t see myself as sitting up high out of the mud and pronouncing on what’s happening down below. Maybe it’s just semantics, and that’s totally fine, but for me it’s that the head-space of a writer is more democratic. It gets more egalitarian; I am trying to figure things out in the same way the artists, working within their art forms, are trying to figure things out. That exchange is really important to me. Of course, when I’m writing criticism it still has a lot to do with judgment and there are certain hierarchies that are unavoidable. I have a public forum in which to pronounce. But that aspect of criticism, the thumbs-up-thumbs-down criticism, is much less interesting to me than the ideas and the ability to interrogate what’s happening, which is not that my criticism isn’t opinionated. Judgment is very human. We’re doing it right now about all sorts of things as we sit here. But criticism that sort of works its way up to a yes-or-no verdict I find really boring to write and to read.

Marissa: Tell me about P-Club and your experience of making that. How has that helped you or worked with your job? What is the place of the more experiential, less judgmental writing in relationship to more opinion-based writing?

Claudia: I started the Performance Club, or P-Club, when I was at WNYC as a freelancer there for a couple of years. They had gotten some big grant to foster online community or something or other and so they were looking for projects that could work online. I was working for them on the air and as a blogger. I’d been getting really frustrated with this field, because there’s no space for discussion. A lawyer, a banker, an artist, and a plumber could all go see a movie and they would all feel fine going, “I thought that was shit!” or “I thought that was great!” and to say why and really have it out.

People don’t do that with performance. I wanted to see if we could create that space, and also to be non-denominational; so we would go see a play one month and then see the Marina Abramović retrospective, and then the Wooster Group, and then to the ballet. I wanted that space, the really democratic space where people could talk about it. I just hate the response of “Oh, I don’t know what I think.” I’m not interested in being the critic who just sits back and says, “Well, I know better than you.” That’s not so exciting. Or that we should all agree. I like disagreement! I get very excited when people disagree with me. For me, the club, which I now run independently as a social club and a web site, and which just got an Arts Writers Grant, is a totally different experience. When I’m writing on my own, I’m burrowing into this idea that I have about the world or about an artist. It’s very romantic for me, actually. I get seduced by words. I love the texture of words, their quality. I’m just totally in my head space, whereas the Performance Club is very much about being out in the world and listening to what other people are saying. We go out and talk about the shows after, over drinks or over food, so that people are more at ease. Alcohol and bar food puts people at ease, in ways good and bad [laughs]. So it’s a really different way of being in the world, and I like that.

Marissa: You’ve chosen to make community out of this role that you have. Not that it’s on the level of community service, but it’s very different than playing a role of being a judge, and limiting that to what you do. You’re trying to open up this role and make it a position to talk about the work.

Claudia: Well, this is the first club or anything that I’ve ever made. My friends all laughed at me when they learned I was doing this because I’m the person who is usually sitting in the corner at a social event making sarcastic comments and feeling alienated. So I’m not a community builder in that way [laughs], but I really like having smart conversations with smart people and I love the idea that you and I could go see a show and I would fall in love with it and it would make you so angry and you would have all these ideas about it and they wouldn’t be things that I would’ve seen. Why should we all agree? We all have different experiences. The whole idea of everyone thinking “Oh, this artist is great,” or “Paul Taylor is great,” so we all love Paul Taylor, or that you have to love the Wooster Group. I feel like that about the art world, too. Cindy Sherman is having her retrospective at MoMA, so we all have to bow down in front of Cindy Sherman; it’s not that I’m against any of these people but we put artists up on these pedestals and then we can’t talk about them anymore. What does it mean to call somebody a genius? And then you can’t have a debate about that artist anymore, and she is in fact  removed from the world in which she is making her art. So it’s nice to remember that people shouldn’t agree, and that this isn’t algebra.

“We all have to bow down in front of Cindy Sherman.” (Untitled by Cindy Sherman)

Marissa: Art as something to engage with instead of assemble at a like church, where you just go to worship.

Claudia: It also moves. Today there was a note about this new performance center that Abramović  is building, which just sounds ungodly. What is it called? The Center for the Preservation of Performance Art  It’s such an oxymoronic title. I feel like in that one title is the entire culture clash between the dance and visual art worlds. You don’t even need to say anything else—that says it all [laughs]! The art world wants to preserve it and reify it and put a price tag on it. I think this is a big part of the disconnect with contemporary dance, even though it’s a gross simplification—and, of course, the art world is an easy target for the dance world, and maybe a way for people to avoid looking at the huge systemic problems around money in their own field.

Marissa: This is a good time to also bring up Performa, and when I read your Times reviews of it (1 and 2), I felt like, “Oh, that’s exactly how I feel!” But somehow I feel like I’m in this conspiracy where I have to love something that I don’t love, or think that this is doing something great for performance that I’m not sure it’s doing. Could you tell me about your feelings about Performa and seeing what you saw and what it’s about to you?

Claudia: I have a lot of complex and ambivalent feelings about Performa. And about festival culture in general. Some of the problems I have with Performa are some of the same problems I have with the fact that, for example, American Realness got much bigger this year, and that growth being received as an automatic good thing. I mention American Realness but it could be just about any arts entity. “We’re going to do visual art, and there’s going to be dance and theater and food and that and this,” getting bigger and more sprawling, and there’s this idea somehow that this explosion is automatically an improvement, as opposed to very carefully curated discrete events. And I think that Performa is a huge culprit in all of that. It never ends! And so the curatorial underpinnings are almost laughable; how many themes were there this year?!  So that’s one thing.

Claudia’s notebook

I mean of course, yes, I’ve seen great things at Performa. But I have to say that most of the great things I’ve seen are not the commissions. And this year’s commissions were terrible. Can you imagine the Guggenheim giving Sarah Michelson a big chunk of cash and saying, “Look, you know what? Painting is dead, and it’s not going anywhere, and you’re great at what you do. We think you’d make a kick-ass painting. I mean, we know you’ve never done it before, and you don’t know how to do it at all, but we’re just gonna see what’s gonna happen because there’s no good painting happening.” It’s laughable, and essentially that’s Performa’s premise. I don’t really know what to say about that. I love some of the curators. Lana Wilson is a terrific curator, and I think she’s doing really smart things; but she tends to work more with people who have more of a track record in live art. You know Shirin Neshat made an utterly conventional theater piece, which wasn’t very good, and it’s treated like the second coming. This isn’t an advancement of performance art. This is conventional theater. That thing would do fine on Broadway, absolutely fine. It’s crazy.

Marissa: Well then it’s also a strange reality, how one becomes an expert of performance based on a particular field of study, and that it is used to legitimize such authority.

Claudia: It’s interesting, the extent to which RoseLee Goldberg has this monopoly on the idea of performance. You know, I also think an event like Performa totally feeds into the sort of poor-cousin mentality of contemporary dance, which makes too many people in the field desperate for recognition from visual art. Shouldn’t we question that? Visual artists aren’t desperate to be anointed by Danspace Project.  Was Sarah Michelson well-served by being at the Whitney? That whole installation? I dunno. And it’s everywhere now.

And, of course, what does it mean when Tino Sehgal and Marina Abramović, two visual artists, make work that relies so heavily on the expertise of dance artists, while working to distance themselves (especially Sehgal) from the dance world? You walked through those shows at the Guggenheim and MoMA and it was a who’s-who of contemporary dancers and choreographers. But their contributions are often discounted. What does it mean to have a virtuosic body in a role like that, and I don’t mean virtuosic like in a ballet, but a body that is keenly aware of where it is, a highly trained body? MoMA didn’t want to give them worker’s comp, or to adequately compensate them.

Ann Liv Young and “The whole big dust-at MoMA PS1” photo by Ben Pryor

Or thinking about PS1, when there was that whole big dust up between Ann Liv Young and Georgia Sagri, when Klaus Biesenbach shut down the lights and got freaked out.  According to eyewitness accounts, the thing that’s the most remarkable is that Ann Liv walked away from that thing with lacerations all over her legs. Someone had thrown a beer bottle onto the performance area (before, nothing to do with her show). It wouldn’t occur to a museum to need to clear that? So even just on a structural level, there’s no concept of how live work actually works, and what its practitioners need.

Marissa: It sounds like that’s what’s going on at the Whitney right now. A lot of logistical issues need to be worked out for Sarah [Michelson]’s piece to work there in any way. Do you have a barometer for the direction of performance in terms of the visual arts, where it seems to be more something that they want to present?

Nicole Mannarino in Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1” at the Whitney Biennial. Photo by Paula Court

Claudia: It has been for the last few years and I do think for better or for worse Performa has had a huge hand in that. On the one hand it’s great. I think the bigger problem I have with Performa is because it wields so much power, and there’s often a discounting of the people who are already practitioners. I think the fact that there’s this biennial that gets people excited about performance is great; I think the sort of performance it’s gotten people excited about is often really poorly done and it’s about a cult of celebrity that just sort of rules right now. But in a way I think I’m the worst person to ask if things are changing or shifting because I’m so in the trenches and watching things.

Marissa: Because there’s the lure of visual art possibilities, are choreographers changing how they work? Are they looking at that as a new market?

Performance Dome at PS1

Claudia: I see it as a strategy from both sides. Klaus Biesenbach now has a huge geodesic dome outside MoMA PS1, that they have to fill up with live art. And so I think for the museums, live art is a huge marketing thing. I think often that’s the only thing it is, or that’s most of what it is, which leads to really lame work [laughs]. But I also do think that for choreographers and dancers there is a speculation. People talk offhand about how Tino Sehgal made this move with dance, and it’s not easy to replicate, but it is a formula for success.

Marissa: It seems to make a lot of dancers kind of nauseous to think about.

Claudia: It does, but it makes others think, “Oh! I could be making a living doing this.” And I think there’s both. There are the people who are sick to their stomach about it, and then there’s the people who are thinking, “Hm…” you know, “If these institutions are interested, how could I figure out a way to use it.” And not to follow a Tino Sehgal model but just, you know, why not? Why shouldn’t they get a piece of the visual art pie, if the visual art world is excited by performance? I don’t have a problem with that; people have to eat. The starving artist model is not romantic, it’s just gross. And I don’t think it really makes for good work. I don’t think that not having health insurance and having to have four jobs makes for good work, I think it makes for burnout and attrition. Am I that excited by Tino Sehgal’s work? No. Would I be excited if a lot of people followed what he was doing? No, but it’s not for me to say.  Look at  someone like Ralph Lemon, who is, as always, ahead of the curve: he’s managed to move really beautifully between these disparate worlds. The Wooster Group did that 360° installation piece at EMPAC [Experimental Media and Performance Art Center]. I don’t know that’s it’s been in New York, I saw it at TBA [Time-Based Arts Festival] last year. Technology is improving so that it makes for some interesting possibilities. That stuff is interesting, I think. I just wish there was more—like, the fact that the two worlds are interested in each other is great to me, you’d just like there to be a little more understanding [laughs], or more sensible minds making decisions.

The Wooster Group’s There is Still Time…Brother

Marissa: Which might happen some time in the future, maybe, if it continues to go…

Claudia: That it might happen? I don’t know, are you hopeful that in the future the managers of major institutions are going to get more sensible and not less? I’m not hopeful [laughs].

Marissa: I’m hopeful. Yeah, I’m hopeful because I think that worse things will happen to people if they don’t.

Claudia: That worse things will happen to people?

Marissa: Yes.

Claudia: What do you mean?

Marissa: Like the museum will be liable for somebody getting sick or collapsing or hurting themselves or something, and think, “Oh, shit! That’s a body! Maybe we need to deal with that somehow.” And then in the future they’ll have some special HR person who manages the live part of it.

Claudia: [Laughing] You think that there will be some terrible scandal and that others will learn from it!

Marissa: I mean I don’t see how else because they’ll try to get away with nothing until something happens, you know?

Claudia: I don’t know that that quite counts as optimism on your part, but—

Marissa: That’s my kind of optimism.

Claudia: You’re a New Yorker. [laughs]. I mean while we’re also talking about systems that don’t work, we could talk about journalists and freelancers, and how its harder and harder for arts journalists to make a living. Every week there’s a new story about a paper laying off its staff or having someone who’s not equipped to write about art write about it, or just all of my friends and colleagues who are doing the same thing as the people they’re writing about—I mean they’re working a couple of day jobs and then scrambling to write. And you know the dance and theater worlds are not so good at taking care of their own people either. So I think it’s very easy to look at the visual art world as this sort of Shangri-La, and think, “If they only could operate—if they could only be a little bit smarter and a little bit more…” I think that the dance and theater worlds can get really holier-than-thou at the visual arts world and I can fall into that as well, I mean I think I’ve just sort of done it [laughs]. But I think it’s important to think about what dance companies have workers comp when they should? How many theaters in the city would collapse if they weren’t illegally using interns? You know, glass houses and stones and all that.

Marissa: Is there anything you can think of that you would want to say to readers of Critical Correspondence?

Claudia: Thanks for having me! Or, I guess I would like to say something that has occurred to me. I say that I’m a writer and I could write about anything, and I believe that, but also I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky to have stumbled into performance and the way in which the field has activated my writing and changed it and changed how I think as a poet. I’m really grateful for that. I think that that doesn’t get acknowledged enough by writers, how there’s an immense debt that you owe your subject. I gave a lecture about this last year at Arizona State University, where I have a teaching-artist residency. I was talking about how time and space are the only things we have as material. All that artists have—all that people have—is time and space. People who work with live art, where it is explicitly all they have, hold this consciousness and understanding of it. For me, as a writer it’s just been really liberating to watch artists work in that way, and has opened me up in this way that I never could have anticipated, and that I’m really grateful for.