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Dancing about illness, the debate that never dies

November 19, 2009 |  1:52 pm


In the U.K. next month, a dance artist who has epilepsy will attempt to induce a seizure on stage. Rita Marcalo has stopped taking her medication ahead of the event at the Bradford Playhouse, according to the BBC News. "If she has a seizure, an alarm will sound and the audience will be invited to film on their mobile phones," said the report.

Not surprisingly, the event, scheduled to take place Dec. 11, has sparked controversy. Epilepsy Action, a charity group, has asked the dancer "to reconsider" the event. But the Arts Council of England, which is funding the performance, stated that the project is intended to raise awareness of the illness and that it supports the artist's choice.

All this prompts the question: Is it really art?

The question is the same one that New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce asked in 1994 in her nonreview of Bill T. Jones' AIDS-themed work "Still/Here." Taking issue with the choreographer's decision to put his illness front and center on stage, Croce refused to attend the show and instead ended up penning what is perhaps the most divisive piece of dance criticism ever written.

Whether dealing with AIDS or epilepsy, a work of art that explores the artist's illness is by definition a self-reflective work steeped in identity politics, that most thorny of creative themes. What Croce had to say about "Still/Here" (pictured above) can seem harsh and cruelly dismissive, but it also feels surprisingly relevant today. 

In her 1994 article, Croce wrote that "the cultivation of victimhood by institutions devoted to the care of art is a menace to all art forms, particularly performing-art forms."

She also blasts audiences who would want to attend such a performance: "Instead of compassion, these performers induce, and even invite, a cozy kind of complicity. When a victim artist finds his or her public, a perfect, mutually manipulative union is formed which no critic may put asunder."

In response to Croce's diatribe, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a commentary for the New York Times in 1995 in which she argued a contrary position: " 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' by the young Dutch Jew who died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, is hardly the document of a mere victim, any more than the powerful elegy 'The Ship of Death,' D.H. Lawrence's last poem, written on his deathbed, is."

Oates concluded: "Ms. Croce's cri de coeur may be a landmark admission of the bankruptcy of the old critical vocabulary, confronted with ever-new and evolving forms of art."

Change or die? These days, cultural critics belong to what is perceived by many as a dinosaur profession. The idea that there can be a meaningful public debate about a work of art -- as opposed to, say, gossip about how much it has grossed or who stars in it -- seems quaint and old-fashioned in our era of total PR. 

But the argument that Croce started 15 years ago is still with us today, even if the voices on both sides continue to grow fainter with time.

-- David Ng

Photo: a scene from Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here," performed at the Wiltern Theatre in L.A. in 1995. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times