Settling In and Opening Up: Excerpts of an Interview with Deborah Jowitt

 In 2016, Archives, Best Of, Dd Exclusive

Alejandra Iannone catches up with the legendary critic, dancer, choreographer, author, and teacher upon the occasion of her receiving the 2016 “Educational Visionary” Lifetime Achievement Award from Mark DeGarmo Dance. The following are excerpts of a longer conversation about her career, writing process, and advice for younger artists and writers.


Deborah Jowitt does not report on dance. I know this because I asked her.

Jowitt teaching a morning movement class (not a technique class!) at Duke University, where she was leading the annual Critics Workshop. It dates from the early 1980s.

Jowitt teaching a morning movement class (not a technique class!) at Duke University, where she was leading the annual Critics Workshop. It dates from the early 1980s.

“Reporting is something a responsible journalist does when there was a fire in the neighborhood.” In her own words, Jowitt’s occupation is “to provide some sense of what I saw and evoke something about a dance work.” She bases each critical response on a descriptive account, an approach for which she has received criticism herself. “People use description as a pejorative term, but I don’t think it’s that superficial. As if description were neutral!” Jowitt exclaims. “Of course it’s not. It’s personal, how one happens to see a work.”

“Are you getting at ‘secret truths’ in your descriptions?” I ask, borrowing the phrase from Jowitt ‘s article “Beyond Description: Writing Beneath the Surface.”

“Yes, of course, “ she replies, then adds, “But secret truth is a little misleading.”

Jowitt settles on a new phrase – deep description and explains her sense of the term. As she sees it, deep description is a way of providing a print analogue for a dance, of “trying to capture the hum [of a piece]…something deep about its structure, life, times.” Deep description, for Jowitt, is a way to offer some accurate facts, pinpoint style, and evoke a work’s essential nature. “Good criticism whirls [a dance] around in the brains of the readers, “ Jowitt tells me, “and often, in great criticism, the prose style mirrors something of the dance style.”


Photo by David Dashiell.

“If you don’t have any constraints of conscience, you can do a great job of writing—that is, be very clever. My conscience, however, isn’t easily ignored.”

Many prominent reviewers pride themselves on their outsider/objective stance. But Jowitt has balanced writing critically about dance while remaining an integral part of the dance community. “It was difficult at first,” she recalls, “ I was putting on my own choreography, appearing in others’, was on a radio show, and then began to write.”

Her peers were mostly accepting, even pleased, about Jowitt’s critical contributions to the dance community. “They were very smart and understood the boundaries,” Jowitt describes, before pausing to recount that some may have felt differently. She remembers being asked, “If you can’t make better dances yourself, what right do you have tell others how to make better dances?” However, Jowitt remains unconvinced by that line of reasoning: “Is only a great choreographer entitled?” she asks. Not waiting for my answer, she tells me about a recent encounter with a young choreographer who assured her: “You can criticize my work anytime because you know what it’s like to be on the inside.”

“I suppose a critic is an educator of the public.”

Jowitt is the 2016 recipient of the “Educational Visionary” Lifetime Achievement Award from Mark DeGarmo Dance. The award is for visionaries who have promoted innovation in education through the arts. Jowitt strikes me as an obvious choice for an award like this; her life’s work is, after all, dedicated to opening more eyes to dance.

“Why do you think you received this award?” I asked her.

Though Jowitt is honored to receive such an award, she first commends DeGarmo for doing remarkable work in dance education before answering my question, emphasizing that dance education has been shown to be a wonderful thing for children. “To see the art form, to be taught to dance, to be encouraged to do it,” Jowitt reflects, “imagine what that can do!”

But, Jowitt admits, “I’m not exactly sure why I am being given this award. I have a background in teaching and in communicating about dance to others…”

She pauses for a moment, before adding another thought.

“And I suppose a critic is really, in some ways, an educator of the public.”


The full conversation will be available in the first volume of { DIYdancer } in print. Stay tuned for the launch of our new bi-annual journal–full of stimulating conversations and striking, original art and photography–this coming January!

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