Face-to-face with a legend without being in on the story…

Arts & Literature Column
Written by Nathan Mattise

I almost wrote this column about Nic Harcourt late last year (as he was stepping down for one of my eight people in ’08). Did you have to click the link to his wiki or can you recognize the name? He’s a legend in my eyes because I sought out online music and KCRW has one of the best online entities. But despite how much success he’s had in the music and radio industries, is it fair to call him a legend if people outside a very specific niche can’t recognize his name?

That’s the precise question I was asking myself this morning when I got to meet Anna Kisselgoff.

Kisselgoff came to speak in my Literature of Criticism class so naturally my classmates with dance criticism backgrounds immediately recognized her. I on the other hand knew nothing about this woman. She was the lead dance critic at the New York Times for ages. The way we talked about what some would call “high Arts” in class (i.e. theater, opera, dance, etc.) I couldn’t help but assume this woman would ooze with pretense. It’s simply easier for someone in her position to get on a high horse because, as the main voice in a a narrowly focused arts community, you get a ton of pull.

(Hence why when she entered the room I didn’t feel bad that I may have had the mean spirited impression that she reminded me of Edna from “The Incredibles.” Just read on, my perceptions change)

Kisselgoff’s pre-lecture nuances didn’t ease my ideas. She was 5’3″ at the most but no way anyone there could have wrestled the bag she was carrying away from her noticeably tight clutch. She bypassed hugs or handshakes with students she knew from a previous encounter and instead opted for slight head nods of hello. She sat down in the middle of the table, bag still in both hands, and the first words from her mouth were a quiet, “I’m not talking yet; first the introductions.” Eeek.

Despite the seemingly cold welcome, all of the information prep we needed to do in order to be at the table with this woman and the intimidation factor from the resume that follows her… Anna Kisselgoff actually rocked. I’m not even a dance enthusiast and I thoroughly enjoyed the hour or so she spent with us.

First off, she’s clearly brilliant. She’s incredibly knowledgeable of her field (rattling off dance choreographers, critics and performers like Stump the Schwab contests might list Super Bowl Champions), but is also self-aware enough to see a piece of performance and frame it in a larger social context. I’m not sure how many folks could take in Garden of Earthly Delights and then determine whether or not the new choreographer missed the opportunity to parallel the revival piece with Abu Ghraib like the original 1984 piece paralleled the Cold War.

Kisselgoff wasn’t limited to just dance brilliance either. Her tidbits of journalism advice were surprisingly universal and thoughtful. On good reviews in any field she offered, “If a reader can’t understand the review, haven’t you failed in some sort?” On utilizing technology (i.e. Wikipedia or Google) for fact reassurance, she challenged us to Google Katharine Hepburn (or is it Katherine? Ahhh – that’s why a phone call would work better than an Internet search. I see Anna Kisselgoff, I see).

The best thing about Anna Kisselgoff however was her willingness to laugh at herself. After periodically asking if we knew the various dance people she referenced (i.e. Merce Cunningham or Isadora Duncan) she spared us with, “Eleanor Roosevelt – I won’t ask if everyone’s familiar with her.” She also talked fondly of some of her most memorable non-dance experiences: covering a rodeo up in Canada and also the 1988 Olympic Ice Dancing competition (reminding us that they let everyone participate no matter how dreadful and you miss that when watching on TV).

She invited us to a dance practice she was sitting in on later in the afternoon with a screening of two VHS dance tapes she wanted to discuss following. Despite those activities being immediately after I got out of work, Anna Kisselgoff got me to consider attending. She almost got me to bypass my Monday routine of dinner out, the gym, video games and No Reservations. The fact that I considered it – just for a second – is all you need to know about the lure of a legend once you get to see them up close.

(Links and images today from Wikipedia, NYT.com, YouTube, The Village Voice Online and Voice of Dance.com.)

E-mail me if I should be second-guessing my decision. I could recognize Merce Cunningham FYI.

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