Early in Claudia La Rocco’s new collection, in a poem entitled “Just go for it, go for it,” she writes: “Some things were accurate and some weren’t, he says. Yes, no, maybe, I dunno. You can’t always trust the people you interview. I mean, you never should.” These halting, doubtful lines introduce a voice far from the one most of La Rocco’s readers will be familiar with, the public voice of the New York Times’ longtime daily dance critic. Here instead is a voice that revises itself within a single chain of thought—yes, no, maybe; can’t always, never should—and tosses authority aside with a slangy “I dunno.”
While a dance critic at the Times, from 2005 until 2012, La Rocco reviewed performances at every dance venue in the city, from Lincoln Center, Dance Theater Workshop, the Kitchen, and Danspace, to the literal underground of subway cars. Her reputation among professional dancers and choreographers is made apparent by her involvement in a variety of collaborative performances, including one with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener that she writes about in the collection. In 2012 she left her regular dance post and has since written primarily for the theater and book review sections of the Times. She has also continued to write about dance for the Brooklyn Rail and Artforum. The Best Most Useless Dress includes dance reviews and essays that previously appeared in all these publications.
Because it arrives two years after La Rocco’s resignation from the Times dance beat, the collection might seem a gesture of summation. But The Best Most Useless Dress is more than a compilation of old dance reviews; La Rocco has surrounded them with poems and punctuated the writings with photographs and scans of handwritten notes. The result is a strange hybrid of voices and media that provides a unique perspective onto a critic’s concerns.
In “Forget Your Paper Moon,” a Times review of the dance “Blessed” by Meg Stuart and Fransisco Camacho, written in her typical Times style, La Rocco writes:
Ms. Stuart frequently plays with the oblique and the tedious, often with thoughtful results. But at a certain point on Thursday my experience shifted from feeling caught up within the poetic vagaries of a live work to constructing, from a remove, intellectual hypotheses about it.
That the piece inspired La Rocco to remove herself and hypothesize intellectually, we are made to understand, is a shortcoming. In her view, members of the audience should be brought close to a work, carried along with it, and never pushed so far back as to seek an “understanding” of it: it is the artist’s job to bring us in and keep us there. Implicit in La Rocco’s distaste for distance is the idea that the comprehension of postmodern art, and certainly of nonnarrative dance, requires a relaxation of expectations about what comprehension should feel like.
La Rocco’s insistence that art ought to bring people into the work because that’s where the real mysteries lie informs most of her more conservative reviews. She describes dance in a way that contains evaluation without imposing meaning “from without.” In another Times review, of Sarah Michelson’s “White Waves, Dark Cliffs,” she writes:
[Dover Beach’s] surfaces thrum with simmering heat, as well as with often disturbing power dynamics and erotic undertones, particularly in one dramatically lighted section toward the end that features Greg Zucculo partnering the diminutive, terrifically spooky Allegra Herman, who is just 13 and wears an inscrutable, world weary face, like something out of a Velázquez painting . . . What fascinates here also repels, and Ms. Michelson is masterly in mining these tensions.
Nowhere does La Rocco say that the work is masterly, or even good: rather the choreographer is masterly in mining tensions that her piece offers up for mining. La Rocco observes Michelson’s piece with a sympathetic eye, measuring it on its own terms.
But while La Rocco can be reserved and descriptive, representing an artwork with minimal mediation, she can also be opinionated and provocative, even inflammatory, as she is in a review published in the Brooklyn Rail about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company shortly before its disbanding:
Why do we even want it to last? What is that all about? So we can engage in the same endless, awful, predictable debate about whether such-and-such a dance was better 30 years ago, how so-and-so dancers just don’t get what the work should be? (Like who the hell are we to say that shit and think it means anything?)
In her writing for the Rail, La Rocco relaxes the journalistic restraint perhaps required by the Times. But there’s more to the distinction than a difference in degrees of formality: in the former, La Rocco’s tone is hostile and the subject of her critical attention is far-reaching—extending beyond Cunningham’s dancers, beyond his repertoire, beyond performance in general, reaching out to pass judgment on the nature of dance preservation and on the presumptuousness of viewers and professional critics like herself. When La Rocco wonders who the hell we are to “say that shit,” it is impossible not to sense her discomfort with her own stance as a critic, and as a sometime contributor to these endless and predictable debates.
La Rocco challenges the boundaries and breadth of the critic’s gaze: just how much is up for review? She plays with the distance between herself and the work: when she remains close, she risks removing the work from the context that makes it meaningful; when she holds herself at a distance, she risks removing us from the dance and straying into her own thoughts and anxieties about art and life. In the poems, essays, and images included alongside the reviews, La Rocco has freed herself to carry out this latter kind of musing. Liberated from the economic and social web of choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors whose success and feelings hang on her professional assessment, she is able to both formally experiment and express the doubts that she silences in her more formal work.
La Rocco has included two types of images in The Best Most Useless Dress: abstract photographs and photocopies of handwritten notes that allude to the choreographic process. The first note bears the heading “Exercise” and begins, “Imagine you are someplace / Any place else / Find someone watching & seduce this person / In an abstract manner; / vectors are always sexy.” The form of a loose series of instructions is a common creative tool in dance, often given by a choreographer to dancers either as an impetus for producing material that will then be edited into a set performance, or else as a guiding framework for an improvisation that will be performed.
La Rocco adopts the form again in a later handwritten note, on which she’s written “Stand / face your partner / he’ll hoist your leg up / you’ll shoot your arm up / he’ll lift you parallel / your limbs will vector / he’ll be on the ground + you won’t know how.” On both pages of notes, the initial instructions are straightforward and physically comprehensible—find someone; shoot your arm up; seduce someone; face your partner—but the commands gradually lose their instructive weight as they become increasingly opaque and nonsensical—what does it mean for your limbs to vector, how does one seduce abstractly? Unconstrained by the actual task of communicating to bodies, La Rocco is free to experiment with choreographic devices without ensuring their legibility. Unconstrained by the observational stance of reviewing, La Rocco is free to experiment with directive rather than descriptive language.
La Rocco’s other, photographic illustrations are compositionally satisfying. She has a strong eye, and works particularly well with lines and walls—the lines of a window divider, of a door, of a square TV, of the lights in a theater. In one image, the top right corner of a distant carousel peeks out from behind a foregrounded windowpane; in another, two circular sorbet dishes sit on a rectangular plate. A diagonally tilted square napkin pokes off two of the plate’s sides.
Many of the photographs, though, are photographs of other two-dimensional images: a flattened-out “Reserved” place card; the cover of the book The Last Unicorn; a television displaying an unidentifiable image; the cover of a book titled “SoHo.” The photographs are La Rocco’s own, but her photographic subjects are the artistic products of someone else. Even when she has left her critical seat to become a creator, La Rocco falls back on the perception of another person’s art to nourish her own. The photograph of La Rocco in the About the Author section is of her taking a cell phone picture of her reflection in the rear view mirror of a car—a visual “I dunno,” deflecting her artistic authority. This is where La Rocco appears to be most comfortable: in a mediating role, like the one she assumes in her critical work, not baring herself directly to an audience, but not merely watching, either.
To take art as seriously as La Rocco does in her criticism is taxing. When “reality” intervenes—economic reality, social reality, the tedium of competing egos—the fall is hard, which leaves her wondering: What’s the point? In her poems and creative essays, uninhibited by the demands of speaking as a disinterested authority, La Rocco takes on the big-picture questions that trouble her—What’s the use of art and criticism? How can any of it survive? Why do we care?—without retreating before the necessity of producing a neutral evaluation. She is free to speak as a tired employee, weary of her writing job and sick of the fatuousness of contemporary performance.
In a several-part poem entitled “They Always Ask for Water,” La Rocco writes cynically, “If you’ve seen one choreographed kiss, have you seen them all?” and then, “I have seen so many naked strangers now. If somebody asked me what it meant to do what I do, I would probably say that it means being bored by naked strangers.” These feel like notes you’d pass in class, and one gets the feeling that La Rocco writes them to keep herself company. A later poem entitled “Space//Space Stream of Consciousness” concludes, “I keep forgetting to watch,” and a photocopied note reads, “I forget how to take notes / I don’t notice the right things.” For the sake of reviewing, the critic must speak from a place of attention and authority, and of general respect for the art form she’s observing. When La Rocco, critic, reports that her attention has wandered, her distraction points to a weakness in the performance. But when La Rocco, poet, reports that her attention has wandered, it is a confession—of exhaustion, of boredom, of her weakness as an observer.
Alongside her confessions of exhaustion runs a current of anxiety about the utility of art, about whether or not art-making is a service, and if it is, what it’s in service of. Having dutifully attended, and attended to, countless performances of countless kinds, La Rocco takes a step back to remember what it’s all about—to regain a sense of the proverbial forest whose trees she has come to know so well. She wonders in the essay “Everyday People,” “Why do we go to the theater?,” and then she muses, “I don’t know if we want art to make us feel special.” In the poem “Good Fortune,” she suggests that “there is no real medicine there is only art” and she adds in a later poem: “I like art that’s useful to be around.” The question of art’s usefulness, and the impact of this on the art critic’s purpose, appears to inform the collection’s strange title.
What does it mean for a dress to be the best most useless dress? Is the dress simply the best of all of the most useless dresses, or is it the best regardless of its uselessness? Is it the best because it’s most useless? If we take seriously the title’s ambiguity, it can be understood to speak for the ambiguous value of the art critic’s task. Has the critic resigned herself to identifying the best products of a useless labor; does she enter the world of art so completely on its own terms that she pays little heed to conversations concerning its degree of usefulness? Or does she rather delight in the so-called inutility of art-making, and consider it a sublime perversion of contemporary values of usefulness and productivity?
The question of usefulness influences other concerns in the work as well, concerns about the practicality of art-making and specifically about its financial support. La Rocco’s despair at the economic destitution of artists appears in much of her writing. In a review of Tino Sehgal’s Progress, La Rocco recalls a conversation she had with the choreographer Layla Childs, who did not believe that the economic recession would impact the world of professional dancers because they were “already living a subsistence existence.” La Rocco’s worry is most explicit in the essay “Love or Money” about a gala benefit event, in which she writes, “It’s all hopelessly romantic, in a desperate and cynical way—if there’s no money now, and there was never any money then and there’s not gonna be any money anytime ever, then what? Everything just for love? The margins hold the page.”
La Rocco’s poetry, too, reflects her nagging familiarity with the poverty of art, and love. The very first poem in the collection includes lines of overt grandeur and painstakingly romantic musings, “Neptune / Triton / Gibbous Moon / My heart is ruined / My heaven must be learned.” The poem’s final line tersely re-grounds it with the burdensome weight of a grant-writer’s plea: “I need money for art supplies.” This rude intrusion of a practical concern—a financial concern—that reels in the poetic and frames it within realistic limitations, appears again in a later poem, where we read “My love / I keep finding out the answers / I pick up my check.” In a still later poem, she writes: “Maybe that’s why we broke up: / I didn’t have the right messaging plan,” and within the same poem: “Love is a bad deal / It interferes with travel plans.” In La Rocco’s world, money, supplies, checks, and plans exist in the same breath as love and art, because in the real world they do as well. Even love requires some funding.
While La Rocco cannot comfortably prove the usefulness of art and performance, she can assert that “It should go without saying that no one ever gets paid enough to do this.” She insists that artists, and dancers in particular, are in fact performing a service, a difficult service, which should be compensated far better than it is. Countless times throughout her writings, she marvels at the energy that dancers and choreographers expend for the sake of their art. At the end of a performance by Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, she observes, “their bodies are wrecked; they are doing that for us.” In a different context she asks us to “think of the way a dancer’s working leg shakes as she holds a sustained balance. How beautiful it is, how much it costs her.” Regardless of what it provides the audience, the dancer’s balance costs her, and this is another way, apart from the question of utility, to think about art’s value and worth.
This rubric for evaluation also offers La Rocco’s readers a way of appreciating the worth of her own work, and of judging its most and least successful forms. In the poem “The Missing World,” La Rocco writes, “Finally, the gods demand payment for making the world more interesting.” Stripped, in her poetry, of the responsibility of justifying the worthiness of this godly work, Claudia La Rocco is able to relax her focus. The resulting poems do not, however, cost her enough to sustain our interest. Although The Best Most Useless Dress offers a fuller picture of La Rocco’s work as a critic than her reviews do alone, it ultimately confirms that it’s as a critic that she has the most to offer. The poems and photographs are materials for rehearsal; her writing is most interesting and useful in her clear and critical prose.