2010 Pulitzer Prize: Sarah Kaufman on winning criticism, role of arts coverage

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Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; 11:00 AM

Pulitzer-winner Sarah Kaufman took your questions about winning the 2010 prize for criticism, for her writing about dance and movement, and discussed the role of arts coverage in journalism.

A transcript follows.

Kaufman won the prize "For her refreshingly imaginative approach to dance criticism, illuminating a range of issues and topics with provocative comments and original insights."

The following articles were submitted: One-man movement (Jan. 11, 2009) Morris Bares Ol' Mozart's Sensual Soul (Jan. 31, 2009) NYC Ballet's Fine Work: Beautiful and Too Soon Gone (March 9, 2009) Ballet Must Make Room Onstage for More Than One Genius (May 10, 2009) The Dancing: That Precision, Grace -- and a Wicked Groove (June 27, 2009) Going to the Chapel & We're Gonna Get Jiggy (July 25, 2009) A Modern Master's Dances, Stepping Into the Shadows? (July 28, 2009) 'Dance' Has All The Right Moves (Aug. 5, 2009) With a Light Touch, Pilobolus Casts a Long Shadow (Oct. 5, 2009) Breaking pointe (Nov. 22, 2009)

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I asked this same question of Kathleen Parker. How did you find out you had won the Pulitzer Prize and what was your reaction when you won?

Sarah Kaufman: Hello Harrisburg! I found out while on assignment in Mississippi, when Marcus Brauchli phoned me to find out when I'd be flying home. Reaction: whoa. wow. and whooppee. But most of all, gratitude.

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Kensington, MD: I am a big fan. I loved your article on "So You Think You Can Dance," one of my favorite shows. My husband and I used to subscribe to the Kennedy Center Ballet, and I would check out your review before every show. Thanks so much for your great work!

Sarah Kaufman: Mwah!! Big hug. Thank you. I loved writing that piece. I only hope there will be a spillover from TV dance to live theater dance. Glad to know you're helping the cause!

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Washington, DC: In the time-honored tradition of who would win in a Liston v. Tyson match or Laver v. Federer, who would you call in winning a dance-off -- Plisetskaya or Vishneva (knowing you have called Lady V a fave among current primas)?

Sarah Kaufman: Very interesting, especially as--family celebrity brag time--I am the niece of the genius boxing analyst Larry Merchant. So I love a boxing analogy! However, these two ladies are so different. Plisetskaya is so earthy and emotional, Vishneva so willowy and perhaps more the poet. Here's a copout: I love them both.

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Kensington, MD: What are your thoughts on "Dancing with the Stars"? I have avoided watching the show, but from the clips I've seen, it seems to be dumbing down dance as an art form.

Sarah Kaufman: Great question. I tend to agree. But then Apolo Ono comes on and wipes everyone off the stage! Depends on the star. And on the pro partner; their work is amazing.

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Washington, D.C.: In these tough times for newspapers, with lots of newsroom layoffs and bureaus closing, what's the compelling argument for keeping critics, esp. fine-arts critics, on staff?

Sarah Kaufman: Thanks for a beautiful big softball! I love you! Here's the argument: newspapers cover news. Art is news.

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Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa: Sarah, Just wanted to say congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize. It has been a while since MYB studios days but I have been following your career for years thanks to internet. I am now a U.S. Diplomat stationed in West Africa. (Melanie Zimmerman)

Sarah Kaufman: Melanie, hi! Folks, this is a gorgeous former ballet dancer now in a high-powered diplomatic career. Ballerina, take a bow! Dancers are smart.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: You are so right that there will never be another Cary Grant. Even Archibald Leach commented he wished he were Cary Grant. What sparked your decision to write about Cary Grant?

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you for this question! One of my editors, the great and legendary Henry Allen, suggested I look at old movies and consider analyzing the way actors moved in them back in the golden age. We talked about Grant, Hepburn, Gable...the works. I started watching movies and the thunderbolt struck: the story is about Cary Grant. No one can touch him.

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Cary Grant mantle (the Grantle): How about George Clooney as the modern Cary Grant? They both have an effortless style.

washingtonpost.com: A One-Man Movement: Cary Grant Set a Pace for On-Screen Grace That's Left His Followers Mostly in the Dust (Post, Jan. 11)

Sarah Kaufman: That is an excellent point. I completely agree that Clooney has effortless style, and he looks delicious in a tux. But I would compare him more to Clark Gable, with his edginess and slight (sometimes not so) roughness. And his directness. He is the scotch, Grant the champagne.

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Alexandria, VA: I am a little frustrated that though there seems to be plenty of dance around the DC area, we don't seem to approach the world-classness, if that's a word, of the New York companies. What would it take to elevate either the Washington Ballet or Suzanne Farrell's company to the next level? Or is there another local candidate for the bump up to wider recognition?

Sarah Kaufman: This is a very interesting question. There are two ways of looking at world-classness (I love that word!). If you mean size of the troupe--say, New York City Ballet's 100 or so dancers, etc.--then you're talking a money problem. NYCB has a solid endowment, a luxury of donors and a large board. That would be very hard to duplicate here. But if you're talking quality, I don't think we're so far behind. The Washington Ballet has brought in works by all the top choreographers and more, in a very exciting way. Suzanne Farrell's staging puts her on a par with anyone in the world, and her dancers prove that every season.

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Any advice?: How did you get started in your career? You clearly know a lot about dance. Are you a dancer in addition to being a writer?

Sarah Kaufman: Humble origins here. I studied ballet throughout my childhood. I worked my way through school answering phones for the Maryland Youth Ballet--big shout out to them. I always knew I was cut out for writing, more than dancing. And on the advice of my dear husband and greatest advisor, I approached the City Paper--huge shout out to them!--and started writing reviews. yada yada yada...

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Tom in Arlington: Sarah, I love your work and could not be happier about your award. Were you always a dance critic at the Post? How did you start your career there?

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you, Tom! Air hugs!! I started at The Post as a freelancer, brought in by the most excellent first winner of a Pulitzer in dance criticism: Alan M. Kriegsman, my hero, friend and mentor. He was unfailingly generous and supportive, and I was lucky enough to find favor with the editors. I also worked as a part-time copy editor for a few years, among a truly superior team. I was hired as the dance critic in '96, after Mr. Kriegsman retired. And I have always felt extremely honored and humbled to be where I am. No bull.

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Washington: How about you and Weingarten switch? He'll take the next ballet company and you do a humor column?

Sarah Kaufman: Ha!! I love that! I worship Gene Weingarten, and would adore reading him on ballet. Wouldn't you??

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Rockville, MD: When you are going to review a show, do you attend the rehearsals and/or the opening night performances?

Do you ever find time to attend shows outside of work, on your own dime? If so, what types of shows do you prefer?

Sarah Kaufman: I go to opening nights, but rarely rehearsals unless I'm writing a feature. I love old movies, and slurp them up whenever I can...like the fabulous Cyd Charisse festival at the AFI a while back. I love folk dancing of all kinds and head to festivals whenever I can. And musicals--give me musicals and I am in heaven. Most times.

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Arlington, VA: You have written with concern of the increased tendency of ballet companies to use recorded music rather than a live orchestra. My goddaughter has been going to the Washington Ballet's version of The Nutcracker for six years and noted with disappointment that there is no longer the intermission joy of looking into the orchestra pit to see the musicians at rest.

Sarah Kaufman: You bring up a huge concern. The Washington Ballet, as most dance groups recently, got hammered with the loss of a grant and other financial shorfalls. Last I heard, they weren't sure they could afford a live orchestra for next year's Nutcracker. I hope live musicians return to their pit, as I hope they do across the country. The fear is, we'll become like frogs slowly boiling to death, getting so used to canned tunes we don't remember how it was.

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Arlington, VA: What preparations, if any, do you take before reviewing a new work or new to you company? Do you read background material, do you view video/youtube, etc., do you read other reviews? And what do you write down when you watch a performance, steps, thoughts, ideas?

Sarah Kaufman: Thanks for a great question! I love to do research. My desk is a mess of books, files, dvds, clippings, you name it, and I turn to anything I can to get familiar with a troupe before I review it. I don't often read other reviews, however--that's just my thing. I do write copious notes, as my seatmates can attest (I try to flip pages during applause). I may not look at them later, but writing down my thoughts makes me remember them. It's always a challenge to catch the dance as it goes by. Sometimes I write steps, or I note a configuration; mostly i'm just scribbling images that come to mind.

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Arlington, VA: Congratulations, Sarah! Your award is immensely deserved--but in the bigger picture, it's bittersweet for dance lovers because there are so few dance critics left. What do you see as the future of dance criticism in the U.S.?

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you, you sweetheart! I blush. I totally hear you about the bittersweetness. I sincerely and fervently hope I will not be the last dance critic honored in this way. But let me assure you, there are LOTS of dance critics out there. There is my esteemed and brilliant colleague at the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay. There are still regular contributors to other newspapers. There are those who freelance, or blog or post to online websites. But there is a huge, HUGE amount of inspired and learned writing about dance out there, and deep thinking and passionate observation. That will go on, I am absolutely certain.

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Alexandria, VA: Hi Sarah,

This is Pamella. I knew the Pulitzer would catch up with you! I have always delighted in your written words. You open up a magical world to your readers, whether writing about dance or anything else that makes us human. Congrats! and thank you for making the newspaper a wonderful place to visit.

Sarah Kaufman: You doll! Thank you!! I am now blushing AND sweating. Stop!!

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Minneapolis: Hi Sarah -- Thanks for taking questions today, and congratulations on your award. I have to admit I'm a little bit addicted to Dancing with the Stars...but more and more it's for the pros, because they can be amazing and wonderful to watch. Last night, for example, there was a very good segment on the whole world of competitive ballroom dancing, and what the pros go through starting at a very young age. In other words, they've worked their rear ends off to get what they are. I was glad to see that acknowledged, finally. With a few exceptions -- Ohno, as you point out, Kristi Yamaguchi, Evan Lysachek -- all of whom clearly have natural talent, most of the contestants are trainwrecks.

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you! I agree with you--the pros are amazing. I love to watch how they make their partners look good. Kind of how my own sainted editors are!! But there are also, as you point out, plenty of the "stars" who can really move. Mostly the athletes, not surprisingly. Those football players! I love a big man who moves well.

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Speaking of books...: Do you have any plans to write a book?

Sarah Kaufman: I love that idea!! I have plans, yes. And I'm open to ideas!

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Tucson, AZ: I wanted to thank you for your article last spring, "Burdened by Balanchine." As the past president of our regional ballet company, and a former dancer, I have always felt that Balanchine has overshadowed the last few decades of dance, especially in places that are not NY or Seattle. The weekend that the article came out, I happened be with Amanda McKerrow and it was wonderful to find that many of us have that same love/hate relationship with Balanchine choreography. Thank you for expressing it so well.

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you! What a gorgeous thing to say. As you obviously know--and the world should know--Amanda McKerrow is an absolute JEWEL of an artist. Since that piece came out in May, I have heard from dancers, choreographers and dance lovers from around the world about it, saying the same thing you have put so beautifully here. And I'm deeply grateful!

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Taking Notes: I guess you have to get pretty good at taking notes in the dark! Do your seatmates ever get annoyed? Do you find you are sitting near the same people when in the same theaters?

Sarah Kaufman: I often write over what I've just written. I often can't make out AT ALL what I've written. My notebooks are a mess. I did have one young man complain about my shuffling papers once, a million years ago, and I'm proud to say I've perfected the quiet page-turn and no one's grumbled since. At least not to me!

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Vienna, VA: First, congrats! I think that my shriek of "yes" echoed down to John's office. I look for your articles - always a good read, and very thought provoking.

Second: a comment about your modern dance article. I found it so striking that all of the "name" choreographers most people know today all got significant support as they were developing. I hadn't thought much about it before, but the process of creating a body of work must involve a lot of "misses" as well as hits. Certainly, not every dance by Balanchine, or Cunningham, or any of the other big names, is a classic, must see dance. Some are better than others. And it sounds like support is needed to get the chance to create the misses as well as the hits.

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you! And thank you for shrieking for me. The funding of young choreographers is Research and Development. It's R&D. And the government has to support it. Pure and simple. We do it in the auto industry, in computers and electronics, in manufacturing and science and etc. We have to do it in the arts. We have to fund experimentation and discovery. HAVE TO.

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Glee: You mentioned that you like musicals. Have you been watching "Glee"? If so, what do you think?

Sarah Kaufman: I love musicals. I LOVE Glee. I also love my colleage Hank Steuver's exquisitely delicious and perceptive take on it. I have to admit I haven't had the chance to tune in lately, so I can't speak to what's going on recently. But I found the beginning of the series to be so funny, so skewering, so sharp and...just a gas. Also, loved the dancing.

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washingtonpost.com: Here is Steuver's Glee piece: 'Glee' is back, and so is the pettiness and potential of high school life (Post, April 13)

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State College, PA: Sarah, congrats! I honestly don't read all your articles, but I did love the "SYTUCD" review...

I'm curious, have you written (and I just missed it?) about Michael Jackson, as a dancer? I remember reading something about how one of the main male ballet dancers talked about him and his ability to dance (sorry, name just escapes me--was it Nureyuv? I may be way off). I'm curious to see what you think.

Sarah Kaufman: I had trouble copying the link to my Michael Jackson piece here. If it doesn't show up, you can google my name and his and it should show up. I wrote about him soon after his death, about the moonwalk. He was a brilliant showman, and a beautiful dancer. It's a shame he never expanded beyond the 3-minute song canvas, but that was his framework, and within it he worked marvels.

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washingtonpost.com: The Dancing: That Precision, Grace -- and a Wicked Groove (Post, June 27, 2009)

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Arlington, VA: Congratulations, Sarah. I'm a big fan of your writing. One thing I like about the Washington Ballet is how accessible Septime Webre is to the audience--several times I've seen him address the audience and talk about the show they're about to see, and of course promote upcoming shows. After "Peter Pan" last year, he came on stage with a couple of principals for a post-performance question-and-answer period. I've rarely seen other companies have that kind of interaction with audiences. Why is that and what do you think about it? Does it detract from being transported right into the ballet?

Sarah Kaufman: Thank you!! I think making ballets accessible is one of Septimes great gifts, and he is a master at it. I think his curtain talks are very effective.Anything that breaks down the barriers, that brings the art form closer, that guides an audience member who may be new to it. It used to be our mothers--like mine!!--who did that. If we don't go as kids with our parents, we may not get those questions answered. Directors who do that for their audiences are doing a huge service.

Thank you all for joining me, for your great questions and compliments. I've got to sign off, so I'll take a deep bow to all of you and say goodbye!

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