Heading Offstage: George Jackson, One of D.C.’s Longest-Working Dance Reviewers
Washington is about to lose one of its veteran dance critics. George Jackson, 80, a Southwest resident, has announced he’ll be giving up dance reviewing this month. Since 1972, Jackson has been taking in and commenting on Washington dance performances for local papers like the now-defunct Washington Star and the Washington Post, as well as national and international ones such as Dance magazine, DanceView, Ballet Review, and ballettanz. Most recently, he’s been contributing to the online danceviewtimes.com.
Jackson was born in Vienna, Austria, but was sent out by his parents when the Nazis invaded in 1938. He has since lived—and reviewed dance—in Chicago, New York, and Washington. One of the best things about Jackson is the breadth of his knowledge; he’s never limited himself to one particular genre—not in the early years, and not recently. Head to the Kennedy Center for a ballet performance and there he is the audience. Stop in at an informal showing of in-progress experimental works and Jackson is sitting in a rickety chair, taking notes.
Washington City Paper: How did you get interested in dance?
George Jackson: I think my interest goes back to childhood. My parents saw to it that I got to see different forms of art and performance. And I had been a child figure skater, and I think that sensitized me to movement values.
WCP: When did you first start reviewing?
GJ: I started ushering in the opera house in Chicago so I could see a lot of dance, and I started taking ballet class. This was when I started college at the University of Chicago. The editor of the campus paper came to me and said, “I need some dance reviews and I hear you’re interested in dance; can you try writing some?” That’s how I got started. I made it my business to see what was available. The ballet companies at that time all had short but regular seasons in Chicago. Modern dance was harder to see. Martha Graham came once a year for one performance, and it was usually sold out way ahead of time.
WCP: How did you wind up here?
GJ: I moved to Washington because a very good job opened up here with the Food and Drug Administration. My degree from the University of Chicago is in microbiology, and I’d specialized in parasites, and the FDA needed a food parasitologist. I’d been here a while and was writing about what was going on in Washington for Dance News and occasionally Dance magazine. And then both the Post and the Star at the same time contacted me—they said they needed extra reviewers, and would I review for them? Well, I tried both; first I wrote for the Star, and then later I wrote for the Post.
WCP: What was the Post’s coverage like then?
GJ: Alan Kriegsman was the principal critic at the Post, and there was more and more going on here and he couldn’t cover it all. Eventually, during the dance boom in the early '80s, he had seven other people writing. Dance Place got started then, and Liz Lerman got started around then. The Post at that time covered just about every dance performance between Baltimore and Richmond. One of the editors was a big dance fan, so she really pushed dance reviewers. I remember going to a performance at Eastern Market and there were perhaps five people in the audience. I wrote a long review, and I opened up the paper the next day, and the review of this small performance was as long as the one for a performance at the Kennedy Center.
WCP: What do you think that was about?
GJ: The readers seemed to want it: Dance was in. Very different from today, and different from what had been the case previously. In the '70s, and then into the early '80s, dance seemed to capture what was going on in society. It was at the forefront of what people were thinking in terms of politics, sexuality, economics, whatever. And the choreographers engaged in those things. These days, it’s not as relevant. I really don’t know why certain arts seem to thrive in certain periods and then go into a decline, and then perhaps a couple decades later are vivid again.
WCP: What are your thoughts about the field of criticism today? Michael Kaiser recently wrote a column for the Huffington Post about how criticism is suffering because of so many online citizen critics, and it seems to have gotten people talking.
GJ: The sense of dialogue among critics is something that’s missing. For example, when the Herald Tribune was in New York, two [dance] critics, there and at the New York Times, had a sort of dialogue. They would touch on similar issues and expand on one topic and another in dialogue. And that is what’s missing right now.
WCP: Are critics still crucial, do you think?
GJ: I think so. A critic is a substitute for somebody to talk to, to test your own reactions. There are so many people out there who go to performances and have nobody to talk to.
WCP: How do you feel about quitting reviewing?
GJ: My first review was published in 1950 and the time has come. I believe I can still see, hear, think, and feel, but one does grow slower. Because of that personal change, there is the need to guard against misjudging such things as pacing and duration. I'm not going to stop writing. There are two books I have in mind, in fact have started. If ever they are going to be finished, though, it should be now and without many interruptions. Regular reviewing, if done properly, is consuming.
Photo by Bernd Bienert