The New York Times is defending a taxpayer-funded production of "Doggie Hamlet," claiming the Washington Free Beacon missed the point that the outdoor sheepherding dance performance was really about "what it means to be a citizen of the world."
A 1,200-word endorsement of "Doggie Hamlet" published in the dance section of the print edition on Sunday argued the Free Beacon‘s report failed to provide proper context about the performance in which no lines of Shakespeare are spoken, but several people run around in a field with sheep and dogs.
"But Is It Art? In the Case of ‘Doggie Hamlet,' Yes," the headline for the piece written by Gia Kourlas reads.
The Free Beacon revealed the funding of "Doggie Hamlet" by the National Endowment for the Arts in December. Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center received $30,000 for a series of performances, including Ann Carlson's "Doggie Hamlet," which the Free Beacon described as featuring "actors yelling and running at sheep in a field in Vermont."
The Times bemoans that modern dance is "too easy to make fun of," and claims the Free Beacon did not delve deep enough into the performance that was inspired by the Oprah book club.
"At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a performance," writes Kourlas, a 2016 fellow at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. "The stage is a meadow, and the score is a collection of sounds, including the commands of a dog handler and the pounding of hooves. A woman extends her arms while four sheep, trailed by a determined dog, trot in a circular formation. In quick cuts, we see bigger flocks—a blur of curly wool and strong snouts—race by. Moments later, a young man holds a sheepskin and spins, before collapsing onto the grass."
"Is it silly? Is it pretentious? Is it art?" Kourlas asks.
Kourlas is describing an early video version of "Doggie Hamlet," which the Free Beacon cited, but was not the sole focus of its original report. Instead, the piece relied on a more recent video of the performance, which is now password-protected and unavailable online.
The Times says the early sketch has "recently become fodder for conservatives intent on eliminating federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts," before attempting to add "context" to the modern dance performance.
"I can't defend this strangely chopped together video, which undercuts the scope and mysterious splendor of Ms. Carlson’s vision," Kourlas writes. "But as a dance critic, I will fight for Ms. Carlson, a multidisciplinary artist whose work poignantly explores social issues through the lens of performance."
The Times contends Carlson is "no joke," and criticizes the Free Beacon for "mocking" the performance with the accurate headline "Taxpayers Foot Bill for ‘Doggie Hamlet.'"
Carlson has been on a "self-imposed news blackout" since Donald Trump won the presidency, and missed the news that taxpayers were informed that her performance received federal funding.
"Her reaction was disbelief," the Times reported.
"It’s such an innocuous, sweet work in a way, I felt at first like, really?" Carlson told the Times.
However, even Carlson admits her project was "easy to laugh at," the Times reported. "People are, like: ‘What is this? You’re working with dogs?' And they laugh," Carlson said.
The Times claimed the Free Beacon did not cover "Doggie Hamlet" in the proper context. The original report described the performance as "several actors joining in a field to scare sheep and walk around wearing sheepskins."
"Art is subjective to be sure, but judging a three-minute promo without context does no one any favors," the Times said, before describing the performance as "sheepherding and dancing" in a field at dusk.
The Times reported Carlson was inspired by David Wroblewski’s "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," an "Oprah book-club pick." The book is about a mute boy in Wisconsin who "comes of age in the wild" with three yearling dogs, and is drawn "very loosely" from Hamlet, specifically the Norse legend, which differs from Shakespeare's play.
"‘Doggie Hamlet' doesn’t retell that story but borrows from it to look at, in part, what it means to be a citizen of the world, nature included," the Times claims.
"It works with these very ancient practices and symbols of culture, which are shepherding and dancing," Carlson said.
The Times reported that Carlson received $45,000 for "Doggie Hamlet" from a production company that was established with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the finished performance will be "shown by presenters that receive National Endowment funds."
The Times adds that "Doggie Hamlet" should be off-limits from scrutiny from budget hawks, because it is not "sexually explicit or provocative."
"[T]here is no decency standard at play, just a perpetual problem for modern dance and performance art: It is too easy to make fun of them," the Times writes.
The Times argues Carlson is asking tough questions with "Doggie Hamlet," such as, "What does it mean to follow?" "What is instinct?" and "What is our relationship to animals and to land?"
The performance also is valuable, the Times says, because it "brings together people from seemingly disparate groups," such as farmers, artists, and knitters.
The Times concludes there are "too many levels to contemplate" that "Doggie Hamlet" is art, after noting that Carlson is not an elitist.
President Donald Trump's proposed budget would eliminate federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.