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North Texas Has Lost Its Finest, Longest-Serving Dance Critic


by Jerome Weeks 23 May 2019

Margaret Scobey Putnam covered dance here since 1980. That’s a remarkable length of time. She was a remarkable critic.

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I wrote this after a celebratory dance performance – it was arranged by the Dance Council of North Texas to raise funds for the Margaret Putnam Scholarship for Dance and Writing. At the time, Margaret had covered dance in North Texas since 1980 – an unbelievable length of time – and had already been undergoing  treatment for colon cancer for several years.

That was eight years ago.

I’m re-posting because Margaret Scobey Putnam died yesterday afternoon. When you work nights at a newspaper on deadline – as I did as the theater critic for the ‘Dallas Morning News’ while Margaret was there reviewing dance – you often hang out, waiting for the copy editors to be done with your review. Late at night, often with only one or two other people quietly but feverishly at work on the fourth floor at the DMN – that’s how I got to know and appreciate her – as a working critic.

Little that I wrote here has changed – except that choreographer Bruce Wood died five years ago.

Margaret Putnam. The photo is from the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center, where Putnam was treated for years.

Saturday afternoon at the Sammons Center, it was choreographer Bruce Wood who said it most succinctly, most eloquently — much like one of his dances. The Dance Council of North Texas held a fundraising celebration in honor of Dallas dance critic Margaret Putnam, who has written reviews for the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News and now for Theater Jones.

Amid all the affectionate praise and gratitude delivered in speeches about Putnam — praise from friends, colleagues, dance company leaders and jocular host (and TITAS director) Tom Adams — Wood said simply, “Because she takes us seriously, all of you take us seriously.”

That was all, and that is everything.

Given the often fragile state of dance companies in North Texas — and the tremendous upheavals in the dance scene and the media since 1980 — Putnam has been one of the few steadfast figures here (despite her own frail health, including a stroke in 2000). Dance critics have almost always been a rare, endangered species, but Putnam has managed to keep writing — and to write thoughtfully and engagingly about dance, without snobbery or exclusiveness. Which makes her rarer still. In fact, the Dance Council arranged the afternoon — which drew more than 100 people — as a benefit for the Margaret Putnam Scholarship for Dance and Writing. It’s  a way of encouraging and supporting young dance writers.

In addition to both the scholarship in her name and all the heartfelt speeches, the event featured the highest praise dancers could offer a critic (and a fellow, former ballet dancer): some splendid performances. Two members of the Texas Ballet Theatre — Carolyn Judson and Lucas Priolo — performed one of Ben Stevenson’s lovely, early works, the first of the three Preludes by Rachmaninoff. Emily Hunter premiered Bruce Wood’s Surrender to Maria Callas’ overwhelming version of the “Ebben” aria from La Wally, and Delilah Buitron was positively ferocious in a flamenco number by Camaron de la Isla (aka Jose Monje Cruz). Together with Gentle Piece, a duet from the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and a vivacious solo by Chinmayee Venkatraman from the Indian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the celebration proved to be a choice little dance event in its own right: Where else could an audience experience that range and that quality of work in North Texas — at a single sitting?

In her speech, Putnam — who has been undergoing treatment for colon cancer for several years — joked about one of the earlier speakers who had wondered how many Nutcrackers she’s seen. Considering that she’s written more than 3,000 articles and reviews, Putnam mentally calculated that she’d probably seen more than 100 Nutcrackers. And that led her to think of similar numbers in her life — for instance, she’s probably undergone 100 chemotherapy sessions.

But given the choice, Putnam added, she’d much prefer seeing another Nutcracker. You’re not as likely to throw up afterwards.

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