What do you Think About Dance Criticism? A Community Responds

By Community Submission

November 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

We recently sent out a call out to nearly 30 Bay Area dance artists representing a broad cross-section of the community asking them to contribute perspectives on dance criticism. Twelve artists responded with lively reflections on their experiences with reviews and the role of criticism within the art form. Artists were referred to Steven Winn’s article “Encore, Encore – Sometimes Once is Not Enough” in the SF Chronicle on September 26, 2007 (available at sfgate.com), as a reference point. Responses are in alphabetical order by first name.

Stephen Pelton,
Stephen Pelton Dance Theater

A good review is one that is useful. The most useful sort of review for the progress of my work itself, is one that teaches me something I couldn’t quite grasp about a dance, in words that speak to me in ways I thought only the movement could do. Rita Felciano once described the characters in a dance of mine as full of “lassitude and resignation.” For years now, I have been haunted by that insight and am still hoping to understand why that was so true and what in the world I meant by it…

Of course, I love it when the press have lovely things to say about me. But, I love it more when they have even lovelier things to say about my dancers. Sima Belmar once wrote that I was a “dancers’ choreographer,” that other dancers must envy the roles I create for the people I work with. That was more satisfying than anything I’d ever read about myself or my work. And it made the dancers extremely happy, too. So, very useful all around.

Jo Kreiter,
Flyaway Productions

Last year I got a really lousy review. It took up half a page in the chronicle. The worst thing about it was the headline- bold, block letters brimming with negativity. I cried about it. I grumbled and groaned. I asked the project’s funder, only half jokingly, if she wanted her foundation’s money back. Thankfully she declined. In the end, though, when my bruised ego and I climbed back on the dance-making horse, something fundamental shifted. I decided to develop a new work over two years, so that audiences, my collaborators and I had time to contemplate the work, even savor its flaws, at its mid-point of creation. We recently showed the preview, and I am astounded at how many people stayed after the show to talk with us, and have said they can’t wait to come see the final work. Where Steve Winn writes about the “rush of event followed by judgment followed by subsequent event…” he has hit the nail on the head. Funders, critics, presenters and audiences are all complicit in expecting art to conform to a marketplace cycle of create, consume, and move on to the next sexy thing. I am grateful to a bad review for jolting me out of this cycle. So my plea to artists is to slow down, at least once in a while. My plea to critics is to slow down with us, to encourage our risks, maybe even contextualize our failures as part of our life’s work that is bound to grow only if we occasionally stumble and fall.

Sean Dorsey,
Fresh Meat Productions

I am a choreographer, but I also consider myself a cultural activist—someone who creates art that, hopefully, is beautiful in its own right, but that also inspires change, opens minds and hearts, changes culture. I strive to create dances that start people feeling, thinking and talking. I can’t think of a more visceral way to do this than through dance, through the body. This is the most vital function of art—to inspire, create dialogue and change culture. We need this now more than ever, in these crazy, dizzying, desperate times.

This too is why, more than ever, we need dance criticism: unlike paintings that can hang in a gallery for months, or a book that can be re-read forever, our dances are over in the blink of an eye. We need dance critics to transform our brief four-night run into an ongoing community dialogue—sparking conversations, introducing more people to the ideas in our work, inspiring people about the possibilities of dance. This, to me, is the most vital function of the dance critic—to reflect on and analyze a dance, yes, but also to contextualize it in the times we live in, and show people that despite everything they’ve heard, modern dance can in fact be relevant, accessible, and important to the average Joe. A thoughtful critic is like a great translator, opening up the conversation to everyone.

Lily Cai,
Lily Cai Chinese Dance

All kinds of dance in the Bay Area have good promotion and attendance, but ballet and modern dance get reviews much much much more than other dance forms. Almost every single concert my company has performed on state-wide and nation-wide tours have been reviewed. Compared with our home seasons in the city, we have only been reviewed three times our twenty-year history: once for every seven years!

In general, critics will point out two aspects of my dance form: the shape-to-shape movements and the use of props. I think when they talk about my dance form they are coming from more of a ballet or modern dance perspective. Most of the time, my form is listed as world dance. If I’m left to choose, and I have multiple choices, I will check all of the categories or none of them. My form is not ballet, not modern, and not Chinese! The variety of dance in America makes it the best place to create dance. I would like to share something here.

I believe Western dance is about movement through space and Eastern dance is about movement in space (just like writing: when you write in English, it goes through space, while Chinese characters are written in space). In many cultures, dance with props is considered an extension of arms or legs, motion and emotions, and you can do something beyond the limitations of the human body.

Joe Goode,
Joe Goode Performance Group

Dance criticism in the Bay Area has one tragic flaw. It assumes that dance is a mute art form that does not interface deeply with other art forms and that to do so is somehow a bastardization or a diluting of the form. It is as if what has been going on in Europe and Japan and Australia and Africa has not yet seeped into the consciousness of our dear critics.

Basically, our dance critics have not woken up to the fact that dance in the Bay Area is unique because of its interdisciplinary nature. Instead of advocating and championing this very unique Bay Area genre, they are disparaging and often condescending. What a missed opportunity. With the riches that are here—the collisions between forms that are going on—we should be a world-class dance city. And, frankly, we are not. Partly, because the voices aren’t there, the discerning voices that would see where this work is really coming from, that would bother to see its intent and its place in the alternative culture that once was San Francisco.

Deborah Slater,
Deborah Slater Dance Theater

Deborah Jowitt once wrote that after talking to friends about a show she had panned, she went again…feeling that she might have missed something. And she reviewed the show again; feeling that, in fact, it was better work, more interesting than her biases had allowed her to see. I felt that as a critic, she was unlike any I had ever experienced. That she felt an obligation to her work in relation to the artist’s work, that there was a shared experience out of which her writing came, and that she felt a responsibility to the audience and the artist. She wasn’t so attached to her own point of view that she was unable to change it, in fact, she felt it was her job to go again. When reviewing my work, she commented clearly on her biases, contextualized her comments and articulated what worked for her and why, and what didn’t and why. I learned from her review. While I understand and appreciate how much critics currently have to see, how few of them there are, and how limited the outlets are becoming, I believe that the artist, the critic and the audience are interdependent; that good criticism should educate the audience and the artist, inform the process and move the form forward. Deborah Jowitt’s did that.

Joan Lazarus,
DanceArt, Inc

Steven Winn muses that a dance is not truly seen in one performance. Duh. And this is not a criticism of dance writers at all, but hey, all dancers know this. Until the tenth performance or so, we are simply trying to do it justice on a physical level.

To consider:
Honesty. When a writer acknowledges, and plays to, his or her agenda and perspective, a wonderful review can emerge. Does the critic really know dance? It is rare for someone who has not literally experienced the transcendent nature of dance to write about anything but composition.

Transparency. Do we artists really present our work to critics without dodging and evading and manipulating and spinning? If not, then why should we expect writers to see clearly and truly?

The nature of the beast (dance). I don’t see the critical community as antithetical to dance’s goals, but there is a veil between those who understand movement through experience and those who do not. At times we are all more comfortable translating something that is a complex integration (a mystery) into something cleanly intellectual and uni-dimensional (known) or the benefit of others, of course. Often in the name of accessibility and clarity, we remove the layers of discourse that actually are the discourse.

When writing about dance, I believe:
• it is not truthful to view a performance and speak about anything but that particular occurrence and your reaction to it.
• repeated viewing is prerequisite to understanding. If one is not able to accomplish that (often because there are not additional performances), then it should be clearly stated that the level of understanding is radically abridged.
• the meaning carried by composition is different than meaning accessed through the witnessing of a performance.
• even a supremely gifted dancer requires repeated exposure in service of understanding- access to visual, to movement, to musical, to cultural, to historical information is not possible in one glimpse, and that is gone before it can be held in the mind.
• an artist is not predictable. Past interests do not necessarily predict future investigations. An artist must not be seen on a linear path, despite the fact that this would make writing about that artist simpler. As Daniel Nagrin says, “Definition, to an artist, is death.” Do not force a signature or style upon an artist out of convenience or dismissal.
• time, space, and people (dancers) interfere/collude/collide with the artistic process and can be messy. This can be acknowledged, allowed, and celebrated rather than criticized.

Yeah! This is the wonder of it all!

Anna Halprin
I am reminded of the most meaningful review from a critic that I ever received. It appeared in Stockholm in 1965. We did the dressing and undressing section from PARADES AND CHANGES with fear and trepidation, not knowing how our use of nudity would be received. In the states it was banned, but a critic in Stockholm referred to that section as “a ceremony of trust.” His giving of that name illuminated the quality of the performers’ task and gave each of them a profound image to counteract their uncertainty and fears. In all these years since, I have never forgotten his comment and have passed it on as a direction to other performers. Another that I remember is in Rome when the critic wrote “for this Columbus had to discover America” after viewing The Five Legged Stool. It lightened up a controversial situation and pushed me into giving a lot more consideration to finding ways to incorporate the audience in my thinking.

Tecsia Ross,
Ross Dance Company

As the artistic director for Ross Dance Company, I find my self every season preparing press releases for reviewers to come and see my show. It has become a routine for me, one I am not sure I am fond of. Starting out I was told “in order for your company to become established you need to have a respectable individual from the art community review your work.” I never understood why this was, however, I engaged in the ritual of working desperately to find someone reputable to review my show. I often wonder why as dance artists we seek opinions of others who may not be dancers, choreographers or directors to validate our work. Why do we trust these “few” individuals to spread their thoughts about our work to the entire community. We create our work because we believe in it and we hope people who purchase tickets to our show believe in the art as well. I wonder what the Bay dance community would look like if we asked audience members or fellow choreographers to review our shows and post their comments on the next poster or press release. Would their thoughts be just as valid as the SF Chronicle Reviewer? I pray one day we as a dance community get to a point where we don’t judge others’ work based on the number of reputable reviews they have but more on merit and our own thoughts of their work.

Jez Lee
We’ve seen press from local print publications (SF Guardian, SF Chronicle) about our work, usually expressed as ‘extreme’ because we take a lot of risks. Since we’ve never fit into just one category (personally, culturally, and artistically), we benefit from exposure from different kinds of critics. That we’re often sexually explicit can be a revealing addition to work seen by critics entrenched in the SF dance scene, or that our work is ‘artsy’ is a pleasant surprise to the been-there-done-that sexperts. Taboo subjects like vampirism might be a new experience for ethnic dance writers, while new Asian American publications are fascinated the parallel of hapa identities and hybrid performance extremes.

Quotes like SF Weekly’s “brilliantly frightening” encourages risk-taking in our work, and so far we haven’t been arrested (only uninvited). The permission to be unconventional is freeing, yet it also creates a strange new confine; when the reviews add hype to our performance, we begin to feel compelled to do something extreme. It’s an ironic situation. In the end, we have decided to perform unannounced, even if in private. Our art will be our own.

Caminos Flamencos

As a San Francisco native who has performed in Spain and throughout the U.S., my observation is that coverage of the arts, and dance in particular, has diminished in the Bay Area even within the last three years. The few valiant and supportive critics that are left covering the amount of dance here are often requested to select one of four or more dance companies opening Wednesday-Saturday. There is an inequity of coverage based upon an editor’s decision to cover the highest-profile companies. The priority seems to be ballet, contemporary and out-of-town companies, followed by everyone else. For the last ten years, San Francisco and New York have been the most prolific presenters and audiences for flamenco, whose popularity internationally continues to grow annually. The Los Angeles and the New York Times send their lead dance critic(s) to review both Spanish and local flamenco dance presentations while still covering the major ballet companies; these previews or reviews function to further highlight flamenco’s stature as a major dance form.

Caminos Flamencos presents a new work every season along with other local dance companies, but we are not covered every season, sometimes with the excuse that we will be covered “next year.” New works or premieres by choreographers with international stature should be reviewed in their hometown. If not there, where? In the last ten years, each and every show we have presented in other markets has been reviewed, and favorably. These markets seem to value Hispanic presentations more fully, perhaps because the Hispanic market is larger and more demanding in those areas. Flamenco is covered well in Spain, but it should be noted that it is now more popular (audience attendance) in other countries than in Spain. Even so, I laud local dance critics for their persistence, knowledge and support of companies when they are allowed to cover them.

Anne Bluethenthal,
ABD Productions

I long for writing on dance…that inquires into the condition of the world that places the artist at the center of her own unique language that investigates her cosmology rather than assessing her in terms of the writer’s. I long for writing on dance that demands we use the eloquence of movement in the service of healing this ailing planet, facing the difficult, making meaning, breaking open norms, embracing what is real. The qualities that I value in my own and others’ art are typically invisible to the media, perhaps because we view the world and the work through entirely different moral lenses. (I use the word moral deliberately to emphasize that all of our written or choreographed choices emerge from a value system and have real impact in the world.)

At a moment when what is called for is nothing less than a complete revolution in thinking, living, governing, and art-making, few really consider the assumptions underlying our lives, writing practices, aesthetic choices. I want choreographers to write about each other. I hope we as dance-makers and writers on dance will do the deep questioning required for us to move ourselves, the planet, and our art form forward.

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