Out of Order: Disobedient Dance Criticism

By Sima Belmar

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“The review, the most common form of dance writing, is weak as much for how it attempts to describe the object of that performed event as for what it leaves out.”
— Randy Martin, Critical Moves: dance studies in theory and politics, 34

Choreographer Randee Paufve presented her latest work That Obscure Subject of Desire at the end of July at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. I feel ridiculous writing “Choreographer Randee Paufve” since she’s one of my closest friends. Randee told me that there were no critics available to review her show, so I offered to do so myself. “Can you do that?” she asked.

On Friday night I chose a seat in one of the last rows of the theater. But I am close, very close. The house is packed with familiar faces, and I feel heat in my cheeks left over from all the hugging and waving and smiling. We’re still chitchatting when Jill comes onto the stage. The house lights are up and it takes a moment for the talk to settle to a murmur, to silence. Jill quietly draws our attention, taking steps to the side, walking, stopping. Randee’s voice comes over the PA. We turn off our cell phones. The house lights dim and then, nothing happens. That Obscure Subject of Desire begins when we’re not paying attention as if, radically, riskily, we are invited not to pay attention at all or, rather, to pay attention to how we pay attention and to what.

In the collection of essays and interviews Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, German dance writer Constanze Klementz argues for a critic who writes neither as an authority nor a representative, but rather as an accomplice to the work: “As an alternative to critique I therefore plead the case…not for no critique at all, but for critique that is prepared to declare itself out of order” (256). Her essay is about criticism-as-practice, one that takes its cue from contemporary choreography that declares “its position and the system from which it comes, not from a distance, which is always reserved for ‘other people,’ but from right in the heart of its practice” (256).

Though writing in the context of contemporary German choreographic and critical practice, Klementz’s plea reaches across borders, geographical and ideological. What does it mean to write dance criticism from a position of proximity to and intimacy with the work, the dancing, the dancer, and the choreographer?

Is it possible to write dance criticism without special authority (though it will probably be actively granted or denied the writer), but rather with an eye (ear, fingertip, tongue) toward multiple knowledge bases, projects, and structures that position dance, writ large in the larger fabric of society? And if we accept that the dance review is the story of a performance, if the critic is somehow speaking for the work or for the artist, does this seal off the voice of the work, of the artist? What is the critic’s responsibility to the artist as she double-speaks for herself and for the artist? (I am borrowing heavily here from Amy Shuman’s Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy, in case you were wondering).

I am writing this weeks after the performance, which I saw twice. I am writing after the post-performance conversations and emails. There was the visual artist who was confused over whether the piece was to be taken in earnest or ironically. There was the dancer/choreographer/scholar who was struck by how different Randee’s movement read compared to how it felt in class. There were musings about Bay Area insularity and provincialism. I can’t forget the moment, in Randee’s first solo, when, facing stage right, she stumbles to her knees. Both times I saw the piece, I caught my breath as she caught herself, her face unworried, a person walking through life cut off at the knees.

The dance critic is granted authority predicated on distance (mostly by lay people who value journalistic objectivity and merciless judgment), but also on proximity (mostly by dancers and choreographers who value “insider” knowledge; authority as authenticity). Since it is impossible to be wholly inside or outside, to be fixed in relation to the object of reflection, the question becomes: How does the critic position herself with respect to the dance? What perspectives are at my disposal? Can I write from the wings? From backstage? From on stage? From the rehearsal space? From the choreographer’s living room floor? (See Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreography & Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire for some scholarship that experiments with positionality.) Periodically, these issues erupt between artists and critics (the 2005 debate between Joan Acocella and Tere O’Connor), between artists and scholars (Shelley Senter in reaction to some of the papers presented at the 2009 Society of Dance History Scholars conference), and between critics and scholars (inside my very head). And there are a lot of hard feelings. But hard can be good.

Randee’s body casts shadows on the floor in three directions. These shadows move toward and away from her, gather her in communal embrace, break from her without looking back. It is a cycle of abandonment and return. I have lost all sense of my peripheral vision and it is not until later in the dance, much later, during the section that parodies and celebrates jazz dance, kick-ball-changes and multiple pirouettes in parallel, that I become aware of the audience, laughing, relieved. That Obscure Subject of Desire has a seriousness to it. Randee is taking two things seriously in this piece, in her work: technique, the power of the deep plié, spatial orientation, choreographic structure, focus play; along with love, middle age, sex, friendship, romance. The mechanics and the metaphor do not always come together in a way that “makes sense.” In dances where these elements do come together, I often feel myself locked in a hermetically sealed world, ruled by a leader who, during my visit there, insists on holding my hand and explaining the architecture, the urban planning, the landscape, never leading me off the beaten path.

Most dance writing focuses on either the artist or the work. What would a dance review that focuses on the practice of dancing that subtends the dance look like? That Obscure Subject of Desire is but a tiny tick on the tape of Randee’s life work. All the hours teaching technique classes, rehearsing, taking notes, warming up, cooling down (I won’t even touch making phone calls, driving, eating, loving, crying): where is the space for those hours? Those years? And how would attention to them change the story of the work?

The men and women who dance for Randee love her movement. She offers a space for them in which the pleasure principle can have extended moments of free reign. The movement is big, luscious, rhythmically complex. But there are reality principles in Randee’s work: spatial orientation, relationality, and a thematization of seeing. Randee asks the women and men who work with her to investigate the boundary between a projected faciality and disappearing behind “modern dance face.” It is a struggle to break down habits of visual focus. Try to remember something without looking up or looking down or closing your eyes, whatever it is you do to remember. Try to see while you’re thinking, to see who’s dancing beside you, behind you. This is the work it takes to bring highly technical dancers out of their comfort zones and into risk. It is about learning how to cope with seeing and being seen. And the dancers, the work, Randee herself, I’ve seen them shift. Weight shifts. Shifts of attention. Out of extreme solipsism. A multimodal approach.

Writing about the practice of dance rips it from the melancholic clutch of ephemerality. Dance is durable matter, neural pathways, memory space. A dance exists before, during, and after it is performed. The dancers go out for beers after the show and the dance enjoys the kick of the alcohol, the relaxation. With every iteration, the dance etches itself more deeply. Dance may be perceived as constantly disappearing when regarded from a position of distance. But up close, inside, next to, it is a solid thing. So, as dance artist Keith Hennessey and dance critic Rita Felciano both mentioned during a recent Dance Discourse Project discussion on dance criticism, dance does not need writing to survive. Nor can writing about dance kill dance. Dance writes its own stories; dances inscribe themselves in the bodies that dance them and in the eyes that watch them. Scholar Randy Martin calls for the end to scarcity thinking in dance. Indeed, there’s only ever more of it to go around.

Katie strikes a lunge and then looks back over her shoulder at us. I can see Randee in that movement. And I can feel myself in that movement. The lactic acid built up in my legs watching the performance because I’ve danced that dance, I’ve danced in that space, I’ve danced with those people. As one obscure subject of desire, I am “remembering kinesthesia,” to borrow a term from Deirdre Sklar.

I enjoy a proximal position to dance practice and theory, and my account, though always inevitably approximate, counts for something. At least it will be an incomplete record for others who may want to know something about dance in the Bay Area in the early 2000s.

And for the record: the dancers were Stephanie Ballas, Rebecca Johnson, Katie Kruger, Diane McKallip, Randee Paufve, Jill Randall, Brian Runstrom, Frank Shawl, Jane Schnorrenberg, and Christy L. Thomas; lighting design by Gabe Maxson; costumes by Rachel Stone with alterations by Katie Kruger; sound by Heather Heise with music by Bjork, Marianne Faithful, Chas Smith, David Mahler, Milton DeLugg, and Willie Stein.

This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.