The Dance v. The Critic: Who Has The Right to Write?

By Katie Gaydos

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN 2007 IN DANCE DEVOTED a majority of its November issue to the topic of dance criticism. Many critics and community members commented on the threat of a kind of de-professionalization of dance criticism (and journalism in general) with the rapid growth of internet blogs.

Luckily today, three years later, professional dance critics—while an endangered species—still exist. When recently asked how the role and profession of the dance critic has changed over time, SF Bay Guardian dance critic Rita Felciano replied, “I don’t think the role has changed; if profession is defined as making your livelihood from your work, it has just about disappeared. In that respect dance critics are becoming much more like dancers.”

It’s scary that our current economy has left only two dance critics in the nation—Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times and Sarah Kaufman at The Washington Post—in full-time staff positions. It doesn’t take an economist to realize that less dance critics translates to less dance coverage. Therefore, while the fundamental function of the critic might remain forever constant, it seems now more than ever—as dance critics have become a dying breed—it might be useful to consider and re-consider what it means to give criticism.

As a current college student, dancer and writer who has only recently begun to explore the field of dance writing, I’m no authority on dance criticism. However, I’m interested in how dance is created, how it’s received and how criticism affects the larger arts community.

What is the principal role of the dance critic? I think it’s tempting to misinterpret or oversimplify criticism as merely evaluative promotion. After all, there’s no doubt that criticism offers publicity and promotion for artists. But while potentially encouraging or discouraging community members to see specific works of dance, dance criticism extends far beyond the notion of giving two thumbs up or two thumbs down.

When I asked former Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal whether he thinks of himself as inside (and directly influencing) the dance community or outside that community, he responded, “By the time a newspaper dance review appears, the dance company will more than likely have left the area—or the program will have changed. So any influence will be indirect at best, building for the future.”

“I see the critic as primarily a member of the audience, speaking to people of equal intelligence and experience about the nature and value of a performance event. Is that inside or outside the dance community? That’s something for the community to decide, if such an entity actually exists” says Segal. “Some dancers and choreographers never read or have any use for dance criticism—so they don’t feel what we do is interconnected. Others do, to varying degrees. But the best writers reach a larger readership than just those who created or witnessed a specific event. Arlene Croce wrote that performers can tolerate only as much criticism as can be converted to the uses of publicity. That’s extreme, but worth remembering. Dance criticism should have a value beyond assigning praise or blame.”

Felciano similarly suggests that criticism extends beyond publicity purposes by suggesting the critic is responsible for giving an accurate written and historical record. She comments that the main role of the dance critic is “to set down a record, as accurately as possible of what, when, where and give a perspective on it.” It seems that it is precisely this perspective that—ideally—educates and helps audience members (as well as community members) contextualize and form their own perspective on a given dance.

I’d add that the dance critic plays an integral part in how choreographers make dance. In opening up a dialogue about dance, the critic inevitably begins to shape the direction of dance. In that sense choreography and criticism share a similar creative process. But if there is a creative aspect within criticism and a critical aspect within dance where do the two seemingly separate worlds meet?

Just as Segal suggests that the critic is primarily a member of the audience, Felciano asserts, “Dancers live in one universe; the critic looks into it from the outside.” What would happen if those two universes merged? Can dancers critique dance?

Dance critic and artist/lecturer at Mills College, Ann Murphy suggests that while dance critics and dancers occupy inextricably interconnected and overlapping worlds, they are not synonymous. “Criticism of any stripe demands a certain degree of detachment—one enters the work from outside rather than inside, as a witness not as kin” says Murphy. “If criticism is a form of critical thinking, and, for me, it is, it demands separation from one’s subject. That’s why journalism devised a code of ethics based on impartiality and fairness—without it it’s incredibly difficult not to write from self-interest or self-absorption. And because there is neither absolute objectivity nor absolute subjectivity (it’s the muddle in between), and because we all come to the theater with our biases, to up the ante by dancing in a company while reviewing other companies is like inviting the devil to tango.”

Out-dancing the devil might be an impossible feat but is it wrong to try? Maybe it’s inconceivable for a dancer to leave their personal bias at the door. But what exactly is the bias that deems dancers incapable of giving criticism? If any critic can find ways to navigate his or her own personal bias, what makes it impossible for a dancer to do the same? Couldn’t a dancer’s biased baggage—all the somatic memory, kinetic emotion and overwhelming passion that informs their opinion of dance work—be potentially helpful in giving criticism and shaping the direction of the field?

I recently had a conversation on art criticism with Lyn Hejinian—a poet, literary critic and UC Berkeley professor—and Megan Pugh—a graduate student writing her dissertation on dance. They let me in on the literary critic’s trick: they openly admit their bias before giving their critique. Granted poetry is very different from dance in that the medium of writing—versus dance being body based—allows a poet to literally occupy both the roles of artist and critic. Yet the fact that there are not only other art forms where artists both perform within a community and give criticism on that community but where participating in criticism is a crucial function of being an artist suggests the possibility that dancers can participate in dance criticism—and sometimes should. Is there something inherent in dance that makes this impossible?

When asked whether a dance background can be advantageous or disadvantageous to dance writing Segal says: “As Lady Bracknell says, I have always believed that a person should know either everything or nothing. Everything allows you to place your opinions in context and link the dance experience to wider issues. Nothing allows you to see movement freshly and penetrate empty dance rhetoric. But the term ‘a dance background’ is essentially meaningless. What gives you ‘a dance background’? Russian classical ballet? Butoh? Flamenco? Graham-modern? Kathak? Khon? Kabuki? Hula? A single writer can know just about everything about one or two idioms and next to nothing about others. And, again, it’s the writing that matters, not the writer’s resume” says Segal.

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of In Dance.

Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer and has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, and Emmaly Wiederholt’s blog Stance On Dance. Katie has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.