The Art of Watching: An Investigation Into Response & Criticism

By Emmaly Wiederholt


A dance piece has two lives: there is the process culminating in the performance, and then there is the reception after the performance. And while much attention is focused on process and product, very little attention is focused on viewership. Yes, how we make and present dance is an important consideration, but equally important is the art of viewing dance.

While there are many ways of dancing, from ethnic to classical to improvisational, the contemporary field is perhaps most involved in the making of new dance. So although understanding viewership is relevant to all dance forms, contemporary dance is an easy place to begin inquiring into viewership because most contemporary dance is newly choreographed.

In order to better understand dance viewership, I posed these questions to fifteen contemporary Bay Area choreographers: “How useful is criticism and critique to you and in what form? What do you feel is a valuable response to your work? How do you try to view and approach other people’s work?” In posing these questions I sought to better understand the dynamics between choreographer and audience. Below are nine general issues that came up as a result of my inquiry.

1. Choreographers appreciate and recognize the importance of dance criticism, both published and in person.
“To offer ways to open perception, both to the artists and the audiences: it’s the hardest thing and the most valuable thing that writers do for dance. It is a rare and wonderful gift for a community to have a dance critic whose literary voice is balanced by a rigorously studied dance background. A writer who has personally experienced an extensive physical practice or who has studied dance theory, history, and the body politic can inevitably lend readers an understanding of a dance’s subtleties.” -Kara Davis, Project Agora

“The observers of art play a vital role in defining the meaning of the work. There is chemistry, an esoteric relationship that develops when an audience is present. Without this I am not sure what art would be. To have conversations (criticism and feedback) about what is seen seems essential.” -KT Nelson, ODC

“I feel very strongly that I’m making work for an audience; I’m making work for people to watch. Yes it’s important what I want to do but sometimes I can become blinded by what I want to do and I need an outside eye to say, ‘Well I didn’t get that-in fact no one in the room did.'” -Jenny McAllister, Thirteenth Floor Dance Theater

2. There is questioning about the conscientiousness of dance reviewers.
“The criticism that I’m attracted to comes from the vantage point of honestly caring about the person it is being directed towards, and the form in general, for its betterment. In the same way that dance and art in general draws its strength from a real sense of consciousness, sometimes I don’t know if I feel like formal dance reviews really understand where they land in the overall ecology of dance.” -Alex Ketley, The Foundry

“Most choreographers do one really big program a year that is 6-8 months in the making. They pour all their resources and their self into that program. Then a critic sees it once and puts it in the paper for 3 million people to read about. And it overshadows everything the choreographer has done. Somehow the power distribution is off.” -Robert Moses, Robert Moses’ Kin

3. There is a common sense of detachment and passivity toward formal reviews.
“In my earlier days of directing I craved reviews of my work. I felt validation that someone who writes for any newsprint would come see the show and write about it. After all, if you make work, someone should review it or it was almost like it never happened. This is how I thought. Fast forward ten years, and I have toggled between seeking press reviews and not bothering to put out a press release of any sort. The years when I did not seek press did not seem to affect my ticket sales or my standing in the dance community.” -Sue Li Jue, Facing East Dance and Music

“Most dance criticism seems to fall down to the very basic and superficial level of initial responses: good/bad, liked/didn’t like, entertaining/boring, high production values/low production values, successful at meeting expectations/unsuccessful at meeting expectations, etc.” – Eric Kupers, Dandelion Dancetheater

4. A primary use of reviews is for generating more performance opportunities.
“At this point dance criticism seems mostly useful to me because if my work is reviewed I can use copies of the reviews in grant proposals. This is a sad state of affairs that I hope can change.” -Eric Kupers, Dandelion Dancetheater

“Most of the way artists get opportunities is through hearsay. I know several examples of artists who suddenly had all this work simply because people heard they’re doing great work, and some of that is from press.” -Catherine Galasso

5. Dance criticism that contextualizes the dance performance is particularly appreciated.
“Because dance is deeply rooted in history, tradition, and discipline, it’s useful when dance critics write about dance within a context. It situates my work into context with other people’s work. Other people before me have established their work and their art so that I can move forward in my own work and art. I appreciate those critics that are able to take and interpret my work and put it into a larger frame.” -Manuelito Biag, Shift Physical Theater

“I find criticism useful when it provides a context for the insights. Maybe the dance maker’s history has been researched, or, better still, experienced first-hand. Maybe there is something else known about the dance maker; perhaps she/he has had a performing career or career outside the dance world that has informed the work. Are there other works, written, performative, or otherwise, that are invoked? What are the politics revealed?” -Christy Funsch, Funsch Dance Experience

6. By and large, most choreographers depend on responses from colleagues and non-dancers for insight into their work, non-dancer opinions being particularly prized.
“There are two people who I really depend on feedback from. The first is people who say they don’t know anything about dance but will finally say that one part reminded them of something. These types of responses are helpful because the person has no patterning about what is good and bad work. The second type of response I find invaluable is from colleagues who share similar values. It is a small group of people who I depend on to say ‘this is where your intention gets lost’ or ‘you bring this out in this dancer.'” -Nina Haft, Nina Haft and Company

“Some of the most honest, useful, albeit harshest, feedback I’ve received has come from non-arts people.” -Randee Paufve, Paufve Dance

“I get a lot of valuable information from people who aren’t in dance. I think it’s sometimes hard for dancers to really see work because of preconceived ideas of what dance is supposed to be.” -Catherine Galasso

7. It is important to keep in mind the temporal nature of live viewership.
“Because the form itself is so temporal, there are so many elements that come together to make that moment. I may have a stomachache when I saw your show or the air conditioning was off and it affected my mood.” -Manuelito Biag, Shift Physical Theater

“I find so much of how we respond to performance has to do with our own time- based experience. If we are hungry or cranky or distracted it is very difficult to be a generous witness.” -Christy Funsch, Funsch Dance Experience

8. It is difficult to escape one’s personal aesthetic.
“In viewing other’s work I don’t try to remove my aesthetic because that’s impossible and absurd. If someone is asking for feedback, I usually ask questions, hoping that will be enough of a mirror to help edge the maker along.” -Michelle Fletcher, Here Now Dance Collective

“There’s a difference between seeing work through your life’s kaleidoscope versus wishing work would fit inside of it.” -Malinda LaVelle, Project Thrust

9. It is important to consider how one gives feedback.
“I find that the most helpful form of criticism for me is one embedded into the creative process itself as creative discourse.” -Macklin Kowal

“Many times we blind ourselves to really seeing the work in front of us because we are unconsciously evaluating it by deciding what we would have done differently had we been the creator. But for me at least, that’s not why art exists.” -Malinda LaVelle, Project Thrust

“It is a delicate thing to offer feedback. It is a listening gesture. It is trying to be open to the intent of the artist; noticing what kind of feedback might be useful at that time; maybe even asking the artist what they need from you.” -KT Nelson, ODC

From this myriad of responses it is clear that dance criticism, whether published or private, plays an important role in the ecosystem of dance and as a result should strive to be as conscientious as choreography itself. Responses that are contextual, associative, or emotionally-based best serve to engage choreographer and viewer alike.

I challenge myself, my fellow dancers, and the tireless choreographers, writers, presenters, and audiences of dance to be as conscientious in viewership and response as possible. Perhaps we can begin to be more aware of our preconceptions and personal preferences and stop ourselves before thinking, “I would have liked to see…” and instead respond to what we are in fact seeing. It cannot simply be the job of choreographers and dancers to make dance the best it can be. Viewers must play their own important role in furthering the art of dance.

Much thanks to the choreographers for selflessly sharing their perspectives and thoughts.

Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance for the San Francisco Examiner and for

This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of In Dance.

Emmaly Wiederholt is the founder and editor of Stance on Dance. She danced in the Bay Area for six years before pursuing her MA in Arts Journalism. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM.