In Practice: Colleague-Criticism

By Sima Belmar

September 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In 2009, I published an essay in this publication (In Dance) about a work by choreographer Randee Paufve, a dear friend of mine. I didn’t know it at the time, but in that same year, performance studies scholars Jill Dolan, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, and Jaclyn Pryor published the essay “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.”[1] The writers define colleague-criticism as “a type of critical engagement in which the critic acknowledges his or her personal relationship with the artist and/or familiarity with the artists’ work and, in so doing, allows the reader to consider the context of the artist’s production as well as the critic’s response” (1). I wish I had known about this essay at the time; I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my endeavor to write about dance from a position of passionate proximity.

Colleague-criticism doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. Google Scholar reveals a mere four citations of the Dolan et al. article, and dance critics still largely write from what choreographer Tere O’Connor calls an “oracular place with the wrong information.” But something wonderful and unexpected has breathed new life into this endeavor, encouraging me to recommit to colleague-criticism: the Low-Res Dance Writers Laboratory at the new National Center for Choreography in Akron, Ohio (NCCAkron). I found the call for dance writers on Facebook (thanks for tagging me, Jill Randall), applied, and was accepted as one of five dance writers to spend a year writing together about, for, and with dance.[2]

At the helm of this endeavor is Christy Bolingbroke, former Deputy Director for Advancement at ODC, and Dance Magazine’s “One of the Most Influential People in Dance Today.” As outlined on giant post-it notes on the walls of NCCAkron’s conference room (Christy loves giant post-it notes), the organization’s mission involves supporting geographic equity, cultivating artists of “creative genius,” advocating for dance as a central part of US culture, investing longitudinally (which means long-term residencies that allow for ongoing conversations with an artist to track their growth and invest in more than just the making of a work—process over product), and fostering R&D through dialogue and proximity.

Christy kicked off our discussions, which took place over the course of four late July days in the University of Akron dance department’s gorgeous new building (every nook and cranny of which was designed with attention to time, space, body, and language). We talked about the state of dance writing today and what we could do to move dance discourse closer to the center of US culture. We generated lots of questions and few answers—What is the role of the dance writer in the dance ecosystem? What is the purpose of a program note? What does it mean to remember a dance? But as Christy said, NCCAkron is about “creating space for rigorous play and positive failure.” Her commitment to developing infrastructure for dance writing in direct engagement with dance making — writers, choreographers, and dancers are in residence together — and without the pressure to create “outputs” feels like the greatest of gifts.

And who should be the first artist-in-residence? None other than the aforementioned Tere O’Connor. Tere is famous both for his dances and for his bold stance against conventional dance criticism. Indeed, his 2005 debate with The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella, discussed in the Dolan et al. article, is only slightly less well-known than Bill T. Jones’ battle with Arlene Croce. So although Tere’s artistic process was meant to be used as a launchpad for our discussions, he was wary, and chose instead to plunge us into philosophical questions, the spiky abyss where aesthetics and politics do their spiral dance.

This was at turns freeing and frustrating. We were privileged to view Tere’s latest work Long Run in process, but Tere wasn’t keen on using the work as a site for our analysis. I get it; mid-process is a vulnerable place to be. But the material offered so much—gestures in inorganic rhythms, mundane interactions made strange through repetition, low, smearing fourth positions that made it look like, nay, feel like someone’s crotch was going to fall out. And the dancers! Marc Crousillat, Eleanor Hullihan, Emma Judkins, Joey Loto, Silas Riener, Lee Serle, and JinJu Song-Begin—they made me wistful for a dancing past I never had, and happy, and cranky, all the things, all the feelings.

So we watched a video Merce Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR (1993) and tried to talk about that instead. And Tere told us a bit about how he began writing, starting, as it does for so many artists, with grant writing, then becoming a mode of “amplifying the thoughts around what I was making and an early detachment from the denotative aspects of language.” He’s a very quotable guy. (Here are my top three favorite phrases uttered by Tere during our discussion: “You can bite ephemera,” “Certitude will always be undone,” and, on what accounts for his mode of thought, “The erosive quality of the aqueous nature of dance on my brain.”)

Tere said that, in his experience with audiences around the world, he hasn’t found a racial, gender, or class determinant for how people see the work; it comes down to whether or not a person is able to “lean into ambiguity.” Some of us shifted uneasily in our swivel seats in response to this, but it does present a provocation: Can dance writing help viewers cultivate that openness, so that audiences begin to move away from the anxiety of “getting it”[3] and towards the pleasure of wading through the unknown?

Dance is under so much pressure to speak for itself even though nothing speaks for itself, not even speaking. Many dance artists feel like they have to make scrutable the inscrutable through verbal language, and granting bodies certainly rely heavily on verbal description and explanation to help them make decisions about whom to fund. Does description take away from the potential of dance to spark thought? What seems at first glance (or second, or third) inscrutable or inaccessible isn’t really. Just like anything new-to-you, it takes practice seeing it, time to access it.

The power of dance often lies in its ability to intervene into normative ways of moving and thinking. In doing so it risks entering into the inscrutable. Dance writing, rather than, or in addition to, helping us witness the dance with its multiple and often contradictory perspectives, and “amplify the world’s thinking about dance” (Tere), may do well to join the dance in its interruption of the so-called natural. Together, dancing and writing can focus our attention on our methodologies for being in the world rather than reflecting realities that are limited by what we already think we know.

***

Christy presented us with a mission: to connect with our respective local dance artists (including dancers who do not identify as choreographers) and dance writers over the next twelve months to create a knowledge base about dance. So this article is a call to Bay Area choreographers, dancers, and dance writers of all stripes to engage in friendly, feisty conversation with me about the infinite variations of a life in dance. Somewhat like Rachel Howard’s former Critical Dialogues column, which was also published in In Dance, I’d like to co-think and co-write dance as much as possible. The focus will continue to be on the practical details, on process, on doing rather than meaning, though meaning inevitably hops, skips, and jumps over and around all that we do.

Since starting the In Practice column, several choreographers have contacted me about seeing their work and reviewing it. Though I won’t be writing reviews here, I am interested in the work in an investigative reporting kind of way. I want to gather the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the work in advance of, during, or after a performance run. It doesn’t matter much when in the process we start; writing and dancing in dialectical relation knows no beginning, middle, or end.

So far, I think In Practice has been about this. But I only know so many artists. So, Bay Area dance artists—reach out. Our conversation probably will not be published in time to serve as a preview of your show (but it might). Contact me and we’ll talk about your daily grind, about how can we talk about dancing without killing it, about who you’re reading these days. (My bedside table hosts Maggie Nelson, Thich Nhat Hahn, André Lepecki, Tara Brach, and Sophie Kinsella. Full disclosure, TMI: I’ve read all Kinsella’s Shopaholic novels).

I know, it’s hard to reach out. It’s like when I invite my students to share their writing with the class and they try every technique in the book to avoid doing so—suddenly nodding off to sleep or becoming very interested in their cuticles. Sometimes I have to call on them, like this: Hey, Liv Schaffer! I want to talk about kinesthetic tools for academic courses. Robert Moses and Mary Carbonara! Let’s talk about being a two-choreographer household. Antoine Hunter! Let’s continue our conversation about the relationship between ASL and dance. Dance book club anyone?

Dance making, dance viewing, and dancing are relational propositions/activities. There is no unidirectional movement from choreographer to dance to performance to audience to critic to writing. All of this lives and breathes in interaction, intersection, criss-crossing vectors. Rather than taking this to mean that there is nothing inherent to a dance, nothing to read or understand or glean from the surface to the depths, I propose we imagine that there is everything in the dance, a site of potential, activated through doing, viewing, writing. As I wrote in my application to the writing lab, “My goal as a member of the cohort of dance writers would be to circulate writing through a creative process that includes choreographers, dancers, scholars, journalists, and audiences, co-creating the work of dance and redefining the role of the critic in dialogue and motion.”

Tere said he would prefer to hear “bad or intelligible words from the artist to dismantle hierarchies” rather than have writers speaking for artists. Let’s talk badly and unintelligibly together.

Please find me @simabelmar or simabelmar@gmail.com or on Facebook.

[1] Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Jill Dolan, and Jaclyn Pryor. “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2009.

[2] The inaugural dance writers are Betsy Brandt, dance dramaturg and professor; Katy Dammers, Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen; Benedict Nguyen, administrator for Donna Uchizono Company; Lauren Warnecke, dance critic at The Chicago Tribune; and myself. (We’re all dancers too.)

[3] Deborah Jowitt, “Getting It,” The Village Voice, February 21, 2006. https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/02/21/getting-it/


Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the ODC Writer in Residence. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.

Share:
Accessibility