360 Dance

On Criticism

By Philip Szporer

Recently I’ve noticed that choreographers have been unburdening their anger at dance critics on social media, taking them to task for negative reviews and registering disdain for the scribes’ perceived lack of insight. These public missives send a strong message of frustration, in part suggesting that critics are just lackeys, buying into a star system that lacks integrity. Some express disdain that dance critics treat dancemakers as if they don’t know enough about their craft to notice problems inherent in the work. Others want theory included in the critique in order to rouse readers from the neck up, missing out that the function of criticism (ideally) should be to help viewers experience art more fully, “to show what it is,” as Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation, “rather than show them what it means.” Making sense of things is one thing, but it cannot be denied – and this seems like an underlying concern in some of the posts – that a good review, or a quotable quote, helps solicit other gigs in the dance world and better ticket sales. Unfortunately, we’re too often stuck in a calcified, commercial model – as a former editor was wont to remark –“artist as salesman, critic as consumer guide.”

It doesn’t worry me that the community is seizing the discourse. Yet I see that a fault line has opened up and that the ground is shifting. There’s plenty of room for discussion and I’ve got a “bring it on” mentality when it comes to critiques of criticism. But the adversarial tone in much of what I’m reading online, steeped in an “us against them” perspective, is unhelpful. I can understand – to some degree – where the emotion is coming from. While opinions in reviews are important, analysis and context, not to mention integrity, are cornerstones for discussing this ephemeral art. “Never be afraid of speaking your mind” is an essential code in reviewing and editors are there to keep things in check. But in the burgeoning blog universe, there’s little or no scrutiny, so some, and I emphasize some, of the self-styled blog critics get the facts wrong and instill an unfettered one-note, dismissive tone in much of their columns.

Dance specialists have been shunted aside and silenced in the popular press and electronic media (television and radio) outlets over the years and it’s always been hard getting mainstream publishers, editors and producers to take dance seriously. They’re hung up on not alienating the larger public and don’t want their pages and airwaves clogged with what’s perceived as insiders deciphering dance, an art form that’s less understandable than some. Certainly not when a review of a crowd-pleasing movie or pop music concert will easily attract more eyeballs. Did I mention profits and digital futures?

Realities for reviewers may have changed, but let’s not forget that writers can be valued advocates for artists as well: John Martin in The New York Times in the 1930s espoused the modern dance pioneers and Jill Johnston in The Village Voice elevated the work of the postmodernists in serious discussion when no one else would. In both cases these columnists brought new and unfamiliar art to a public forum and opened the doors for what was then considered radical dance.

In speaking about the state of dance studies and the appreciation of dance, the late dance scholar Iro Valaskakis-Tembeck commented that, “The public, and even the dance community, keep thinking that dance is in the doing and they have not yet shifted to the idea that dance is also in the thinking and in the reflecting.” She was right in her concern. There is a resistance to looking at dance as a legitimate object of intellectual study that can provide considerable information about society.

Reviewing is not about being a snob or an aesthete. It’s about being steadfast in situating the work of the artists, but without the jargon that excludes the general reader. I think that writing about dance is sometimes about problem solving, expanding on the idea that danceworks can transform understanding and experience. Criticism is about the ability to look at these works on their own terms, being sensitive to what’s being put on a stage (or anywhere else), and trying to divine what a work is, or perhaps what an artist/choreographer wants it to be. There is a dialogue between the writer and the dance that’s established from the get-go, yet sometimes there also just isn’t. That’s when a large measure of generosity must be part of the equation. It does not mean deferring to the artist, but there is a necessity to bridge a gap between what we, as reviewers, think we like and how we can appreciate and be turned on by what’s in front of us. 

The best criticism uses language rigorously, with a writing style that’s current and crackling with insight. Then, the passion for what the reviewer sees, loves and loathes, will seep into the reader’s imagination. It’s not about being a detached observer, nor is it just style over substance. It’s about sparking sustained reader engagement: something is happening and you want the reader to feel that they should be there.

The intent of a reviewer is not to gratuitously ruin people’s lives, but it’s not about creating a mutual admiration society either. In the current resistance to standard criticism, I’m reading that artists seem to want a “truthful” reflection of their own motivations and trajectory in creating work to surface in the reviews. But it’s not for critics to operate in collusion with artists, reporting their intentions or their back-story, nor do they necessarily need to have inside knowledge of the work (although today that information is easily at our fingertips). In moving from one show to the next, one body of work to another, I’m chronicling what’s presented, building my personal archive of understanding of  that artist’s creative activity.

Arts criticism is in trouble, in this country and around the globe. I would say that the great challenge for writers remains being able to review the works through a different prism, generating and articulating insights that are rooted in knowledge and analytical skill, so as to effect some transformation in the viewer’s level of understanding and capacity for critical thought, and through this their very relationship to dance. There is a need to re-evaluate the perceptions and preconceptions of what people are experiencing as dance – and to consider inspirations, complications, calculations and abstractions as all part of a day’s labour for a dance critic. Still, a familiar refrain bears repeating, and in the current context, getting a broad spectrum of the public to take some interest in dance may be the biggest challenge facing us all.

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