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Writing With a Sharp Pencil

On top of fraught politics, dance critics have to figure out how to fit into the fold during -- and after -- the pandemic By Grace Wells-Smith
  • Illustration by Miranda Maslany

This feature is part of Dance Criticism: Perceptions, challenges and the future, a series produced in partnership with Turn Out Radio. Keep reading for the critics’ perspectives; on April 14th listen to Turn Out Radio (CIUT 89.5 FM) to hear from dance artists; and sign up for the live online event on April 15th, when Timea Wharton-Suri, chair of Dance Media Group, talks with both critics and artists.

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At the beginning of February, The Globe and Mail snuffed out its star rating review system. In J. Kelly Nestruck’s weekly newsletter, “Nestruck on Theatre,” the Globe theatre critic says the official reason is for consistency. Theatre and circus reviews included the system; dance and opera did not. Sometimes it depended on the critic. Nestruck blessed this decision: “Sure, it can be fun to slap four celestial bodies at the top of a show that blows you away – and occasionally to court controversy by dropping a zero-star review. But mostly I like to think of reviews as the starting point for a discussion, not a mic drop.” 

You’ve seen it before and maybe experienced it: show opens, review is published, choreographer isn’t happy. Last year, Yolanda Bonnell, an Indigenous theatre artist, only invited BIPOC critics to her show bug. Her reasons included that the show “[did] not align with colonial reviewing practices.” In 2015, Martha Schabas (dance critic at the Globe) reviewed Toronto Dance Theatre’s double bill featuring Returning Empathis by Peter Chin and Making Belief (Or Seven Stages for Transformation, as played by a Willing Character) by Susie Burpee. Michael Crabb also reviewed the show for the Toronto Star, and neither review twinkled. Chin publicly posted about his concern for Schabas’s lack of knowledge of non-western art, and he posted an open letter on Facebook inviting Crabb to not review his work again. 

On top of the fraught politics associated with criticism, the industry is now facing another reckoning: how do you review a virtual show during the pandemic? Is it fair to review work converted to Zoom? Or should these shows be left out of the historical record?

The following conversation is between four critics about how dance criticism fits into the current fold. Jillian Groening is an artist and writer currently based in Winnipeg and former staff at The Dance Current; Kaija Pepper is the editor of Dance International in B.C. and the author of Falling into Flight: A Memoir of Life and Dance; Philip Szporer is a writer, filmmaker and lecturer in Montreal; Joshua Chong is a freelance performing arts critic in Toronto and writes for his blog, Ghost Light Reviews

Rather than being the ascending authority outside of the dance industry, these critics want their work to do as Nestruck mentioned: generate discussion. And like a review, this conversation is just the opinions of four people. 

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Grace Wells-Smith: We’ll start with you, Jill; you’re in the top spot on my screen. Can you briefly describe your approach to dance criticism?

Jillian Groening: Good question. I feel constantly in a bit of a place of conflict with it. I was trying to think about how I do approach it because I have a dance training history and still perform and dance and am part of choreographic processes. So there is a bit of a complicated relationship to it. I guess, basically, how I often want to approach it is like writing alongside the work. I’m really fascinated with sensory documentation. And so that has been informative to how I’m going to be writing, how I’m going to be responding.

GWS: I think that’s how I would describe your approach too. It has a very experiential feeling to it. 

JG: I take notes during [performances] constantly, but while I’m working, there’s a proprioceptive description. But so often, I like tuning into affective frequencies or trying to figure out how the work has imprinted on me. I’m coming out of a performance studies master’s, so I have all these performance theories buzzing around in my brain. But Amelia Jones obviously has discussions on documents, documentation and presence. And so knowing that the review has its own sort of energy and power and memory properties. That it’s its own kind of reflection or its own resonances of a performance. 

GWS: And Philip, how would you describe your approach?

Philip Szporer: Yeah, it is a really interesting question. But I think there are certain principles that you always have to go back to – certain things that motivate you, certain things that get you into the groove of writing. And years ago, this is when I was writing for a magazine called Dance Connection – it came out of Calgary – Heather Elton was the editor. And I remember one of the first things that she told me, and it sticks still, these many, many years later: ‘Amaze me,’ she said. She’s recalling that kind of Diaghilev perspective that he would give to the choreographers under his umbrella. And the idea was [to] tell us things that we don’t know. Tell us things with style, with an unwavering attention to context. There was an imperative to be pertinent, with an attention to context, to find the words to convey something about this ephemeral art form. And I think that working with these ideas of style, these ideas of a voice, trying to create a voice, is something I’ve been channelling for the last, you know, many years that I’ve been doing this.

GWS: And Joshua, what do you think?

Joshua Chong: I approach dance criticism a bit differently than other forms of criticism that I do, such as theatre and opera, simply because I do not have a dance background. So when I go into a work, I really try and contextualize it. There’s something that I call ‘fast criticism,’ like fast food, like the type of criticism that is with those zinger lines that doesn’t really contextualize the piece. So I like to take notes when I’m watching the piece, and I like to observe myself observing the piece. If a piece evokes certain emotions, I’m not just trying to record those emotions, but I’m asking myself, ‘Why does it evoke those emotions?’ And for dance, especially, I like taking my time with reviews and giving it a few days, maybe one or two days. I know some critics will write it the night of, or they’ll sleep, wake up and write. I like letting it settle for a few days and then writing about it. And I think that allows me to contextualize it a bit more and place it in the world. I like to connect it to the world. Like, how does this make me feel? And how does this relate to the world around me? And why is this company producing it now? What does it have to say?

GWS: And Kaija, how would you describe your approach? 

Kaija Pepper: Well, I’ll have to try to leave behind every interesting thing that everybody has said so far and try just to dig into my approach. So my approach is to totally prepare beforehand, find out about the background of the choreographer and the company and their previous works. I mean, by now, I know most people working, but there’s always somebody new. And I think that’s all building up your cultural capital each time you do that so that you bring more and more over time. Each piece that you write about, you invest time and effort and energy. So I really don’t stint on that, or at least I didn’t used to. I don’t do as much of that now because of having done it all those years. I believe in totally immersing yourself as you’re watching it and doing all those things that people talked about, such as taking notes. You’d be surprised when you actually sit down and write. It’s like, ‘Were they wearing pointe shoes?’ It’s funny how the most practical things can escape your memory because they didn’t twig at the time. And yet some practical things seem important to the piece and to have down for the record. I like to dig deep into the description. You have to describe because that is the only record since you can’t actually put quotes in, which is really weird – to be writing about something that you are reconstructing as you’re doing the review. But the description, I think, can’t remain flat. It has to be a description that carries, first of all, interest so the reader will keep reading and also so that it’s the right description. It’s the description that takes you somewhere in the review, which you may not know exactly when you start the review. But by the end of the review, your descriptions are all working together to go somewhere so that your review says something big about the time that you’ve invested and that the reader is invested in reading. And well, yeah, I don’t know. I could go on. But I think that’s a good start. 

GWS: So what really stood out to me about all of your answers is that no one said anything about criticizing. I’m sure you’ve all heard this too, you know – dancers sometimes get mad at the critics for criticizing. I’m not saying this happens all the time. But in all of your approaches, pushing back or saying something negative, none of you mentioned that as a primary focus when you’re going in. So why is dance criticism important? Beyond just pushing back. 

PS: One of the things that criticism does, or at least ideally, it should help viewers experience the artwork more fully. To show with words what it is. That’s what we’re doing. It’s an individual approach that you’re taking. So that is allowing you to respond to what you’re seeing. You’re putting forward your ideas about what this dance is all about, at least through your own eyes. … And that does not mean just writing negative things. But it does mean – I remember somebody else years ago said, ‘You’ve got to write with a sharp pencil.’ This idea that you’ve really got to get into it and don’t shy away. As long as there’s integrity to what you’re putting forward, that’s going to carry you far.

 

I think that it is really important to stay true and honest to what youare experiencing. We’re just critics, right?

– Kaija Pepper

 

JG: That’s very apt and I totally agree. That’s how, growing up in Manitoba, I had access to so much performance that I have never seen and will never see but am able to access and view and feel in really exciting ways. One thing that I did hit up against, I guess with reviews and how they can sometimes have an authority. In reviewing recently Joshua Whitehead’s work Making Love With the Land, it brought up really fascinating questions around when there are knowledges that – I know myself as a white settler person in Canada – I don’t have access to through my white gaze, and so how to respond in a way that, yes, describes and, yes, presents my knowledge of the work and my research and yada yada but in a way that also is aware of that relationship. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot with reviews. What are your responsibilities then as a reviewer or as someone responding to these works when there’s going to be certain things that you might not be able to access or be able to have a certain criticality or authority?

GWS: How do you determine whether you don’t like something versus not having the right understanding?

JG: As someone who has seen a lot of dance, it’s like, so what? My subjective view is, you know, whatever. How is it going to benefit a reader to know that I didn’t think that this worked or this and that. I guess one thing that, again, I struggle with and question a lot when I’m writing about dance is what does it mean? What is it when I don’t like something? What is the bigger context of something that would be perceived as good or bad? Thinking on that binary of good and bad is reductive. So I find that’s something that doesn’t always enter the review that I’m writing.

GWS: Kaija, you look so excited to speak. 

KP: Well, I think it’s a complicated question, this relationship that we have. And I think that it is really important to stay true and honest to what you are experiencing. We’re just critics, right? And we only know our own point of view. And I think if we don’t honour that honest response – I mean, that’s what art is for. Art is meant to evoke a response. Say you hate a work. I admit nobody nowadays, including myself, enjoys writing about something that you don’t like. It’s torturous for the modern critic because we’re all so kind and responsible. We avoid it if we can, and then our writing suffers. You can tell a piece where the writer is holding back; there’s a lack of energy. You can just sense all these little falsities that creep in when you’re not writing from an honest place. But there are ways around that. I think that’s where we just bring in our skill as a writer. And we can find ways to write about something without, obviously, going into great detail and great passionate anger about something. But I think we have to stay by our response to the art if we believe in art at all. If we think that art is important, then I don’t see how we can deny what our response is. Also, we have to do good writing. We’re writers, so we can’t write boring pieces, right? And I think that is our skill as writers, just to keep working on that and developing that.

GWS: Joshua, I’m really interested to hear your perspective, since you are an emerging critic. 

JC: I really grappled with that question for quite a while. Karen Fricker – she was my mentor for this Toronto Fringe critics program – she said something that has really stuck with me: first and foremost, you need to move away from the mindset that a critic is this omnipotent, authoritative figure that knows everything and can authoritatively write on everything. And whenever I see works that I’m particularly not familiar with, I’ll come in doing that research. And I’ll still come in there sometimes and sit down and watch it, and then I’ll be thinking to myself, ‘This piece is just not aimed at me and my demographic, and how am I going to write about this?’ For pieces like that, I really have to go back to making it, as Kaija said, really personal. Criticism is personal, and stepping away and not being that authoritative figure. And you shouldn’t really be that authoritative figure no matter what the piece is. So making it personal and reflective in a way. And I find that sometimes when I do that, that’s my best work, when I’m put in these uncomfortable situations, right? And sitting there and thinking, ‘What am I doing here? How am I going to write about this?’ 

PS: Can I add to that? 

GWS: Absolutely. 

PS: I think jumping off on a number of the comments that were made, we are clearly in a different time frame in 2021. And we are going to face certain realities just in terms of the way that people read. How do they absorb information? Where do they get their information? These are huge questions. And I don’t want to sound like a fossil when I put this forward, but I recall being a teenager, and I loved film. And my very first understanding of criticism came through reading Pauline Kael’s film reviews in The New Yorker. She was a significant critic for that publication for many years. Why? And I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think, even though it is of a period, I think it holds true today. I would rush to the library, because we didn’t get the magazine at home, to read her column. Well, it wasn’t so much that I was reading about Bertolucci or whoever she was writing about, I was reading her. Why was I reading her? Because her insights, her style, it crackled with insight. She wasn’t just a detached observer; she was in the work. The language was such that I knew she was engaged, and that made me engaged. My teenage self was engaged to think about what she was putting forward in terms of art because she viewed film as art. And I was constantly enthralled. It wasn’t a thumbs-up thing. It was so much more than that. And I find bringing it back more into the present that we are in, you know, Facebook, Twitter age, etc., etc. And people are not reflective; they’re responsive.

GWS: So what are your thoughts about the critic and dancer/choreographer relationship?

JG: So I suppose this is almost furthering how to talk about work we don’t like. So much of when I’m crafting a review or any sort of piece, whether it be a criticism or even I find with lots of interviews – how can these conversations or how can these performances benefit the form and benefit artists and benefit dancers? There’s a responsibility of how it exists in the whole landscape of it. And I guess that’s kind of what I’m saying then. My subjectivity or my perspective, yeah, it’s there and I want it to matter; however, I do feel that I want these reflections or these chewings of performance to be generative in some way to artists making work. As much as it’s complicated and sticky (and I’ve definitely gotten flack for writing on dance as someone in the community), I do think it’s important that dancers also write about dance and read about dance. I think that can only strengthen and benefit folks.

KP: It’s definitely very complicated. And I liked Jillian’s phrase, that she wanted her writing to be generative. I think that’s such a nice way to put it. And I think we would all like it to be. But in what way can it be generative? We don’t really know, I guess, because we are writing for readers, right? If we don’t have readers, well you see this is all changed too now because we’re not necessarily writing for an editor anymore. You can just write for a choreographer, probably, and put it on your blog. But in general, we have to think we’re writing for readers because it’s hard to sustain a one-on-one relationship if we’re writing for the choreographer. It is really nice when you write something that you think is really good and then you hear that the choreographer says, you know, how smart you are, or how beautifully written that is, or you really got their work. But I think it’s kind of a dangerous role. And I certainly, in the past, used to really chafe when there would be a very young choreographer and a newspaper review would [write] ‘the genius’ about someone who’s created their first work. And I have heard artists also agree with me in this. That can be very destructive. You know, it’s too much. It’s sycophantic in a way. I think the way I get out of all this mess of the relationship between the critic and the choreographer is by always returning to the fact that I am writing – yes, I’m writing for readers, but I don’t even know who they are – I’m writing for the art form. I’m writing because I love the art form. Whenever I start getting a little bit screwed up with thinking ‘How will the choreographer perceive what I’m writing? God, is this the right adjective? Or is this sensitive enough?’ I just clear my head and think about the art form of dance and staying honest and true to that. And that usually gets me back on track. Not over-personalizing what I’m doing but creating some sort of formal distance and framework so that I can work within my form, which is criticism.

 

Dance criticism, or dance writing, is a repository of sorts so that years from now, someone can be wondering about X or Y choreographer and there will be traces of that, and that’s important.

– Philip Szporer

 

GWS: Philip, I can see you nodding along. What if someone says, ‘I don’t like dance reviews. Dance reviews shouldn’t exist.’ What do you say to that?

PS: Well, you know, this is the interesting thing because – and I don’t think this is new, to be honest – but dance people keep thinking, whether it’s the public, whether it’s folks who are creating the dances, they think that dance is just in the doing and it’s not in the reflecting and it’s not in the thinking. And I think that, as Kaija was putting forward, the responsibility lies in that arena. It’s to the art form. And it used to be that the printed word would remain forever and ever. We’re moving past that, in a way, although in some respects, everything that might appear on a Twitter feed might be there forever and ever and ever, at least as we know it today. But I think when someone will accost me on the street, as they have, to say, ‘You didn’t do this,’ or ‘You didn’t do that,’ that’s not my – you know, if we’re being polite, I don’t want to offend somebody necessarily. But it’s not about – well it is about the person, but it’s not about the person per se. It’s about what it is that I am seeing. It’s entering into that process of writing. And that writing idea is something that words can be enlightening. Words can be meaningful. Words and opinion can have magnitude. And that is important. And again, I think people have fallen into this good/bad framework. And it’s so much more than just that. It’s not one or the other. It is everything in between. It’s all those detailed descriptions. There’s so much that one can write about in a review that can speak to the work and can speak to that choreographer’s larger oeuvre, their larger body of work, that is significant. Dance criticism, or dance writing, is a repository of sorts so that years from now, someone can be wondering about X or Y choreographer and there will be traces of that, and that’s important. I think it’s equally important what the choreographer wants to say about their own work and about their own process, and they have space to do that. I think we’ve forgotten in the dance community, and I’m wondering if this is more of a Canadian thing than perhaps an American perspective There were periods of time where, say, in the New York art world, where visual artists and writers were always in each other’s studios. People were exchanging on so many levels. There weren’t these rigid divides. And I think what came out of those periods was such rich reflection of those particular modes of creating. And that remains today. And I’m not sure that that has happened specifically in the dance community.

 

Thinking on that binary of good and bad is reductive.

– Jillian Groening

 

GWS: So Kaija, in recent years, there has been this onset of different types of criticisms. So it’s no longer just go see a show, it’s in the paper the next morning, but as you mentioned, people are writing what they think on their blogs, or even social media. So I’m wondering how you think that will impact the dance industry? Having those less formal reviews. 

KP: If I was very frank –

GWS: Please. 

KP: I would say that I think some of it is really going to slow down and put the discourse on dance back, back, back. Because audience responses are often quoted now and put on the website instead of criticism because obviously you’re picking and choosing your audience responses, and your audience can be very enthusiastic, and that’s wonderful, but it’s not criticism. As Philip was saying, having a conversation about art is very different than just writing fan mail. And criticism is more along the lines of having a conversation. And a good, intelligent, well-meaning, well-thought-out, sincere conversation – that is so different than fan mail. I really feel sad that dance companies are promoting that kind of promotional, rave, thumbs-up. Whereas in criticism, we’ve moved away from thumbs-up, thumbs-down. But now, nobody really wants us anymore because we’re in the middle ground where you can just get your audience member who’s had a good time. And you know, I can be super enthusiastic after a show too. And we love something and we rave and we rave and we rave. But then we go home, and we find something interesting to say, something valid to say, you know, a conversation.

GWS: Right, because just being like, ‘This is amazing. Go see it,’ doesn’t –

KP: Exactly. So why was it amazing? And digging into it, and then telling a little bit about the history and a little bit about the aesthetic and just being, like, really solid about what you say.

GWS: And Joshua, did you have anythingto add?

JC: Definitely. The use of social media and blogs, I have one as well, has definitely been on the rise. And professional criticism, unfortunately, has been in decline. You can see big publications making huge cuts to their arts sections. This whole idea of social media criticism, if you can even call it criticism, you sometimes see on the videos, right? ‘The best show I’ve ever seen,’ – audience member. I don’t think that’s really helpful to criticism as a whole. And I don’t think we should stop audience members from doing it. They can do whatever they want. But I think we should be careful because when audience members make posts like that, it’s usually just judgment. There’s no description. There’s no analysis. And I think that the description and analysis are more important, most times, than the judgment. And I’m afraid we’re losing that in criticism. One form of criticism that I’d like to see is embedded criticism, and I’m not sure if that’s a big thing in dance. I know it’s starting to catch on in the theatre world. 

GWS: Can you describe it? I’ve never heard of it.

JC: Embedded criticism is when the critic is involved with the rehearsal process at the beginning. So they’re in the rehearsal room; they’re observing from the beginning. They’re in conversation with the artists, with the director, with the choreographer, in order to get another perspective that you wouldn’t get if you just show up on opening night and just watch the finished product. And you’ll often come back quite a few times to check in different stages of the process. And when you write in the end of an embedded criticism placement, or whatever you want to call it, it’s not really a review, per se; it’s more reflective of the whole process, how it’s evolved and all that. And I think going back to what Philip said, that’s so important – to have the conversation between critic and artists and to break down those rigid barriers and make it less adversarial. I think that would serve the art form much better than what we have. 

GWS: This embedded criticism approach … I just finished my master of journalism last year, and they drilled into us ‘You’re balanced. You’re objective.’ So those flags for me, when I hear embedded criticism, are ringing like crazy. 

KP: I think it’s something else then. And actually, I like those kinds of stories. In some ways, those are my favourite stories. But I wouldn’t call them criticism, and after somebody has done – I call them insider pieces – has done an insider piece, I would never ask them to review it. In fact, I suppose an insider or embedded piece is really a form of preview. But a more intelligent preview. When you think of the word preview, you think of some hasty thing done in one 20-minute conversation, very superficial, designed to sell the piece. Whereas the insider piece, I find them really fun and fascinating and enjoy doing them myself, but there’s things against that, [like] who funds them? It’s a lot of time spent, and the writing fees are usually very low. Also, sometimes, artists get nervous when someone called a critic is in the room, and they don’t really want you there. They just invite you when they’re going to do a run-through. They don’t actually let you see the nitty-gritty, so it’s not easy to do. But yeah, I think that it is really important. And it is a way to further this thing about conversations and becoming knowledgeable. I guess the tricky thing is then acknowledging the limitations. Like, ‘Yes, I’ve done this, so I’m really embedded in this project. I’d like to review it if somebody asks me, but no, I can’t. I’m too close.’ Just knowing your limitations and being upfront about it if you do happen to have an insider perspective, that you state that the choreographer is your, you know, brother.

GWS: So Joshua, have you done this kind of embedded criticism?

JC: No. I’ve heard quite a bit about it. But I do want to do that. And I think it’s pretty important, especially as an emerging critic, to get that different perspective. And I think as an emerging critic, as well, what I found most useful is to be an artist. Working as an assistant stage manager, assistant director, just getting that different perspective, I think has really helped inform my work. So I think embedded criticism, or what Kaija said [insider story], I think that’s a better term for it because it’s not really criticism. But I think that process is quite important. 

GWS: What I want to talk about now is the future of dance criticism and how it’s being shaped or not shaped by the pandemic, if you think it’s going to have any lasting effects. So Jill, do you want to start by just describing how different [reviewing a virtual show] is than being in a theatre? 

 

What are your responsibilities then as a reviewer or as someone responding to these works when there’s going to be certain things that you might not be able to access or be able to have a certain criticality or authority?

– Jillian Groening

 

JG: It’s so different. [laughs] Having the capability, that temporal notion of performance is so different, same with the liveliness that so often you’re wanting to tune in to when you’re writing reviews. It’s shifted. I mean, there are benefits and there are not. As an artist, I have made this joke with lots of other dance friends about how so many dance folks are becoming media artists, and, like, this transmediality is kind of exciting. And I think for criticisms, too, as much as it impacts how I’m writing about the work, but if we’re talking about dance writing as a repository, as Philip said, or we’re talking about these reviews, and the importance of dance criticism, it’s such an exciting place for accessing other elements of liveness and experience because we’re viewing dance now in these isolated ways. So I find it kind of exciting.

GWS: That’s such a nice perspective. I feel like I’m just sitting here being like, ‘I miss the theatre!’

JG: Yeah, I mean, I do. But there’s a lot of really interesting things that can come up from viewing performance in a different way. Also, the gaze is so fascinating when we’re reviewing through a screen and reviewing from a videographer whether that videographer is stable, in the audience or whether it’s someone who’s moving with the dancers. It’s very exciting.

GWS: And when we look back in 10 years and read [the reviews], we’ll be like, ‘Whoa, that was a thing.’ There’s this historical aspect. Philip, what do you think? 

PS: First of all, I’m loving the enthusiasm that you’ve got, Jillian. It’s terrific. But something strikes me, and not to set a negative tone, but it’s certainly a cautionary tone, I would suspect what we’re seeing on screens is not necessarily created for a screen. And that understanding of what a screen is and what it means to create for a screen, I believe, are two very different things. So if I’m just watching a performance, and someone has videotaped, even if they have chosen to film it themselves, not just a camera at the back of the room – you know, they’ve edited it – but still, much of what I’ve seen to date is not created [for camera]. I don’t know how to phrase it, but dance in the moment, or something. So evaluating that is, in some ways, or contemplating that demands even a larger leap of faith than what a writer would be doing in a live theatre situation. Because you need to go beyond what you are seeing and understanding and put on a completely different lens. And it requires taking into consideration so many other factors. For me, it’s an unsatisfactory way of appreciating work. I wish I had the enthusiasm that Jillian is putting forward, but I think I’m just a little bit more hesitant. Part of the hesitation also comes from a gain, and it’s not like we’re all going to be clamouring back into theatres any time soon – we’ve got to figure out what’s going on – but just to state that there’s so much that I gain from other folks in the room. There is unspoken information that I receive from the hush in the audience, the gaze, the glance that you might find, the slump of a body, so many different things that add to your perspective when you’re watching something in a theatre. But in the current context, I actually do think people are going to be a little more attentive to what that camera is picking up.

KP: It has been a really, really interesting year as an editor, as you’ve probably noticed, getting stories because there are no longer the possibilities of reviews. I find reviews are a very popular form. Writers like doing them, readers like reading them, artists like getting them, and reviews have been in short supply. So we can write about the online offerings, but so many of them have been just very hasty, as Philip said. Things conceived for the theatre, hastily put up or money given to the dancers to quickly do something in their home. And that was really fun at first. But in terms of writing critically about it, there’s a limit to how much of that you can cover because you can’t really criticize it. Because we all know the circumstances: there was no theatre, we wanted everybody to keep employed, we wanted everybody to keep working. And so I didn’t feel those could be really written about in that way. So I don’t know. Over this year, criticism has felt really hard to do. If there had been a serious piece that came out, that you could sink your teeth into, I think I would have been thrilled. But whether or not anything unsupportive – I mean, I’m getting emails from publicists that always include something like, ‘We’re sure you’d love to help us because we’re all in this together,’ kind of thing. And we’re desperate to keep going. And, you know, ‘For God’s sake, cover us so that we don’t fall tomorrow,’ and it’s all on your head. So in that kind of climate, I think it would be very hard to do anything but supportive journalism right now. And so I don’t know what will happen, how this will have affected our kind of thinking. Because of all the things that we’ve said about the death of legacy media, and people just posting on social media, how that and the pandemic, the change and what we’ve written about for a whole year, our coverage has changed. I don’t know. I feel maybe once we get back in the theatre, the magic will all return or maybe things will be kind of different from now on.

GWS: And Joshua, what do you think the future holds?

JC: I think there’s the potential for the screen format to grow if companies get it right, as everyone was saying. I’ve only seen one show over the pandemic that has really embraced the screen format. And that was Messiah/Complex. I’m not sure if any of you have seen that. That one really, I found, embraced it. Others, I found, understandably, were hastily put together, camera at the back of the theatre kind of thing. But I think if companies move towards embracing the screen format and creating pieces specifically for the screen, such as what Against the Grain Theatre did for [Messiah/Complex], that could open up dance and theatre in general to a wider audience. I know that show got 100,000 viewers, and most of their shows only sell about 1,000 tickets, right? So if theatres find out how to work that properly, I can see there being parallel streams. Screen format for people who perhaps can’t go to the theatre and then proper theatre, and I think they can coexist and still feed off one another. And with that, I believe that a new form of criticism will come out in order to properly be able to talk about this new form, the screen form. Because it’s quite different. As everyone has said, there’s no ritual of going to the theatre. And for me, at least, the ritual of going to a theatre and being with an audience really informs my writing. Like, for example, if I’m less enthusiastic about a piece, but the audience around me is, I will note that and vice versa, and you can’t really do that in a streaming performance on a screen. So I think we’ll see a shift of criticism if that occurs. 

 

I think we have to stay by our response to the art if we believe in art at all.

– Kaija Pepper

 

JG: I do feel that there is kind of a new – I’ve been able to see so many dances created through a Zoom context and with virtual bodies. There [are] really exciting things happening in there.

PS: I think I would just add that writing, and this is going back to Susan Sontag, writing is a way of being in the world. And I think right now we’re wondering, what world are we living in? And in that way, writing is a way of being alive. And what kind of aliveness are we all engaging with at the moment? And these are probably as important as they were 10 years ago as they are now.

KP: Just to go back to film. I’ve always loved filmed dance. I mean, as a kid, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. So it’s not really a new form. But what I appreciate, I think, hearing from the discussion, is the idea that maybe this is early research into these kinds of low-tech methods, and maybe introducing another aesthetic that, you know, it’s had kind of a rough beginning, that it was kind of thrown at everybody, as opposed to being finely crafted. So maybe, I guess, now I’m feeling maybe a little more hopeful that maybe a new kind of aesthetic will emerge but also that we will have it balanced by being able to go to the theatre. Right now I’m at home a lot. I’m on my screen all day. And the idea of watching a premiere on the screen tonight. It’s just not, you know? Like, I won’t get dressed up for it. [laughs] I won’t meet anyone for dinner beforehand. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

This article was first published in our Spring 2021 issue.

***

En plus des questions politiques épineuses que soulève la critique en danse, une autre complexité s’ajoute à la tâche des critiques aujourd’hui : comment faire la critique d’un spectacle virtuel pendant une pandémie ? Est-ce juste de critiquer un spectacle converti à Zoom ? Ces spectacles devraient-ils être omis de l’histoire ? Ce texte propose une discussion entre quatre critiques sur la place de la critique en danse dans le contexte actuel. Jillian Groening est une artiste et écrivaine basée à Winnipeg et ancienne employée du Dance Current ; Kaija Pepper est éditrice du Dance International en C.-B.et autrice de Falling into Flight: A Memoir of Life and Dance; Philip Szporer est auteur, cinéaste et professeur à Montréal ; Joshua Chong est critique pigiste en arts vivants à Toronto, et écrit pour son blogue Ghost Light Reviews. Plutôt que de se positionner comme autorité ascendante sur le milieu de la danse, ces critiques souhaitent que leurs écrits génèrent des discussions. Et comme une critique, cette conversation n’est que l’opinion de quatre personnes.

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