Gilded Serpent presents...
Emperor’s New Clothes
are the qualifications of a good dance critic?
many dancers would disagree, it is not necessary for a good
critic to have been a dancer, and few leading critics have
the skills necessary for good dancing are not the same as those
necessary for good writing and criticism, and vice versa. That
so many dancers and choreographers disagree with this stems
from their understandable suspicion of intellectuals. Until
recently, dance has not been accorded the respect and seriousness
enjoyed by other art forms. Why? There are many explanations,
but this country's history of Puritanism seems to have played
some part. The dominance in this art form by women (as performers,
choreographers, and producers) also might account for the biased
attitude of many that it is frivolous and unworthy of the serious
attention directed to other art forms.” The Humanities
and Dance Criticism by Julie Van Camp
to write a piece on dance criticism and then found the preceding
quote. There seems to be a great deal of speculation and fear
about the value of dance criticism in the Middle Eastern dance
community. I think about this a lot, having been guilty more than
once of dance criticism myself. Although Ms. Van Camp’s
essay addresses the “traditional” dance communities
of ballet and modern, her piece seems to sum up many of the problems
and attitudes found in the Middle Eastern dance community.
it is reassuring to know we aren’t the only dance genre
that suffers from the problems of good dance critique, I think
our community has an opportunity to make some changes in our
attitudes about criticism and in the attitudes of the viewing
public about our art form.
Each of us,
when we view art, whether it is dance, music or visual art, becomes
a critic. We judge for ourselves what pleases us, what we think
is good, what we think is bad. However, when we describe a performance
to someone, or decide to write about it, it is not enough to toss
superlatives around and effusively praise or nastily condemn.
We need to be critical audiences as well as dancers. I don’t
mean “critic” in a negative context, but we should
be able to express to others what is good and what is bad about
our own art form and more importantly, why. We need to say more
than “Her dance was beautiful, mesmerizing, awesome, or
clumsy, awkward, and bad.” What do those words mean? They
mean one thing to the writer/speaker and something different to
every single person who hears us or reads it.
We are no
nearer to an understanding of what the dance looked like than
we were before we read that sentence. In what way was she beautiful,
mesmerizing and awesome? What did she do that made your perception
of her clumsy or awkward? A good critic is able to do more than
provide empty description and overused adjectives. Don’t
assume that readers will automatically jump inside your head and
see the performance just as you saw it. Of course, it helps if
the dancer/critic has the ability to analyze her perceptions and
to move beyond her own narrow focus of what is subjectively acceptable.
How did the performance make you feel? Did it make you feel anything
at all, was it exciting, why was it exciting, or why wasn’t
you rubber-stamping a performance by subscribing to the view
that art is anything the artist says it is? Do you have more
intelligent information to give the reader than the color
of the dancer’s costume?
who wasn’t involved in the ME dance scene were to read most
of the critiques in our trade magazines, they would think that
everyone who takes the stage at any level is “lovely, graceful,
beautiful or spirited,” and it simply isn’t so. No
amount of positive support will make it true. Do you really believe
every dancer at any level is worthy of equal public attention
and praise, and that none of them could use more rehearsal, more
work on their art?
kind of patronizing review is not helpful to anyone, supplies
little real information and lowers the standards of our art
by lowering the bar for acceptability. No wonder we are not
is vital to the ongoing evolution of an art form. Dialogues about
style and performance are healthy. “An intelligent reader
learns from a critic not what to think about a piece of art but
how to think about it; he finds a way he hadn't thought of using."
(Denby, p. 536)
against reviews and critiques is that they can never give us a
“real” idea of what the performance looked or felt
like. Dance performance by its nature is evanescent, fleeting
and can sometimes be relevant only to its practitioners or to
its immediate audience. Dance on film lacks immediacy of experience
no matter how artfully filmed, and can only give a pale, flat
retrospective of the work itself. Using one medium (writing) to
evoke or recreate another (dance) is fraught with problems. The
performance I saw last night is entirely different from the one
you may see tonight. There may be a common theme, but that special
spark that makes it special for you may be missing when I see
the same production.
attempting to create meaningful assessments of performances
is how we begin building a body of terminology and common
expectations. That there is a need for honest, constructive,
pertinent and intelligent criticism is a fact. How we get
that and if we accept it is a test of how we view ourselves
in the greater context of our contribution to the arts in
favor the dancer as critic, especially in this genre, although
I agree with Ms. Van Camp that critics need not be dancers. Even
in the more generally accepted areas of dance that include ballet,
modern and jazz, critics at least tend to be people who attend
many events over a long period of time and have invested themselves
in researching the history of dance. They bring a familiarity
with the genre to their participation as part of the audience.
Imagine someone who had only attended these former forms of dance
performances, someone with no background in oriental dance origins,
no understanding of the music, no knowledge of the genre’s
icons, attempting to critique a performance. In “Dance Criticism
by Croce, Denby and Siegel” by Julie Van Camp, she says,
“Siegel does not cite philosophers or theorists, but she
works in a strong contextualist tradition. That is, a work simply
cannot be understood or appreciated or evaluated independently
of the historical, social, cultural, political, and artistic context
within which the choreographer is working.” Substitute “dancer”
for “choreographer” and I think you have it exactly.
This is a good argument for the dancer as critic; however, an
educated enthusiast could do this as well. Perhaps the most appropriate
critics are mature dancers who have retired from public performance.
Having removed themselves from the competitive field, dancers
at this point in their careers can give a more educated and objective
view of performances. It helps that a critic has a background
in or familiarity with a variety of styles, an understanding of
the music and some understanding of the esthetics of staging and
choreography since dance is not performed in a vacuum. It also
helps if the dancer/critic has above average writing skills and
has an understanding of critical form.
are subjective (I am put in mind of the old, if somewhat crude,
adage concerning opinions), we open ourselves up to all sorts
of abuse when we take on the role of critic.
it is important to provide novices and people outside of our
community a way to view and understand our dance. To do that,
we must have people who bridge the gap between participant
to clearly delineate the difference between an amateur production
with student performers and professional productions with respected
dancers who represent the best of our art is essential. Why should
we be exempt from the same judgments passed on other performances?
In fact, we should welcome the opportunity to take our place in
the larger art community. It is a mark of maturity and security
to be able to accept criticism graciously, and to learn from it.
This community embraces a wide variety of styles. There should
be dialogue about the differences. We need to set our own standards,
in print, before they are imposed on us from outside using irrelevant
criteria. How would you feel if you went to a performance billed
as “ballet” and discovered that it was composed of
Butoh or Contact Improvisation? You might enjoy what you saw,
but you would be confused, maybe even a little chagrined at having
been misled by your expectations of a ballet concert. We clamor
for uniformity of language, for certification and organization,
but before we impose our own ideas of order on an art form that
has only recently been popular or even accepted in the west, we
need a better understanding of the nature of the dance we have
co-opted. Let’s talk about Middle Eastern dance in a constructive
and critical way, but let’s find new ways of critiquing
it based on its unique qualities, ones that do not follow linear,
we should be accepting of those who are learning, affording
them venues where they can practice the art of performing,
we should be ruthless with those who push themselves forward
and disseminate erroneous information, who mistake vulgarity
for sensuality, and who consider themselves masters of an
art form after a year or two of work.
We need to
honor the pioneers in our community and hold them up as examples
of our long and colorful history, not dismiss them because they
don’t offer us the latest version of the newest “fad”.
It costs us so little to acknowledge the contributions of those
who have gone before us, who have set style and tone and established
a history for what we do today, and we gain so much by doing it.
It tells the world that we are proud of our art and that it has
a long history. We need to start a vigorous and healthy dialogue
about where we came from and where we are going. What art form
do you know that discards and dismisses its roots simply because
they are no longer in fashion? I have even heard older dancers
who should know better deny what they used to teach, dismiss it
as irrelevant and “wrong” simply because they have
moved on to something new. What kind of pressure do we exert as
a community that makes us negate our past in favor of an unproven
future? Negating our past is criminal, and immature. Negation
speaks of ignorance so profound that it takes my breath away.
we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one
outside of our community will accord us the respect we desire.
how many people study and perform, there will still be only a
small percentage who rise to the top, who transcend style and
fashion, who stand out as Artists. We need to see ourselves honestly
in relation to the rest of the dance world, not by offering consistently
positive fawning saccharine praise or lukewarm kudos of performances
and performers who are mediocre, boring or just plain embarrassing.
We need to judge ourselves honestly, with our own terms and criteria.
Then we will begin to bridge the gap between our insular community
and the larger world of dance and art in which we ultimately operate.
Critics play an important role in establishing a body of work
that documents our history. Good, insightful well-written thought-provoking
criticism is vital to the health of our community and in helping
us take our place in the larger world. It begins with a few tentative
salvos, lots of thought, lots of proofreading and lots of non
self-serving commentary, and grows into a body of intelligent,
and hopefully well written and researched works that serve as
guideposts for the future. The inability to withstand criticism
speaks volumes about our own feelings about our art. Good art,
good performance always shines through, despite the personal bias
of the reviewer, but consistent support of bad and mediocre work
can be our downfall.
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