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The Gilded Serpent presents...
The Emperor’s New Clothes
by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy

“What are the qualifications of a good dance critic?

Although many dancers would disagree, it is not necessary for a good critic to have been a dancer, and few leading critics have that background.

Put simply, 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

I started 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.

While 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 it?

Are 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?

If someone 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?

This 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 taken seriously.

Honest assessment 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)

One argument 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.

However, 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 general.

I 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.

Since opinions 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.

However, 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 and observer.

The need 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, western patterns.

While 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.

Until we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one outside of our community will accord us the respect we desire.

No matter 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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More on Critique
The Critic; Real Critics Don’t Mince Words by Najia El-Mouzayen
Either we are a sisterhood of ego therapists and our instructors are politically correct in all they say and do—or we are tough artists in search of ways to improve our art form by ruthlessly weeding out the lame from our herd.

Critiquing, the “Agony & The Ecstasy” by Nisima
It’s an unnerving experience to be “critiqued” by your peers, but my personal opinion then and now is that when you perform in public, critiquing just goes with the territory of performing.

More by Yasmela
2-8-03 Glass-Dancing Revisited by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
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4-11-03 An Evening with Einstein's Daughters, by Sarah, Photos by James Radke
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Leila Haddad, Ultra Gypsy, FatChanceBellyDance and more...

3-27-03 Belly Dance in Brazil by Thania
...they are trying to organize a Code of Ethics


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