Thursday, September 11, 2008

On dance criticism

Some interesting thoughts from Deborah Jowitt's article in the Village Voice, Getting it
How much should a critic know about a choreographer's intentions and talk about them? There often seems to be a disconnect between what choreographers say they're doing and what actually occurs onstage. Although several colleagues I queried mentioned the value of advocacy criticism at a time when new and unfamiliar art is baffling the public (John Martin on modern dance in the '30s, Jill Johnston on radical dance in the '60s, and Rosenberg on the abstract expressionists come to mind), we also found we had similar reactions to Tere O'Connor's brief that critics familiarize themselves with an artist's intentions beyond those in the program notes.

Joan Acocella of The New Yorker magazine: "I do not see my job as requiring me to go to artists, find out their intentions, report their intentions to the reader, and then talk about how they fulfilled or didn't fulfill their intentions. There's actually a word for that approach; it's the intentional fallacy in criticism (that is, you judge [a work] on its intentions). . . . I see myself as a member of the audience, so whatever the artist's intentions are, many of them—maybe most of them—I won't be able to discern."

Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times: "I don't think reviewers should have any inside knowledge; it seems to me very important to respond as an informed audience member. I hate the word critic; I like the word reviewer because I think that [what I write] is a second view, a re-view."

John Rockwell of the Times: "Even if [critics] think they're deeply involved in the birth of a work, they have to be seeing it from the outside—and not just as the audience's representative; the very nature of the perception of artwork places one at a distance from the creator, or indeed anybody else watching the artwork. To pretend otherwise is kind of futile."

Rockwell also puts forth the notion of criticism as a parallel art form: "Then the issue is not so much replicating the choreographer's thought processes and somehow analyzing the work in the terms that the choreographer himself would use; it becomes a parallel exercise in which some combination of intellectual analysis and poetic and tactile invocation are all used in an effort to create for the reader a vivid picture."

A critic usually struggles to get at something essential about a dance (and is very happy when a choreographer feels he or she has succeeded). However, it's impossible for anyone to write of an artist's work exactly as the artist might, nor would the attempt necessarily produce interesting prose. To me, reading dance reviews opens multiple perspectives on a single event (somewhat the way O'Connor's choreography does). I wouldn't want controversy to fade from the commentary that surrounds the art form and, I hope, supports it.

I agree with everything Jowitt puts forward here. In my opinion, it is important for a critic (reviewer) to advocate for the art form and to find the most appropriate language with which to do this. Unfortunately, given the constraints of writing for a daily publication, there's rarely much time or space in which to do it.
It's always a question of balance; how to divide the few words I have into description of the mood, movement, design and music; critical analysis of structure, style, technique and performance; along with any relevant historical notes or background information.
Squeezing as much as possible into each sentence and still finding a way for the words to 'sing' is my greatest challenge. Higher aims include preserving the work, describing it for those who didn't see it, following the progression of an artist's development and sometimes even the development of a new form.
It's an ongoing learning process and a great responsibility, being a dance critic.

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