Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reconsidering the Role of the Critic - does dance need dance criticism?

*Before you read this, check out the link in the post below to read the original discussion from Doug Fox's blog, Great Dance, that this post refers to.*

"Joan Acocella had better check her 'sell by' date because her article entitled 'Mystery Theater: Downtown surrealists' in the Aug 8 & 15, 2005 issue has the distinct odor of irrelevance. Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up. Through her lack of understanding and her inability to reach out and get information from artists, she joins a group of critics whom I will call 'the literalists.' These critics do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries. What's more, they don't do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists or what are the contexts in which these works are created. They have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken."

-- Tere O'Connor, Letter to the New Yorker, posted October 14 on the Dance Insider.

Does dance need dance criticism? Does audience need dance criticism?
What is the role of the critic? What rules and duties are critics bound by, if any? Do we need to reconsider their role, or is it none of our business what (and how) they write about our work? I'd like to offer some thoughts:

1. The previous debate about this shows that everyone has an opinion, and a strong one at that. What seems clear to me after reading doug's discussion is that most of the comments made that agreed with Jowitt and Acocella (in that they didn't want to hear what the piece was about, they wanted to see it on stage) also cited a 'disconnect' between what the choreographer may have been saying or presenting and the work itself. In his response, Matt goes as far as to point this at the dance-tech choreographers in particular, although it is clear that other posters are talking about other types of dance as well (Karen, for example, cites ballet). The main concern, it seems, (and this is a concern that's been raised against my ideas, hypermedia and otherwise, over and over and over again) is that any talk, explication, or discussion of process or intention is in effect apologizing for the work itself if it isn't strong enough to convey these things on stage.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? I can't be the only one who feels like there's a direct link between the lack of dance being "explained", the lack of dance being studied, the lack of dance being seen, and the lack of dance being funded, but at times it feels like it. Yes. If the work is shit, then no amount of explaining could ever hope to save it - to argue otherwise is illogical. But that's not what we're saying when we talk about the need for and interest in choreographers dissecting and presenting their ideas and processes. And yes even "explaining".

To me, this "explaining" (your term, not mine) that choreographers are doing isn't acting as an apologist for their work. If the work is bad, it's bad. I don't think there's a singe person making work who thinks 'well, i can't get the movement in this part to work out, i'll just explain so people will understand' and i likewise doubt that most choreographers would think that they would have better odds working in the realm of words to convey something rather than movement. Certianly people want to defend their work. It's human. But if it's bad for you as an audience member it's bad for you, and no amount of words will likely change that. For me, when a choreographer wants to talk about "the ideas behind the piece" or "the process of making this section" it's an opportunity to learn. Potentially the most valuable experience i can have as a choreographer, listening to another maker talk about their process is a chance for me to consider their craft, intentions, product (and, yes, any differences between the two) as well as my own. It is a chance to broaden my understanding of how i make what i make, taking it from that vague abstract ether of "the muse" and making it a building block of skill and craft that i can then improve upon. "I find this satisfying aesthetically because..." "this happens here to echo the first phrase..." "i think this didn't end up working because..." "They said that was about what? I TOTALLY didn't get that. Why didn't i get that?"
Oh. I've learned something.

So, to me, it seems insane to dismiss a these discussions of process, intention, or craft that come from the choreographer because it is coming from the only person in the world who can tell you these things. I don't mean to imply that there aren't other people that couldn't tell you how the piece was made (the dancers for example) or choreographers that don't have a wealth of wisdom to share, but it seems odd that people are so affronted by someone wanting to share their wisdom. "Show it on the stage, then" which makes sense to me, but then i'm reminded by these same people that (to quote Leigh from the discussion) our audiences aren't "schoolchildren to be taught. They're guests to be welcomed. It's about them, not about us and our process." Let's face it. Product and craft are two different things. You wouldn't expect an author to include an explanation of the craft of his writing style in his novel, just the writing itself as evidence of it. But why would anyone take up arms against the author talking about his style? Wouldn't some people find it interesting? Couldn't people learn something from it?

2. Clearly, I'm all for choreographers talking process and intention, and i'm refuting the assumption that all talk of dance is as an apologist of bad work. So let's move on to the next step (yep, it's a long post kiddies). If we assume that choreographers have (gasp) a right to talk about their craft and dances - let's even assume that there's a legitimate need for it in society for those who are interested in hearing it - then what is the role of the critic?

It seems the critic has a few simple choices:
a) only look at the dance (let's call this "critic as audience")
b) look at the dance with inside information from the choreographer (let's call this "critic as confidant") or
c) become a mouthpiece for the ideas and intentions of the choreographer ("critic as teacher")

Now, about two years ago, i think i would have argued the third, that it is (or at least, should be) the job of the critic to help the audience learn about the production in question by gaining as much information as possible and then determining what could be most helpful to the average theatergoer. While i still think that would certainly be great for me, and many others who would be interested in getting "inside info" before seeing work (and while i think it's worth pointing out that major companies get this type of treatment while small upcoming choreogrpahers - who the audience perhaps needs the most "help" with - get only a few sentences), i no longer would argue that it falls to the critic's job description, real or desired.


Here's why.
In reading the comments on Doug's post, i realized that i did agree, in part, to what his critics were saying. It does seem somehow important, as Jeniffer Dunning puts it, "to respond as an informed audience member". That way, the critic really is just responding to what they are seeing, just as the audience will be asked to do, and in this way they are actually responding to the work in the way that an audience member might. (I'll hold off on my claim that this is impossible and so doing this is just pretending for this post.) As Joan Acocella puts it
"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."
Fine. Like i said, a few years ago i would have fought it tooth and nail, but right now i'm saying fine. This seems to point to the role of the critic as more of a ginuea pig than anything else (trying to represent how a "blind" audience will feel upon seeing this work for the first time) or an entertainment signpost (go see mark morris! don't see so and so!) rather than an educator or informed scholar, but so be it. If nothing else, this role for the critic is inherently FAIR, as it affords the critic the same experience as the viewer as much as possible.

So then.
This original argument that i'm talking about was from 2006 - back when Tere O'Connor responded to a review of his work that he found unhelpful and irrelevant by publishing the letter he sent to the new yorker in response on a few major dance site (click here if you haven't read it already - i can't even begin to explain how much it makes me swell with pride and excitement for the future). Clearly this argument is still very much happening, and i hate to say it, but repeating. So let's move on.
If we're going to insist that the critic mimic the same experience as the audience, so be it, but that won't really matter because...

(and here's the real issue:)
We need to stop asking EVERYONE (audience, critic, other) to only see a dance once, and we need to stop asking them to see it "blind". We need to stop thinking of dance critics as authorities on the craft of dancemaking - if they are mimicking the audience experience and hiding the fact that they posses "insider knowledge" (say...an awareness of most of the dance world, access to many more performances than most viewers, an audience that listens to their critique etc...) - if they want to be critics of the experience of being entertained, so be it, but let us think of them as such. And since it is not the critic's job to talk about The Dance itself, then it is our time, as choreographers, as skilled makers and thinkers who have something valuable that we can teach those who are interested in learning, to start "reviewing" - documenting, writing about, artifacting, and critiquing - ourselves.

Rather than fight against the idea that (again, gasp) dancers should be able to talk about their work, let's push all the way back and give the traditionalists something to take issue with. Why should we settle for having ANYONE see the dance only once, uninformed, or otherwise blind? No. The time to change the system is here, and there are people that are willing to fight for it. Me for one.

As of this moment, i do not know who the dance is for. But i do know that the terms of it are changing. Who is changing them? Me as the choreographer. It's my JOB. So listen to the critic, who's job it is to tell you about the experience of being entertained or frustrated, and how this thing that they've just seen looks on first viewing. And listen to the choreographer, who knows the dance better than they know anything else in the world, with a stronger love and hate that they afford anything else in their life, with more thought than is given to any other matter. Then listen to everyone else, yourself included, and you'll have the start of an understanding of what you're going to see.

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