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Dance Writing: Critical thoughts

SURPRISE AND ART

Yesterday one of the choreographers about whose piece I had written expressed surprise at the style of my reviews. She felt that there was not as much analysis of the idea behind the show as she would like. She also felt that my reviews give too much information to the audience.

My goal with my dance writing is to provide a clear description of what actually took place on stage.

Art totally dependent on surprise is the weakest form of art. Surprise and suspense are the frame on which cheap novels and second-rate films are hung. The Greeks when they went to theatre knew exactly what is going to take place. They already knew the story. Much as when a modern audience goes to Romeo and Juliet or to Hamlet or to King Lear. The pleasure and the catharsis is in the how and not the what.

Thus a quality piece will lose nothing and perhaps gain through the participation of an informed audience.

THEORETICAL WORK AND A WIDER AUDIENCE

There is far too much analytical work being written. The theatre, the show gets lost in the ideas and the words of the critic.

I would like to help people to see what they cannot, due to time and distance and opportunity. If somebody is going to travel to another city and to pay high prices for tickets, I believe that spectator has the right to know exactly why it is they are setting out on this expensive adventure. To encourage them when possible and save them disappointment when inevitable.

Some modern dance shows have reason to fear a too-thorough unveiling. There is nothing except the idea or the concept. There is no worthwhile concession made to the spectator. Often, there is little preparation of either theatre or artist. In passing, I should say the piece of the choreographer who posed me question had nothing to fear in this respect.

For those who are trafficking in the Emperor’s new clothes, I have no hesitancy to expose the vacant nakedness of their creations. Let them work to prove otherwise. Let them argue at length about the rigour of their proposition, the severity of their work. Spokesmen and women they have aplenty. I will not be one.

I will always take the part of the audience, before that of the critic, and certainly that of the theorist. Theatre is not theoretical. Theatre is tactile. Anybody who says otherwise would like to see theaters empty. In the last thirty years, sadly this faction has made great strides.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND VIDEO

I would like someone to be able to return to my reviews historically in fifty, one hundred or more years and say, a-ha, that was what it was like to be in a theatre in 2005 and see Ultima Vez or Rosas through eyes of the time. To offer an informed perception of that work. In many ways, the ubiquity of video makes written impressions less important. But for the moment, video is still a very transient medium. How much of it will be preserved or successfully preserved is an open question. Particularly stage documentation.

Nor will video be able to replicate the point-of-view of the contemporary audience.

THE WIDER AUDIENCE, EXPANDING HORIZONS

By rejecting the theoretical, there are many that would argue that I preclude myself from being a part of the informed audience.

The tiny coterie for whom much of this modern dance is made, cannot sustain any vital art form. We must as a group work harder to make our work more relevant and accessible to a wider audience.

That includes forceful and appealing advertising campaigns. In many ways, Impulstanz itself is the ideal proselytising effort. There were full motion ads projected on both Museumsquartier and Burgtheater (both central historical buildings with enormous summer pedestrian circulation). There were special pull-out sections in both Der Standard and Falter. There are a number of high-profile shows from the Opera de Paris, through Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Wandekeybus. Tickets are carefully kept in short supply (exactly as many shows as Vienna can handle, never more).

A genuine feeling of excitement for the art of dance is generated at Impulstanz. Like nothing else I have ever seen before in the Western world (the Russians’ passion for grand ballet is tremendous).

In the same spirit, I offer these dance reviews – as a doorway into a new art for the uninitiated. And also a chance to warn the innocent of what lately calls itself dance but has no more relation to dance than to astronomy.

STYLE IN DANCE WRITING

My first entrance to art was poetry. The poetry of words, of language. Theatre followed. Only much later did I discover dance. For me, dance was a grand revelation. Poetry of the body, of movement.

In the best of my dance writing, I aspire to find a parallel language to mirror the action on the stage. This is very difficult – each piece seen requires a separate vocabulary and style.

GOOD WORK AND LONG REVIEWS

On the intense daily schedule of Impulstanz, I have learned that it is much easier to write about a piece that one does not particularly like. Serious review of work that has touched one strongly requires an intense concentration of thought and energy.

Thus to date there is an unrepresentative concentration of negative reviews here. Impulstanz has been great. There are many absolutely fabulous shows for which I have notes but have not finished the reviews including Les Porteuses de Mauvaises Nouvelle, Raga for the Rainy Season, Isabelle’s Room and La Vision du Lapin.

It would be easier to just give an opinion. Perhaps my choreographer friend is right.

2 Comments

  1. JD JD

    Well, I am quite astonished to see how you manage to memorize (or write ?) all the circumstances of each performance you describe. I could not do so. I am a sort of thwarted poet, and for me dance can be (when good, and even sometimes when bad) the strongest source of inspiration. I am sometimes writing some critics that are poems in prose (if you like French, see e. g. http://imagesdedanse.over-blog.com/article-455730.html), and I regret not accompanying them by some critical, and plainer descriptions like yours. But that would be a very heavy work for me.
    By the way, you remind me of the booklets that are distributed to spectators before performances at the Theatre de la Ville : almost always, they do not say at all what you are going to see, and actually often do not mean much. That is pretty irritating. Fortunately, we have blogs now, to tell the truth ;-) …

  2. As an AD of a dance company working in the artistic remoteness of northern Canada (Edmonton) , we have been forced to change our ways of working and presenting dance in order to reach the audiences here, who are in general dismissive of abstraction in dance. This has resulted in using non-dancers, actors, live musicians and media artists to reach crossover audiences, It has also caused us to use many non-theatre venues and site specific locations, and to promote our own events with free ‘trailers’ in the city in busy areas. This type of evolution of dance in this area seems necessary. Evolve or Die as they say in punk rock!

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