Critically looking at dance

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For the past two months, I’ve been writing for Dance Informa – an online Australian dance publication, attending it’s reach into the US. Mostly, I write features for the monthly editions, profiling companies, choreographers, and exciting dance happenings. But, every now and then, I get the opportunity to see a NYC dance performance and provide an account of my personal experience with it.

The whole concept of dance critique has the gears in my head turning . . . let’s be real, dancers and choreographers crave feedback, yet don’t take critique well. So, what is critique exactly?

Critique = “A detailed analysis and assessment of something . . . to evaluate”

Viewing dance in a critical way has the potential to truly advance the art form, but some critics (you know who I’m talking about) can be down right mean. Other critics simply restate what they saw. Sometimes, choreographers play it safe, creating dance for the sake of pleasing the audience and getting positive feedback. None of this benefits dance nor inspire good art. So, what came first? The chicken or the egg?

Luckily, Houston Ballet made my job easy during their run at the Joyce Theater. This was my first review for Dance Informa and, over all, I enjoyed the show! But, (yes, there’s a ‘but’) despite the response from the audience, I didn’t love Jorma Elo’s One/end/One. To be frank, I didn’t get the point of it. It juxtaposed classic form with contemporary movement. The costumes were tutus and tunics, but the movement was quirky and freakin’ hard. I’m sorry, but hasn’t this been done before, many times over?

Karina Gonzalez and Conner Walsh in Jorma Elo's "One/end/One" Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Below is an exert from my review on Houston Ballet at the Joyce. To read the rest click here.

“It was interesting and intriguing, but asked the question, “What is the point?” This is not to say that a choreographer should ever have to explain his or her work, but the intent behind the ballet was curious. Was Elo mocking ballet with the choreographed quirks and unusual angles or simply further exploring both the formality and litheness of classical form?”

Then, I saw Program 3 of Fall for Dance at City Center. A top notch roster of companies: the Australian Ballet, Steven McRae, Pontus Lidberg Dance, and Hubbard Street Dance, gave me high expectations! Admittedly, I missed Australian Ballet in Glen Tetley’s Gemini. My friend and I were chatting too much over our martinis and didn’t realize what time it was. In the end, I was okay with missing the ballet. As much as I wanted to see the gorgeous dancers of the Australian Ballet on the City Center stage, I was surprised by their choice in repertoire. (Plus, my martini was damn good!) I think Tetley’s work is iconic, but when you have one shot . . . one ballet on the program to show innovative dance . . . why chose something choreographed in 1973?

Then there was Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, slated to perform Ohad Naharin’s Three to the Max. I’m gaga for gaga, so I was excited for this piece. However, it left me scratching my head. I saw Batsheva perform the full Three in Minneapolis several years ago, which blew me away. To date, it’s one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen. But, I was unsure what Three to the Max was exactly. Turns out, it is a “collage” of past Ohad work. I’m not sure how I feel about a ‘mash up’ of previously created pieces. Additionally, Hubbard Street chose to censor some of the nudity, which brought up many more questions. Why would they censor this piece? Once again, I felt the repertoire choice wasn’t the best representation of the company.

The surprise stand outs for me were sandwiched in the middle. Royal Ballet Principal dancer Steven McRae tap danced brilliantly to Sing Sing Sing. It could have easily been gimicy, yet worked because he brought his own style to the stage. And, Pontus Lidberg’s Faune (a reinterpretation of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faune) left me intrigued, wanting to see more. It was a pleasing meld of interesting concepts, well-crafted movement, and strong dancing.

Dance is such a funny thing and, as a classical dancer, it’s hard to determine which way it is going. I feel like I just answered all of my questions with new questions. I may be getting to artsy fartsy here, but I feel it’s DIYd’s responsibility to ask these questions.

How do we, as dancers and artists, push dance into the future?

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Showing 2 comments
  • Nicole

    I agree with you about Houston Ballet’s performance! Jorma’s piece seemed unnecessarily challenging technically. If he was trying to “say” anything, the demanding and awkward choreography got in the way and left the dancers with very little room to express anything at all. If it was meant to be funny, it was not funny enough. To me, it said, “hey, I’m making fun of classical ballet kind of but not really!” I ended up just feeling like I was missing the joke that everyone else seemed to get. However, I very much enjoyed the show on a whole and thought the dancing was fantastic! A majority of the reviews disagree with both of us.

    I think the main goal of a review should be to provide a vivid description of what one saw. That way, when an opinion is stated, there is sufficient evidence to back it up. Everyone brings certain biases to the table, so it is important for the reader to be able to identify what the biases are and therefore form her own opinion. I like to think that all criticism is constructive if there is a fair, thorough explanation behind it.

    I think that criticism plays a huge role in driving dance forward. Not only from the press, but from other artists and peers as well. Besides classical story ballets, I’ve always enjoyed watching dance that asks questions (like you!)- work that shows exploration and curiosity. Ultimately it should be aesthetically pleasing, although, often I respect a work even if it fails at this in the interest of communicating some larger idea.

    Art? Entertainment? Both? Always?

    Thank you for the food for thought 🙂

  • candice

    Thanks for this Steph! I agree critique is so important. Now that I am involved in visual art, it is just part of the natural order of things to have regular in-studio critiques of works in progress. It has helped me see how hard but valuable it is to invite people in to comment on what they see and perceive in your work. I can also now see that dance, in general, seems a little insulated and immune to embracing critical viewpoints.

    Additionally, I think if we are to push our art form forward, it is necessary that we all develop a language and platform for communicating constructive criticism to each other. If we don’t push each other, and just rely on critics from major newspapers to tell us what is good and bad, then it is our own fault. It is time to empower ourselves and join the larger art community by engaging in thoughtful discourse with each other!

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