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Flashback, 6-5: Critics Cornered
Why we Review Dance
Copyright 1998, 2006 The Dance Insider
(The Dance Insider
has been revisiting its Archive.
This article first appeared in the Winter 1998-99 print issue of
the Dance Insider, and is today posted online for the first time.)
I have always been leery
about reviewing. Reviews can wield clout -- from influencing you
about whether to see a show to closing one. While I am convinced
about dances that have uplifted me or enraged me, most of what I
see is in the middle. I can formulate opinions on these works, but
I can't be sure you'd agree. I don't care for Trisha Brown, but
many feel otherwise. The beautiful dancers of Ballet Hispanico make
me weak in the knees, but if you want subtlety you might be wasting
Three recent works,
two recent reviews, and two pieces of advice have convinced me that
there is a gap in criticism, and the Dance Insider has an obligation
to try to fill that gap. The advice came from Sara Hook, a choreographer,
teacher, dancer, and our senior artistic advisor, and Boo Froebel,
who produces the performance series Phat Tuesdays. Sara, critiquing
an article I wrote, said it was full of interesting quotes but lacked
a clear point of view. She said I should not be afraid of giving
my opinion, and of revealing my passion in writing. Boo feels that
critics should advise and inform, rather than mandate, and that
some forget this.
Recent dance and recent
review #1 that made me change my mind involve Lar Lubovitch's "Othello,"
premiered in 1997 by American Ballet Theatre. Lubovitch shackles
his dancers in choreography that requires little more than simplistic
flailing. He wastes Desmond Richardson (who created the lead), dance's
best switch-hitter. Unlike theater, dance is not locked into words,
and when it is relating a story, it should use its architecture
to amplify the story as well as reveal its subtleties. Jose Limon
does this in "The Moor's Pavane," his 40-minute, four person "Othello"
in which the only prop is a handkerchief that cost volumes less
but speaks volumes more than the million-dollar accoutrements of
Lubovitch's Moor. In James Kudelka's "Washington Square," the heroine
conveys her timidity through expressive footwork. The New York Times's
Anna Kisselgoff executed some fancy footwork of her own reviewing
"Othello," avoiding addressing the lack of choreography by lauding
the production values. No matter how fancy the setting, this emperor
has no clothes, and someone needs to say so.
Review #2 which prompted
me to think our voice is needed was also from the Times. When the
Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall presented "The Mysteries of
Eleusis" -- a hybrid with the world's top Kathakali, Flamenco, and
Peking Opera dancers -- the Times sent a critic who ignored the
dance except to ask, "Why is the flamenco dancer even there?" Peter
Marks devoted his space to the type of sarcasm-masquerading-as-criticism
that reveals more about the writer's acid tongue than the work.
"Under cover of darkness," he said, "Large groups made mad dashes
for the doors, like the stealthy P.O.W.'s tunneling to freedom in
'The Great Escape.'"
If the Times would have
sent a dance critic instead of a theater critic, she might have
directed her spectacles to the stage instead of the exit doors.
Dance critics do not expect to have meaning spoon-fed to them and,
unlike Marks, are prepared to evaluate art outside their regular
brief. With theater and dance hurtling towards a merge lane, publications
need reviewers who are up to speed, and can comprehend both. They
should also make sure their critics are open to new ideas. Marks
was put off by the production's non-traditional spirituality. "The
New Age sets and lighting make (it) look (like) a rejected pilot
for yet another manifestation of Star Trek," he wrote.
"The Mysteries of Eleusis"
was not conceived on a Paramount soundstage, but in the Marcopoulo
mountains outside Athens. Performers rehearsed from 7 a.m. until
11 p.m., when their work was illuminated by the stars, and sometimes
blanketed by rain. If the production had an Achilles heel, it may
have been this immersion. While not "the most incomprehensible work
ever attempted in any medium," as Marks said, it was sometimes hard
to decipher. Director Vasilios Calitsis may have lost perspective
on how it might be comprehended by one who has not spent five years
immersed in the project. He needs a dramaturg. He -- and other artists
who are no less sincere because their infrastructure is faulty --
also need criticism that will not level but help them build better
work. We'll attempt to fill this function.
The third reason for
introducing reviews into the Dance Insider is that when we see something
we love, we should share it. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's September
show at New York's Kitchen is one such event.
De Keersmaeker's passion
was apparent from the moment in 1981 when, still in college, she
stepped onto the stage at Dance Theater Workshop to audition for
its Fresh Tracks series with "Fase." "The panel sat there stunned,"
recalls DTW executive director David White. "It was great: rigorous,
rehearsed, and she was just 19 years old. She stalked downstage
and said, 'Now I don't want to hear any shit about using Steve Reich.'"
De Keersmaeker returned
to New York in September for the swan song of "Fase." On its surface,
the phrases were like those I aver in Brown and other post-moderns.
But De Keersmaeker revealed to me what post-modern can be when danced
not with ironic detachment but joy. Swirling in a circle of light
for her Third Phase solo to violin, she was rhapsodic and virtuosic.
Far from being detached from the music, she allowed herself to be
swept up in it. She did not hold back, but shared her enthusiasm
with the audience. She was on fire. It was post-modern unafraid
of being exuberant in public. She finished by looking frankly out
at us before the lights blacked out. My first impulse was to go
backstage and interview her. Then I thought, no, I don't need to
own this -- I need to share it. That need -- as well as the need
to shout out when emperors have no clothes, and to advise and inform
artists and audience -- will guide our reviews.