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Criticizing Dance: Follow the Heart or Mind?

Dancers Alex Springer, Erin Owen, Julia Burrer and Ryan Corri in 'Chapters of a Broken Novel / Photo by Phil Knott

Last week’s post on Doug Varone’s Chapters from a Broken Novel received a number of comments, with many reacting to the work’s negative review in The New York Times. In fact, as consistently praised as Varone’s work is among informed acquaintances of mine—those working in the field as presenters, writers, dancers—his work has been largely ill-reviewed in the Times, if not (to quote Claudia La Rocco, the latest to take aim) “steamrolled,” making the critics sound like philistines and Varone like a talentless novice. Clearly his work has tremendous merit. So what’s the deal? Is it as simple as listening to one’s heart, versus one’s mind?

Backing up a little, this raises some questions about reviewing modern dance—lyrical, form-oriented dance—that isn’t necessarily post-modern, or conceptually based, or that is narrative or unironic. I’ll admit that personally, it is far more difficult to write about this kind of modern dance, because it often isn’t in opposition to something, whether it’s the status quo, or ballet, or beauty, or the lack of health insurance. It’s not exploring some new or indigenous form, like voguing or flamenco or tap. It is for the most part universally understood dance that largely stems from the love of movement, pure and simple, and often expresses something basic about the human condition, dark or light, or through simple narrative lines.

And, unlike ballet or flamenco, there isn’t a standard technique against which to measure a performance. Apart from generational influences (Varone danced with Lar Lubovitch, for example, who just choreographed an amazing, gem-like production of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat), each modern choreographer’s work is sui generis. It lends itself to being experienced, rather than analyzed. Thus when asked to write about it, it can be problematic for the writer. You often wind up describing the choreographer’s specific language, or the individual performers or production elements. It’s not as juicy as writing about something bizarre or anarchic. It even raises the question, should it be reviewed along the traditional model of criticism from which the Times has descended—more the theater reviewing model, where power is concentrated in one outlet, and reviews are often positive or negative?

An alternative is for companies to essentially opt out of being reviewed by declining to offer press comps. The publication can always purchase tickets, but it’s a way of sending a message to the 800 lb gorilla, at least until power is dissipated and distributed to online blogs and outlets, as is currently happening at an accelerating rate, and in the face of a Times paywall.

There is no simple answer, and this could be debated ad infinitum. Until then, a final salvo from my date for Varone, post-show: “Now I can die happy.” The heart speaks loud and clear.

  • ELF

    Unfortunately, a review in the Times sells tickets. Luckily, bad review but beautiful picture sells almost as many. Perhaps the readers have come to learn the biases or limitations of each of the reviewers.

  • Meryl Green

    Thanks for your response to “Criticizing Dance:…” which Doug Varone sent me the link to after I sent him an email. My email to him was a rave and expression of gratitude after seeing his concert last Saturday afternoon. My bottom line was the same as your date’s, and I whined to him about La Rocco’s review. I simply had no idea where she was coming from after I saw this touching, exciting, wildly creative and fully satisfying piece.

    Of course the problem with your good idea about not sending comps to unfriendly folks is that, after awhile, audiences think a choreographer not covered doesn’t even exist anymore.


  • JT

    I hope it is possible for readers to know the limitations of the biased Times reviewers. I am a choreographer, not as well known as Doug Varone and my review in the Times made it seem like I was completely irrelevant as well. The main difference being I don’t yet have the following to withstand such a steamrolling and thank goodness for him, he does. We had full houses and standing ovations every night so its more than just selling tickets. A review can be about connecting a future audience with an artist who wants to Continue to produce work beyond this show. Anyhow, lately it really seems as if the bullies at the Times have all the power and something has to change or they won’t be invited any more!

  • Rick Michalek

    Thank you for a thoughtful piece that introduces the challenge and responsibility facing an intelligent reviewer. But I do believe even more is at stake. Modern (and post modern) dance is facing challenges to survival. As an industry, if one can for a moment, see it as such, this form of theater is struggling for economic survival. Consider simply the dynamic of “supply and demand”: universities with dance departments from across the country (and around the world) have produced and continue to produce “dance majors” who graduate into a world with an ever shrinking ability to provide meaningful employment as a performing artist. The belts have been tightened beyond the “last notch” by those charged with navigating the financial impossibilities of creating and maintaining a realistic employment opportunity for dancers in urban centers. Between impossible rents and impossible health insurance premiums, and ever-diminishing public and private grants, the “pie is shrinking”. For those starving for a chance for a bite, the future is less than bleak. And, as suggested by JT, the level of discouragement is forcing the bar ever higher for those that are even considering stepping down the path of life as a performing artist in non-balletic dance. (Which is not to imply that artists trained and training in ballet have a path of roses – on the contrary, ballet companies have their own distinct life-threatening problems.)
    Among the consequences a Times reviewer (or any major source of important critical opinion) should consider are the impressions made in the minds of parents of future dancers across the country. At a cost of $100,000 to $200,000, how encouraging and supportive can a parent of a potential future dancer be when the number of companies as successful (in survival terms) as Doug Varone’s is further reduced? The brutal question increasingly facing a young person considering a path as performing artist in non-balletic dance is “where”?

    Rick Michalek
    PS: I am not advocating the withdrawal of critical thinking – by no means. Modern dance, because it is – as you suggest – fractured into a thousand “sui generis” pieces, has built for itself innumerable “relevance” challenges, particularly in a society and culture that prefers “compare and contrast” ranking and analysis. But the essential resolution of those challenges may never occur if the opportunity falls beyond the temporal line of survival… a line I fear is no longer beyond the horizon.

  • bill bissell

    i am concerned that susan yung’s critique of the times review–while well intentioned–is as myopic and as limited as the review being discussed. to say that something cannot be analyzed is dangerous territory. of course any experience can be interrogated and intelligently probed in language. to say that dance has to be left as an experience is one of the reasons why the critical language about dance has advanced in such limited way–especially in popular press. of course all dance, any dance can be analyzed. and all dance is culturally specific–i find the way in which post-modern or flamenco genres are referenced here to be very diminishing while claiming some beyond reproach position for pure lyrical modern dance…i have no idea what that is. dance expression in any genre reflects the position of the author, the work of the community that made it, just as the times and that particular writer reflects their own concerns and biases. is writing only worthwhile if it reflects our own image? i hope not!

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