Role of the Dance Critic

Donald Hutera and others on the British dance scene examine the relationship between artist and critic.


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The public tends to fall in love with Nederlands Dans Theater 2. British dance critics, on the other hand – and specifically the English rather than the Scottish ones – end up praising the dancers’ verve and virtuosity while taking swipes at the company’s choice of repertory. It’s happened in the past with the work of Jiri Kylian, a choreographic giant on the Continent who was formerly NDT’s long-time artistic director. Audiences seems to respond favourably when his dances have been imported to the UK, and yet these same pieces have often met with hard knocks from the press. Kylian’s protégé, Paul Lightfoot, and the latter’s offstage partner, Sol Leon, both danced for NDT and are now jointly the company’s resident choreographers. Their work, too, has suffered the slings and arrows of disgruntled English critics.

I met the pair at NDT headquarters in The Hague this past March. [You can read that interview elsewhere on this site]. No one brought up the potentially juicy topic of the critical reception of their work in the UK. A lost opportunity? Maybe, or maybe not, especially if used here as the springboard for a wider-ranging but by no means definitive examination of the relationship between artist and critic. To that end I spoke with a handful of people involved in dance – independent choreographer-directors Sally Marie and Hofesh Shechter, hip hop dance theatre-maker and advocate extraordinaire Jonzi D, CandoCo Dance Company’s co-founder and outgoing artistic director Celeste Dandeker and Royal Ballet principal dancer Edward Watson – to try and get a feel for what artists think the relationship between them and professional dance-watchers, like myself, is or ought to entail.

Intentions - Donald Hutera

It might be useful to first shed some light on how I approach my job. I’ve been writing about the arts, and primarily dance and live performance, for just over three decades. I’ve dished out plenty of praise in my time, and no little amount of what I hope was constructive – as opposed to destructive – criticism. What I seek in return is work that rocks my world by making me feel deeply or think differently or question what it means to be alive at this time.

I feel privileged to be a journalist. It’s both a calling and the way I make my living. I need artists to create work to which I can then publicly respond, whether in print or another medium. But I’m a human being first, and then a writer. As a human being I enjoy meeting and talking with people either formally (that is, in an interview situation) or informally. Often that talk will be about the work they’ve made, which I may be writing or speaking about professionally before I see it, afterwards or both. Knowing something about who they are and, more significantly, the intentions behind what they do, whether that pertains to a specific piece or their work in general, is likely to make my writing better-informed. As a consequence I freely admit that I’m friendly, to varying degrees, with various artists; it’s simply the way I conduct my business, and my life. But no matter what my degree of social engagement with any artist is, I have a responsibility to my readers (which might include the artists themselves) to respond to a work as honestly and fairly as I can. To do that, I have to trust my own integrity.

Love and Tears in Dance Criticism

On some basic level most artists would probably like their work to be accepted and received with love. By the same token, in theory I would like to love everything I see. But I know that I can’t. It’s impossible. Besides, who’d really want to love every single cultural experience? On top of that, so-called ‘bad’ work might actually serve a necessary function in that, if nothing else, it quickens our appreciation of the things we think are good.
In any case, it seems important to try and keep a dialogue going between all of us who are involved in the arts, whether as artists or critics or spectators. It happens that some of the more memorable interactions I’ve had with artists involve their response to negative feedback. Choreographer Fin Walker (of Walker Dance Park Music) referred to my two-star review of one of her productions with the simple, incredibly mild comment, ‘It’s a shame you didn’t connect with the piece.’ Nigel Charnock revealed that critiques, including one of mine, have made him cry. Charlotte Vincent confessed to a similar reaction to a bad notice from me, but added, ‘Later we [she and her collaborators] laughed about it.’

Buried Treasure - Sally Marie

Sally Marie is a British dancer and performer once labeled ‘a national treasure’ by John Ashford, the theatre director at the key London dance venue The Place. She’s collaborated on productions by the Wales-based Sean Tuan John, Place Prize finalist Luca Silvestrini and the alternative theatre entity Duckie. A fine soloist, this spring Marie also launched her own company Sweetshop Revolution with a dance-theatre piece called Dulce et Decorum.

‘I recently had my first bad review,’ she says, vividly setting the scene. ‘It was four o’clock in the morning, and I was on a research trip for Dulce waiting in a crummy hotel in Krakow for the sun to rise so I could visit Auschwitz. I Googled myself for the first time, and there was a review by this guy who just wasn’t impressed with my performance.’ Rather than resenting his response, Marie says, she was excited ‘because I could understand what he was saying. It wasn’t all nice. In fact, it was quite horrible. It hurt, but it was so interesting because, for the most part, I agreed with him. It was an honour to have somebody who sees a lot of work come to the theatre and describe and explain my work, and to see things that I might not see.

‘Critics theoretically wield a lot of power,’ Marie continues, ‘especially in dance where a show might only be on for two or three nights. It’s not like a musical in the West End. The problem is the big distance between critics and performers or creators. I think it should be about communication. What you want in a critic is not someone being critical, but passionate. Which doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong. It just means that they’re giving their view, albeit the very well-informed one of somebody who’s going out six or seven nights a week. In that way a critic brings context to a work. Because how loud your applause is, and how successful your work appears to be, is not necessarily how good your work actually is.’

In his words - Hofesh Shechter

Born in Israel but based in London, Hofesh Shechter was a Place Prize finalist in 2004. This year he’s been taken under the collective wing of The Place, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Sadler’s Wells. This tip-top triumvirate is jointly presenting his newest work, In Your Rooms, in an innovative new steppingstone system whereby his dance will gradually grow in size and personnel as it moves from one venue to the next. Shechter’s view of critics is quick and pointed. ‘The world is divided into two kinds of people,’ he declares. ‘Those who love their job and those who hate it. This applies to anybody and everybody, including choreographers and critics. It’s the way I experience it when I read what a critic wrote. It’s not connected to what they say about the work, whether they criticise it in a negative or positive way.’ Is it under the words, then? ‘It’s whether they actually love their job or not. That’s a kind of parameter for me as to whether or not I take critics seriously when I read them, or when I see what other choreographers do.’

Honestly Surprised - Jonzi D

Jonzi D is no slouch when it comes to hip hop dance theatre. Besides creating his own work (most recently TAG, a show about graffiti art) under the banner of Jonzi D Productions, he curates the international hip hop dance theatre festival Breakin’ Convention. This hugely popular annual event has now spawned a touring version.

‘Coming from an artist’s perspective,’ Jonzi says, ‘you’re wondering what the purpose of writing about a show is. Is it to allow the audience an insight into what they’re about to see, which includes the writer’s opinion? Has it got anything to do with selling a show, or is it about writers proving how good they are? Of all of these things, I guess it’s the first one that matters the most – describing a show to readers so they can go, “Oh, I’ve heard of that, I’d like to go see it but I wonder what he or she thinks of it.” That’s the biggest reason a paper or a magazine wants someone there. It’s not so much about the middle one, the promotion thing. For that we need advertising budgets to get some nice posters in. As for the last one, about the writer expressing his skill, I guess we live in such a cynical society that slagging something off really well gets you more props and notice as a writer.’

Here Jonzi waxes more subjective. ‘I think I should have the right to create the work that I do, and writers should be able to write about that work honestly. Honesty should be the defining factor.’ Asked about his own work, and whether or not reviews have been useful or insightful, and if he’s been angry, saddened or pleased by them, Jonzi says, ‘I’ve experienced all of those emotions dependin’ on the work, and dependin’ on the writer. I’m often surprised. I’ll think, “Oh no, they’re gonna slag this piece off,” and then somebody will write really positively about it. And vice versa. I guess I’ve learnt now not to expect anything, but always be prepared to be surprised.’ There are, he admits, times when ‘I actually read something and I think, “Yes, I know what you’re saying and I agree with it, and as an artist I’m gonna get back into the studio and fix that part that you’ve identified as well as me.” So ultimately I’d like to think of it as a positive relationship.’

Keeping it Human - CandoCo

Celeste Dandeker founded CandoCo 16 years ago, since when this repertory company of disabled and non-disabled dancers has toured to more than fifty countries. In 2007 CandoCo is presenting a double bill of contrasting works by Arthur Pita and Rafael Bonachela, the first a stylised tragicomic narrative that plays with American backwoods stereotypes and the second a sharp, daring and dramatic abstract dance. These are the last dances Dandeker will have commissioned for CandoCo before handing over the company reins to Pedro Machado and Stine Nilsen.

CandoCo’s work has never been about begging for sympathy. The company’s primary business is making art, not eliciting charity. Dandeker, however, still encounters blinkered thinking. ‘There are some critics who will never change their opinion because they simply can’t get past the medical “problem” of this or that person. If they see Rafael’s piece, how can they possibly think about the medical problem of anybody? Obviously I want people to be honest in what they think, but with some reviewers there’s an unwillingness to go a little bit beyond their comfort zone. That might mean coming to watch rehearsal, or having a conversation with a choreographer or with the dancers. I think there needs to be some understanding of the human beings involved. I’m wondering if it’s a fear of disability.
‘I did think about how to address these issues,’ Dandeker says, ‘and particularly some of the things that were written during one season that were really disrespectful. One headline referred to “A surfeit of limbs.” It was so damn rude. I just couldn’t believe it. In another review somebody wrote about Welly [O’Brien, a former company member] “slapping her stump down like a lump of baker’s dough.” She’s a very beautiful young woman, and a beautiful dancer with a lovely presence, and to talk about her in that way and not even mention her name!’ Dandeker slaps the table at which we’re sitting for emphasis. ‘I was furious. I would’ve written, but I’d written somebody in the past and that wasn’t very popular so I just thought, “Well, I’ll let it go. But if you can’t say something intelligent, don’t come to our performances.”’

Speaking about the writer’s art, Dandeker concludes, ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of people thinking that they’re writing something clever and funny that will keep readers happy. Of course a writer or a speaker is meant to be entertaining, but that doesn’t justify some of what goes on. Some of them have just got these catch-phrases. I don’t think it’s very kind in the way of how you would treat people, regardless of whether they’re artists or the man who sweeps the road. Why put someone down unnecessarily?’

Royal Trust - Edward Watson

Edward Watson has risen through the Royal’s ranks to become one of its most outstanding dancers, his febrile onstage personality aligned to a great technique. Most recently he scored a triumph as the debauched Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s challenging, down-beat drama Mayerling.

‘It’s quite a strange relationship,’ Watson says of the critic-artist equation. ‘It can make you feel very vulnerable. I don’t make the work, but I put myself out there in front of a lot of people. I’ve put a lot of time and passion into it. And then someone comes along and comments on something that’s very important to me and that comes from a very personal place.

‘People either love me or hate me,’ he continues. ‘That’s also weird, because I don’t want to pin how I feel about my performance on what someone else says. It can be empowering when people applaud, or hideous when you read the next morning that you were ****. As you get older and become a more mature artist, you still have no control over whether you’re a success or not. It’s not like running a race and crossing a finish line. You have to trust yourself, not the audience reaction or what the critics say. You have to learn to make it not matter so much to you either way.’ Ultimately, he says, ‘You take what you do seriously, but not yourself.

‘Art,’ Watson concludes, ‘is based on opinion. We [artists and critics] both need each other to be able to do our jobs. It’s your passion to write about what you see, and it’s our passion to do it.’