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Write About Dance

Who Has the Right to Write About Dance?

by Laurel Victoria Gray

Defining the Dilemma

Let us be honest. We are all critics. We all harbor distinct likes and dislikes on a myriad of topics, including dance. Indeed, our ability to distinguish differences is a positive survival trait. Humans need to be able to tell the difference between edible and poisonous plants, between useful animals and potential predators, between friendly and dangerous humans. Our ability to critically analyze differences helps us chose careers, homes, hobbies, and mates.

It is when these individual preferences become raised to the public forum that a whole set of ethical issues arises. We may all agree that everyone has a right to her opinion, but we may not agree that every person equally deserves credence as an authority on a particular topic. When personal opinions are published, they circulate in a broader arena. They have new power — the power to help and the power to hurt.

Those who are professional dancers in the strictest sense of the word — that is, depend on dance as a sole means of support — have a special interest in developing professional criticism in the world of Middle Eastern dance. A well-earned positive review can advance a dancer’s career; an unfair, negative review can threaten her very livelihood.

For those who earn their living in a “regular” job, please imagine the following. Your supervisor gives you an annual job evaluation; your performance determines your salary. Your boss has an entire year to review your work, your promptness, your accuracy, and so on. Now imagine that your annual review is based on only one day of work, arbitrarily chosen. It may be the day your car broke down on the way to work and you arrived late. Or the day you came to work suffering from the flu and your medicine left you groggy and slow. You receive a negative evaluation. And instead of the performance evaluation remaining in the private personnel records of your company, it is posted in your office, circulated on the Internet, published in a local paper.

Does this scenario make you feel uncomfortable? It should, because this is precisely what the professional dancer endures every time a negative review is published. This is the power of the critic and this is why we must demand serious, educated, and ethical behavior from those who take up the pen to write about our dance.

The professional dancer is usually judged on only one concert, only one workshop. While most professionals have achieved a certain level of consistency, they are often called upon to perform and teach under extremely difficult conditions of which the audience or students are unaware. ( I myself have performed with a broken toe, and another time while suffering from walking pneumonia. Once I literally walked onto the stage after 36 hours of traveling with no rest. Most recently, I performed four dances in a show just a few days after being hospitalized.) All professionals have their war stories, ones the public never hears, because the “on with the show” ethos demands that we teach or perform no matter what the circumstances.

But does the destructive potential of unfair, unbalanced criticism mean that we should abandon the idea of ever writing or publishing reviews that are anything short of rosy? When a truly dismal performer takes to the stage, must we content ourselves by commenting about her costume to avoid mentioning her lack of technique and stage presence? On the contrary, educated and discerning dance criticism can actually improve our dance community, but we need to clearly understand what constitutes dance criticism and establish ethical guidelines for writers, editors, readers and performers.

Examining the Purpose of Criticism

One aim of dance reviews can be to educate and inform, to create a more knowledgeable audience. Perhaps the author wishes to bring attention to a specific performer, choreographer or dance genre. Such an article often provides valuable background information and helps place ethnic art in a cultural context. Sometimes these reviews are primarily descriptive, giving readers a sense of what they missed and what made the concert impressive.

Another motivation can be to support and promote a particular artist, ensemble, event, or dance form. All too often, truly excellent performers get little press. They are so busy teaching, performing, and touring that they have little time to promote themselves. Their very success in dancing full-time means that, while they are well known within their local communities, they are ciphers on the national dance scene. These superbly trained, innovative and creative performers become the “best kept secrets” of the dance world. (Thanks to some new contests with a “best kept secret” category, these dancers are finally getting some national recognition.)

A dance critic may decide to cover concerts and workshops by an unsung heroine of dance to provide some much needed encouragement to a hard working artist. A positive review can also promote an individual who has much to share as a performer and instructor. By learning about them, we are all enriched.

Perhaps the most important goal of dance criticism, to elevate the art, also proves the most prickly. While the two above-mentioned aims usually involve doling out well-deserved praise, this third purpose often requires that a writer make negative comments. When public concerts present poorly rehearsed dances, boring choreographies, or vulgar performances, the entire art form suffers. The audience may go away with a negative impression of Middle Eastern dance. At this point, the critic is called upon to point out inadequacies and this is where her job becomes difficult.

A conscientious critic will do more than simply characterize a performance with a blanket term such as “amateurish.” Such generalities will not solve any problems. More important is to identify the inadequacies that made the performance unprofessional. How could it be improved? Sometimes knowing that there will be a discerning eye in the audience will make dancers more aware of what is expected of them artistically. And public performance for which healthy ticket prices are charged should be judged differently from a student recital which, technically speaking, perhaps should not be reviewed.

Here the critic can provide guidance for future performances. Realistically, the majority of women involved in Middle Eastern dance have no formal training in theater arts. A critic may help fill in these gaps in education. If a concert was marred by poor lighting and a faulty sound system, a writer can point this out. Dancers who perform without proper make up and turn into faceless ghouls on stage need to be aware of this failing. If costumes are unflattering or made from colors which turn to muddy, dirty hues under the lights, critics can let dancers know that this should be corrected. When choreography proves monotonous, flat, and uninteresting, a dance review can explain why the piece is not stage worthy. If group dances are poorly rehearsed and lack unison, then these shortcomings can be discussed. Dance criticism can encourage our community to expect a certain level of competence in our art. It can help to raise professional standards.

Facing the Dark Side

To be fair, we must acknowledge the dark side of dance criticism. Sometimes critics write out of a malevolent spirit, to hurt or destroy a performer. The writer often has an ulterior motive, a hidden axe to grind. The author may decide to put down one dancer in order to build up another — perhaps a close personal friend — who is a competitor. Sometimes the author herself is a performer and wields her words as a weapon to wound and eliminate a rival. I can recall one editor who wrote reviews of every major concert in her community, always praising the out-of-town guest artist while making biting, catty remarks about the local dancers who shared the stage. The guest dancers were no threat since they were not local, and therefore not competition. Local performers were targets because they were rivals for limited performance opportunities. Clearly, this editor had a conflict of interest.

Sometimes critics hold narrow-minded views about what constitutes so-called Middle Eastern dance and will attack anyone who steps beyond a limited vision. Such an approach is anti-art. It has been said that the difference between entertainment and art is that entertainment means giving people what they want and art means giving them something that they don’t know that they want. An entertainer will stick to the tried and true; an artist will experiment. It is cold comfort to know that some of the world’s leading artists — Isadora Duncan included — have been the brunt of truly vicious attacks by writers who could not appreciate the innovative genius of their work. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was labeled by one critic as “music that stinks to the heavens.” Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with choreography by Nijinsky, was booed and hissed by the audience.

Great artists take risks. They push established boundaries of the past, taking us to new unexplored territories. Even when they stumble, when their experiments do not work, we can still benefit from their attempts. When we punish artists in print for taking these risks we cripple our own community and keep it from growing and developing. When we adhere to a limited, homogeneous vision of what qualifies as “belly dance,” “Middle Eastern dance” — or whatever we chose to call this amorphous art — we shut ourselves out from other voices. More frighteningly, the exclusion of artists who, for example, perform something other than mainstream belly dance, deprives these pioneers of their livelihood. If they cannot support their endeavors, we will lose them.

The computer age has created a new, unofficial form of dance criticism which is every bit as powerful — and potentially destructive — as that which appears in our dance journals. On-line discussion groups, web-sites and home pages provide a democratic, international forum for anyone to express her opinions about teachers and performers. We are instantly in touch with dancers around the world. We can share late-breaking information about upcoming events and workshops and recommend them to others.

But with all its wonderful advantages, the Internet also has a dark side. Irresponsible comments which would never be given credence in the established press can circle the globe in a heartbeat. Here again, the temptation to damage a competitor’s reputation may result in truly malicious behavior. There is little to prevent someone from borrowing a friend’s on-line identity to blast another teacher or performer.

Faced with this negativity, we may argue that the glowing, effusive pseudo review, while lacking objectivity, is basically harmless since it offends no one. But this approach can also cause damage since it actually lowers standards. Dancers are also consumers. We turn to reviews when trying to decide where to invest our dance dollars — which seminars to attend, which concerts to see, and which videos to purchase. Students can be seriously misled and disappointed when an instructor or video fails to live up to the undeserved praise.

Developing Ethical Guidelines

This brings up the central question of this essay: who has the right to write about dance? We want someone articulate, knowledgeable, experienced, and fair-minded. We want someone who, when they do make negative comments, can present them in a way which is not a cruel personal attack but a constructive criticism which will improve an artist’s performance. We want an individual who is well-versed in a broad variety of dance genres as well as theater and performance art. And if the critic does not know about a particular style, we want someone who is not too proud to ask questions and learn about the history and aesthetics of a new genre.

But where do we find such people? And when we find them, how do we compensate them? Our journals are not at the point where they can pay generous salaries to staff writers. While most offer advertising space in trade, this may not be useful if the critic in question has no product they wish to sell. How can we support the development of professional dance criticism in our community?

And what if this person is also a performer and teacher? Can they ethically write about other artists who could be viewed as rivals? Does the potential conflict of interest automatically disqualify them from being a critic? This is an ethical question with which I myself have wrestled. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a review of a Persian dance workshop I attended. While I sincerely enjoyed the instructor and my comments were primarily positive, I did criticize her failure to provide a cultural context for the dance. Workshop participants were truly confused about the background of the dance and the appropriate costuming — not to mention the country’s geographical location, its historical role in the Islamic world and even the connection with present-day Iran. While my comments may have been justified, I felt quite uncomfortable when the review came out in print, since I myself was teaching and performing Persian dance and my motives could be seen as suspect.

Since then I have resolved this dilemma through self-censorship. One might argue that I have the proper credentials since my articles have been published by the Oxford University Press, the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater, and Dance Magazine. Unfortunately, there are performers and videos which present dance in my areas of expertise which are absolutely substandard in technique and overall presentation. They are extremely misleading to those honestly seeking information about certain rare dance styles. It is frustrating to watch a piece claiming authenticity but which is incorrectly costumed, performed to inappropriate music, and completely lacking in the movement vocabulary and demeanor characteristic of that particular style. But if I go into print with my criticism of a dancer or ensemble, I risk being accused of jealously and vindictiveness since I myself teach and perform these particular genres. So, in general, I have decided that if I cannot write positively about a concert, workshop, video or CD, I simply will not review it.

Sometimes the critics are simply uninformed about a certain dance form. As American humorist Will Rogers said, “Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Even knowledgeable professionals can run amuck when they venture outside their genres of expertise. Many years ago, judges for a county-sponsored arts grant competition showed such a lack of knowledge when they referred to carefully constructed replicas of twentieth century Ghawazee costumes as “flapper dresses.” They erred again when they mistook the shy demeanor of a Central Asian dance for a “lack of confidence”; the adjudicators wanted a grinning American cheerleader stage presence which was entirely inappropriate for a subtle dance of Muslim women. When this sort of ignorance gets into print, it can be truly hurtful. Critics need to develop cultural awareness and sensitivity. Sometimes we expect things of an ethnic dance style which are simply not traditional to that form.

Critics must also learn to discern between what is a personal dislike of a particular dance genre and the performer’s presentation of it. One can diplomatically express a personal viewpoint. Some prefer lyrical dancers, others like aggressive performers. Admitting to a preference in print cues the reader that the comments in reference to a specific piece are of a subjective nature.

Unfair reviews can also result from the all-too-human tendency to promote oneself as an authority in areas where one is not qualified. Sweeping claims proclaiming one artist as “the best performer of Tadjik dance that I have ever seen” suggests a wide-range of experience. But truly, who is this writer? Is she an authority on Tadjik dance? What are her qualifications? How many Tadjik dancers has she actually seen? What is the depth of her knowledge on this subject? How many other deserving performers of Tadjik dance are unfairly dismissed by such a statement simply because the writer has never seen them?

Although dance criticism may be written by dancers, it certainly does not need to be a mandatory requirement. A wide experience with many aspects of theater arts is extremely beneficial, as is an observant eye. Familiarity with other dance forms provides a broad background for comparison. But admittedly, how many of us ever attend performances of other dance forms? We can learn much about professionalism and presentation even when the dance is a different genre. Costuming, lighting, concert arrangement, and staging are basic tools of stage craft. Seeing how others present their art can stimulate our own creativity and help us familiarize ourselves with the ingredients of a professional dance concert.

Owning Our Responsibilities

Professional dance criticism requires the active, intelligent, and analytical participation of our entire dance community. Performers, critics, editors and readers must all take responsibility for what appears on stage, in print, and how we react to it.

While preparing this article, I spoke with Selma Jeanne Cohen, editor of the International Encyclopedia of Dance. She offered valuable advice to performers, recommending that they provide detailed program notes. This is extremely important when presenting an ethnic dance form. Background information helps reviewers, not to mention the audience in general, to understand the context of its piece, and vital ingredients such as the musical selection, the significance of certain gestures, or the importance of the costuming.

Those who choose to write about dance must honestly examine their personal motives, as well as their qualifications. Critics need to be willing to do their homework and ask questions when reviewing a dance genre about which they know very little. Finally, they should possess a sincere, even passionate interest in promoting Middle Eastern dance — a devotion greater than a desire for personal fame and power.

One important difference between legitimate journalism and irresponsible gossip is that journalists can verify their sources. Editors who publish dance reviews need to know about the credentials of the dance critics whose reviews they print. This may involve some background research besides simply accepting someone as a self-proclaimed authority. By printing criticism, the editor gives one individual a powerful voice, a large audience and a tool to shape public opinion. It is a serious responsibility since, in publishing the views of the critic, the editor plays a role in the potential for good and ill which may result.

Finally, readers of dance reviews must themselves actively analyze the articles with a critical eye. We can ask ourselves to identify the motivation of the critic, especially when the article reads like a personal attack. We must remember that not everything in print is true and that—ultimately—a review is just one person’s opinion.

Laurel Victoria Gray is an internationally acclaimed dancer, scholar, instructor and choreographer who has taught and performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Central Asia, and Australia. Her articles have appeared in many publications including the Oxford University Press International Encyclopedia of Dance, and the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, and Dance Magazine. She teaches Persian dance at the Iranian Community School and is Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company. www.silkroaddance.com

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