The Future of Dance Criticism


Comments by Steven Woodruff

November 2, 2011


The world for reviewers has changed, and it has changed for their readers too. I started writing reviews of local dance companies in Los Angeles because the L.A. Times no longer bothered to cover smaller regional companies performing in the city. It has been important for these companies to have informed writing about their work appear on line. The quality of the work is as good as many of the companies who appear at the Joyce Theatre, JudsonThe Guggenheim, and other smaller New York venues. They produce excellent contemporary concert dance with  high quality production values, often with original scores or live music. The LA Times continues to cover the larger touring programs which often bring less adventurous programming to the larger venues and gives the impression in doing so that dance has to come from Europe or New York in order to be on the radar. The reviews themselves are often dull, light on interest and so short they read more like publicity puff pieces than reviews.

I pursue the idea of a dance or music review as being more reportorial than directed toward criticism. One musician I reviewed said he didn’t really understand why there were such things as reviews anyway. I agree with him in general, but I think he is referring to the notion of thumbs up or down criticism on a concert and the related comparative assessments, rather than a story which covers the concert as news (it’s in the newspaper after all) albeit with some subjective attachments and concessions to vivid content. After all, those who were not at the concert represent the bulk of the readers. Generally speaking, they don’t want to wade through hypercritical commentary as part of the dues for finding out about a performance they missed. They want to know what it felt like to be there. Also, nobody really needs to hear that a concert that was deeply enjoyed was, unbeknownst to them, a wretched failure. For them, a story which is front loaded with a dozen paragraphs of historic commentary before we hear one word about what went on in the concert hall, or another that opens with a damning dismissal masquerading as humor, isn’t going to cut it.

Because I also have a professional music background I have frequently reserved space for musical commentary. This aspect is frequently overlooked in most periodicals. Recently I included long sections in reviews for the Royal Danish Ballet’s NAPOLI, which had excellent new music for Act II by Louise Alenius, and San Francisco Ballet’s RAkU, which had a first rate atmospheric score by Shinji Eshima. Other reviewers included scant information on the music (maybe they just don’t know enough to write about it). It made no sense to me to dive in deep over the “new” choreography while barely acknowledging the “new” music that made it all possible. Both pieces had excellent responses because of the expanded inclusions related to the music.

I have also written at length about the growing and unfortunate absence of live music. These were comments which were directed toward larger touring companies who not only don’t have live music but also fail to credit the performances and the recordings they use.  While canned music may be one of the manifestations of economic difficulties in the current dance landscape it is still a mandatory part of the classical big time ballet experience. Don’t leave home without it.

Perhaps in the end,  fully realized ballet criticism should be reserved for books or at least a different location in the paper altogether. We look forward to reading the work of one writer or another in the Opinion Section where a personal point of view or writing style reigns supreme. As I write this, I am reminded of two excellent articles, one on flamenco and the other on Dancing with the Stars, which appeared recently in The New Yorker. They were written by Joan Acocella. To me this is real dance criticism, and, presented as comprehensive articles, they feel well suited to the spacious pages of The New Yorker. Often reading Macaulay’s work in The NY Times I have the sense that the pieces are just in the wrong place and that they really aren’t reviews at all. Sometimes his thinking has been hopelessly misplaced. In 2011 he suggested that the programming for principal roles in 2011 New York City Ballet season had turned dull and repetitive. The reason? Not enough injuries to principal dancers which had diminished the number of replacements from the corps for solo roles!

For now, I’m sticking with writing that gives the readers a sense what it feels like to be there and avoids the smug commentary of the know-it-all who seems chronically dissatisfied with what he sees. There is already plenty of that out there.

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