During the dog days of summer, the usually clamorous Montreal dance scene quiets down just enough for dance fans to catch their breath. There are a few shows in town and beyond (such as the Saint-Sauveur Festival), but for the most part, performers take a break from the stage. A perfect time, in other words, for this dance writer to reflect on why covering the art form is worthwhile.
All art forms claim to be the neglected middle child when it comes to recognition and funding. I have worked for a symphony orchestra, done volunteer work for an opera company, and hung out with poets, fiction writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, independent filmmakers and, of course, dancers and choreographers. All claim that their art is the most neglected. Sadly, it seems the dance people have the dubious distinction of being right in their claim.
Dance has been viewed for ages as a minor art. Perhaps as blinded by my love for the form (in whatever style) as I am, I fail to understand why an art that relies mainly on that marvelous thing called the human body is not more popular than it is. It should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it? One of the first things children do, and with great joy, is dance.
“You are lucky in what you do,” said a choreographer friend of mine recently, pointing to a print issue of Maisonneuve. “This will last longer.” He isn’t far off the mark. In spite of the video recordings of some of his most breathtaking works, those that are not currently being performed might as well have never existed.
Dance is more dependent on the musings of its critics than, say, poetry and music are on the writings of their critics. Unless you live in a culturally significant city, your chances of seeing a wide range of live dance (much less different casts of a single work) are slim. If you want to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, of course, your local symphony orchestra will perform it sooner or later—it usually arrives a few weeks after Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Why such sarcasm? Because even the most obscure post-minimalist or Renaissance composer is more likely to be culturally available—at least, satisfyingly enough on CD—than any well-established or even world famous choreographer. Adding to the scarcity of live dance performances in some parts, is the fact that recorded dance rarely satisfies. Video and film dance recordings have yet to make the necessary jump to become their own art forms, suitable for public consumption beyond the art house crowd.
“Even with the advent of video cameras that make taping rehearsals and performances easier, dance still has that disappearing quality—that ephemerality so often written about. It’s important to the history of a work that it gets written about, and in a way that reveals something about it,” says dance critic Deborah Jowitt.
Before film and dance notation (or “Labanotation”—pretty useless, even to some dance writers) a piece lived only during its performance and afterwards in the memories of the audience and the hearts, minds and muscles of the dancers who performed it. There are reputedly amazing works that are, for all practical purposes, lost forever. Thanks to critics, though, vestiges of a few such lost works live on in the printed word, sometimes in tandem with lithographs or photographs.
Like the artists they review, writers on dance must in turn be nearly as inventive. For anyone who has struggled to write a dance review, trying to translate the visual, kinetic, and nonverbal language of a dance work—usually seen only once—into words is a form of mental gymnastics that requires prodigious acts of memory (no rewind button, no turning back to the page!) and an ability to scribble notes in the dark without disturbing your theatre neighbours or distracting your attention from the stage.
Dance critic Walter Sorell acknowledges almost as much in his classic 1965 essay “To Be a Critic.” At the same time, he argues that dance critics must be poets themselves for “only the immediacy and remoteness of the poetic image can picture the visual image of human bodies in space and time, can make us relive and remember the elusive quality of the dance.” Cold comfort for the critic who loves dance but never once tried to write a sonnet (unlike Edwin Denby, who was both a dance critic and a poet).
A dance critic’s work serves not only as an evaluative tool but also a place where, however imperfectly, dance goes to see itself—to have a history. It is not necessary to read the work of other critics to review a show. But if an artist’s development throughout his or her career is of any concern, unless you’ve had the good fortune to see a dance maker from the beginning, often the only way to learn about that trajectory is through the work of your fellow critics who have.
I started writing dance criticism after I moved to Montreal in 2001. I was new to the city, new to the field. Despite the numerous performances I’ve attended, I still feel as if I have stumbled into the middle of a lively conversation, trying to learn everyone’s name and just what the heck it is they are discussing with such fervour (in both English and French). It is a testimony to Montreal’s amazing artistic creativity in dance and the arts generally that the city poses such a pleasant challenge.
As a reader of dance criticism, however, I am more experienced. At the age of eleven, when I became serious about my ballet training, I bought my first copy of Dance Magazine and from then on devoured every one of its issues and every dance book I could get my hands on. A few years later, while I spent my summers on scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School, I borrowed my mother’s copies of the New Yorker and soon became a fan of Arlene Croce, then the magazine’s dance critic. Eventually, I moved on to read Jowitt herself as well as other critics in the field.
The truth is, I follow dance writers because, apart from my needs as a dance journalist, I really do enjoy reading dance criticism for its own sake.
My guides in Montreal dance have been Victor Swoboda, Linde Howe-Beck and Philip Szporer in English publications; in French journalism (with the difficulty that comes with a second language) Aline Apostolska, Frédérique Doyon, and Stephanie Brody. For the rest of Canada, I often turn to Paula Citron and Kaija Pepper. Their work, among that of other Canadian writers and my old favourites back in the US, is an invaluable source of information and inspiration.
The best critics (often the products of enlightened publications that give them adequate space) are wonders of observation and insight not only on dance, but also on the whole business of why we human beings persist in creating art in the face of so many (often financial) obstacles.
For me, Croce remains the gold standard. Today, I keep her work bedside and occasionally dip in and read about performances that took place over twenty years ago and yet still shimmer with life. Her “reviews” could give any belles-lettrists a run for their money. They drip with wit but little sarcasm; her language about movement is evocative but not too technical; and she cares, really cares, about the art form, its choreographers and dancers, without too much sentimentality.
I read dance criticism—and write it—because dance still deserves more attention than it gets, despite the fact there is more dance and writing on it than ever. A case in point was an article in Time Magazine this past spring on New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. At first I was happy to see it, but how paltry it was! Wheeldon is an artist who not only creates significant art but can speak eloquently about it and his field (see “Balanchine’s Heir Apparent”). Compared to most of his fellow dance makers, he gets far more press, but anything substantial is usually found in trade publications. In mainstream journalism, forget it.
When I think of the serious dance makers of Western dance throughout history—Marius Petipa, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Jiri Kylian, Ohad Naharin, Mark Morris; and locally, Édouard Lock, José Navas, Marie Chouinard, Isabelle Van Grimde, and so many others; and, last but hardly least, the dancers who sacrifice their energy and financial security to perform their works—I am, well, moved beyond words.
Critics are certainly fallible, no matter how experienced or green they may be. But as Jowitt points out, for all the technological tools we have at our disposal, criticism is still necessary to the survival of the art form, to help keep dance works alive. “Criticism clings to a dance event the same way that lobby conversations do—contributing accretions to its ‘meaning.’” The purpose of criticism is not idle evaluation, but to keep those conversations going and invite new people into the lobby—and hopefully into the auditorium. That is what I’ve aimed to do with this column since I started writing it.
Dance is meant to be seen live: only then is it truly alive. In the meantime, however, read the critics with an open eye.
In the coming months, I’ll be writing entries in a series called “Footnotes”—columns about past dance critics, from the 19th century to today. See you in September with more previews, interviews and reviews when the regular season starts up. Adding to the conversation while filling in for me August 24 and September 7 will be Erin Flynn and Marie Claire Forté.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.