I was at a dance conference a couple of years ago, and during the general chit-chat that goes on at the end I was asked by one young performer what my professional connection with dance was. I explained that I wrote reviews, and casually namedropped the Guardian. She was spectacularly unimpressed. “A critic!” she replied, with some contempt, and proceeded to dump a truckful of complaints on my head: critics don’t understand but pass judgement anyway; they all agree with each other so what’s the point; they disagree with each other so what’s the point; they’re just interested in sounding clever; they only like ballet. After haranguing me for some time, she hinted, not subtly, that since I got press tickets I might like to offer her the occasional freebie. Yeah right, I thought, an open invite for you to beat me round the head some more, I don’t think so. Naturally, I didn’t say that. I just smiled – the false, non-committal smile of a critic – and left it that.
Actually, she had raised some interesting questions, but as so often when lines are drawn – artists on one side of the fence, critics on the other – this not so much a conversation as an airing of grievances. Yet I think we have a lot of common ground. Not our aims, not our motivations, not our ways of seeing – but the position we’re in.
For a start, we are both in the business of communication. Take dance first. In general, dance happens in a public space, usually some kind of stage. It is made by choreographers and presented by dancers. It is watched by audiences, who often pay to see it. It is booked by venues, who must fit it into their own facilities and programme schedules. It is backed by funders, promoted by publicists, and occasionally it is reviewed in public by critics.
Now for criticism. It too appears in public – in some kind of publication. It is made by writers and presented through words. It is seen by readers, who may pay for the publication. It is commissioned by editors, who must fit it into the format and profile of their publication. Publicists will try to “sell” stories about their shows to editors and reviewers. And finally the reviews are made available to the public – who very occasionally even comment on them in public, through letters and blog posts and so on.
Dance and dance criticism are very different activities, but there are a lot of parallels between the frameworks they operate in. If you think of dance as a kind of communication, then dance criticism is a kind of meta-communication. I think this helps to illuminate the role that critics play. Let’s ask some questions about dance, and apply the answers to criticism.
For example, who is dance for? Ultimately, it’s for an audience. Which audience – specialists, generalists, schoolchildren, local theatregoers or whatever – is another question; but performance entails spectatorship. Likewise, criticism is for readers. Which readers depends on the publication, and that in turn will affect the style, length and depth of the review. But in all cases one thing is certain: dancers and choreographers are fundamental as subjects of criticism, but they are incidental as readers of it. Criticism is written about them, not for them.
Another question: what makes a good dance? A checklist might include such factors as strength of ideas, expressivity, craftsmanship, compositional skill, commitment in performance, technical proficiency, attention to detail, ability to engage the spectator. The parallel answer in criticism would be strength of ideas, verbal eloquence, composition, vividness of style. Now I’ve often heard it said (by artists) that if you can’t dance or choreograph yourself, you can’t be a good critic. But from this perspective, that is beside the point. To be a good critic, the prime skill is to communicate in your own medium – words – not in the not in the medium that you’re writing about.
Is the subject matter important? Only tenuously. You can have a brilliant dance about a trifling matter, or a dismal show about a fascinating subject. The important thing is whether the dance engages with its own themes, works its subject into its material – in other words, not what it does but the way that it does it. The same goes for criticism. As long as the minimal requirements of reporting are met (that the facts are accurate), what lifts criticism above the banal is not reportage but illumination and insight. Readers may not agree with the reviewer or like the review – that is their prerogative – but they will appreciate writing that gets to grips with its subject. For that, “objectivity” or “balance” are less important than partiality, engagement and conviction.
In drawing these analogies, am I suggesting that criticism is a kind of parallel art? A parallel practice, yes. But an art? No. It is less creative, more hidebound, and rarely innovative or adventurous. Dance is a moving, multifarious and many-headed beast, while criticism remains comparatively monocultural, staying largely with an accepted range of formats, angles and subjects. Partly, that’s down to the economics of publishing: though dance has grown, the space it commands in print and broadcast media has shrunk. The internet – one of the causes of this shrinkage in the first place – nevertheless offers new opportunities for dance writing to diversify. I don’t think it’s happened much yet, but this is surely where new developments will take place.
The terms “diversity” and “monoculture” bring me finally to the particular issue of South Asian dance in Britain. A frequently asked question in this area, particularly in relation to more formalised classical styles, is: do you have to be an expert in the culture to be a critic of it? My answer is a qualified no. Specific cultural expertise – about the time cycles of kathak, for example – will clearly help to engage with the subject. But engagement, not expertise, is the crucial term here, and it’s possible to engage in different ways as long as you are alert and sensitive. The problem arises when all or most of the reviewers are non-experts. If none of them can recognise a time cycle, then a central element will be missing from the range of critical response. But don’t imagine that expert knowledge is enough for you to write reviews. It isn’t. It’s not nearly enough. What matters more are how you dig into your subject, mobilise your medium, connect with your audience. That’s what choreographers need to do; critics need to do the same.
I can’t finish this article without mentioning a particular feature of South Asian dance criticism in Britain. Those involved in this sector are among the most forthright, articulate and opinionated people I have ever met. But it seems to me they are happier to keep negative opinions (“criticism”) off the record. It’s as if they fear that it might be letting the side down – or bad for their careers. This does dance a disservice. For a dance culture to flourish, it needs not only encouragement and nurture, but also the antagonism, irreverence and argument that criticism can bring. Those are the terms of engagement. A robust and diverse dance culture can support a robust, diverse critical culture. More than that: it will thrive in it.
There, we have a common goal after all.