A GUIDE TO DANCE REVIEWING AND WRITING
Want to write a dance review? Go ahead, do it. Practice is the best training. Afterwards, see what you think of your writing. Then do some more. And see what you think some more. Then do some more again.
I was never taught how to “review”, or to write. Maybe a little about how to watch dance. All I’ve learnt has been through practice: watching, writing (often trying to imitate the writers I liked best), rewriting, reading, rereading. Do you have to love it to do it? A bit – somewhere, somehow – but more than that, you have to do it.
So if you want to learn how to write reviews, practise writing reviews. If you want to know what I think about review writing, read on.
What is a review?
It is a way for readers (you should assume they have not seen the work) to see the performance, filtered through your eyes and your words. It tries to answer the following questions:
- What happened? → describe the work
- What did it mean? → interpret the work
- Was it any good? → evaluate the work
These are all questions about the work. There is one more question, about your writing:
- Why should I read your review? → engage the reader
You’re at a performance. How do you start looking at and thinking about it if you then want to write a review? Think about how to answer those questions above.
Pay close attention to what happens. What are the movements? Are they repeated? Is there a story or not? How is the movement organised? What is the sound/design/staging? What is the sequence, the transitions? Open your eyes and your mind. What happens is the foundation of your review.
You can’t describe everything, so choose what is meaningful to you. That could be a story, character or gesture. But it could be a phrase, a shape, an arrangement in space, a transition, an interaction, an emotional or physical feeling, an appreciation of skill, craft or beauty. Be open-minded about what ‘meaning’ is. Connect the meaning to what happened.
Trust your instincts, but think about them. If something didn’t work for you – why didn’t it? If something did – why? Opinion is not the same as evaluation. It needs to be qualified. You don’t have to use “I” just to qualify it as your opinion, because will readers will take that as understood; and besides, they want to hear about the work, not about you. But you should relate your opinion to what happened, and what it meant to you – to description and interpretation.
Writing about dance
Engage (1): putting dance in words
You need to build a picture of what happened in the reader’s mind. Without it, all your ideas will seem abstract. With it, your readers will “see” what you are saying.
Dance is difficult to put into words though. There are three main tools to help you.
- Be concrete. Dance is a performance, an event. Don’t be too abstract or generalised, otherwise the mental picture you build will be vague.
- Choose good verbs. Dance is action, it is people doing something. Verbs are doing word They bring action and specificity to your writing. Don’t write run when you could write sprint, gallop, hurtle, dash, scarper.
- Use imagery. An image is when you liken something to something That way, you can tap the connotations of the “something else”, without having to explain them. “Flops like a fish” is an image. So are “prom queen smile” and “alabaster beauty” and “tumbleweed skids”. Beware unwanted connotations though. I once had a student who used images for slow, fluid movement and unwittingly made it sound like effluent in a sewage pipe.
Writing for readers
Engage (2): making words work
You’re not just writing about something (dance), you’re writing to someone (the reader). Think of your review not as representation, but as communication. You don’t want readers to get bored, do you? So be interesting. How? Here are some tips.
- Check spelling, grammar, punctuation. Boring – but do Mistakes trip the reader up. Good spelling, grammar and punctuation are unobtrusive, running smoothly in the background so that your ideas can shine through, unsullied.
- Tell a story. Think what makes a story interesting, and then use those techniques. Examples:
- Identifying with characters
- Recognising emotions
- Setting the scene vividly
- Variety of pacing
- Interesting style
- Good flow and transitions (don’t lose your reader)
- Twists and turns
- Leaving enough to the imagination (don’t spell everything out)
- A strong beginning (“hook”)
- A strong ending (“punch”)
- Think where your writing will appear and who will read Your brilliant philosophical insights will just be a turn-off in the entertainment listings of a local news site. Picture your publication and your reader, and write for them.
- Remember: language is your medium. Enjoy it, be creativ You’re not just reporting something (the dance), you’re making something (the review). Think of the text as your choreography, the words as your performers. You don’t want to lose your audience’s interest, do you?
Over to you – practical tips
Before watching – PREPARE
Read background information and programme notes, but don’t take them at face value. Check that you know the name of the company, what’s on the programme, who the creators and performers are.
During the performance – SENSE
Put your background information one side now. Instead, focus on what is happening, live. Become a receptor to impressions and images and feelings. Open your eyes, your ears, your body, your mind, your heart. But remember: later, you will have to produce words.
So let your sense receptors be connected to the linguistic part of your brain. Let words come to mind.
Take notes, but not too many. There are two types of note. The first is as memory jogger, to remind you of a highlight or noteworthy moment. The second is a “writing” note, for when a good word or phrase comes to mind.
After the performance – WRITE
Write a draft, or at least detailed notes, as soon as you can after seeing the performance. You’ll be surprised how much and how quickly you forget what happened and how you felt.
Don’t worry about getting your words right first time. Just get the words out and aim for a first draft. After that, you can revise it.
If you have no idea what to think, write down what happened. Once words start being laid down, you usually begin to find out what you think, and why.
Don’t think of writing about something, think of writing it to someone. Picture that person when you write, and your review will sound more like communication and less like documentation.
After you have written, take off your writer’s hat. If you have time, leave your review for while. When you come back, forget that you were ever the writer, and put on your reader’s hat instead. Now read it with a critical eye – the same critical eye that you bought to the dance performance. Think what it is, what it means, whether it’s any good, and whether it flows and keeps you interested. (Sometimes it really helps to read it out loud, to yourself or to a friend.) Then revise your writing, as necessary.
Finally, remember that it doesn’t have to be 100% perfect. It has to be good enough for you to be willing to show it in public, under your name, by the deadline (if there is one; if there isn’t, make one), and to take the consequences. That’s what artists have to do, and you should expect no less of yourself.
Review done? Well done! Pat yourself on the back.