Dance performances, and modern dance performances in particular, can be difficult to explain in words. Just like there are techniques for different styles of dance, there are techniques that build good dance criticism, too. And to be honest, most of these rules are universal when it comes to building a solid critique.
1. Consider your audience and write accordingly.
Don’t use lots of complicated jargon when writing to an audience that has never studied dance.
2. Be accessible.
If you’re going to put your opinions on public display, be prepared to defend and discuss them past a single review. If you can’t back up an opinion, don’t put it on paper (or the internet).
3. Don’t be a cheerleader.
It is important to review both good and bad performances with equal integrity. If a critic only writes about good shows, he or she may be viewed as more of a Public Relations representative than as an unbiased third party. That being said, it is up to the critic to recognize why a given performance did not sit well. Was it a bad show, or did it just have an aesthetic that the critic didn’t care for? This brings us to my next point…
4. Recognize personal bias and be upfront about it.
All of us, as audience members, have a personal bias. (I, for example, bore easily when watching narrative dance forms like classical ballet.) It is important for a critic to approach each performance with any biases in mind, and to filter his or her thoughts accordingly. The aim in a given review is objectivity.
To safeguard against writing biased reviews, I like to ask myself why I didn’t like certain parts of a show. Was the choreography executed poorly by the performers? Did it lack dynamic? Did I find any parts of the show to be offensive? If yes, why?
Another aspect I consider is how strongly I feel in my dislike of a dance work. In my opinion, performances that leave a viewer feeling blasé – not fired up with a positive OR negative opinion – are the shows that are truly poorly done. Sometimes that strong negative feeling is what the choreographer aimed for; sometimes, however, a show is just a train wreck. It is up to the critic to tell the difference.
5. Put a work in context.
It is important for critics who are constantly seeing work to engage the public in conversations about them. By providing an audience with the greater context of a piece – both in the present tense and historically – the critic can foster a deeper public understanding.
This can be done in two ways. A vertical comparison compares the new work to performances that were done previously within the same genre. What dance pieces in history influenced the one that was just performed? In what ways?
A critic can also make a horizontal comparison, comparing the show to other performances that are happening at the same time. What are this choreographer’s peers doing? How is this person’s work the same or different than his or her peers’?
Though there are certainly more rules to discuss, I’d like to open the floor to questions:
What are your thoughts about writing or reading criticism? How can a dance writer help you better understand a performance or performance genre?
Have you attended any pre- or post-performance discussions? Have you found them to be helpful? Why or why not?