Why I Won’t Write Your Scintillating Review

Dear fellow dance artists:

I’m afraid I can’t give you what you want, if what you want is for me to come to your show and write a review that describes your work as “dazzling” or “timeless.” I know that reviews are important for writing grants and catching presenters’ attention, but I question the efficacy of many reviews in generating conversation about dance. Here’s why:

  1. Who reads dance reviews? Mainly other dance artists and friends of dance artists. Is neighbor Bob reading dance reviews? Unless he knows you or his friend/relative dances for you, he’s probably not reading your show’s review.
  2. Reviews often end up cut into bite-size quotes, taken out of context, and quoted as subtext on postcards propagating your next show.
  3. As dance artists, we know if we liked a show or not, and we don’t need to know what a reviewer thought to validate our opinion. We often talk about a show with our peers, analyzing its objective, criticizing what we perceive to be its failings, and mentally dissecting how the piece fit in our personal landscape of aesthetic and experience. Unfortunately most reviews are worlds away from the verbal deconstruction of work that happens naturally in the dance community.
  4. Though it is sometimes argued that reviews are valuable because they generate feedback and response, when I interviewed fifteen contemporary choreographers on what sorts of feedback and response they crave, many responded their most valued source of feedback came from peers and non-dancers. (Read article here: Art of Watching)
  5. What if I don’t share your aesthetic preferences? Should you change what you do because I don’t care for it? What if I had to pee the whole time, and wished it would be over with? What if I felt sick? What if my personal life was a mess? I happen to be a young active dancer in the community, but what if I wasn’t? What if I was a dance critic stuck in Balanchine’s heyday? What if I’d never stepped foot on a dance floor, or if I hadn’t danced in 20 years? My review is more a reflection of me as a viewer than it is of you as a choreographer.
  6. It used to be that dance reviews functioned as a form of historical documentation. Now, when I want to learn about an artist, I don’t sift through their press; I simply type their name into YouTube and watch what I can find. Videos of live performance are the best medium to date of documenting dance.
  7. Reviews used to function as a sounding board. Several critics would see shows and write reviews, so the variety of voices leveled out the power one bad review had. Now there are so few dance reviewers, many artists are lucky to get any press coverage.

When dance artists get a bad review, they commonly dismiss it. When they get a good review, they post it on Facebook, add it to their website, send it to their friends, etc. I would probably do the same; it feels good to see your name in print praising what you’ve worked hard to put together. But if I am going to write reviews, I think we need to move away from the bad/good mindset and redefine the term “review” so it encapsulates dance-writing that asks bigger questions and serves broader purposes.

Writer Henry James proposed three questions you could adequately put to art: What is the artist trying to achieve? Does he/she succeed? Is it worthwhile? I often come back to this last question when I watch dance. A more appropriate analysis of dance lies not in the “what” but in the “why.” Why are you doing what you’re doing? Questioning the validity of art, the “is it worthwhile,” feels so much more important to me than assessing the actual product.

I see dance-writing as a form of documentation. And because video has become a more useful tool for documenting dance than writing, I generally find reviews obsolete from a documentary standpoint. But a camera captures a performance or rehearsal; what is not captured on camera is the culture of dance. Who are our presenters and how do they wield power? What presentation models are effective for engaging audiences? How are we training young dancers? What does it mean to age through dance? What trends are coming up in choreography? Essentially, what are we doing and why are we doing it? It feels essential to tackle these questions in writing, as it serves as a form of documentation of the times we live in as dancers.

Dance-writing should be all-encompassing. It should be entertaining. It should be honest. It should be funny. It should be impassioned. Artists should be writing about their own work and about other’s work as well. Peer review should be rampant. Non-dancers should feel free to weigh in. The general public should see dance as a living breathing art form as accessible as music, film, or books. If the written dialogue about dance is narrow, the general discourse will be narrow by extension. Reviews should invite readers to question and wonder about dance, not make them feel like they missed a show they wouldn’t have understood.

I’m looking forward to coming to your show. And I’m looking forward to writing about your work… if it gives me cause for thought and is in line with other topics and themes I’ve been seeing and thinking about. But I won’t be writing a review about how “dynamic,” “mercurial,” or “athletic” your work is. My goal is to never be quoted on a postcard.


Emmaly Wiederholt

2 Responses to “Why I Won’t Write Your Scintillating Review”

  1. stanceondance

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinion; it’s so important to have lots of voices and perspectives not just on choreography itself, but on even this, the role reviews play.

  2. bway3153

    what’s particularly gratifying to me about a review written by an informed viewer (sometimes called a critic), is that it can put choreographic efforts in a broader context. It introduces scope. it can invoke ideas, events and images from the world beyond the stage, art form and era you have populated with your dance. Is it important to know that a piece might suggest a seminal postmodern moment, literary conceit or historic pas de deux? i suppose you can look at a cathedral and just enjoy the beauty- forget architecture, symbolism, history etc. But for me, these contextual ruminations deepen the experience. As a choreographer, a knowledgable eye from a skilled wordsmith allows me to feel seen at a different level. Working in what is a marginal aspect of our culture (the arts in general, dance in particular), i find that informed writing helps me feel part of an important cultural trajectory. i like that. it gives me courage. it helps tease out or even amplify the sources of my own imagination. And those adjectives you eschew help identify/characterize the motional realm, they give life and specificity to the page as much as the humor and the passion. i read dance reviews/writing about other artists and want to see the work in my mind’s eye. i move with the words. After all, mind AND body are the stuff of the dance form. We need all the tools at our disposal.
    i’d say, don’t sweat the postcards.

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