Perfect Dance Criticism: A Guide on Writing Along Dance

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The perfect dance critic does not exist. […]

The perfect dance critic knows when it’s time to quit, change careers or retire.

-Miguel Gutierrez, The Perfect Dance Critic

Let’s be honest first, I am no expert on this matter. A 23 year-old college graduate, I have never landed any sort of stable jobs in dance criticism. I “review” dance mostly in my free time, twice a month on this blog or on Anomaly, and I only got paid twice in the past year for my writings on Dana Michel and Narcissister.

I am no dance critic; and yet, I yearn to be a perfect one.

To be a perfect dance critic is quite an impossible task, requiring an impossible amount of (unpaid) labor pushing against an impossible economy – an economy that shapes how the critic works, and essentially what the critic writes. This imperfect economy does not allow the perfect dance critic (gender pronoun: they/them) two most important things: (a) time and (b) artistry.

(a) The perfect dance critic needs an incredible amount of time: time to research, time to write, time to sit on a performance, time to stand up and stretch, time to forget about that performance, time to decide to write on another one instead – time that the economy cannot afford, both in the monetary and the ideological sense. How can the dance critic take time, when the imperfect editor demands a piece of writing before the opening night, just 24 hours after the open dress rehearsal? How can the perfect critic take time, when the imperfect dance review’s purpose is to inform whether the readers should attend the performance or not, which means the writing must be published before the dance’s weekend-long run finishes? The imperfect dance critic races against time to put out an article before the performance’s alleged disappearance. Inevitably, the imperfect dance critic loses.

(b) The perfect dance critic needs to be an artist in their own right, and not the arbiter of art that the economy expects them to be. They must have little to no authority over the performance that they write about, while their text must be approached as a poetic dance existing alongside the dance (shoutout to André Lepecki). When talking about artistry, I am not concerned with the art of writing, which frankly is abundant among imperfect dance criticism. Rather, I want to assert the perfect dance review as a composition, as a piece of art with its singular aesthetic commitments and social responsibilities. To think about criticism as an art independent of, yet parallel with, and asymptotic to the dance, is to free the dance from the critic’s grip: the perfect dance critic does not write on dance, or about dance, as if the virtuosic labor exerted by the dancers’ bodies is a separate entity waiting to be judged and captured into words. The perfect dance critic writes along the dance, entering into relations with the dance, reacting and acting upon the propositions made by the dance. The perfect dance review does not have an inherent function (i.e. evaluation) but drives itself toward the unknown through endless experimentations with form and content. The unknown, unfortunately, does not sell.

(a+b) Hence, the perfect dance critic does not exist within the imperfect economy of dance criticism.  The perfect dance critic must not be a dance critic. 

I come to this conclusion after composing the 7-point guide below, and realizing that almost none of my instruction would be possible to follow in the real economy, either in a journalistic or in an academic setting. However, this conundrum also excites me because it gives me the agency as an almost-but-not-quite critic to reimagine what perfect dance criticism should be. I feel the freedom to create my own set of guidelines, to yearn for something else other than the imperfect dance review, to drive myself toward the impossible, the unattainable, the perfect.

Being at the margin of the economy, I am not too constrained by time, nor by the imperfect editor’s demands. Being an artist, I do not see my texts as any different from the performances that I write along, or the performances that I choreograph on stage. Moreover, being young, I have that energy – the energy to work for much less than I deserve.

I hope you can feel a sense of naïveté in the writing to follow. To conceptualize perfection is to indulge oneself in endless naïveté: to reject the here and now, to believe that changes will happen, to trust that utopia will be realized, to think better, to dream better, and to imagine better.

  1. Don’t take notes during the performance
    I often hear in dance writing workshops that note-taking during the performance is a matter of choice, and that if you choose to take note, you have to learn how to write in the dark. However, to take note is to inevitably remove yourself from the performance, assuming an “outside” position that is both among and separate from other audience members. For me, this action reflects a mode of knowledge production that is rooted in whiteness and maleness, where the figure of authority (i.e. the critic, the anthropologist, the scientist) tries to attain objectivity by distancing themselves from the subject of study. In turn, note-taking inherently privileges specific kinds of dance that rely on vision and the rigid division between performers and spectators, but not necessarily works in favor of participatory performances (read: black dances) where audience members are not supposed to sit still from afar to observe and to write. How does the imperfect dance critic write about participatory performances if they decide not to participate in the performance, but to take notes instead? Well, they do it anyway because they can, and it is uncanny.
  2. Don’t write immediately after the performance “finishes”
    Most teachers urge me to write up a review soon after the performance “finishes” so that it would still be fresh in my mind – they urge me to race against the performance’s disappearance. But performance does not “finish” – in its apparent disappearance, performance transforms itself into affective traces, circulating and mutating endlessly without ever losing its “freshness.” Why would I try to capture the liveness of the performance and always fail, while I also have the choice to write along the afterlives of the dance? People are often worried that they would “forget” the dance the longer they wait. My response to that concern about ephemerality is: if the dance does not provoke any feelings strong enough for you to remember it, then you probably want to choose another dance. Here, time acts as a fabulous tool to help you (1) decide whether or not you want to write along that performance and (2) select what parts of the performance you want to pay attention to (i.e. what you remember).In general, I wait somewhere between three and six months to finish my review (the longest I waited was one year with Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC). At the time of the performance, I would merely enjoy it as a spectator – no notes, no intention to review. Then I would jot down a few things right after the performance if there are texts spoken, which demand some accuracy when quoting; otherwise, I would go to sleep and type up a *very* rough draft the next morning. A lot of the drafts never get developed into fuller forms, either because I no longer relate myself with certain dances as time goes by, or because I have yet to find the urgency to put these article out into the world.
  3. Thick description of the performance
    This is the one point I agree with conventional dance criticism. It is important to describe in detail what happens inside and outside of the performance, not only for the readers who might or might not have experienced the piece, but also for yourself to work through why you think the way you do. I often approach thick description as curation, where I assemble my memories of the dance, flesh them out in one form or another in order to make a proposition that I deem essential.
  4. Locate yourself in the writing
    A teacher used to tell me that no one cares about when you (i.e. the critic) gets to the theatre, which row you sit in, how you get home after, etc. The only thing you should be focusing on are the events on stage, but not what you do or how you feel before, during, or after the performance. Yes, maybe you can throw in some “I” statement in there, but this teacher would rather you not because it would take up the space that you can use for the dance. If I were not such a teacher’s pet, I would have done much more than just rolling my eyes, in order to push back against such perspective. For me, I am always as interested in the positionality of the author as, if not more than, the dance itself: their racial identity, their gender expression, their socioeconomic status, their relationship to the artist prior to the performance, their mood during the performance, their interaction with the world after the performance. To acknowledge subjectivity is not enough – the perfect dance critic must make themselves visible and vulnerable in the writing, finding as many opportunities within the text as possible to clarify their social, historical, and cultural relationship to the dance.
  5. Write what you want to see in the world
    Another teacher used to tell me that there is already so much negativity in the world, that she wants her critical works to generate light and agency, to enact what she wants to see in the world instead. She wants dance criticism to not labor itself toward criticizing, which is exhausting and paralyzing for both the critic and the art-maker. To criticize is to dwell on the counter-productive question of what you do not see in the performance, rather than open up the generative zone of what you see and what you want to see. Yet, perfect dance criticism is not writing about what you want to see, either, but writing into the world your vision and your imagination. The perfect dance critic is no different from an activist who commits themselves to better worlds and creatively works their way toward these ideals.I broke this rule once in the past 16 months when reviewing Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud’s DFS. The whiteness at stake in the performance, and also in the larger festival, upsets me so much that I feel the need to write negatively, to undo and to burst open the colonial logic materializing on stage.
  6. Be explicit about your agenda.
    Every writer has an agenda in one form or another – neutrality itself is also an agenda that has hitherto upheld whiteness and maleness. First, explore what your agenda is (i.e. what you want to see in the world) and be explicit with yourself about it. Only then can you be explicit with your readers about what you are trying to do with your text. My agenda has always been providing theoretical frameworks to support non-white performance makers, because I believe there is an enormous lack in our ways of understanding dances that are not rooted in the tradition of whiteness.
  7. Experimentation
    The perfect dance critic is an artist who never stops experimenting with their writing, who approaches their work with an excessive amount of research and rigor. They do not follow a formula, but use the performance as a compass to guide their process, and eventually their product. They never know what they are going to write until words start flowing onto the page, just like the dance who does not take the shape it does until tech, or even dress rehearsal.

 

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For a related guide on writing, see How NOT To Write Like A White Man: An Inadequate Guide.

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