"The Humanities and Dance Criticism"

by Julie Van Camp

Federation Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (January/February 1986): 14-17

This article may be printed or downloaded for personal, scholarly, or educational use, but only if the full citation, copyright notice, and this permission notice are included in full. It may not be sold or otherwise used for commercial purposes. For permission for commercial reproduction, please contact the author.

Page numbers from the original publication are indicated in the text as follows: /p.x

/p. 14 The humanities, as defined by Congress, include the history, theory, and criticism of the arts. While the National Endowment for the Arts funds the creation, performance, and display of art, the National Endowment for the Humanities funds the theoretical dimensions that place the arts within a broader cultural context. Admittedly, the line is sometimes difficult to draw precisely, but generally, the humanities center on verbal analysis of the phenomenon of art, using the methodology and content of various humanities disciplines, such as history and philosophy.

The performance of dance enjoyed a well-publicized "boom" in the seventies, and scholars, at long last, have begun to study dance systematically, in a fashion long accorded to the "major" arts of music, theater, literature, and visual art. The theoretical study of dance, however, using the content and methodology of dance, however, using the content and methodology of the humanities, has only begun. there is still little in the way of rigorous dialogue among well-trained scholars in the various disciplines.

The State of Dance Criticism

Dance history is more advanced as a discipline than dance criticism in that it enjoys an increasingly refined methodology, an expanding body of literature, and a growing number of scholars with advanced academic training. More and more dance historians hold positions in colleges and universities, providing important opportunities to interact with other scholars and to conduct substantial research.

Things are not so promising for dance criticism. There is little formal training in dance criticism, other than a single introductory course in some dance departments. The best dance critics writing today in this country generally do not hold full-time academic positions. Rather, they are journalists, publishing in magazines and newspapers C e.g., Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times, Arlene Croce of the New Yorker, Tobi Tobias of Dance Magazine and New York Magazine. None of the leading critics writing today have doctorates. the books of criticism that such critics have published are typically nothing but collections of criticism previously appearing in a newspaper or magazine. Many of these are worthwhile collections, but they typically lack the length and systematic analysis of criticism of other art forms.

Many critics earn their living in unrelated areas. In Washington, D.C., the Post has one full-time dance critic on its staff, Alan M. Kriegsman, the only dance critic ever to have won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. The rest of the many writers in the city publish their criticism as freelance writers and earn their primary income in other ways. This makes it difficult for them to find time and energy for sustained critical writing.

The line between "reviews" and "criticism" is difficult to draw for any art form. Much of the dance evaluation published in newspapers and magazines, especially by those noted above, is criticism in the best sense. That is, it puts a performance into a /p. 15 broader artistic context and includes analysis of the judgments and reasoning. It puts works of art and artists into cultural and historical perspective, and it includes descriptions of works that are "literary" in their style and grace. Thus such criticism has much in common with the humanities disciplines and their focus on art as a cultural phenomenon.

The "reviews" are familiar nowadays from the proliferation of all-purpose local television critics. Many offer only a gut reaction, cute banter, and seemingly arbitrary emotings of their own eccentric tastes, without the reasoning and analysis found in good criticism. Some newspaper articles suffer from this same lack of critical substance, although many, despite space limitations, are astoundingly theoretical.

The Components of Dance Criticism

What are the qualifications of a good dance critic? Although many dancers would disagree, it is not necessary for a good critic to have been a dancer, and few leading critics have that background. Put simply, the skills necessary for good dancing are not the same as those necessary for good writing and criticism, and vice versa. That so many dancers and choreographers disagree with this stems from their understandable suspicion of intellectuals. Until recently, dance has not been accorded the respect and seriousness enjoyed by other art forms. Why? there are many explanations, but this country's history of puritanism seems to have played some part. The dominance in this art form by women (as performers, choreographers, and producers) also might account for the biased attitude of many that it is frivolous and unworthy of the serious attention directed to other art forms.

The first qualification of a good dance critic is the ability to write well. The critic must be able to communicate clearly and succinctly, to adapt to the particular readership of the publication (general readership? special interest in dance?), and to write fast and well under the pressures of deadlines and limited space (a fact of life for most journalists). A broad educational background that gives one a cultural understanding that can be brought to bear on particular dance performances is also important. This might be training in history, philosophy, or literature generally, especially since degree programs in dance criticism are virtually nonexistent.

Second, good critics must have seen a lot of dance. They ms possible, both by performers and choreographers. (I am skeptical of writers who claim to be competent in writing about any art form. There are simply not enough hours in the day to see enough performances of all the art forms to have the necessary base of comparison!)

Third, good critics have an insatiable curiosity about the art form -- a desire to learn everything they can, to read about its history, and to read other critics and writers regularly, and constantly to learn more about the art form.

Who is the audience for a dance critic? Opinions vary, but I believe critics write primarily for the other people in the audience and for the potential dance audience in the general population. Critics try to help that audience focus on things worth thinking about in dance. The critic should crystallize gut reactions and intuitions that audience members form about a performance. The critic should educate an audience about what to look at and provide a historic and stylistic context enhancing the appreciation and understanding of a particular performance. Although many audience members are quite knowledgeable about dance, the critic functions as a leader of the continuing dialogue among members of that audience, enhancing their understanding of dance.

It may be surprising, but I do not believe that critics' primary readers are the dancers and choreographers, who have coaches, teachers, and company directors to help them improve. Many dancers and choreographers complain mightily about dance critics, and sometimes they boast that they never read critics. I do not believe that, but I also do not think they should feel they are the primary audience of the critic. Rather, the critic reflects the collective dialogue within an audience, though one hopes it is more informed and articulate than the audience at large.

There are three main elements in good criticism. First, the work must be described. This provides a common experience for all readers, whether or not for the writer to summarize in a nutshell what the work looked (and sounded) like. Such description can be difficult, especially for nonverbal art forms like dance and music. A plot summary is of minor interest in virtually all works in dance and tells the reader little about what it was like to sit in the theater and experience the work.

Second, good criticism should put a work into context. This includes both historic and stylistic contexts, /p. 16 although those overlap somewhat. For instance, is it an example of the French romanticism of the early nineteenth century? the Russian classicism of the late nineteenth century? the early modern dance revolution of Isadora Duncan and her quest for expressiveness and freedom? Is it in the style of George Balanchine's neoclassicism or Jerome Robbins's tapestry of lyrical ballet with Broadway pizzazz? The purpose of this context analysis is to help educate the audience. It should learn how a work fits into the broad landscape of dance in its many varieties in order to better appreciate it. Performances do not exist in isolation, but emerge from a long history of many genres. The well-informed critic should be able to make these categorizations easily. The contextual analysis also provides a basis for evaluation of the work, especially with regard to assessing new choreography.

Third, and by far the most difficult aspect of criticism, is the evaluation or judgment of a work. Is it good or bad and why? since dance involves several media, it may be good in some aspects and not good in others. A judgment, in isolation, is not enough. There must be some effort to explain how a judgment was made, based on what the critic has seen during the performance. Ideally, time and space permitting, a critic should also justify the reasons noted. (Is athleticism necessarily good? Is extreme intellectualism an asset or a liability and why?)

An evaluation builds upon the elements of description and context noted earlier. Evaluation of dance (and other multimedia performing art forms, such as opera) is complicated by the presence of many media. In dance, typically there is human movement, music (or some other sound, such as spoken dialogue by the performers), scenery, costumes, perhaps a plot. Also, the critic must evaluate separately the performance of the particular dancers on stage on a particular day and the choreographic design, which exists independently of that performance.

Performance is more easily evaluated. did the dancers meet established standards for technical accomplishment? For expression and dramatic presence, if called for by the work? Was the interpretation appropriate for the choreography? Judging choreography is more difficult, but a good foundation laid in the description and contextual analysis helps. For an established masterwork, a critic today needs to make no new judgment, although it serves new audiences to explain why a certain work is considered a masterpiece. Or, one might be bold and argue that a particular work has been vastly overrated!

Much new choreography fits into an existing genre. For example, a work may use an idiom developed by George Balanchine or Paul Taylor. There is nothing wrong with this. Choreographic geniuses do not emerge regularly and routinely and it is not easy to master an important idiom by an established choreographer and use it for creation of a new work. such mastery is worthwhile as it satisfies the insatiable craving of dance audiences for new works, though it is not likely to earn a place in the history books.

Even after masterworks and works in the style of an established master, a few new, genuinely novel, works will remain. Novelty, of course, does not guarantee merit; novel choreography is by far the most difficult to assess. It takes several viewings of real breakthroughs to develop a good sense of whether they are mere gimmickry or the emergence of important new genres. Justifying such assessments is complicated and varied. For example, a new work may be praiseworthy for presenting intriguing, fresh steps and patterns offering symmetry, or grace, or excitement C generally, innovations one years to see again and that expand our sense of what is possible in human movement. Perhaps a choreographer has come up with a new combination of human movement in an unusual performing space or with the use of human voices or sounds not tried before. In general, the test for worthwhile innovation is whether it advances and expands our sense of the potential of human movement. Critics should not be surprised if they are wrong on early viewings. John Martin, the former dance critic for the New York Times who did so much to promote the modern choreographers of the 1930s and 1940s, repeatedly panned George Balanchine (including such masterworks as Symphony in C and Concerto Barocco) for recycling outdated classicism.

Central to judging the music in a dance performance is its appropriateness to the choreography. Is there a balance and a complex relationship that enhances the movement and the overall artistic experience? Significantly, some musical compositions do not seem appropriate for choreography, at least choreography devised so far. Beethoven's symphonies are good examples of music so overwhelming and all-consuming by itself that, though efforts have been made, choreography simply does not work well with it. Further, the avant-garde, as always, is deter- /p. 17 mined to challenge our assumptions about the appropriateness of music to dance. Merce Cunningham, for example, is well known for his random juxtaposition of choreography with music by John Cage. Music for some of his performances is randomly selected moments before the dancers go on stage. Obviously, the standard of "appropriateness" must yield or take on a different meaning under such circumstances.

Dance critics should also judge sets, costumes, and props. Generally, the test is whether they are appropriate to the human movement and other elements on stage. Dance is a multi-media art form, but human movement remains central. anything that enhances the potential of the human body for movement is an asset; anything that hinders it is a liability, although there are many variations when applying this rule of thumb.

Some Special Difficulties

Evaluating dance presents some special problems. First, the opportunities for studying other works of art in dance are extremely limited. The critic cannot, with some very limited exceptions, go to the library or record store and buy or borrow a tape of a dance. Thanks to public television and the advent of reasonably priced video cassette recorders, it is possible to accumulate a library of important works gradually, but very little is available commercially and many important works are never shown on television. Many works have never been taped at all. for instance, I have waited since 1979 (when I bought my recorder) for a televised performance of Giselle. Mikhail Baryshnikov's historic televised performance was in 1977, when few had VCRs; it has never been rebroadcast because of problems in obtaining releases from the many unions involved. I found it tremendously helpful in reviewing two versions of Romeo and Juliet in Washington in December 1984 (John Cranko's, performed by the Joffrey Ballet, and Kenneth MacMillan's performed by American Ballet Theatre) to examine a tape of the soviet version with Galina Ulanova. It would have been even better to see a tape of the Stuttgart Ballet's original cast of the Cranko version or of the Royal Ballet's production of the MacMillan version.

Only a small minority of the works of art in dance have been videotaped or films. There is absolutely no footage of the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, although we have short bits of film of Anna Pavlova, who danced in the same era in the early twentieth century. Dozens of works by Balanchine are lost forever because they were not notated or filmed and the dancers involved have long since forgotten them. turn up in someone's attic. These dance works are simply lost forever. And think of how little we know about the important work of the nineteenth century. Dance works have been handed down through generations of dancers, but we have no way to check them against the originals.

Scholarship in dance is also sadly lacking, though in the past few decades more and more scholars in history and philosophy have begun studying dance in its theoretical aspects. Dance, however, has little in the way of systematic studies of itself of the sort found in art history or music history. The problem of scholarship is compounded because, to this day, almost all colleges and universities (with a small number of exceptions), expect people who teach the studio classes to teach the theory courses in dance. However, the best scholars are not likely to be qualified for the studio classes, and, with all due respect to studio teachers, their talent is generally not in the theoretical areas. Although art historians are not expected to teach studio classes in painting, such unreasonable expectations are made in dance. Thus, many scholars in dance are not even working in academic positions, but in areas unrelated to their research interests. I hope this changes.

It has been reassuring in recent years to note the increase in projects related to dance funded by the NEH and the state humanities councils. The "dance boom" has exposed millions of Americans to performances of dance. Now we need to expose them to a broader, more systematic understanding of dance and its role in our culture and history

NOTES from original publication: Julie Van Camp, formerly a program officer in the Division of State Programs at NEH, is now Director of Sponsored Research at California State University at Los Angeles. A member of the District of Columbia Bar and the American society for Aesthetics, she has taught philosophy at several Philadelphia colleges and dance appreciation at George Mason University. While in Washington from 1977-85, she published over 250 articles of free-lance dance criticism for six Washington publications.

This essay is based on remarks made at a workshop on the History and Criticism of the Arts at the Annual Statewide Meeting of the Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities, Little Rock, Arkansas, February 15, 1985.

Return to the top

Julie Van Camp's home page

Your comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome:


Last updated: September 2, 1996