Tuesday, August 02, 2005

(D) August 2, 2005 - Dance Criticism in the Dance Ecology

(That's why we're critics!)

“Dance writing in Malaysian newspaper is deplorable.” Krishen Jit’s voice at the dance seminar held during MyDance Festival (MDF) 2003 still resonates in my head.

He did not proceed to say how it could be improved, but being the only journalist there, I did notice that my made-in-Malaysia MyThickSkin bullet proof vest was suffering severe damage.

Instead of one local speaker, a panel of three foreign speakers presented papers on dance criticism during the Asia Pacific International Dance Conference held during this years’ MDF. This time, journalists from more than five vernaculars attended the seminar, which is a marked improvement.

Since braving the bullets two years ago, I sought to improve writing through research, trial and error before I stumbled upon the Institute of Dance Criticism, a dance criticism fellowship held during the American Dance Festival (ADF). The gruelling 3 weeks was worth it. I learnt about dance criticism and more.

The Fellows wrote reviews twice a week. And then, peer and facilitator (10 people excluding me) would tear the piece (and our egos) apart. We attended movement and choreography classes to experience first-hand (and appreciate!) that dance and creating dance may not be as simple as it looks. We also had the opportunity to meet and interview choreographers, dancers, policy-makers, and other key figures involved in the development of dance.

A dancer would take years to hone his or her ability in one dance genre. The dance critic is expected to describe and comment on all genres from article one. The dance critic is thus a dance generalist and the onus is on him or her to continuously read, research, and yes, even dance! A dance background would be advantageous - though it does not guarantee that one would write better, it does train the eye to capture and read movements.

Dance is a movement language and the critic needs to translate this language into a written one. I liken it to painting fleeting images with words.

It is no surprise that few dare to venture into this area of writing. Unlike painting, literature and sculpture, dances do not “sit still” permitting the critic to scrutinize them leisurely. The literary critic can stop at will to re-read a difficult passage; the art critic can examine a painting from various distances or walk around a sculpture several times; the drama critic often has access to a text; and the music critic has access to a score.

The dance critic must make do with a burst of sensory impressions. The challenges are seeing the movement clearly, remembering what was seen, and finally, describing what was seen in a manner that will be comprehensible to the reader. Mastering note-taking in the dark is a bonus.

In a dance review, descriptions are important as one must not presume that everyone has watched the work. Description is valuable because it establishes the reality of the dance, lending some degree of permanence to an otherwise elusive and ephemeral event. The cruel paradox is that the critic is doomed to lose the reader in a literal, moment-to-moment account of what strikes the eye and ear. So, to keep the reader’s interest, the critic needs to interpret the work and also discuss the issues that it raises - all that within 500 to 800 words. Performances are often at night and editorial deadlines can be as soon as noon the next day.

A review must be constructive and not destructive. Justification must be made on why a work succeeds or fails. For example, Niluksi Koswanage’s Compelling, Complicated Debut (17 July 2005, The Star) and Antares’ No Silk Purse (http://www.kakiseni.com/articles/reviews/MDcwOA.html)
are both well-written negative reviews. Comments on these reviews are good indicators that Malaysians are thinking and talking about dance.

The tone should be encouraging and not demeaning. One should not intimidate emerging talents nor destroy an artists' career. Some critics show off how witty or how well they write at the expense of the artists. Some serve to pass judgement as though they are the Almighty Critic who has descended upon the Holy Theatre. As it is, there are only a handful of dancers in Malaysia. The work (the dance) and the cause (promoting dance) are more important than an inflated ego. At the same time, dance critics must also uphold their journalistic responsibilities by being honest to their readers who may be potential ticket-buying audiences.

Dance critics are like artists in some ways. Our works are subject to public scrutiny. And so, feedback from readers could also intimidate emerging writers or destroy a writers’ career. And most of us are struggling, impoverished freelancers driven only by passion for dance.

But dance criticism pieces are by far too few. There should be more than one voice on a piece of work. While there are plenty of previews, these do not count because it’s publicity driven. Dance needs to be documented and this cause is greater than self. Historians would one day reference such articles as sources of a periods’ social and cultural environment.

Dance critics are part of the dance ecology. They keep dance visible in the media. They form the vital link in educating and creating dance audiences, which in turn would help drive demand for dance and dancers; and hopefully attract more sponsors to fund dance projects.

Should dance academics write? Sure. But, a dance academic’s first love is to research and to develop knowledge. Professor Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor (Professor of Ethnomusicology and Ethnochoreology, University Malaya) attests this. Should dancers write? Sure. But a dancer’s first love is to choreograph; to dance. The desire to move, to dance, is entrenched in the the dancer.

Cliché as it sounds, I was a fallen dancer. One back surgery, months of physiotherapy, and packets of pain killers and nerve vitamins later, I’m back dancing. But this time, I poise my pen and “tap” on my keyboard.


Ian Loe said...

beautifully written!

m.t. said...

Well said! Glad you had an enriching time at ADF. I'm dying to go again.

faridah MERICAN said...

Good site. Great for Dance POV in Malaysia. And you write well.
Keep it up.
Happy belated birthday.

Celeste said...

Great stuff! Dance critiques shouls also be well versed on the dance genre which they are writing about. I for one was very insulted by Dr. Anis and one writer (I can't remember who she was) when they commented on my Jazz Dance Production 'The Artist-beauty, one man's perception'. They could not make constructive criticism because they are totally clueless about Jazz dance and I felt that they should just have kept their mouths shut. I remember Ramli Ibrahim saying 'who cares what the writers say? There are no Dance critiques in Malaysia' Hon Jia Xuan will probably be the first.