The Future of Dance Criticism

Last year, in this post on the future of dance criticism, we wrote about the need for critics to embrace web 2.0 and social media, to engage with the online dance community and attract new readers. Among examples of writers who are using these new channels, we mentioned leading UK dance critic Ismene Brown and her colleagues at The Arts Desk.

Today we are delighted to welcome Ismene as our guest blogger. She shares below her thoughts on where dance criticism is headed and why it is still relevant:


Where’s dance criticism going now? We’re all asking that. One thing we do know is that the idea of chosen oracles, the handful of specialist arts critics whose reviews hold sway over public opinion, is being volubly challenged by the voices of the people.

The internet has created new rules of access for both giving opinions and rating others’ opinions. Finding a place to disagree with an official “critic” is no longer an insuperable obstacle. (In fact, it sometimes makes people fear they have no excuse not to know that there is such a plethora of openings offered, to tweet, share on Facebook, “Like”, comment or blog.)

And with its open door to protests against critics-as-high-priests, the internet has torn away the fiction that there is an elite entitlement to be “right”.  Mobile footage instantly corrects official TV reports, punters will pile in on forums about a ref’s decision, and in the polite world of dance you’ll often get events like this week’s Fabulous Beast show at Sadler’s Wells and Some Like It Hip Hop at the Peacock, that, as they say, divide the critics. Who do you go for? Are they “right” if you agree and “wrong” if you don’t?

ZooNation Dance Company in Kate Prince's Some Like It Hip Hop. Photo: Sadler's Wells ©

This concept of the critic’s obligation to be “right” is right away with the fairies. When I was the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic I once discussed the purpose of us with Jann Parry of The Observer. She observed: “We are salesmen.” At that time I was awfully afraid that it was my duty to get the correct judgment out (I’ve known critics to be fired for being “wrong”). But the internet has called for more subtle judgements. You need tough skin to take the instant rebukes now, you can’t ignore them, you must accept that you need to be on your toes. Still, somewhere underneath you have to find the core motive.

I’m increasingly persuaded by Jann’s view that the true function of a formal dance review is to light a flame. It’s not about telling the reader what they will think, but about asking the reader to believe that being at a dance show and having great expectations is right. And that idea, to me as a critic, is one worth expending my best mental efforts to write about, to try to interest the reader in the very existence of the event.

Even for a trashy show the critic wished she hadn’t gone to, she’ll try to apply the same accuracy of judgment and clarity of expression as she would to a show full of riches. She won’t let her day at the office, her nightmare journey, her hope for a second date, dominate her professional pride in her memories and experience, and her desire to entertain you. Your professional critic is like a salesman: they may sometimes have a piece of crap kit in their bag, but it isn’t the crap kit that they’re selling – they’re selling the idea that you were right to desire more from the experience.

I was interested when Michael Clark told me a while ago that he found the “critics” were almost the only people he could find really engaging intellectually with his ideas, expressed in a sustained way that he could mull over whether they’d liked his work or not.

The Arts Desk in 2011.

Some shallower artists will say (as if it’s a matter of one or the other) that the “critics” didn’t like their piece but the “audience” did, so there. Bah, wishful thinking, given how often critics disagree among themselves and how impossible it is to assess the balance of views in a hall containing hundreds of people. But communication technology has always been an instrument to claim power with. When the printing press was developed, print overwhelmed the oral tradition in authority. Now it’s today’s electronic version of the oral tradition that’s fighting back against print. Three dissenting comments on your review and you’re badly wounded, even if you had stacks of letters of praise in the mail.

Ultimately, I think, it boils down to the sense that a reader has of it being time well spent reading or listening to this critic, their empathy with the way that critic thinks or writes. For all of us there will always be useful people who spend far more time trawling one of our favourite things than we want to, and we won’t necessarily agree with them. You disagree with friends and don’t stop seeing them.

Actually it’s reassuring that these critics are doing it, that they’re putting in the hours and the miles and the blanket coverage of the annual autumn madness that turns most of them into zombies and which no better-employed person would ever do, that they’re suffering so you don’t have to, and that they’re jumping up and down mystifyingly about certain dance shows you’d never go near. The enigma of people’s passions is a constant reassurance that there’s someone else who is more nuts than you are.

So are the oracles a dying breed? I doubt it. As long as media publications whether in print or online want to market themselves by hiring certain writers for what they say and how they say it, you’ll be lumbered with “the critics”. Never fear, they’re trimming their sails in the winds of the internet, but you’re never going to get them being as “right” as you’d like. Moreover, as our smartphones, Twitter feeds and Google searches become more and more swamped with offerings, we might welcome the critics’ prejudices and partialities, just because arguing with them is the cheapest and most effective personal therapy there is. Just who do they think they are? It’s a great feeling.


The Arts Desk and Dance UK are organising a Dance Question Time live debate on Friday 4 November 1.15-2pm at the Riflemaker Gallery (79 Beak Street, London). On the panel Tamara Rojo (ballerina), Arlene Phillips (West End/TV), Rosie Kay (independent choreographer), Val Bourne (Dance Umbrella), Alistair Spalding (Sadler’s Wells), Robert Noble (Matt Bourne’s New Adventures/Cameron Mackintosh) and Caroline Miller (Dance UK).

For more information visit www.theartsdesk.com

About the Author:

Ismene Brown was the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic for 12 years. She was instrumental in designing and setting up the first professional arts critics’ website in Britain, theartsdesk.com (aka The Arts Desk), in 2009.

Follow on Twitter: @ismeneb@theartsdesk
Like on Facebook: The Arts Desk

Here you will find a selection of blog posts from very special guests!

18 Comments

  • @ayoungertheatre @EleanorTurney great post! Have you seen this? -> http://t.co/gcqfwWQA

  • November 7, 2011

    Ismene Brown

    Jennifer has misreported me substantially re BRB. It would not have been I who said BRB was too far away since I live well outside the M25 and find Birmingham sometimes easier to drive to than Sadler’s Wells. A comparison of my reviews of BRB’s Cinderella and the RB’s Alice are an instant corrective to her thesis. Beth Megill & Rob Lindsay exactly get the point: we hope to enrich the conversation. Toba Singer seems to be missing it: the salesmanship is about the experience of going to dance, not about “selling” a specific show. But if I had a fabulous time, why shouldn’t I say so without being thought to be in hock to its producers? Thanks to everybody for responses. The conversation goes on.

  • November 4, 2011

    Rob Lindsay

    Great post. I personally get increasingly frustrated with the notion of opinions being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. True, one argument might be made more validly than another, but I feel that any arts experience is going to mean different things to different people, and you can’t criticise somebody for disagreeing with you.

    My favourite reviews, good or bad, are the ones that table topics of discussion, that ask questions. And I don’t mean the sort of cynical comment-baiting behaviour that we see in certain places, but those considered pieces that might actually stimulate your enjoyment of a piece by giving you additional ideas to think about, as well as new contexts in which to view the programme.

    I loved the reviews of our recent Autumn Glory triple bill. Favourable or not, I don’t believe that any of the writing demanded that the reader agree with the author’s opinions, and I don’t imagine that many of these pieces would have put someone off buying a ticket, but they may well have given audiences something else to consider while watching the programme (or reflecting on a show that they’d already seen) and hopefully fuel for the post-performance discussions with their friends.

    I’ve collected an overview of some of the reviews of our recent Autumn Glory bill here. The tour’s now over, so it’s definitely too late to influence anybody’s purchasing decisions, but I hope that it shows how a variety of well-considered reviews can genuinely become more than the sum of their parts, and that the conversations afterwards are so much richer for all of the differences in opinion.

    http://brbontour.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/autumn-glory-reviews/

    -I’ve included links to the full reviews where possible.

    Rob (New Media Officer for Birmingham Royal Ballet, but opinions my own).

  • November 4, 2011

    Toba Singer

    The future of dance criticism follows the fortunes of society’s fetish with its newest communications technology. Those who write well about what they see on stage have an obligation to adapt to new formats. If dance criticism is mostly a platform for platitudes or peevishness, it doesn’t matter what the format, the public will tire of reading what we write. We are not salesmen; we record events as we see them with an eye toward sharpening the audience’s perception and encouraging companies to bring forth their best. If the pressures exerted by the media turn us into instruments of those who pay for the adverts, we have lost our way and inevitably will also lose our readers.

  • Lnx 2 come- annamk 2day. Ta 4 shouts- most interest in Ismene Brown (@theartsdesk) article on criticism @theballetbag: http://t.co/eWh2r046

  • November 3, 2011

    Beth Megill (@BethMegill)

    “the true function of a formal dance review is to light a flame. It’s not about telling the reader what they will think, but about asking the reader to believe that being at a dance show and having great expectations is right.”

    This is perhaps the highlight of this article for me. Interesting idea that the “critics” are now the salesemen for the field. Unfortunately seeing something live is becoming both harder and more expensive. Getting people out of their homes and to the theater is a challenge.

    I fear that the need for people to know it is great before risking their time and money is a reality. But, I ache for a time when people will take the risk not because it was a sure hit, but because it is meaningful to them to formulate their own opinions and challenge their own ideals and beliefs about dance. But I again, I fear I live in the land of wishful thinking.

    Beth

  • The Future of #Dance Criticism – http://t.co/lfHXuMG2

  • November 2, 2011

    steven woodruff

    The world for reviewers has changed, and it’s changing for their readers too. I started writing reviews of local dance companies in Los Angeles because the LA Times no longer bothered to cover smaller regional companies performing in the city. It has been important for these companies to have informed content of their work appear on line. Many of these companies are producing excellent contemporary concert dance that deserves coverage. The Times continues to cover the larger touring programs which often bring less adventurous programming to the larger venues and mistakenly give the impression in doing so that dance has to come from Europe or New York in order to be on the radar. The reviews themselves are often dull and light on interest.

    I pursue the idea of a dance or music review as being more reportorial than directed toward criticism. One musician I reviewed said he didn’t really understand why there were such things as reviews anyway. I agree with him in general, but I think he is referring to the notion of thumbs up or down reporting on a concert and the related comparative assessments rather than a story which covers the concert as news (it’s in the newspaper after all) albeit with some subjective attachments and vivid content which is aimed at the vast majority of people who weren’t there. After all, they represent the bulk of the readers. Generally speaking, they don’t want to wade through puffy rhetoric as part of the dues for finding out about a performance they missed. They want to know about what it felt like to be there. For them, a story which begins with a dozen paragraphs of historic commentary before we hear one word about went on in the concert hall or another that opens with a damning dismissal masquerading as humor isn’t going to cut it.

    Because I also have a professional music background I have frequently reserved space for musical issues. This aspect frequently is overlooked in most periodicals. Recently I included long sections in reviews for the Royal Danish Ballet’s NAPOLI, which had excellent new music for Act II by Louise Alenius, and San Francisco Ballet’s RAkU, which had a first rate atmospheric score by Shinji Eshima. Other reviewers included scant information on the music (maybe they just don’t know enough to write about it). It made no sense to me to dive in deep over the “new” choreography while barely acknowledging the “new” music. Both pieces had excellent responses because of the inclusions related to the music.

    Perhaps in the end, criticism should be reserved for books or a different location in the paper altogether. We look forward to reading the work of one writer or another in the Opinion Section where a personal point of view or writing style reigns supreme. For now, I’m sticking with writing that gives the readers a sense what it feels like to be there and avoids the smug commentary of the know-it-all. There’s already plenty of that out there.

  • November 2, 2011

    şirin (@sirintugbay)

    A cool read on critics vs the internet – perfect for the paper I am currently writing: The Future of Dance #Criticism – http://t.co/Gblu5xAM

  • The future of dance criticism

    http://t.co/2c5qhNv1

  • November 2, 2011

    RalfLippold

    Many thanks Ismene for your wonderful article :-)
    Myself I have tuned in as a writer on ballet and
    opera here in Dresden for Semperoper (see link).
    More than happy to discuss matter further.
    Cheers, Ralf

  • Good read –> Ismene Brown on The Future of Dance Criticism – http://t.co/eWh2r046 we need more discussion at a higher level.

  • The Future of Dance Criticism – http://t.co/LQSoLVmE via @theballetbag

  • Great take on the Future of Dance Criticism from @theballetbag – http://t.co/tTW7fu8q

  • November 1, 2011

    Jennifer

    I generally take exception to anything written by Ismene Brown as, being a Telegraph reader and a Birmingham Royal Ballet supporter, I had her views about BRB inflicted on me a little too regularly. She mentions that Jann Parry of the Observer stated that critics are effectively salesmen and if so, Brown would have been the one handing out BRB refunds willy nilly. Even when we saw the exact same performances, which I knew because I saw her, you would never know by the reviews yet having read some glowing reviews of what were mediocre performances at best by the other royal ballet company, I did begin to wonder whether she had slept through both performances and decided to make the reviews up. I did actually speak to her one day to ask why every performance and every cast of the other royal ballet company were reveiwed when only one performance (if BRB were lucky) was ever reviewed only to be informed “well, Birmingham is very far away”. It’s an hour and a half on the train and it takes as long as that sometimes to get across London.

    As I see it, the future of dance criticism is much more internet based as it allows local people to review and get their reviews in a public forum. I also think, especially given the cuts the arts have suffered in the UK with the recession and the hole the previous government dug us into, that critics have a job to sell all ballet. When BRB put on a new production of Cinderella last year, they did an amzing job of self-promotion (see the creating cinderella website) whereas the Royal didn’t have to bother when they developed Alice in Wonderland because the critics and press did it for them (the Royal’s vs the BRB’s website just adds credence to this). Northern Ballet are one of the most prolific companies at producing new ballets and again, they receive little to no national press. For me, Ismene Brown and a lot of critics like her are what is wrong with dance and ballet in particular. They proclaim themselves to be oracles and thus their opinion is the only one that counts. And when they don’t review a company they are effectiuvely proclaiming them to be irrelevant. And by reviewing so many of the Royal’s performance they are declaring them to be the only company that matters. So basically, critics need to get their rears outside the M25 a bit more and the press and media need to be less afraid of focusing on companies other than the Royal and of using opinions by people other than established critics like Brown. There is after all, life and culture outside the capital.

  • November 1, 2011

    Ismene Brown (@ismeneb)

    @theartsdesk exchanged for the irresistible charm of @theballetbag. What do I really think about criticism’s future? http://t.co/camhS15P

  • Ismene Brown on The Future of Dance Criticism – http://t.co/amXA3hJd @theballetbag