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?
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.
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.