The Frame Game

In the first sentence of the first entry of Foot in Mouth, I made what I assumed would be an incontrovertible and innocuous assertion: dance audiences are small.
Paul Parish pointed out, in the very next entry, that millions watch ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” each week.
A couple of posts later, he and Annie-B Parson, codirector of the glorious Big Dance Theater, got into a discussion about the place of rhythm in dance–what counts as “rhythm,” how essential it is, how interesting a dance with something other than rhythm at its core could be. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting anyone here; you can scroll down to read the posts yourselves.)
So, in a matter of a few paragraphs, we managed to bang right into the problem of writing about dance, which is: what the hell are we talking about?
In music writing, the pop music critic isn’t also responsible for Beethoven. The art reviewers at the New York Times, to use a prominent example, do not review student shows. They do not review Thomas Kinkade, painter of treacly fantasies for members of the nouveau riche who still wish they were one of the seven dwarves.
But the dance reviewers weigh in on the School of American Ballet’s annual graduation-class shows; they catch the Rockettes, Twyla Tharp’s latest dancical, folk dance, butoh, tap, hula, ritual performance art, and ballet competitions.
Dance turns out to mean: anything that moves. No wonder the muddle.
So, what to do? Well, what not to do is “blame [the choreographer] for not achieving what he did not attempt.” (That’s John Updike on book reviewing, but it translates.)
Don’t fault Mark Morris for not being Neil Greenberg, much less the Rockettes for not being Eiko and Koma, masters of the stark and slow. Submit to the show’s frame of reference. When you can’t because the problem as you see it IS the frame, say so.
Paul does, when he says about a particular kind of modern dance,

Unless you LIKE identifying with anxiety and the stress adjacent to over-multi-tasking (and who needs more of that?), what is there to appeal to the imagination?

He gives an account of what kind of art this is–it emulates the most aggravating aspects of the everyday–and thinks all it’s good for is inducing headaches.
When Annie-B says,

Rhythm, or any other element or combination of elements, is only as good as its choreographer, inside or outside the comfort zone,

she’s saying in effect, “I don’t think the goals of these choreographers is the problem. I think the problem is how they’re achieving it. Any goal is fine, as long as the artist knows what she’s doing.”
Critics don’t have to agree that every goal is fine–that’s usually what we’re wondering when we’re irked: “Is it or isn’t it?”–but we do need to understand the difference between the artist’s project and how she’s executing it. We need to know what we’re criticizing.
If we don’t, the choreographers most likely to get maligned are those trying, at least, to push the art forward, push against the limits of the form, whether in hula, tap, modern dance (oh, what to call that one?), ballet, odissi, or Korean shamanic ritual dance. In some sense, the edges of “cutting edge art” don’t exist yet; the parameters are in the process of being made, which makes them hard to talk about. But the health of dance as an art form depends on it.
That said, I think it’s crucial that a reviewer respond as the person she is, not the person she thinks she ought to be. (Though if you’re a total bastard, this doesn’t apply.) A review shouldn’t be an attempt to be good. Yuck! Would you want to read a novel like that? (That’s my problem with Deborah Jowitt’s reviews in the Voice: her effort to be generous distracts me from whatever else she might be saying.)
On the other hand, if the reviewer is constantly qualifying what she says with “But that’s just my taste,” “That’s just my opinion,” (as John Rockwell, the New York Times head critic, does), she pulls the rug out from under the whole enterprise.
The point of criticism is to establish–not once and for all, but for a given review–criteria by which to think about the dance. To rely on “taste” is to renege on your responsibility. It doesn’t matter what your taste is–it doesn’t matter if, according to other people, you have none. As a reviewer your job is to turn taste and opinion into argument.
For the duration of the review, a writer is actually developing a theory about dance–or at least this dance form– not just this single dance. That’s what Paul did when he said if all that’s going on is cognitive dissonance, it’s not getting my vote.
To end, here are a couple of passages from reviews that widened out beyond the specific subject to make a larger theory about the art form:

Love is, among other things, the experience of wholly identifying with another person’s sincerity. It is rare in art, where impersonal operations of style normally regulate violent emotions. In the case of the brutal “Woman with Her Throat Cut,” a detached response is impossible. [PETER SCHJELDAHL on Giacometti. "The Thin Man," October 29, 2001, The New Yorker. No known link]

Here’s our very own Jennifer Dunning, writing in the Times about Saar Harari and Lee Sher’s “Moopim,” now playing at P.S. 122 in New York:

At the very least “Moopim” raises that age-old theatrical question of whether untheatrical emotions like tedium are best expressed by replicating them on the stage.

I’d never thought of that before–that certain emotions are more theatricalizable than others–and I’m not sure I agree, but it got me thinking. For that, I’m grateful.

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