More on us curmudgeonly dance critics (Wednesday night: Eva responds. Scroll down)

Oh, we are such a gang of grouches!
It turns out my colleague and occasional seatmate Tobi Tobias got to this subject of the trials and tribulations of finding a companion for dance a long while ago–and was advised by her editor to kindly shut her trap, as she reports here in a very entertaining essay on why when you’re reviewing, two can be a crowd.
Plus, Tonya Plank (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl), a regular seatmate of mine (whom I met HERE on Foot, of all places) writes in:
Where, where exactly did you hang out, Suki! The Vivian Beaumont, the library, Fiorello’s, the fountain? I need to know :)
I actually really enjoyed your (Apollinaire and Eva’s) discussion of how you work. It’s good to know that people work differently — some writers come right home and start writing, others let it gel, get some sleep and start the next morning.
As a novice, I’ve done both — I used to come right home, especially with a premiere because another blogger told me his audience really appreciated his immediately-after-the-show reviews. But then I started to feel like I was writing too quickly, that I wasn’t giving myself enough time to think things out fully, and this was unfair to the artist — especially for those works that I wasn’t too keen on. So I started doing what Eva does — now, I come home from the theater, have a little snack, sip a glass of wine, think think think, go to bed, and write my blog-post the next day, or even later if it’s not something that’s going to repeat (like a Works & Process event at the Guggenheim).
Sometimes, if it’s something that’s been shown a lot (i.e.,: “Serenade”), I go through my Terry Teachout, Arlene Croce, and Edwin Denby books and see what they had to say.
After a while of doing things this way, though, I found that though I’d thought a lot more about the work as a whole, my memory of specifics — like costumes, music, details of the choreography, etc. — wasn’t fresh in my mind and I worried I was going to misremember something. Also, reading those aforesaid great writers for guidance had the effect of making me all but freak out over something new — for example, Camille Brown’s “Groove to Nobody’s Business” at Ailey. I wanted to see it again and again and again to make sure I was getting details right and my interpretations were correct and there was enough there to back up those interpretations, but of course the dance companies can’t let you do that!
Anyway, how do people reconcile remembering specifics with giving yourself time to think things through? Just copious notes? Or does your mind after a while begin to become hyper-observant of details? Also, do dance companies ever give out little video / DVDs of the new work so critics can watch them several times the way movie critics do?
P.S. Also, I forgot to say, you can take me as your guest anytime, Apollinaire — no matter what’s showing, I’m ALWAYS happy watching dance :)
And, now that I read Tobi’s latest blog entry, I feel badly for talking your ear off the whole time! I’m THE WORST at that — sorry!! And I’m horrible for always making you point out to me who all the ‘important people’ are. I promise, as soon as I’ve seen them all, I’ll stop…
Apollinaire responds:
But Tonya, I don’t know any important people, only dance people! Plus, I think it’s ME talking your ear off. Anyway, it’s always fun!
To the more serious points, I’m sure Eva will have her own angle and will pitch in as soon as she has a chance, and I have a fever, so I’m going to do this as fast as I can and then flop into bed. I hope I make sense.
No, I’ve never heard of anyone distributing DVDs, because we’re watching a live performance, and so it’s supposed to be different every night.
About getting the details “right” in your reviews, I think one of the things you reconcile yourself to as a critic of live performance is error–or perhaps it would be better to call it misprision; what you see is filtered through your own sensibility and interpretation. In fact, it’s always the details that strike hardest–that you most want to write about–about which you are most likely to make mistakes, because your attachment to them, the power they had for you, often overwhelms the facts. It’s an absurd paradox.
As for whether to write at night or in the morning, one solution to the blurring of the details might be to write THOSE down at night, and then get to the essay after your day of work the next day (you worker bee!). I do the writing right away because I can’t sleep thinking I’m going to have to wake up and haul out a whole essay by 9 am. But I do go to bed as soon as I can see the direction I’m taking–and know where I’m going to end up.
As for how much to take notes, I take piles of notes, but somehow never the detail I’m wondering about later that night (were there four chairs or five? Did they walk upstage or downstage before the curtain fell? etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ) I wish I could risk doing an experiment where I took no notes and then piles, and saw which yielded a more accurate recall. I will say, my notes have gotten more mathematical. For example, I try to remember the kind of thing I’ll never recall accurately: the four chairs or five? kinda question. That’s not usually the thing, though, that ends up mattering. sigh.
Which brings me to what all those details are for. There are critics who believe that a review is a record of the occasion–a report with the interpretation implied by how it is reported–but I don’t think that’s an honest reflection of the experience of watching a dance. When you talk to a friend about a dance, the last thing you’re going to go on about is what the dancers DID, step by step (unless you’re incredibly pretentious, that is, and/or think this is what you’re supposed to be doing). You’re going to get right to what you liked and didn’t like–how you felt and didn’t feel, what it reminded you of, how you’re putting it together with other things you’ve seen, etc. And while it’s essential as reviewers that we give the readers a portrait of the dance we’re responding to, it’s not enough to do just that or even mainly that.
Sixth graders may go chapter by chapter, in order, when someone asks them what they liked about a book, but one of the nice things we learn as we grow up is how to distill experience, and this is because we’ve had other similar experiences. So when you’re watching, you focus on those things that you haven’t experienced before or those that take a common experience and tweak it–and you think about what it means, these deviations from code.
It helps to know the code, as you do backwards and forwards, Tonya, with ballroom–you know when a couple is doing International Tango or Standard Tango or Argentine Tango, and so you’re prepared to make something of it when a dance switches from one to the other. What you make is the art of criticism.
Ok, time to flop into bed.
Eva responds (NEW as of Wednesday night):
First of all, Tobi’s essay is brilliant, comprehensive, hilarious and a must-read. I don’t care what that editor was thinking: It should have come out five years ago, but I needed a good belly laugh today, and I got it! (So, thank you, Tobi!) Plus the passages about her family are so delightful that I’m praying, praying, praying she’ll bring out a memoir! She is such a sharp-eyed and funny woman!
Okay, now to your remarks, Tonya and Apollinaire:
I tend to madly scribble notes in the dark, which has definitely contributed to the deterioration of my Catholic school-trained handwriting over the years. Most of these notes are in no way legible, but I’ve made my peace with that. I remember what I remember, and I can make out what I can make out. I think the notetaking is a vestigial crutch, and I realize that most of the time, I don’t need it.
Dance companies or publicists might be willing to offer DVDs at times–I know the Bessies Awards committee can request them–but in my experience, these recordings of concerts are only helpful for the most straightforward and superficial details about a show. [ed. note: Yes, I should have mentioned that if it’s a touring work–especially if it’s from Europe–there often is a DVD which you can use to check details. Publicists usually only offer it, though, when you’re writing an advance piece.]
To Apollinaire’s remarks about how critics reconcile themselves to “error,” I’d say that art is always filtered by the eye of the beholder, and most dance artists I’ve spoken with know this and want this.
About “going to bed as soon as I can see the direction I’m taking…”: I don’t think it out like that before I sleep on it. I let the subconscious have it, totally–aside from a few words to my mate about it, if she’s interested. Besides, I’m usually way too sleepy! LOL!
About not taking notes: I call it the “Tere O’Connor Experiment,” and I do it from time to time. Puts me in a different (and non-divided attention) space with the dance, which is what I think Tere intended. [Ed. note: Modern-dance choreographer O’Connor wishes critics left their notepads at home.]
About details not being the point or, rather, not the most important point: I’d agree that a review needs to have a balance of an overall idea, assessment and supporting details. The details should be selective (not overwhelming) and make a strong case for the writer’s arguments.
Apollinaire adds: Just to that last point, I think we’re on the same page, Eva: details may be very important to coming up with one’s arguments, but they shouldn’t overwhelm the review itself.

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  1. says

    I’m an (aspiring…sort of) dance writer and I just thought I’d add that I love this conversation!
    As you may have read on The Winger ( I’m doing a big project on dance criticism for school and these inside anecdotes about reviewing dance are fun to hear. Thanks for blogging :)
    Apollinaire responds: I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, Taylor. We’re all probably admitting more than we ought. (As one critic friend wrote to say, “But I *need* my friends!”) Your school project sounds great.

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