August Digest: Kate Mattingly on Criticism

As a contribution to your August reading list, loveDANCEmore is pleased to offer this thought-provoking piece on dance criticism by U professor and former NYTimes writer Kate Mattingly. At a time when so many of the structures of our world seem to be falling apart, the questions asked here about how we engage critically with dance and represent its importance in our world are critical ones for all of us to be asking right now. This is productive summer reading...

My sister recently moved to Guatemala to teach middle school students and told me a story about one of her first faculty meetings. A long-time teacher at the school stood up and said, “Our students aren’t motivated,” to which my sister, not exactly making friends quickly, responded, “Maybe our classes aren’t motivating?”

For me, this anecdote speaks to the harder aspects of self-reflection and self-critique, and applies to the practices of dance critics and criticism readers.

When I hear someone say, “Dance criticism is useless,” or “I don’t like the way critics write,” I often ask, “Why do you think criticism exists?” 

If we look at the history of criticism, from articles published in the late 1920s to today’s platforms like loveDANCEmore, we notice clear changes in forms and functions of dance writing. When I was writing for the New York Times in the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, I was intrigued by criticism’s ability to access far more “audiences” than a dance concert. For instance, even if 10% of Sunday’s “Arts & Leisure” readers looked at the Dance section, that was 100,000 people. Very few theaters for dance accommodate this many attendees, especially as the artists I was writing about were working in 100- to 300-seat venues. 

As someone who teaches courses in dance criticism, I have developed my own theory (which is also my dissertation project, now becoming a book) that dance criticism is not a stable or consistent practice, but rather a constitutive force that shapes and influences the performances we see. For many people, dance criticism is equated with dance reviews and valued for its evaluative and archival properties. I counter this definition by pointing to the multiple ways that critics have policed and circumscribed certain approaches to performance, as well championed and validated others. 

It’s essential to remember that every era in dance – from the modern choreography of Martha Graham to the postmodern performances of Yvonne Rainer – had a critic who framed its tenets: John Martin for Martha Graham (in fact he coined the label, “modern dance”) and Jill Johnston for Rainer and other Judson Dance Theater artists. Each “successful” choreographer (George Balanchine, Mark Morris, and Sarah Michelson, for instance) had a critic (Edwin Denby, Joan Acocella, and Gia Kourlas, respectively) who documented and promoted their ideas. Because dancing is kinetic and kinesthetic, bypassing verbal language in its presentation of concepts, writers have played a crucial role in contextualizing, recording, and circulating choreographers’ performance.

If we recognize how critics’ writing has changed, we can also notice how the 21st century and its digital technologies radically alter the criteria that critics employ. Three years ago when The Atlantic published “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” not a single website or blog was mentioned even though the majority of dance reviews read today are accessed online. This oversight speaks to the antiquated nature of today’s dance writers who established their reputations in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s two full-time dance critics, Alastair Macaulay and Sarah Kaufman, possess some of the most uninformed perspectives on new work. On May 20, 2018, when Macaulay wrote a review of Giselle, he chastised Isabella Boylston: “A fraction more eye makeup and greater use of dynamic contrasts might make her project twice as powerfully.” His writing is eerily similar to the critic Théophile Gautier who commented on women’s bodies, writing about Fanny Cerrito in 1846 that, “she has blue eyes which are very soft and tender, a gracious smile despite its perhaps too frequent appearance.” What does this say about Macaulay’s writing if it bears such similarities to a critic who has been dead since 1872?

Critics like Macaulay and Kaufman hold as ideal today’s more conservative choreographers and cover events at the largest venues (primarily Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center). Due to their lack of knowledge about current approaches to dance-making, artists who are exploring new methods or working with ideas that move beyond “modern” and “postmodern” dance often go unrecognized and can’t access the wider readership-audiences that mainstream critics reach. 

Historically, each generation of choreographers creating new movement vocabularies had a writer who understood and connected with their ideas. As Miguel Gutierrez wrote in his manifesto “The Perfect Dance Critic,” “The perfect dance critic gets excited when she sees something that’s different, unusual, challenging, or thought provoking, rocks her world, and writes about it with accompanying vigor. The perfect dance critic writes in a way that is contemporaneous with the time we are living in. The perfect dance critic knows when it’s time to quit, change careers or retire.”

In the four sections below, I suggest different ways of creating and engaging with dance criticism, drawing from historic and current examples. My intention is that this piece sparks dialogue, which is a crucial and fundamental aspect of any kind of arts criticism. 

1. Kinesthesia

While some people may define dancing as expressing feelings or illustrating music or narrative, I tend to notice what makes dancing different from other disciplines: it communicates kinetically and kinesthetically. This is because kinesthesia, or the sensations that are transferred to observers through watching dancers, distinguishes dance as an art form from senses that are prioritized in disciplines of music, theatre, and visual arts. I am most interested in choreography that develops a particular movement vocabulary and generates images and ideas kinesthetically. This is especially important to me as someone invested in higher education because students who major and minor in dance spend numerous hours every week in technique courses. 

Of course, the conundrum with writing about this criteria is clear: kinesthetic engagement is felt rather than communicated through words. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as a response, in part, to the evaluative style that deemed some performances “good” and others “bad,” critics like Deborah Jowitt turned to a descriptive style that focused on “capturing” dancers’ movements. While this approach was valuable as a type of document or snapshot of a performance, it often left readers without a sense of whether the show was engaging, captivating, or accomplished whatever intent it set out to explore.

When we look at the history of criticism we see pendulum swings between critics that describe and critics that judge. For example, Clive Barnes began a review of Judson Dance Theater in 1966 with, “Disaster struck the Judson Church in Washington Square last night. Correction: total nothingness struck the Judson Church in Washington Square last night, struck it with the squelchy ignominy of a tomato against a pointless target…”  

Criticism by Jowitt can be seen as a response to this more dismissive or authoritarian style, but it’s equally important to remember that description itself is subjective because we see our world through the filters of our own biases and preferences. In dance criticism, there are writers who notice certain of these elements – movement, music, sets, costume, lighting, performers – more than others. Equally important, performances that communicate kinetically and kinesthetically open themselves to multiple impressions and interpretations. When a critic prioritizes description they tend to replace these diverse responses with one “reading” or record of an event. 

2. Positionality

This brings me to a second point, also from Miguel’s manifesto on “The Perfect Critic”: “The perfect dance critic discusses the implications of the different cultural representations of gender, race, sexual orientation or class in the work. The perfect dance critic acknowledges his own cultural position when addressing these issues, and how that cultural position may shape his feelings or responses.” I find it far more interesting to read reviews that account for the frames through which an event is seen, rather than to read writing that pretends the writer’s point of view is a “universal” one (see earlier examples by Macaulay, Gautier, and Barnes).  

Many critics belong to older generations that were not educated in critical race theory and intersectionality in the same way that today’s college-aged and graduate students are. This is unfortunate because performances are political events that can reinforce and/or resist dominant systems. Attending to the ways that artistic events influence political, economic, and social decisions is a fascinating endeavor. Unfortunately, many dance critics still subscribe to Arlene Croce’s idea that, “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for… overweight dancers, old dancers, dancers with sickled feet… dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals.” Critics like Croce see their role as policing and safeguarding the borders of dance, which, for them, should remain predictable and escapist. 

3. Dialogic Criticism

For decades, dance critics have approached their role as experts who know better than the artists how to define and contextualize their creations. Sally Banes said in 1989 at a Dance Critics Association convening, “…as critics we remain – and I would argue should remain – distant observers. Who wants to coauthor their review with the choreographer?” 

My answer is “I would.” I am deeply interested in the ideas and processes that generate an artist’s work and I think more knowledge about forces that shape events is useful to readers and audience members. Recently attending Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival, I heard from choreographer Jennifer Archibald that the dancers of Cincinnati Ballet were challenged by Salt Lake City’s altitude, and this anecdote made its way into my review. Part of Banes’s issue with “coauthoring” may be that she thinks a critic’s integrity is compromised or the review is more of a press release than a critical document.

I think criticality is an act of generosity, a form of evaluation that sharpens our ways of articulating ideas and offers frameworks for evaluating the impact of an event. For those of us who value dance as an art form and have seen how it can shift assumptions and inspire new ways of thinking, we bring expectations with us. Personally, I’m drawn to events that include a sense of dissensus or disruption, that defy my expectations. I am also drawn to movement vocabularies that have been carefully developed and articulated. 

4. Digital Technologies

Today’s websites are gems for dance writing. Unlike The Atlantic writer, Madison Mainwaring, who refuses to acknowledge websites as platforms for dance discourse, I see digital technologies as life-boats for dance. In contrast to many critics, like Elizabeth Zimmer, who has written, “The current collapse of print media is disastrous for the arts, especially experimental, low-budget work,” it’s blogs and platforms like loveDANCEmore that keep current artists’ ideas afloat, visible, and circulating through our conversations. At a time when newspapers’ critics lack the tools to see and write about new work, and when papers like The Salt Lake Tribune are letting go of numerous employees, websites are the places where conversations percolate. I think time is better spent investing in these platforms than rallying for limited print coverage or for writing by antiquated critics.

Moreover, the dialogic nature of platforms and social media, where people can comment, agree with, and challenge points of view, creates a more multi-vocal and representative arena for criticism. One of the best definitions of criticism that I’ve read comes from Rebecca Solnit, who advocates for a “counter-criticism” that “seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit.” This “being seen fully” keeps me writing because I keep searching for ways that words can inspire us to see dance with more curious, inquisitive, and appreciative eyes, minds, and hearts.