When dance criticism is constructive…

SYMBIOSIS: The critic-dancer relationship works both ways Photo: R. Shivaji Rao  

My previous article on criticism led to some speculation on what exactly constructive criticism is. Did the term imply that the critic’s role is to always praise the dancer? Is constructive criticism by a critic meant to help the dancer? The answer to the first question is a definite ‘no’. Constructive criticism does not imply praise. The very fact that the word ‘criticism’ appears in that phrase implies that it is distinct from

unconditional praise. The critics’ role is definitely not to always praise the dancer, and certainly not if it is undeserved. A critic’s job is to critically observe and comment on a piece of work. This may involve praise, but equally it may not. That really depends on the quality of work being critiqued and the detail with which a critic scrutinses a piece of work.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex. It begs further questions regarding what it means to ‘help’ a dancer. If the second question is linked with the first, then this kind of ‘help’ (undeserved and unrelenting praise) is, as I mentioned earlier, not the critic’s job. But constructively criticising the work of a dancer is helpful to a dancer in that it inevitably points out what isn’t working in the piece. So in that sense, the critic’s role does lend a helpful hand to the dancer by constructively commenting on his or her work.

At this point, it becomes crucial to explain what I mean by ‘constructive criticism’. Constructive riticism is compatible with honest, hard criticism. A poor piece of choreography must be reviewed as so, but it will be a comprehensive critique only if the reasons for why this choreography is poor are made clear. In such an instance, it not only informs the readers about the work but also lets the choreographer know what went wrong. This is crucial for a responsive relationship that a dancer and a critic ideally share.

An article in the New York Times mentioned that what we need are “more authoritative and punishing critics – perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star”. It goes on to say that criticism is about “making fine distinctions” and involves “talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if they matter”. This, to me, is constructive criticism. So, reviews that are detailed descriptions of events cannot do justice to this kind of critique that is crucially needed in the world of Indian dance. Constructive criticism is so much deeper than the largely descriptive critiques we often see today.

Constructively criticising a dance piece must involve engaging with the ideas that are being put forth by the choreographer. It must involve an informed analysis of movement and whether or not it connects conceptually to what the dancers dance on stage. I also believe that the critic’s personal voice should be more prominent, since it is his or her valued opinion that is appearing in print. As a reader of the review, it is interesting to know whether the conceptual ideas of the choreographer were translated capably into movement. As a choreographer and a dancer, this is not only interesting but also helpful. If it did, then the critique must legitimately involve praise, but if it did not, the critic must feel free to criticise the work. The artists are then informed that their ideas did not translate. This can seem hurtful and harsh, but again necessary for a responsive dance community and a thriving relationship between the critic and artist.

In turn, and this should not be taken lightly either, the dancers and choreographers must value this constructive critique, regardless of whether it praises or harshly criticising them. Constructive criticism has no ulterior motives and therefore no imaginable reason for criticising dancers unnecessarily.

So, just as dancers shouldn’t be subjected to undeserved praise or criticism, a constructive critique must not be dismissed by dancers. It is in the interest of dancers to take such critique seriously. As a dance community, we must collectively end the circle of mistrust.

The parallel but destructive ideas coming from both dancers (“Why should we take their critique seriously? It’s descriptive, lacks analysis of any kind – praise or criticism”) and critics (“Dancers never take criticism seriously anyway”) can be a never-ending merry-go-round. A resolute decision has to be made by both to trust each other more. A change in the way reviews are written might reflect a change in the dancers’ perception of reviews. Further, a resolve to seriously internalise and appreciate legitimate critique by dancers might improve the way reviews are written. It will undoubtedly be a slow process.

Mistrust takes a while to disappear. But if constructive critique becomes the norm, and dancers begin to appreciate the laborious work of critics who put this effort into writing reviews, this mistrust will slowly but surely evaporate into thin air.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 1:40:13 PM |

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