Dance Forum 2015 – Part 2

A seminar on The Role of the Critic and Discourse in Dance took place as one of three sessions on the second day of a three day national forum on dance (NDF), held at the Footscray Community Centre in Melbourne, as part of the Dance Massive Festival. Contemporary dance was the predominant genre represented.

The Moderator – Ashley Dyer.

Panellists included choreographer/performer Matthew Day, writer and critic for Realtime Arts, Jana Perkovic, Jordan Beth Vincent, dance historian and critic for The Age and Vicki Van Hout, director and resident blogger for FORM Dance Projects.

Matthew Day had written a provocative abstract in preparation to the proceedings (see link below).

Ashley Dyer informed the audience that this was not a participatory event, although after each of us spoke, we had to pose a provocation for the audience to contribute.

Matthew suggested that a new collaborative format, with much more consultation with artists, should replace the current system of newspaper criticism, usually consisting of an editorial describing the work, followed by opinion and possibly a star rating. He quoted choreographer Deborah Hay, citing her own necessity to become a writer. In an interview with Renne McDougall for Realtime Arts Renne asks, “Were you always writing?” and she responds,

“Oh no, I was not always writing. Writing started happening when I realised my survival depended on it. Because the way in which I’m working was not synchronous with the way people were writing about dance… And so I realised I better start writing, because I don’t want to be remembered the way they’re writing my work.” (Interview in full – link below).

Jana made so many sweeping statements my fingers hurt trying to jot them down. They each carried impressive weight and specific insight. She began by describing the relationship theatre-goers enjoy with performance, specifically German and Croatian. In comparison they are more vocal and less amiable, are less driven by form and visual aesthetics and, although more stubborn, are more interested in the underpinning message and conceptual drivers, thus the discourse is more profound than with Australian audiences, who she deemed “open-minded” and simultaneously “shallow” in comparison. She alluded to the engagement audience members had with artists, and amongst themselves, as being a crucial part of the theatrical experience. Jana’s provocation was echoed in many of the previous sessions: How to convey meaning and intent through an embodied artform, without words?

Jana delivered the most provocative statement when she said,

“The audiences tend to read works with a collective homogeneity… I think because the training they get, which comes from what they read… and this will make for discourse. So the discourse around the artform, criticism, newspapers and education, directly frames what they see from an artwork. Which is why talking about work is so important.”

She cited comparative descriptions of Jerome Bel’s This Show Must Go On. The Guardian critic, Judith Mackrell, spoke of “untrained performers” and gave a four star rating, while a Croatian critic spoke of the restrained virtuosity employed as a deliberate tactic.  Lastly, the Queer Festival programmer for New York and Zagreb alluded to the subtext and subversion of the audience expectations Bel’s work employed as being key elements in queer theatre, and commissioned Jerome Bel on this basis. All three were viewing the same work.

Jordan Beth Vincent spoke of her responsibility as maker of future historical documents, describing it as not a responsibility she took lightly. Jordan acknowledged  her contribution to the way in which artists will be remembered, the measure of success will be determined in future appraisal/research of her documentation in hindsight. The weight or veracity of the content will be measured in the context it is read, including time of career, time of writing and as part of a collection of accumulated materials including programs, posters, videos, artist interviews and other ephemera, including records  of collected works, collaborations, commissions, tours and venues. Jordan’s provocation: How will we each shape our own legacies as artists?

Her context, the recent legends of modern dance including Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, had to “think about the legacy that they’re leaving behind because, maybe in a lot of ways, contemporary artists are more interested in looking forward than looking back.”

As an indigenous contemporary practitioner I spoke about my embodied practice, my performance history in relation to critical review.  I consider myself honoured that critics can be frank in their appraisal of my efforts and aren’t afraid of possible racially motivated reprisal. My work being published, good or bad, means that it deserves to be considered.

I have responded to the critic, a critic after a damning review with content and title reading Sacrilegious Fable about Ducks and Lizards (this is as close as my memory will allow). The review was posted during NAIDOC week. I informed the critic that I was accountable to my indigenous community and that his flippant comment would have detrimental effects toward my ongoing relationship with my community.

The role of the critic has immediate and perpetual ramifications for an artist, from marketing sound bite to longer term relationship between artist, critic, work/s and public.

In hindsight, I consider these paradigms that Jana refers to:  How can I, or any artist for that matter, develop new methods of representing indigenous performance, possibly radically changing existing paradigms, if the critics are using their existing knowledge to review it? How do we introduce different approaches if the mechanisms for these experiences don’t exist? Are we doomed to receive the bad review? Does it even really matter? The key message here seems to be, generate work and generate your own hype in as many media as possible (before you fall off the perch or lose your creative will).

– by Vicki Van Hout
Deborah Hay, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 11 March 2014
Judith Mackrell, 11 February 2008
National Dance Forum 2015 with a link to this talk