Monday, October 08, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Dance Criticism

Dance journalism in India leaves much to be desired. Dance is rarely spoken or written about in the media, and when it is, it is often uneducated, badly researched and uninteresting to read. The rare writings on dance mostly take the form of reviews of performances. Dancers use these critiques to legitimize their work. Only a handful of critics are around to validate or discredit the work of thousands of dancers. Herein lies the first problem. Dance criticism is dying in India. There simply aren’t enough critics to review the work of a growing number of performers. Moreover, because of the lack of critics, the few who exist are placed on a pedestal and become unquestionable. The lack of a space for communication and dialogue between the dancer and critic make the reviews, once published – indisputable. There is no room for the critic to clarify any doubts before printing their reviews, and no space for a dancer to respond to this critique in as public a space as the one in which the review appears. This creates mistrust between the dancer and critic.

Secondly, the nature of these reviews have come under scrutiny in the past (see Sadanand Menon’s article in 1984 titled ‘Those large liquid eyes’) and today’s reviews also largely leave many questioning the validity and legitimacy of the critics. This might be so because the relationship between the dancer and the critic is not of mutual understanding and learning, as it should be. In my view, the job of the dancer is to communicate his or her idea through her dance. In turn, the critic’s job is to constructively guide a dancer with his or her critique. Sometimes, however, a review leaves a dancer feeling demoralized and perplexed.

At a very basic level, the mistrust is further fuelled by badly conducted research. Last year, a newspaper article that was covering Mandeep Raikhy’s ‘Inhabited Geometry’ read that its choreographer was Desmond Roberts, who was in fact, the photographer whose photograph was enclosed in the article. Another review wrote off a choreographer as German, when in fact, he was an Indian dancer who had trained in Austria. In yet another article, a Bharatanatyam dancer was said to be a Kalakshetra graduate. In reality, she was trained in Delhi in the Kalakshetra style. Poor research and lack of attention to detail then must be a reason for this mistrust.

Another reason for this mistrust is the regurgitation of ‘programme notes’ and passing this off as a critique. Descriptive rather than analytical pieces of writing betray a reluctance to scrutinize and appreciate the dancer’s work. Reviews often use most of the space available to describe the ambience, the nature of the audience and the general atmosphere rather than the dance itself.

Finally, some critics make sweeping statements which often contradict themselves. One review mentioned that the ‘charismatic’ dancer ‘lacked energy and emotion’ and then went on to say that the dancer performed abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. In making such a contradictory statement, it is imperative to explain how a ‘charismatic’ dancer lacked ‘energy’ and how it came to be that a dancer who ‘lacked emotion’ was able to perform abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. Otherwise, the critique is meaningless and vexing!

To conclude, it is absolutely vital that we find some way to arouse the interest of young journalists to write about dance, and train them in a proper manner. Further, those that take this up as a profession must be more careful and responsible when critiquing work, keeping in mind their main purpose – to constructively and objectively critique work.

 Dance criticism needs an overhaul, without which this relationship between the dancer and critic may fall apart completely. This is alarming, because dance criticism is a lively and integral part of the dance world. A good system of criticism keeps dancers on their toes. It also informs the larger world about new work being created in the dance world everyday. Finally, it opens up the possibility for dialogue between the performers and spectators – something that brings the art and artist closer to the people. We need this overhaul now – because good critics are crucial to an intelligent and responsive dance community.

When Dance Criticism is Constructive...

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 scrutinizes 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 criticizing 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 criticism 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 criticizing 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 criticize 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 criticizing them. Constructive criticism has no ulterior motives and therefore no imaginable reason for criticizing 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 internalize 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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