Criticism in the Age of Possibilities
Posted on 2 July, 2012
Recently I reviewed several dance performances for publications, a task I underestimated entirely. When I first took on the job I thought to myself, what could be so difficult about reviewing a dance? All I had to do was sit and watch, then be brutally honest about how I felt about the show. The moment I put pen to paper however, I hesitated after writing every other word. Suddenly there were so many things to consider. Was I being fair to the choreography? Was I being baseless and judgmental? How could I know if I was providing an accurate analysis of the work to the reader? It is funny that I should have had so many considerations. After all, I would think that one’s most fundamental reaction is to like or dislike what he just saw. But in presenting my views to the public, I got a bit nervous.
Illustration: Michael Hale
My way is but one of many other ways
Remember that class about postmodern era in western art and culture? That was a time when people moved away from singular definitions in favour of multiple angles and possibilities. Why hark unendingly on one point of view when you can enjoy considering issues from every angle? During this time, numerous alternative view points started surfacing; female cultural icons emerged to challenge the male stronghold on society and artforms started showing an affinity to practices from other cultures. In dance, methods such as Contact Improvisation borrowed theories from Eastern movement forms such as Aikido and Tai-Chi. In short, it became uncool to say, “My way is best.” Instead, people adopted a stance that said, “My way is but one of many other valid ways.”
Today, such attitudes are firmly entrenched in the way we view art. But this idea of limitless possibilities and angles makes it difficult to write a review. I was often stuck in a quandary while writing. I would be lying if I did not admit to the fact that were aspects of the works that I just could not get into no matter how hard I tried. But if I penned my dislikes wholeheartedly, would I have been accused of being biased or shallow?
The problem is confounded because I am a dancer and choreographer myself. I understand first hand the arduous task of creating a dance. No one sets out to intentionally create a bad work, but in the end some pieces speak to me much more than others. The problem arises because I have to write within the context of today’s artistic attitudes. Such attitudes encourage criticism not so much as a opportunity to find fault but to better understand the choreographer’s reasons behind creating the work. They also encourage discourse over value judgment. Indeed the term ‘value judgment’ now almost seems like a vulgar phrase regarded as a taboo in the contemporary art world reserved for the shallow and uninitiated. But, if because of today’s attitudes every point of view is to be regarded as valid, then what is my role as a reviewer?
Maybe it is not about authority.
Perhaps then, a reviewer’s job today is not so much about authority anymore. It is no more about one person’s comments being the be-all and end-all. So many social movements and phenomena point to the increasing unpopularity of singular authority, the internet being the most obvious one. It has spawned the ideas of the bedroom superstar, citizen journalism, facebook. Recently, Wall Street was occupied and there was the Arab Spring. Even in our infamously controlled island we see a blossoming of diverse views on many issues close to our hearts. It seems nobody wants anybody to proclaim a truism on their behalf anymore. But make no mistake, I think a reviewer should bravely make his / her stand. It would be terribly boring to read a review that analyses a work in great detail but stops short on making a stand. By all means do so, but today it is about making a stand sensitively and knowledgeably. Upon writing, I found out that reviewing a work after considering all angles proved to be more fruitful because when I attempted to see more in the work, I also began to understand more aspects of the work. Context is important.
In addition, I began to truly understand the importance of all the art and dance history lessons I took as an art student. This knowledge allowed me to consider the works I saw against the backdrop of conventions, current trends and what came before. Such knowledge, I realised, helped give credibility to the review. All readers want to be sure that what they are reading can be trusted and has gone through the rigours of thought and analysis. As a reviewer, my background knowledge gave me the tools to carry out that analysis. The nature of contemporary dance is very broad, its boundaries near limitless. I find that it is important to frame the work being reviewed within very specific contexts and environments. Only then will the review seem balanced. If it is a contemporary ballet, frame it against that particular history. If it is a Cunningham work, perhaps it is best discussed in relation to Merce Cunningham’s body of work or in the context of American modern dance.
At the expense of sounding pedantic, I believe this is how knowledge can be used when writing a review – not to prove that I know it all, but to show that I have considered multiple angles of the situation that I feel were relevant in making me come to my conclusion about the work. Therefore, a new attitude for the reviewer? So now it is not about imposing my knowledge. Rather, it is about sharing it with a good dose of humility.
As a fellow dance artist reviewing a dance work, it is my job to review the work using the knowledge I have regarding dance. But in reviewing, I need to also understand that my knowledge is not exhaustive. In the end, maybe it is not that we cannot express a dislike for a work. But in the process of doing it, we should not appear myopic and arrogant. Dislike in this day and age is fine, as long as we remember that someone else might actually like it.
TEXT BY LEE MUN WAI