(Ine)quality and dance criticism: but what about the dance?

The call for expressions of interest to take part in the Springback Academy promised mentorship in quality dance criticism. The texts participants produced were subsequently posted on the Springback Academy website in an attempt to “stimulate conversations online that will enable Aerowaves to connect with digitally active dance enthusiasts across Europe–ensuring people who are not in Barcelona share ideas, thoughts and views.” However, in a round of introductions prior to the festival and again during a panel discussion titled Critical Issues, the seemingly conflicting efforts of prominent dance press personalities at Spring Forward to (i) encourage discussions about dance online, and (ii) simultaneously problematise dance criticism published/posted online, became apparent.

How did the Springback Academy’s texts differ from other examples of online commentary the panel/mentors cast doubt upon? In short, it was suggested that the Springback Academy’s contributions were elevated from ‘poor’ examples of online dance writing thanks to our collaboration with mentors who edited/filtered our work, a process typical of print publications. Furthermore, we were involved in a program initiated by an organisation at the head of a network of European dance institutions, while most bloggers lack institutional affiliations and, therefore, authority.

On the one hand, the cultivation of young cultural commentators is an admirable project I was lucky enough to benefit from. On the other hand, in light of fellow Springback Academy writers’ online platforms for discussions of dance independent of dance/news establishments, it appears distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate opinion also does a disservice to their grassroots work, in particular by limiting the range of valid approaches and responses to dance.

Against this background, my short contemplation of the Springback Academy format will hopefully draw attention to the scope of expertise beyond establishments and their sanctioned guides. In doing so, I also propose (briefly) how contemporary, dance-literate writers could contribute to the grander project of dance dissemination. Although the following does include suggestions as to how the Springback Academy could accommodate a greater range of voices, they are far too openly formulated to be considered advisable steps. Instead, they emerged out of thoughts on my supposed mediating role between dance and those interested in dance, as well as the boundaries dance criticism—in isolation from other forms of dance mediation—might be complicit in constructing between these two parties.

For example, we Springbackers were regularly reminded of our obligation to be considerate of an online readership and, to an extent, conform to an editor’s wishes. After all, anybody with a computer and an internet connection could stumble across our reviews and this online readership should be able to comprehend every word. Compounding the demand for accessibility in dance journalism is the the popular notion of dance as a non-discursive/pure/universal art form. However, unlike most arts writers, artists tend not to be so mindful of their audiences. In fact, a considerable number of dance artists grapple with overtly academic interests and scholarly dance perspectives both artistically and concretely. As we saw in Barcelona, Giorgia Nardin and Euripides Laskaridis challenged gender norms; Vilma Pitrinaite invoked Benedict Anderson’s formulation, “imagined communities”; Dan Canham engaged with ethnographic methods and historiography.

Considering the complexity of the works being reviewed, many Springback Academy readers online would struggle to “access” a work based on a critique alone, particularly so in the case of new dance audiences unfamiliar with contemporary dance practices. Conversely, experienced dance spectators and specialists (many of whom were in Barcelona) rarely require, or show interest in, reviewers’ opinions. After seeing a work first hand (and sometimes having read a dramaturg’s programme notes) these live audience members are more than capable of forming their own. Supposing this is all true, it had me questioning what steps could be taken to make the practice of dance criticism more effective.

The Springback Academy could also be deployed prior to showings and venture into dance mediation, as opposed to just critiquing it after the event. This could, for instance, involve directing the audience’s focus by providing guiding questions for novice dance spectators. In the context of an industry event like Spring Forward Festival, such a recommendation would be primarily intended for those viewing the festival online, who might struggle connecting to conceptual/performative works removed from their live presentation and are possibly unfamiliar with contemporary dance practices.

As opposed to making expert opinion an exclusive affair, which in the exceptional context of Spring Forward could be characterised as preaching to the choir, perhaps the Springback Academy could tap into the wealth of knowledge of those attending (not to mention those watching at home,too). Admittedly, most audience members find comfort in not having to contribute more than small talk at cultural events. However, for those inclined to share their thoughts without engaging in public, streamed, panel discussions, opportunities could have been provided for these individuals to do so discretely and anonymously. Surely some audience members would have liked to contribute a paragraph, or even respond to the Springbackers’ own attempts to capture and critique a work in text(?) In the intimate festival space, a work’s creator(s) or producer(s) could even complicate a reviewer’s perceptions by publicly describing the choreographic process, or suggesting a more appropriate methodological lens.

To the festival organisers’ credit, a highly democratic format was tested at the Spring Forward Festival this year; roving Meerkat reporter and Springback Academy alumna, Sally Marie, conducted what she described as “really interesting” streamed interviews with those attending events and also discussed the festival with strangers online. Unfortunately, these conversations were not documented for the Spring Forward archives, underlining again the differing values assigned to formal and informal examples of knowledge production and circulation online/in dance contexts. (Or maybe they simply required too much evaluation and contextualisation to be made freely available.)

This all extends beyond the scope of dance criticism, nevertheless, it could/should be expected of those who specialise in dance discourse to develop a sensitivity among lay spectators for the embodiment of complex concepts on stage. If this were to be explored, not only would the Springback Academy succeed in describing and criticising works, it would also equip new audiences with tools for future contemporary dance appreciation.

This is my opinion, not authoritative, although somewhat institutionally validated.

– LUKE AARON FORBES

Published by Aerowaves Springback, 30 April 2015. See: http://aerowaves.org/springback/features/article/inequality-and-dance-criticism-but-what-about-the-dance

 

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