In Defense of Dance Criticism (part 1 of 3)

When choreographer Mario Zambrano took up pen to publicly admonish New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas in a 2010 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Zambrano gave voice to a growing sentiment among choreographers frustrated with the increased tone of nostalgia in critical dance writing. Referring to a review of a performance by colleague Bill T. Jones, one that Kourlas described as ‘breezily limited in terms of dance’[1], Zambrano wrote,

‘I am frustrated with dance critics. It seems that you – you and your colleagues – hold on to ideology of dance of a previous era, hoping to freeze it there, without open-mindedness to what might be on the horizon, that exciting future of wonder and possibility.’[2]

The tone of nostalgia to which Zambrano refers, is one that has fueled the fire of an ongoing debate on critical dance writing. It is a debate that raises question not only about the future of dance criticism, but also about the shifting role of the critic therein. Though debates on criticism are not unique to this era, at a time in history when both critic and community are threatened with a kind of extinction it is a debate that warrants particular attention. The rise of the internet and new media technology has given platform to an ever-increasing stream of critical opinion on dance and choreography; a discourse – using the term in the broadest possible sense – once dominated by established newspapers and curated journals. In addition, traditional forms of viewing and presenting dance are being challenged by the possibilities that the virtual world presents. Both dance and dance criticism, no longer isolated in their exercise, are subject to the new rules of a technologically dexterous social economy[3]; one that has given voice to an audience interested in open exchange and who are increasingly willing to exercise their new forms of social power in determining what, who, and how dance gets seen. It can be said that the playing field has leveled, and at a time when artist and critic need each other most the battle lines are being drawn and defenses need to be rallied.

To come to the defense of dance criticism, it is necessary first to trace its capricious relationship with American concert dance throughout the twentieth century. According to professor and dance researcher Larry Lavender, the aesthetic paradigm of Immanuel Kant established in the late eighteenth century laid groundwork for a critical discourse on American dance based upon set standards and criterion.[4] Philosopher Denis Dutton has written that while claiming the universality of beauty, Kant illuminated art works as ‘singular creations of individual genius’.[5] This was a view that was to serve well in evaluating classical ballet imported from Europe as well as the brave new forms of modern dance emerging in nineteen-twenties New York. According to dance scholar Leslie Berman, in the early part of the twentieth century a unique reciprocal dialogue between the emerging fields of modern dance and dance criticism characterized critical dance writing in the New York City.[6] John Martin, who was the first chief dance critic appointed at the New York Times in 1927, was a vocal advocate of emerging modern dance choreographers of the time.[7] According to Siobhan Burke, at a very particular moment in history when both modern dance and dance journalism were being institutionalized, Martin was the first dance critic to construct theories of performance, spectatorship, and composition; giving voice to those theories as a means of advocacy for concert dance.[8] According to Berman, by demystifying the ‘esoteric’ notions of this new art form, Martin set the foundations for critic as advocator; a role that would influence the standard of critical dance discourse in America throughout the twentieth century.[9] Theater scholar Lynne Connor has written that ‘between the pioneer dance critics and the pioneer modern dancers – the exchange of ideas, philosophies, and criticism – is central to the way in which advocacy as a guiding construct influenced early columnists’.[10] The role of critic as advocator was requisite at the time because, as Burke has suggested, Martin understood ‘one basic, pragmatic truth: if modern dance (were) to survive past its adolescence, it would require the general interest and financial support of a broad audience’.[11] To help achieve that interest and fueled by his deep belief that every viewer maintained the ability for aesthetic appreciation, Martin published two works of theoretical tools for dance spectators: How to Look at Dancing and How Not to Look at Dancing.[12] In addition to these works, Berman points out that Martin, in ‘long Sunday pieces for the New York Times (and) lectures at the New School for Social Research… sought to explain and categorize different dance forms in order to “spread the gospel of modern dance” to new audiences and ensure its future vitality’.[13] In doing so, Berman suggests that Martin established the role of the New York dance critic as ally for the art form, but also as ‘exploiter and label maker’; a role of which he would later be accused and one that would no longer suit the shifting parameters of dance practice as the century moved forward.[14]

The position of advocacy championed by Martin in the early part of the twentieth century was thrown into flux by the cultural relativism and anti judgmental sentiments that permeated the dance world from the nineteen-sixties onward. According to Lavender, Kant’s aesthetic theories which formed the foundations for critical evaluation in dance, came into question in the nineteen sixties when the ‘rules’ that presupposed choreography no longer served as ground for its consideration as art.[15] Lavender has suggested that as a result of the universalization of artistic categories, the gradual dismantling of Kantian notions of aesthetics gave rise to ‘institutional theory’.[16] This theory, first articulated by George Dickie in 1979, proposed that ‘objects and events of all description may be designated as art by those operating on behalf of various art world institutions’.[17] Lavender observed that in a ‘post historical’ context[18] anything and everything could now be considered art.[19] This would imply that the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘reality’ had all but vanished, rendering, as Lavender has suggested, ‘virtually obsolete all of the boundaries that used to divide…various artistic disciplines and traditions from one another’.[20] Citing philosopher Gianni Vattimo, Lavender writes that, in a post historic context, a work ‘no longer seeks a success which would permit it to position itself within a determinate set of values’.[21] As an example of this shift, Lavender describes how in the domain of dance, a choreographer – who for lack of a substantial idea or any real technical skill – may ‘simply walk on stage and describe for the audience how (their) work might look had (they) completed it’.[22] Due to this radical shift in the parameters of inclusion and the apparent dissolution of disciplinary divisions, Lavender has observed that critics in the last part of the twentieth century began to exhibit an increased anxiety in the task of evaluating contemporary dance performance and choreography.[23] This anxiety changed the way that dance criticism was understood and exercised – manifesting, as critic Joan Acocella has suggested, in writing reminiscent of nineteenth-century French positivists.[24] According to Lavender, dance critics were no longer armed with the delineated boundaries of artistic disciplines and tradition that had since framed their writing and reverted instead to descriptive accounts of dance performance and choreography, eschewing judgment in favor of objectivity.[25] Lavender suggests that this shift echoed the artistic doctrine of the era, stemming to some extent, from the dance makers themselves.[26] Lavender cites as example the Judson Dance Theater, who ‘largely under the influence of Cage (and Duchamp), conferred the status of art upon ordinary movement designed and performed without any mythical, emotional, dramatic, representational, or narrative connotations’.[27] He suggests that in rejecting previously held notions of art, Judson choreographers forced a shift in critical writing that ‘minimized both interpretation and evaluation’ relying instead on predominantly descriptive analyses.[28]

However, as the century drew to a close this anti judgmental approach to critical writing began to reveal its divide, raising question among critics about their shifting role and obligation. The issues of multi culturalism that permeated debates on art in the post war era only served to further exacerbate that inquiry. According to dance historian and critic Sally Banes, multi culturalism had led both artists and critics alike to challenge the notion that someone could properly evaluate the work of an artist who was outside of their race, gender, ethnicity, or class.[29] To that point, Acocella has argued that

‘Whenever political sentiment runs high, the idea of a free criticism is called into question… Multiculturalists have pointed out that esthetic values are culture-bound. Therefore (it is said) critics, in order to avoid unfairness to things outside their conditioning history, should write a purely descriptive criticism, devoid of judgment’.[30]

She continues to argue that a positivist approach – one that ‘emulates the objectivity of science’- would only serve to further alienate the art form from its audience.[31] Lavender has concurred by suggesting that such an approach would be fatal to the art form because judgments have to be made in order to ‘keep the engines of the dance world running’.[32] However, as Berman has observed, with the dawn of the twenty-first century dance critics have continued to exhibit an increased anxiety in their role as evaluators.[33] The rapidly evolving language of contemporary dance fuels this anxiety, which in a post historical context – as Lavender has suggested – is so radically pluralistic.[34] According to Berman, it is this pluralism that may have paved the way (at least in part) for what she observes as nostalgia permeating contemporary critical dance writing in the New York press.[35]

(Keep posted for Parts 2 and 3)


[1] Gia Kourlas, “Following Lincoln Through History”, New York Times, July 16, 2010.

[2] Mario Zambrano, “Letter to a Critic: Finding the Right Words to Say the Right Things”, Brooklyn Rail, September 3, 2010.

[3] Jose Van Dijk, “The Social Economy”, 2013

[4] Larry Lavender, “Post Historical Dance Criticism, Dance    Research Journal, Vol. 32. No. 2,,Winter 2000-2001, p.88.

[5] Dennis Dutton, “The Experience of Art Is Paradise Regained: Kant on Free and Dependent Beauty”, The British Journal of Aesthetics 34, 1994

[6] Leslie Berman, “Writing Nostalgia: Dance Criticism at the New York Times in the Age of Internet Journalism”, Barnard University, 2008, p.5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Siobhan Burke, “Rejecting Artifice, Advancing Art: The Dance Criticism of John Martin”, The Columbia Journal of American Studies,.n.d., p.1

[9] Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”, p.5

[10] Connor, 1997., as cited by Berman, Ibid.

[11] Burke, “Rejecting Artifice” p.2

[12] Ibid.

[13] Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”, p.5

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lavender, “Post Historical”, p.88

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dickie, 1979, as cited by Lavender, Ibid

[18] Lavender referring here to art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto’s usage of the term

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. p.89

[21] Vattimo, 1998, as cited by Lavender, Ibid., p. 89.

[22] Ibid. p.88

[23] Ibid. p.90

[24] Joan Acocella, “What’s Good About Bad Reviews?”, Dance Ink, 1992, p.1

[25] Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.90

[26] Ibid. p.91

[27] Ibid. p.92

[28] Ibid.

[29] Banes, 1994., as referenced by Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.90.

[30] Acocella, “Bad Reviews”, p.1.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lavender,“Post Historic”, p.92.

[33] Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”

[34] Ibid. p.89

[35] Ibid.

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