In Defense of Dance Criticism (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of the essay concerning the shift from advocacy to nostalgia in critical dance writing.

In Defense of Dance Criticism (2013) Part 2 of 3

Stephen Shropshire


In an examination of New York Times dance critics over the last decade, Berman observes an overarching nostalgia in their criticism and suggests that it is a yearning to ‘make sense of the current period which to many seems trendless and transitional’.[1] She observes in their writing ‘a bleak and anxious picture of the future of dance and dance journalism, as well as a nostalgic view of a more unified, stable, golden era in both the dance making and critical community’.[2] According to Berman, since the end of the twentieth century, dance critics could often be heard arguing the lack of significant new voices in the realm of ballet and modern dance and voicing concern about the future of the art form.[3] She suggests that this despondency has coincided with the reduction of critical journalism in the New York press and with the rise of virtual media platforms that have offered new possibilities for the critical discourse on dance.[4] According to Berman, John Rockwell, who took over the position of chief dance critic at the New York Times in 2005, set about to address this issue by restructuring the dance section of the Times.[5] She observes that he did so by engaging a new generation of young freelance critics and increasing the number of reviews published both in print and online.[6] She also suggests that Rockwell’s tenure at the paper was controversial in that he – bridging the legacy of multi culturalism of the late twentieth century – was a vocal supporter of a unified and borderless art form.[7] As Berman writes, ‘Rockwell argued that the critic must be a unifier, an articulate voice who can draw an integrated and multifaceted face for contemporary dance’.[8] Conversely however, she points out that Rockwell’s argument only served to splinter the community he aimed to unite, by ‘highlighting the genre-specific divisions (that) permeated all aspects of the dance field’.[9] She suggests that the appointment of Alastair Macaulay in 2007, who assumed the position from Rockwell, helped to minimize that fracture because Macaulay was (and remains) a balletomane and an advocate of genre divisions.[10] Berman points out that although Macaulay has been a staunch defender of the ballet tradition, he still has exhibited anxiety about the future of the art form, just as Rockwell before him.[11] Though according to Berman, Macaulay has tempered that anxiety with a nostalgic view for the past.[12] As Berman suggests, since his appointment, Macaulay and his staff of freelance colleagues have continued to exhibit this pronounced nostalgia throughout their critical writing.[13] As an example, Berman points out that Times critics notably categorize dance styles that seemingly defy categorization, doing so ‘as an attempt to synthesize the proliferation of contemporary dance idioms and performance styles’.[14] She continues to state that this replication of old categories such as ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ which are ‘outmoded and irrelevant’, have ‘social as well as cultural implications at a time when professional critic are rapidly becoming obsolete’.[15] The issue of nostalgia in dance criticism is not however specific to the New York Times. Choreographer Tere O’Connor, in response to an Acocella article appearing in The New Yorker, one where she positions him as the ‘elder statesman’ of the ‘downtown surrealists’[16], writes,

‘Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up. Through her lack of understanding and her inability to reach out and get information from artists, she joins a group of critics whom I will call ‘the literalists.’ These critics do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries. What’s more, they don’t do the work of finding out … the contexts in which these works are created. They have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken.’[17]

Though reacting to the nostalgic categorization of his work, what complicates this example is that – according to critic Deborah Jowitt – Acocella’s article was a positive account of O’Connor and his work.[18] This reflects the dissent of many choreographers working in the field to be categorized – even positively – within the parameters of nostalgia. For them, nostalgia reflects ‘canon criticism’, which as Ann Daly suggests, ‘becomes the enforcement of a set of standards regarded as universal and eternal’.[19] These universal standards, which can be seen as reflecting previously held Kantian notions of art, raise alarm in many choreographers working in a post-historic context; choreographers who are unwilling to be judged against the antiquated constructs of classical ballet and historic modern dance. However, perhaps it is not the issue of nostalgia that choreographers should contend, but rather the limitations imposed on their work by those who write it. It could be argued that the root of their concern is the circumscribed evaluation of their work based solely on its capacity to fulfill some previously held notion of dance, an evaluation filtered through the lens of nostalgia. To regard the past as foundation for contemporary critical evaluation is not necessarily problematic. It could be argued that it is rather the misuse of that regard to assert and enforce outdated standards and criterion that places contemporary dance criticism at such risk.

In considering the historic shift of dance criticism from advocacy to nostalgia, the question then arises – what critical position would serve the future of an art form that critics argue is in threat? Though difficult to generalize any single answer, the question may find some resolve in readdressing Kant’s previously dismantled notions of aesthetics. As mentioned earlier, Kant’s theories were brought into question in the second half of the twentieth century when the ‘rules’ that presupposed a work of art no longer served as the foundation for its consideration as art. Though in consideration it could be argued that Kant’s theories were only ever without purpose when their application was limited to what he describes as ‘dependent’ beauty. Kant’s work is, as Denis Dutton points out, often elusive and sometimes contradictory.[20] Dutton’s analysis of Kant is exhaustive and too broad for the scope of this paper, however some key aspects of his examination may shed light on the debate of dance criticism’s future.[21] According to Dutton’s analysis, in the section entitled “On the Relation of Genius to Taste,” Kant proposes that ‘when we declare a work of art beautiful, then we must first base it on a concept of what the thing is (meant) to be, since art always presupposes a purpose in the cause’.[22] In that sense, as Dutton suggests, it can be understood that ‘the conditioning concepts of dependent beaut(y) set limits, necessary conditions not to be violated…informing us what a work of art must not be’.[23] The issue of nostalgia in dance criticism, in a limited reading, can therefore be seen as a reflection of this notion of dependent beauty in so much that the work of art is dependent on the conditions that categorize it as such. In this particular application of Kant, the authority entitled to critics to determine a works beauty, allows for selection (and thereby canonization) of certain works based upon historic reference. Herein lies the heart of its contention. Dependent beauty allows no room for the rapture of traditional form by choreographers in search of the poetic unknown. Where does dependent beauty leave room for (as of yet) undiscovered manifestations? Such an application does not take into consideration the free artistic expression that challenged Kant’s theories in the second half of the twentieth century. According to Dutton’s analysis, ‘free’ beauty- as it is first proposed in Kant’s text- implies that an art work’s ‘beauty does not presuppose a concept of what the object is (meant) to be’.[24] Wouldn’t this justify the work of contemporary choreographers who reject the standards and conventions of the previous era? According to Dutton not – as the application of Kant’s idealized notion of free beauty cannot be utilized as a defense for free artistic expression.[25] This because, as Dutton points out, this ‘mythic’ idea of free beauty that Kant begins his Critique of Judgment is later abandoned as an impossible ideal.[26] [27] More importantly however is that, as Dutton observes, Kant’s usage of the term ‘free’ fluctuates in meaning throughout the course of his text. As Dutton points out, in the section ‘On the Relation of Genius to Taste’ Kant clearly states that ‘all artistic beauty is dependent beauty’.[28] In his analysis of the terms usage throughout the text, Dutton observes that ‘the “free” aspect of beauty – what (Kant) calls pure form – can only come into being against an already-given determining background of human structures, ideas, rules, which he calls the “foundation” for any art’.[29] Dutton resolves the distinction as such: the free aspect of artistic practice is that which is created against a fixed backdrop.[30] This application of ‘free’ beauty would be very broad indeed to include, as Dutton suggests, not just established techniques and traditions but also gender, ethnicity, and race.[31] Dutton writes, ‘(the) free/dependent distinction slides according to whatever aspect of a work is being attended to: what, therefore, counts as “free” or “dependent” is contextually determined.[32]  Therefore it can be argued that, although many choreographers may contest the issue of nostalgia in contemporary dance criticism, it is only problematic when the evaluation is limited to the authority (or perfection) of a particular form. Critical evaluation that is nostalgic, but is not limited by nostalgia; one that allows room for free beauty – that which Kant reconciles as the creative outcome of dependent beauty[33]– would encompass the plurality of contemporary dance, embracing both historic and post-historic ideologies. However, (and herein lays the dilemma) that would necessitate critics making judgments based upon positions of aesthetic authority rather than institutional authority. It would require critics to make judgments that enhanced the perception and approach of a choreographic work by engaging in the distending language of contemporary dance of the twenty-first century rather than by limiting it through their nostalgic yearning for the languages of the past. As Lavender suggests,

‘We need a dance criticism with a strong enough sense of history to tell us, in its aesthetic analysis and evaluation of a work, how the work borrows, adapts, appropriates, amplifies, or merely alludes to stylistic, expressive, and formal features, ideas, and devices from past art.[34] (But also) the wisdom and the self-confidence to know when to remain silent on matters of history; to know when such references hinder rather than help us to perceive and appreciate a work’s aesthetic presence.’[35]

However, as Lavender goes on to point out, ‘not all critics aim this high’.[36]


(Part 3 to follow)


[1] Ibid.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.3

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p.9

[8] Ibid., p.11

[9] Ibid., p.10

[10] Ibid., p.13

[11] Ibid., p.14

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p.15

[14] Ibid., p.4

[15] Ibid.

[16] Deborah Jowitt, “Getting It”, The Village Voice, 2006, p.1

[17] Tere O’Connor, 2005; as cited in Dance Insider, 2008

[18] Jowitt, “Getting It” p.1

[19] Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”, p.14

[20] Dutton, “Kant”, sec. 3.

[21] In addressing Kant’s theory, it is necessary to concede that his work refers to artistic practice of the eighteenth century and that his use of the term ‘beauty’ is one that has long since been removed from the lexicon of artistic practice.

[22] Ibid., para.2

[23] Ibid., sec.5, para.6

[24] Ibid., sec.2, para.2

[25] Ibid., sec.6, para.1-2

[26] Ibid.

[27] In addition, the idea of free beauty with which he begins his text is reserved for objects of nature, which according to Dutton, are questionable in their actual capacity to fulfill such a notion. Ibid., sec. 5, para.2

[28] Ibid., sec.3, para.2

[29] Ibid., sec.5, para.11

[30] Ibid., para.11

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., para.10

[33] Ibid. para.11

[34] Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.100

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p.102

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