In Defense of Dance Criticism (Part 3 of 3)

And lastly, the third part of a 2013 essay concerning the shift from advocacy to nostalgia in critical dance writing.

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

Stephen Shropshire


Compounding concerns about the future of dance criticism is the particular tone critics take when reviewing dance. In an open letter on the subject of dance criticism, choreographer Jiri Kylian addresses what he calls the ‘ignorance’ and ‘lack of respect’ exhibited in critical writing on dance.[1] Though not specifically addressing American critics, he writes in reaction to what he perceives as a general incompetence among dance critics; critics engaged in a ‘strange power game’ where young artists, who are the ‘most endangered species… drown easily in the pool of poisonous ink of writers lacking any kind of fantasy or vision’.[2] The power game which Kylian describes reflects what Lavender argues as institutional authority asserted from an apriori position of power; an authority where critics, through their ‘acts of judgment and selection’, make dance works ‘visible or make them disappear’.[3] As Lavender points out,

‘Because of its tremendous power to orient and to shape perceptions and taste, criticism has an important role to play in the post-historical art world, not the least of which is to continue to escort artworks in a noticeable way into the marketplace of art.’[4]

Discussions on this topic, including a 2009 panel debate organized by the Movement Research Project in New York City, suggest that despite the divergent belief that the power of the critic has diminished, in a flooded market like New York a review in the New York Times has the determinate power to make or break a young artists career.[5] Critic Clive Barnes concurs and acknowledges that,

‘In the New York performing arts, particularly in classical music, opera, and dance, The New York Times reigns supreme…the influence of its dance reviews, inside and outside the city, is enormous, and the particular tone it takes with dance and dance matters is crucial nowadays.’[6]

One might wonder then why critics, who voice anxiety over the future of the art form, write reviews such as Macaulay did of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker in 2010. In his now infamous review, Macaulay wrote that ballerina Jennifer Ringer ‘looked as if she’d eaten one sugar-plum too many’.[7] According to Pointe magazine columnist Kate Lydon, his review set off a firestorm in the international dance world and ushered in the so-called ‘ballet wars’ in dance criticism.[8] Despite the obvious disrespect for Ms. Ringer’s person, Macaulay bases this critical opinion on a nostalgic view of ballet, positioning Ringer against antiquated ideals of body image and weight. More disturbingly perhaps is the fact that, as Macaulay suggests in a 2012 interview defending his review, he views the role of the critic largely as one of prosaic entertainment.[9] He states,

‘A critic is there, in a large sense, to entertain—to put on some kind of performance…He’s not writing some methodical or official examiner’s assessment—he’s there to write something that’s happily, sensuously engrossing as prose and as thought.’[10]

As if to power the message home, he goes on to relay the view of a fellow critic who states, ‘My job isn’t to be right, it’s to be interesting’.[11] These statements are particularly disconcerting, due in part to the great unerring paradox of dance criticism. As Jiri Kylian points out, dancers and choreographers search out critical discourse.[12] Throughout their development dancers engage in an ongoing critical discourse with their teachers, coaches, and directors – persons whose judicious observations serve to strengthen and perfect a dancer’s technical proficiency and artistry. The critical dialogue is the evaluative end to the long creative process. This makes it all the more painful when the need for that dialogue is replaced by a type of authoritative posturizing laced with, as Kylian suggests, superficial displays of ‘adolescent confusion and infantile behavior’.[13] Dance artists thrown to the drowning pool of surface journalism, struggle for the unpolluted, aesthetically authoritative discourse that is constructive to their development. The deathblow of this struggle comes when these critics – now elevated to the role of ‘prophets’- play a defining role in the politics of selection. When critics determine, as Lavender has suggested, what should be seen, programmed, and funded[14] through views that are – as Kylian claims – hopelessly self-centered and writing that is ‘endlessly so easy to read’.[15] The issues apparent in the state of contemporary dance criticism are not limited therefore only to the application of nostalgic values, but also include the reinforcement of those values through writing that is overtly cynical, simplified, and often expressed in terms reflective of pubescent intimidation. Furthermore, as if such displays of bullying were not negligible enough, when such writing is utilized to assert institutional authority, it is ultimately the art form that pays the cost. As Lavender has suggested, this type of apriori posturizing threatens the very notion of the aesthetic authority that is sadly missing in so much dance criticism.[16] Zingy one-liners will forever be infinitely more accessible than thoughtful contemplation of the form, and thereby their usage, as Lavender suggests, encourages its commercialization.[17] In the end this is detrimental for both the critic and the community because, as Lavender points out, ‘to privilege institutional authority over aesthetic authority is to admit, finally, that art is just another market commodity and criticism just an elaborate form of advertising’.[18] For critics who express anxiety about the future of the art form this seems blindingly self-destructive. For what they apparently fail to see is that if the future of dance is threatened, it is – at least in part – because they have written it that way.

As traditional forms of media fold into the rapidly expanding web of modern technology it seems now more than ever necessary to come to the defense of dance criticism; to distinguish it from the unfiltered opinions that litters the discourse on contemporary expressions of the form. If the future of dance is threatened, as many New York critics attest, so too is the future of dance criticism. Not the poisonous writing of which Kylian speaks (there will always be platform for opinion parking), nor the nostalgic yearnings of which Zambrano and O’Conner contend. Nor is it the positivist anti judgmentalism of the late twentieth century. The criticism in need of defense is critical. It is the poignant and transformative writing that ignites the flame of reflection and inspires greatness in both the reader and the artist. Criticism in need of defense is the criticism that seeks out ‘free’ beauty flowering from its dependent roots, criticism that armors itself as advocator for the new and unintelligible languages of this new age and for the artists seeking to find those languages. In ‘writing nostalgia’[19] perhaps New York critics are not wrong, just grossly misdirected, because criticism worth defending must look back. It is a criticism that looks back to the birth of dance in America, back to the reciprocal dialogue that existed between critic and choreographers in the early part of the twentieth century, back further to Kant’s notions of aesthetics that gave form to those dialogues. It is criticism that looks back, not to reassemble the perfect models of a golden era, but rather to examine the conditions that enabled them to become so. Looking back, so that the art form can once again look forward.


[1] Jiri Kylian, “On Critics and Criticism”, 2012

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.102

[4] Ibid., p 99

[5] Panel Debate, Movement Research Project, 2009

[6] Barnes, 2005, as cited by Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”, p.1

[7] Alastair Macaulay, “Timeless Alchemy, Even When No One Is Dancing”, New York Times, November 2010.

[8] Kate Lydon, “Confessions of a Dance Critic”, Pointe Magazine, December 2011.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kylian, “On Critics”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.99

[15] Kylian, “On Critics”

[16] Lavender, “Post Historic”, p.99.

[17] Ibid., p.102

[18] Ibid.

[19] Berman, “Writing Nostalgia”

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