Reviews as Dramaturgy, and the Gap Between Dance and Theatre

Over the years I’ve developed among some circles a cultural notoriety for rattling the cage with my honesty, fundamentally angering people with my frank commentary. So far in this space I have tactfully made an effort to avoid that… a fairly easy task when you stick to a relatively benign topics like discussing your artistic process.

Today with this piece I am probably going to make some of you angry. Though I ask that you not let anger slam the door shut on your otherwise open mind, I am certain some of you will refuse to get anything other than upset, offended or otherwise combative from reading this. Proceed with caution.

The following is not necessarily organized into an essay… but not pure stream of consciousness either. It does change direction a couple times and isn’t necessarily built around a major thesis but makes several points and invites multiple topics of discussion and action.

Note: The following regards choreography and prepared work. For improvised pieces and installations, there are different expectations.

Scenario: You go to see a dance show. The work features some highly trained and experienced dancers. The dancing in the show is very technically sharp and attractive. The costumes add a nice aesthetic touch. Maybe there’s a pretty set and/or some colorful lighting. But otherwise the piece itself is quite nebulous. You see little more than sequences of dance moves put together in a piece. Other than the vague presence of a certain aesthetic and hints of a main idea through the brief dramaturgy in the program (maybe even the company website), you see little to discern it from any of the artist’s other work, or even from the work of most other dance you’ve seen.

A couple days later, someone posts a review of the very show you saw. And it’s like you and the reviewer saw two very different shows. The reviewer describes one particular sequence with emotional and contextual terms that were from your perspective clearly overlaid by the reviewer onto a technically sound but not particularly noteworthy dance sequence. The reviewer repeats this process with different portions of the show, portions where you saw the general idea of what the choreographer and performers were going for, but certainly not with the acute color and detail the reviewer claims to have seen.

It feels like you simply read the Cliff Notes to a book that our reviewer apparently read cover to cover multiple times and committed to memory. Or, more pointedly, it’s like you came to a run of the show where the performers phoned in their effort, while for the run the reviewer saw they went all out and delivered the effort of their lives.

In reality, both of you saw the same show. Nobody phoned anything in: The performers gave a serious effort each time. You took the show at face value. The reviewer saw the same show, then proceeded to overlay in their review a wide variety of context that didn’t necessarily exist to the naked eye of a casual viewer.

This to me is the great peril of the typical arts review. This is not unique to the Times or the weekly rags or Seattle Dances or whoever decides to write a blog entry or one-off article for a media outlet about a show. It’s not even unique to dance… to a lesser but significant extent theatre, music and movie reviewers frequently fall prey to the trap of playing dramaturg and creatively filling in blanks in lieu of reviewing what is actually there before our eyes.

Now… dramaturgy *is* valuable. Creative performance work never happens in a vacuum. We approach our work informed by a history, whether our own history, our society’s history or other historical events/material that inspire work. I take value from any effort to give the observer some advance context and back story on what the show we’re about to see comes from, whether on a website or printed program. Dramaturgy is a relevant part of producing performance work.

At the same time, let me give you a wildly extreme but illustrative scenario. Imagine I do a performance piece where the lights come up and I walk onto a blank stage with a chair. I set the chair center stage and sit down. I stay there motionless and expressionless for 9 minutes, then get up, take the chair and leave the stage. Lights down, and scene.

If I told you that piece was a dramatic presentation of the ennui and nihilism of life described by the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, does that make your experience with my “performance” any different?

No, I do not think this way about most dance pieces. Dance pieces in fact are conversely rich with choreography and activity. But with exceptions few and far between* it is often only that: An exhibition of dancer training and execution, akin to a gymnastics floor routine but with more of an aesthetic theme and without the presence of scoring judges. I painted an extreme example to illustrate what this superimposed dramaturgy sounds like to me.

*¬† … exceptions such as Amy ONeal’s recent “The Most Innovative…” show, a brilliant interweave of narrative and cultural context with the traditional exhibition of dance.

Yes, I come from a theatre background where artists are expected to engage the audience with presence and character, tell a clear story that the audience could follow and carry that story to a fulfilled conclusion. To the field of dance this is, despite the work of dance theatre pioneers like Pina Bausch, still largely a foreign concept. It’s almost like Pina introduced the concept all those decades ago, but dance misinterpreted her innovated message as, Oh colorful costumes and nice sets and pained expressions on our faces and more emotionally pent up execution of our choreography… like they started to get the point, then got caught up in aesthetics and abandoned the journey ADHD style.

When as a theatre artist I call out a dance piece’s lack of narrative, character, or depth beyond the technique and aesthetic, I frequently get from anyone in the dance community a dismissively esoteric rebuttal.

– Well, that’s not what we do in dance.
– It’s more about the aesthetic.
– Theatre and dance are different worlds and thereofre the expectations are different here.
– You clearly just don’t understand dance. Dancers obviously understand what was happening.
– You probably don’t like dance.
– You weren’t paying that much attention.
– You need to understand the context behind the piece.
– You’re placing unnecessary personal expectations on the work.
– Just because it’s not what you want doesn’t mean it didn’t work.

My mentors and peers in the working world, let alone in theatre, would dismiss such dismissive rebuttals as outright closed-minded laziness, if not condescending.

I’m going to go out on a limb and postulate that, if I need a BFA or MFA in Modern Dance to understand and appreciate your work, you’re not doing your job as a performance artist… just as I’m not doing my job as a theatre artist if you need a BFA or MFA in theatre to understand my work. To a more pointed and universal extent… if a viewer needs reference material to make sense out of a performance, then the performer(s) did not make their piece sufficiently clear. If I mumble when talking and you cannot hear me, is it okay to rebut that you need to do a better job of listening? Or should I make a better effort to speak up?

Your role as a performing artist in the community is to create and present work for the general public, for their consumption and for their enrichment. How can it enrich them if your performance does not provide enough material on its own for them to understand and enjoy it?

To finally circuit back to the original point… let’s address the distorted perception of the purpose of a publicly disseminated performance review. Artists in theatre, dance, music and other forms see reviews as a promotional wing of their show (a potentially cancerous self-serving mindset). Such a piece is not a review; it’s promotional copy.

While I presume Seattle Dances writes ‘reviews’ with the purpose of promoting work than critically analyzing it (and honestly that’s not such a bad thing if that’s the intended purpose)… media outlets like the Times, the weeklies and media sites have more of a responsibility to the public to filter work and help the public discern what work is worth the consumer’s finite time and money. (Whether or not they meet that responsibility is another matter entirely and you could argue most if not all outlets fail to a great degree at objectively meeting this purpose.)

Still, there remains the issue of claiming the presence of material, texture and such that isn’t really there to the naked eye. This does not positively serve the public. If enjoyment of a piece requires an esoteric, educated eye, or is merely about exhibiting exceptional dance ability or aesthetic, two points arise.

1) This intent should be made very clear, so those who don’t understand the work or are not receptive to such esoterism either don’t waste their time, or realize should they attend that they’re watching work that is unclear to their perspective and should be viewed with forgiving prejudice.

2) If the goal of the work is to communicate with and impact the viewing public, the piece is probably not fulfilling its purpose, no matter how brilliant the choreography, how aesthetically appealing or otherwise beloved among the inner circles… and effort’s needed to clarify a narrative that will make the ideas and themes clear to the general public.

Raise the bar on yourselves, whether you make work or ‘review’ it. Help your art grow. Do that instead of responding to this piece with anger and personal attacks (if that’s how this leaves you feeling).

One thought on “Reviews as Dramaturgy, and the Gap Between Dance and Theatre

  1. […] addendum to yesterday’s post, I note my focus there is largely on¬†prepared work: Choreographed work, scripted work, pieces that […]

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