No one enjoys getting criticized. It's human nature to prefer praise and feel a sense of hurt when an effort is judged unsuccessful by someone else. The relationship between artists who create, who make themselves vulnerable on a stage and critics, who then sit back in the dark and judge the work others have bravely put out there, is eternally tense. And yet, artists need criticism. A review from a professional critic – whether good, bad or indifferent – means first and foremost that you have been seen, that your work has sparked something in someone and was deemed interesting enough to be looked at and judged. A good review or a nice quotable line can be fed into the marketing machine and grace future posters. Audiences, for all the democratisation of social media, vox pops and word of mouth, still trust the endorsement of a professional critic. Even in our so called ‘post-truth’ world, in the performing arts there is weight behind the opinion of an expert.
For the artists presenting work at Resolution, many at the beginning of their careers, it can be extremely difficult to cut through the noise of a million other artistic endeavours on offer and catch the attention of the important press outlets. That is why, as part of the package, The Place commissions a group of the most important dance critics in London to make sure every single Resolution artist has been reviewed and can take something away from the experience, whether that is a favourable quote or an expert recommendation to develop or rethink certain aspects of their work further. And in the spirit of supporting early careers, it would be a shame to have the collective wisdom and experience of nine seasoned dance critics in the building without passing it on to the next generation!
Every year an open call goes out to anyone interested in writing about dance to join our critics and receive some valuable one-to-one mentoring. Because we attach no conditions to the application process, no age, education or previous experience requirements, the group of people chosen this year exclusively for their flair in writing are a wonderfully diverse bunch. They range in age from 18 year-old Sophie, a student at Tring Park, to Keith, the owner of a “very fashionable walking stick”, who is confident writing about theatre and opera (under his nome de plume Marc Aspen), yet feels less secure when it comes to judging dance. For some, dance has played a strong part in their life – Singaporean Wen Amanda is studying dance and Stella has been a student at the Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) at The Place and knew about Resolution from a young age. Others, like Bryn, have no previous knowledge or connection to dance but simply a love for writing. Anna is a visual artist looking to challenge herself and broaden her scope. The piece she submitted for her application was the first time she ever wrote about dance!
Halfway through Resolution, they all take part in a seminar held by Graham Watts, Chairman of the Critics' Circle Dance Section in the UK and quite possibly the ‘guru’ of UK dance writers, who introduces them to the “dead white males” cliché, a quote from theatre director Nicholas Hytner. The biting remark is always good for a giggle but it is a well-known fact that criticism has for far too long been far too male, far too old and shamefully still is far too white. When addressing representation on stage and in positions of power, it is just as imperative that the voices reviewing, reacting to and evaluating work are diverse. Critics, often called the gatekeepers or quality controllers sieving through innumerable art offerings to uncover hidden gems, have to represent the diversity of tastes, preferences and interests, backgrounds and experiences of the communities they are serving, or they risk becoming as “detached and moribund” as the late great food critic AA Gill accused them to be.
Change may be painfully slow but looking around the room at our Resolution writers is encouraging. They are enthusiastic, curious, inquisitive and very open to new experiences. And of course they have a way with words. Criticism is a literary form, they all agree. So while knowledge about dance technique and terminology may help to some extent, it is far from easy translating visual images and movement into words that may take a reader on a journey. The other main challenge they face is confining all their thoughts and feelings about a sometimes complicated or confusing piece into a very limited word count – editing a favourite sentence can feel like sacrificing one of your children, they laugh. And of course processing and evaluating three pieces in one night ready to summarise and submit within a few hours is tough. What, when faced with a near-impenetrable piece of dance theatre, if I don’t get it? is a questions that concerns them. It is a question that occupies many audience members and potential audiences as well, especially those that may be new to dance, feel like they are missing crucial knowledge or are simply intimidated. Dance continues to struggle with accusations of inaccessibility and elitism but the answer is quite simple: dance is for everyone and every reaction to a work, from joyous to mystified, bored, angered, confused or completely amazed, is justified. As long as you are true to yourself and can justify your opinion, there is no such thing as right or wrong – for a critic or a punter.