Dance criticism on the move! 1 Apr 2003English

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Contextual note
Een ingekorte Nederlandse versie van deze tekst verscheen in TM als Fransien van der Putt, ‘Dansdiscours moddert voort’. TM, jg. 7 (april 2003), nr. 3, pp. 55-56.

”Where can a dance come to rest after it has been done? Where does dance move to? And how is it revived in the memory during writing? The issue of the fate and the purpose of dance, of its quest and its conviction is coincidental to that of our limited perception, the blindness of the eye which sees dance as a purely physical manifestation.”
André Lepecki, Etcetera, 19. 2000.

Lament and longing for more and better things [are an old phenomenon] André Lepecki formulates an inextricable knot of desire. Whoever tries to see dance as more than a purely physical act is likely to stray into the limbo of untenable saws concerning the sense and sensibility of movement. Can such statements do dance justice? Do they not detract from the immediacy of the dance by putting words in its stead? However that may be, the question posed by Lepecki seems valid: what is it that shapes the experience of people who pursue dance as an Artform; what form does the experience adopt when the dance is itself absent?

I remember a sultry late afternoon in the early nineties, in the small auditorium of Bellevue Theatre, Amsterdam, where Wim Kannekens and Jan Baart confronted one another like gamecocks. The debate about the quality of Dutch dance criticism is at least as old as my own humble involvement on the fringe of the dance scene. Though the organisers had probably prepared an intelligent list of queries and topics, the debate soon became bogged down by a flurry of mutual accusations, which left little room for a fruitful exchange. The critic was taking the rap. It was he whose writing trampled the defenseless choreographer into the mud or worse, neglected him altogether, whether through a lack of interest or of critical expertise.

I remember but little of the occasion for the debate or its substantive proceedings. However, I do recall a newspaper clipping being waved about fiercely by Wim Kannekens to stress his point. That gesture recurred last October. The catacombes of the Vrijthoftheater in Maastricht were the scene, not only of a joint breakfast ceremony, but also of a debate on dance criticism. Once again were critics and choreographers joined around a table and once again was a flawed review waved about, this time by Ger Jager, the director of Danswerkplaats Amsterdam.

The introduction to the debate was a novelty. In a fair number of paragraphs TM's chief editor Constant Meijers drafted the outlines of a readable critique. Director/choreographer Pieter Scholten, who had been invited initially to take part in the debate had withdrawn and instead read out a series of statements in which he called on the dance critics to elevate themselves to a proud, selfconfident, loving and industrious caste. And he quoted from Lepecki.

Despite the abundance of stimulating starting points, this discussion, too, was jammed by the exchange of platitudes with regard to one´s own and each other´s entrenchments. Noone succeeded in stepping back and taking the werdegang of dance artists and critics in perspective. Once more, dance criticism is taking the flak, so Irene Start writes in the October 2002 issue of TM. Again do dance makers complain about a lack of insight and interest on the part of the critics vis-à-vis current dance trends. Again do critics and editors retort that dance gets what it deserves: evidently, the work produced does not give occasion to more, and more favourable reviews. Just more of the same.

Or is it? This time, the gauntlet is also thrown down before the unwilling editors, who in turn appear to be the victims of a deteriorating climate for the Arts in their media. Diminishing returns from advertising, encroaching commercialisation and the associated shift towards lifestyle and other infotainment, and ultimately the demise of the news medium may serve as explanation for the dwindling amount of space afforded to dance criticism.

Last January during the salon Dance and Discourse at the Universiteitstheater, the deadlock between artists and critics was reaffirmed by Joyce Roodnat, who has been a critic since 1980 and Arts editor of NRC since 1995. She blamed the poorness of dance criticism partly on the continued absence of interesting dance works and she surmised that what might have accidentally slipped her attention ought surely to have reasserted itself through others. Whether it was because ms. Roodnat did not wish to offend the night´s hosts Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten by giving a negative judgment, or that she had precluded them from the discussion precisely because of their undomestic top-class acclaim, it was not revealed. But the disclosure that Ariejan Korteweg had lost interest bears testimony to the sad turning that the story of Dutch dance has taken. Furthemore, ms. Roodnat said that not only have good performances been rare (since 1995!), but good writers have been all but absent, too. For example, she pointed out that someone like Ine Rietstap may be justly called the grande dame of criticism, however that it is not given to her to write full-page articles. And the chasm opened wide. In answer to the question as to what it takes for a writer or a piece to go full page, expert witness Roodnat knew only that a critic must remain personal and ´keep it close to himself´. And that is exactly what Flemish Arts critic and philosopher Jeroen Peeters did.

Culture shocks and the introduction by Jeroen Peeters

At the request of Emio Greco | PC Jeroen Peeters wrote a meticulously argued essay, which would seem to have suited the couch better than the rostrum. Besides his lousy style of presentation, Peeters displayed a remarkable unresponsiveness to his audience. It was as if Peeters refused to be drawn into making bold or otherwise manageable statements on dance criticism. So striking was his staunch adherence to the text that he himself became an object of criticism, instead of his writings.

It turned into a hilarious performance, in the midst of which the informed listener (I had had occasion to peruse the text in advance and am no stranger to philosophical argument) couldn´t help but realize that Peeters´s angle: what is it a critic does, what are the pitfalls and how does he avoid them or turn them to his advantage, wasn´t really controversial at all. If only he had brought his article more succinctly and with a bit more dash, most writers would have nodded their approval at much of what he said. Which is not to say that all of his propositions might have been well received.

For, what the debate did not show due to the bickering back and forth was that Jeroen Peeters does in fact reflect on his practice as a newspaper critic. He writes clearly about the stresses associated with the profession, attempts to find an explanation for such mechanisms, adopts a point of view and offers a number of suggestions to broaden or change the perspective. Apart from the substance of Peeters´s argument (the essay is published on it was clear once more why such discourse tends to get stuck. From the opening of the salon, panel members and senior commentators made known that they obviously did not care for such a lengthy exercise. However humorously and adroitly Paul Groot tried to draw the stubbornly reading Peeters into a concrete discussion, he nevertheless called onto himself the suspicion that he had no real interest in a thorough analysis of the trade. Moreover, a recurrent theme was the notion that the newspaper readership do not care for this kind of writing. Here, another chasm loomed. Peeters´s text may refer to the phenomenon of newspaper reviews, but it is not intended to be as such.

The defensive stance adopted by the expert witnesses sadly coincides with a widely felt distrust of the jargon of the Louvain School. In Flanders the rise of dance criticism appears to coincide with the advent of postmodernist culture criticism. On the heels of founding fathers Rudi Laermans and Pieter T´Jonk an expanding family of commentators plant a philosophical framework alongside anything that wrestles free from Flemish soil or seeks to root there. A greater contrast in style and substance within a single linguistic region would be difficult to imagine.

This fact alone could have sustained a debate, both lively and informative. But because all the parties cleverly entrenched themselves once again, all that was left for the onlookers to see were the foxholes.

There is more to it. When an experienced critic like Eva van Schaik is prodded by Paul Groot into saying that she has written more than 4000 reviews and articles, but all the same maintains that a discourse, a statement about dance is not possible, and moreover: that dance has no need of it --after all, dance is self-sufficient-- then we really are some way further from home in the Netherlands. What then must I make of the dance that lingers in her writings? What are those million or so words if not a critical appraisal, a framework, a foundation, a vocabulary of dance, the reflection of a love-hate relationship with dance (sundry phrases courtesy of Pieter Scholten).

Display of impotence

It seems like a hopeless task. No matter how many incentives, introductions or other preliminaries may be arranged, each time the debate on dance criticism lapses into a base argument about who should take the blame for all the misery. The fact that things are pretty miserable is thus confirmed implicitly and with unintended unanimity. The question whether dance is really in such a sorry state and if so, how things could have slipped this far –after all during the seventies and the eighties The Netherlands were at the forefront—whether the malaise may perhaps be linked to a lack of adequate analysis an whether any let up may be expected to arrive in the near future for the ailing state of dance, none of these issues are dealt with.

Apparently it isn’t really possible to talk about the practice and the role of criticism in the world of dance. And so, the dance world cuts itself off from an evaluation of the critical ability of dance itself. For, beyond the mud wrestling and the refusal to reflect openly on one’s own and another’s practice lurks the question about the use and purpose and the future of dance –however treacherous that may be. As long as it’s only people and positions that come under fire, one may disregard the various substantive perspectives on the worth and worthlessness of dance.

‘No need to understand it or explain it – an experience for everyone.’

Introdance hits the nail on the head, so aptly does the company express the critical context of Dutch dance in a television commercial. I’m not sure if the Mondriaankwartet or the Stedelijk Museum would wish to advertise themselves in quite this way, or if a publishing company would sell its newest publications thus, but in the context of Dutch dance it’s telling. In a similar vein the new Dance Unit festively presented itself in Bellevue (other small auditorium), end of last January. Not a word was given about artistic grounds, dramaturgy or background, let alone a public statement by Imke Berbé or Hans Schamlé about ‘generating a discourse on dance criticism’, such as, by contrast, Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten are expressing.

In his report on the salon (TM February issue), Gabriel Smeets concludes that the time is ripe for a debate among editors and reviewers on the subject of ‘dance and journalism’, without the intervention of artists and philosophers. The problem seems to me to be precisely that editors and critics, though not exclusively, are fairly loath to review their own critical ability and explicate their experiences. There is clearly a yawning gap between the practice of current dance makers and the terms, the framework, the prevailing standards by which editors, critics and other professionals view and review their work. That is not a disgrace per se. It’s even a matter of course. After all, artists will endeavour to explore the boundaries of the common ground (did not Jan Fabre lecture ironically about ‘theatre as was to be expected and foreseen’). But when neither party has the ability to further the dialogue about the significance of current dance in the Netherlands (and beyond), then it would seem pointless to soldier on, organising half-baked debates about discourse, dramaturgy, criticism and so on and so forth.

Dedication and efforts

Over the past years Pieter Scholten, who initiated the salon, has made numerous attempts to place the work of present-day choreographers in a context. Thus he organised Dance Instants and Schetsen and his contribution together with Emio Greco to the pamphlets issue of the dance magazine Notes was among the most readable. Emio Greco | PC published a text by Flemish Arts critic Antoon van den Braembussche, for which the author was given complete freedom to follow his thoughts. It would seem that in his initiatives he is not led by a desire to catch the right interpretation or point of view, but rather to stimulate intensive and honest exchanges, however painful they may be. Time and money were also spent on a website serving more than PR. And now there’s a series of salons in Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York. This amounts to a genuine investment out of the budget of a small albeit structurally subsidised company.

You could still argue that it’s somewhat odd, even suspicious, when dance makers take the initiative and open their purse to generate a discourse on dance criticism. Should this be up to the artists? At the end of the day, the job of choreographers and dancers, composers and other designers is to create dance, and it ought to be up to independent third parties such as critics and other onlookers to take stock of the significance which dance holds and to give their account in publications and other media.


I was in Paris in order to take part in the French edition of the salon ‘on discourse and dance’. Place du Châtelet and the two performances of Conjunto di Nero on the nights before and after the debate at the grand Théâtre de la Ville added something of a fairytale setting. The debate was slotted inbetween the hard artistic labour of all the parties within (including the staff and a 1000-strong audience each night at the Théatre de la Ville), and Parisians bustling around the clock without, and coffee with a view of the Eiffel Tower in between. This particular salon took place under an altogether different constellation. Not in a theatre, but at somebody’s home – though brunch seems a recurring motif. The attendence was low, which, though it did well for the discourse, somewhat diminished its scope. Jeroen Peeters had so drastically shortened his piece and cut back his performance to such a minimum, that noone could even find fault with it. Moreover, he was naturally eclipsed by the French chairman, Laurent Goumarre. A large part of the discussion was taken up by a talk and questions about the French situation. Besides radio broadcaster and critic Goumarre the attendants included the curator of the Centre Pompidou Michelle Barques, festival programmer … and the French-American couple Barbara Watson and Henry Pilsbury of Kingsfountain, who hosted the lunch.

Has nothing interesting happened in dance since 1995? Remarkably, Laurent Goumarre was of the opinion that that year marked the point at which dance became interesting. The performances by Jerôme Bell, Boris Charmatz, Xavier LeRoy a.o. may have little to compare them by, but what they do have in common is the fact that the physical vocabulary no longer dominates and that instead it is the context which gives meaning to the movements of the body. Performances to interpret in the light of this or that, but not cemented in the purely physical. This clearly meshed seamlessly with Jeroen Peeters’s proposition to speak, not of ‘dance and discourse’, but of ‘choreography and representation’ so as to address the making of dance as a form of textual composition.

It was also said that many French newspapers want fewer and fewer reviews, and increasingly put the emphasis on information, i.e. previews (cf. Irene Start, TM October 2002 issue). At the table an aversion to impressionist recitals [adjectives !] passing for critical reviews prevailed. Also philosophical and theoretical treatises, summarised as ‘academic’, were disapproved of because they could distract the viewer from the performance, from the immediacy of the experience. When it was asked to name one illustrative positive example, by and by only a single reviewer from around Avignon remained, who after years of juggling international Art and local reporting was given the opportunity, when his paper was taken over, to spread his wings in Paris. With few pretensions, he sees everything and writes short pieces which apparently top anything produced by the French press on dance.

However that may be, it seems clear that in France they have in excess what we are short of, and vice versa. The Netherlands are not currently suffering from too theoretical or too impressionistic critics, on the contrary. And our face-value culture is apparently seen as renewing, in France. And then, finally, the discussion moves on to formulating a number of strategic spearheads. E.g. the question if and how dance can be turned into a commercially viable cultural product. A practical American contribution ; modern Art and modern music have found financial as well as cultural outlets in the shape of popular culture; dance lacks such a mass market that generates funds and adds social prestige. There is a lengthy discussion about the format within which a critic has to operate. The example is taken from Elle, where the dance critic dutifully supplies his copy whilst the newly-arrived modern Art critic, whose Arabic name nobody pronounces correctly, always utilises his limited space except by announcing some exibition or happening or other, to vent an idea about Art. Goumarre reports that for Radio France Culture he has already entered into a number of very successful collaborations with choreographers. Giving voice to a choreographer : Carolyn Carlton dances and speaks her mind in real time, all this in a live broadcast on a station, comparable to Radio 5 but with a wider listenership. Vera Mantero will be coming to talk and sing fado, and Charmatz some time before easily filled a whole programme talking.

Whereas everyone admits that these are just drops in the ocean, the joint effort, as well as the controversy on points (Centre Pompidou : writing about dance is more difficult than writing about other artforms) leads to a constructive, critical, earnest and dance-centered dialogue. Admittedly, there wasn’t a journalist present, the blame was once again placed with the superiors and the market forces, but at least a small strategic counter offensive was launched :

Give voice to choreographers. It is an old wish for many, practising and onpractising, and obviously dependent not just on the formal, but also on the creative collaboration of dance makers. By the by, in this respect, see the interviews with choreographers and other artists at the back of the Louvain (!) publication of Bodycheck, TM March 2003.

And finally, at the end the comparison to contemporary and modern music cropped up again. How does it manage to bind a steady, even a growing audience, apparently undeterred by abstract and artistic idiosyncracy ? Could it be because under the guidance of institutions like Arcam / Boulez a serious discourse has been established that provides prestige but also a motivational stepping stone for dissidents and future generations ? Besides, doesn’t the electronic musical scene with its fluent transitions to pop, world, minimal, jazz and modern classical provide a good example of how future dance practices might be organised ? [improvised, free-flowing, repertory, materials, genre expertise, etc. play with rules, with context]

All that remains is the promise made by non-conformist theatre maker and scientist Maaike Bleeker to react to the text by Jeroen Peeters and his somewhat unsuccessful reception. And so the halfhearted bickering seems eventually to be leading to a pile of discourse.