Dance critic: profession, role, personage, performance?

Stationen 1 May 2004English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned by Thomas Lehmen and Kaaitheater (Brussels) on the occasion of the performances of Station 2 in May 2004, and published in the accompanying magazine.


Today there appear to be no stable figures present in the field of contemporary dance. It is a field where a type of role playing takes place: choreographers develop theoretical propositions, theoreticians are expected to perform their answer, a critic is curator of the festival in which there is room for this dialogue, and a dramaturge writes a review of all of this in the newspaper. Since the advent of modernism, views on the practice of dance and its critique have changed thoroughly, this much is clear. New forms of collaboration and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization bring with them creativity and other potential knowledge, but also confusion concerning this new proximity, now that the traditional distance between the various roles and positions has disappeared. “What becomes urgent, then, is to investigate what the new ‘critical distances’ should be like, when all seems to move towards a denial of such distancing. The need to consider the problem of distancing is not only crucial for understanding how critical discourse keeps up with the new configurations of the field, but most importantly, it is crucial for an understanding of how this new proximity can generate and maintain a new ethical space and discourse in the dance market.” (1) In the article ‘Dance without distance’ (2001), the American performance theoretician André Lepecki briefly describes this transformation in an attempt to further formulate the problem.

The point of departure for modernism is a gap between the ideal bodies on stage and the everyday bodies of the spectators. The ‘silence’ of both parties and their stable relationship creates an intermediate place for the critic as third party: their autonomy means that the meaning of the dancing body and reflection on the part of the critic are never called into question. Lepecki points out that there is no visible place for a producer in this scheme and that in the new alliances, capital can also have free reign as long as the producer’s role remains an open question. What interests us here is the particular place occupied by knowledge production in the modernist hierarchy. This was overturned when Pina Bausch began to address questions to her dancers and listened to their answers, thus redistributing the position of those who know. Lepecki writes that existing authorities were thus undermined, an epistemological break occurred that makes lack of knowledge the point of departure for everyone, and that definitively transformed the field of dance into a domain of knowledge.


I encounter the questions raised by Lepecki everyday in my practice as dance critic, all the more since I am also active as curator and dramaturge and take part in artistic research projects. An alleged problem regarding involvement consists in the fact that all of these roles are bound to one and the same person, even if these are exercised in different contexts with their own rules and therefore also have a certain level of autonomy with respect to this person. Rather than looking for a problem here, it is the question of proximity and role playing as instrument of knowledge that interests me: what exactly do these add to the activity of a dance critic? Note that this same question can also be put from the perspective of other positions and roles; for this essay my point of departure is that of the dance critic. When Thomas Lehmen asked me to write a text for his project on occupations Stationen, I was immediately faced with the following task: to briefly describe my work as dance critic and more specifically to work out the transformation that takes place by participating as writer in an artistic project – although I appear to write this text before the actual start of the project Station 2 in Brussels, at the same time the text also places myself in the middle of it. Since Lehmen's work also pre-eminently calls into question the boundaries of dance and theatre, their communication and conditions of possibility, it can serve as an example for the present situation in the performing arts to which Lepecki refers.

When I presented my idea and the text by Lepecki to Thomas Lehmen, he made an interesting remark regarding the latter with respect to proximity, hierarchy and knowledge production. He wrote that Lepecki “quotes unceasingly but does not arrive at any really new insights. But of course, the text is also from 2001. At this time, however, I am not so certain of all of these citations, I mean: how is art related to this copy of a copy of a copy? It continues to move further away from life, but perhaps the intent is precisely to demonstrate this difference between proximity and distance. The gap that appears here as well as in the mixture of the functions that occur as communication, as summarized for example, by Lepecki, is an opening for me to a social context that surrounds us.”

The confusion grows, but also the resolve to further analyze this entire point: once we renounce modernism, is it possible not to write, to view, to think, to live in citations or copies? For that matter, is it not true that dance, by virtue of its transience, continually refers us to the fact that we are always involved, that dance takes place between bodies on stage and the spectators, and by extension between professional roles, in a time and space that is always already charged with all kinds of metaphors and spectres? Precisely in order to testify to this, ‘proximity’ is as much a central category in dance criticism as is the ‘critical distance’ from which it derives its authority. By navigating in numerous interspaces, critique is able to demonstrate a sensitivity to hierarchy, to its forms, formulas and conditions of possibility. Perhaps one of these interspaces is the place where critique must waver between art and theory: an attempt to establish itself in the vicinity of the work of art without ever coinciding with it and, on the other hand, attempting to conceptualize events in their specificity without maintaining the distance of theory and the associated production of knowledge (citations of citations). (2) However, does this idea not again assume stable positions and the autonomous objecthood of art, notions that belong to the past? Whatever the case may be, the suggestion of Lehmen to not use a theoretical model as point of departure but rather a description of my own practice, here appears to me to be a meaningful starting point: in search of situations of proximity, distance and transformation.


Thus from the moment that a dance critic goes to work, he is always a part of the choreography, the affects and the world of meaning that it evokes. The task of dance criticism is precisely the clarification of this process, usually in the form of a text, which therefore continuously requires an elucidation of the position of the critic. This is somewhat paradoxical because taking ‘critical distance’ from the role you play is always a rhetorical fiction. For this reason a critic is plagued by schizophrenia in an attempt to see himself at work, to discover which aspects of his processes of thinking and perceiving were provoked by the performance, and which rather arose from a thinking that projects its own logic and limitations upon this performance. This is inevitably a consideration made after the fact, a second order reflection, always too late. Nevertheless, there is something here that helps propel the practice forward: viewing and writing are fundamentally different sense regimes that cannot be reduced to each other. This is why translating viewing to writing always implies a moment of alienation and thus of distance, making critique possible.

If we accept that the initial roles played by the critic are those of viewer and writer, his schizophrenia can also become fertile. By attempting to separate viewing and writing, it becomes possible to sound and examine the distance between the two and with this also to indicate the specificity of the perceptual stream as it is provoked by the dance performance in question. By no means do I have in mind here the fiction of ‘pure’ viewing. Viewing and writing must primarily be independent moments: first a viewing that unfolds out of an openness on principle with respect to the scenic event, afterwards a writing that offers a formulation in words with as point of departure that which was seen. The intent behind the writing is to interfere with what was seen rather than to replace it. In this dialogue between his different roles, the dance critic is able to clarify the presuppositions and limits of his own viewing, thinking and writing, to make it clear that his gaze is always especially and necessarily fragmented in the proximity of the performance and the shared context of interactions that surround it. (3)


After almost two seasons as newspaper critic, I was explicitly involved in an artistic project for the first time. In March 2001, the Brussels Beursschouwburg was home for ten days to a laboratory, with the name ‘B.D.C. / Tom Plischke & Friends’, in which artists and public together could put on and attend productions, work and discuss, eat and sleep. There was a blurring of the borders between performances and processes, art and theory, and the traditional roles of artist, viewer and critic were forced to come to terms with this. In addition, together with Steven De Belder and Martin Nachbar, I was responsible for a series of workshops within this programme, and thus I was involved as curator as well as newspaper critic. The entire programme appeared to be a well-chosen way to make visible to the viewer the efficacy of contemporary dance in all of its aspects by simply sharing everything for a short period of time.

One of the workshops was meaningfully called ‘Tattoo criticism’ and revolved around a question that explicitly evoked ‘conceptual’ dance: is there a difference between ‘text’ and performance? Or: what does such a performance offer that is less or more than reading a book on philosophy? In the newspaper I thematized these types of questions, analyzed performances from this point of view as well as from my own place in this event, to finally end up with still more questions. I noted at the time: “Artists thus appropriate not only text, but also the role of critic. The key question in this role-playing thus persists: which role remains for the critic? Performative critique appears to be something like provoking the impossibility of text, perhaps a process in which the critic can give witness. Writing texts about the failure of the text – must the critic assume the vacant role of artist/performer?” (4) In any case, my practice as dance critic thoroughly changed at this moment: I gave in to a cheerful desire to experiment, actively took part in projects and laboratories, started observing work processes, worked as dramaturge and curator, gave occasional performances. While these activities often had a raison d'être in themselves, I almost always made a link back to writing. In addition to an answer to a number of questions on proximity, at stake for me was also a search for new ways of viewing and writing.


If we accept that new descriptions provide a new form of understanding, where then lie the differences between the viewing and writing of the critic and dramaturge? I made an exercise of coordinating the two perspectives using the recent work of Vera Mantero: a critical perspective based upon the auditorium and a ‘dramaturgical’ perspective based upon the process. I indeed developed a different vocabulary to speak of the same phenomenon, a vocabulary in which the meanings also changed. (5) This rhetorical strategy allowed me to include different, even dissonant writings in one and the same text. Thus dominant visual or theoretical frameworks of understanding could be fine-tuned and the fault lines were also able to point out limits and blind spots that refer to a specific practice. The removal or critical distance that arises by making a jump from one sense regime to the other, brought about in writing, infinitely multiplied itself in potency.

It is clear that I am referring here to the now classic text of Roland Barthes, ‘La mort de l’auteur’ (1968). He analyses a transformation in the modern novel in which the writing removes itself from the author, in which literature begins at the moment the author dies. “L’écriture, c’est ce neutre, ce composite, cet oblique où fuit notre sujet, le noir-et-blanc où vient se perdre toute identité, à commencer par celle-là même du corps qui écrit.” (6) Thus there is no genius that precedes the text, but rather the writer comes into being at the same time as the text. What is left is for him to 'play' the writings and to trace a field without origin. The meaning of a modern novel does not lie in the psychology of the author but in the text itself, a text in which the author is no more than a character that says ‘I’. Does this also apply to the dance critic who is never himself in all the guises he assumes as spectator and writer, held together by only a deictic signature, a performative ‘I’?


A dance critic is many personages, many roles that could involve both a writing and a practice, which are also simultaneous and which interact with each other. In April 2003, Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods invited me into the studio for a week in order to write a programme text for Visitors Only. (7) Different types of text and writings came together in one text: studio observations, quotations, interview fragments, stories and the like. These were written in the first person, as the ramblings and jottings of a visitor, an ‘I’. One reader's reaction was revealing: “Oh, you like lists. I did read your text!” Why should the I in the text coincide with the person of the author? Apart from a possible auto-fictional strategy, this notion stubbornly remains, even after Barthes. The ‘author who likes lists’ is after all a personage in the text with a specific function: a role that allows the introduction of a certain line of thinking. Thus this personage is able to make a simple list of what can be seen in the studio and provide a specific view of these materials by treating them as equals: thus the personage is obsessed with the concept of ‘horizontality’, which refers to the working method of Meg Stuart.

This scheme brings us close to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call ‘conceptual personages’, even though they principally connect these to philosophical thinking – which means among other things that concepts do not need to be based in experience. Examples are Dionysus, Zarathustra, the priest, or Christ in the work of Nietzsche. Conceptual personages are thinkers. Their personality is thus closely connected to the concepts and schemes of thought that they call into being. Important here is the fact that conceptual personages cannot be reduced to ‘psychosocial types’ even though they continuously influence each other. Thus conceptual personages occupy a certain historical period or an environment via the psychosocial types. In reverse, the physical and mental constitutions of psychosocial types are open to determinations that belong purely to the realm of thinking. (8) Thus this reduplication of roles is situated at the level of the text. However, something similar occurs in the viewing. In the theatre, for example, the dramaturgy is focused in such a way that spectators identify with certain viewing positions that are connected with a visual regime and therefore with a conceptual moment. Compare this to a keyhole that puts the spectator in the position of a voyeur.


How do these writings and conceptual personages of the dance critic ultimately refer to artistic practice? That is to artistic processes and products, to the ways of viewing that they elicit and the professional interactions that guide them? Critique helps give form to the practices that it pretends to only describe: its discourse is performative in nature. The dramaturge located as conceptual personage in the text lives at odds with the dramaturge in the studio who, for that matter, also plays a role bound to a specific context, patterns of expectation, acquired knowledge and particular insights. By changing roles, the dance critic is able to slip this dramaturgical knowledge into his role and translate it into a text. A new piece of writing makes possible new understanding, but this of course also applies to the meaning-producing practices of the artist, curator or dramaturge. Given the thorough redistributing of hierarchies of knowledge and roles in the field of contemporary dance, an immensely complex situation arises: each position gives rise to a form of role playing, while in the meantime the other roles also change and permute. A total mess or hyper-lucidity supported by an ingenious game of proximity and distance?

Returning to the question concerning which transformation my participation in Station 2 would effect in my practice as dance critic, I am faced with an eerie scenario. In addition to my interaction with a choreographer, a translator, an editor and a producer for this text, during the performances a cook, a nude model, a debt mediator, a dealer and others follow. With all of these professions and their associated roles and conceptual personages, the theatre could be very crowded!


(1) André Lepecki, ‘Dance without distance’, Ballet International, Febr. 2001, pp. 29-31 (available in digital format at
(2) I have elaborated this question elsewhere. See Jeroen Peeters, ‘Schrijven in het licht van de presentie. Over het timbre van J.-F. Lyotards kunstkritische teksten’ [Writing in the Light of Presence: On the Timbre of J.-F. Lyotards Art- Critical Texts], in Idem and Bart Vandenabeele (ed.), De passie van de aanraking. Over de esthetica van Jean-François Lyotard [The Passion of the Touch: On the Aesthetics of Jean-François Lyotard], Budel, 2000, pp. 33-52
(3) For an expanded version of this argument, see Jeroen Peeters, ‘Een onmogelijke pas de deux. Kijken en schrijven in het tijdperk van de visuele cultuur’ [An Impossible Pas de Deux: Viewing and Writing in the Era of the Visual Culture], Boekman, vol. 15, no. 57, autumn 2003, pp. 44-50 (available in digital format at
(4) See Jeroen Peeters, ‘Tot zelfs de criticus mee gaat spelen’ [Even the Critic is a Member of the Cast], Financieel-Economische Tijd, 31 March 2001 (available in digital format at
(5) See Jeroen Peeters, ‘[Eloquently Speechless: On Language in the Recent Work of Vera Mantero’, 3T, Tidsskrift for teori og teater, vol. 2, no. 13, 2004, pp. 18-25 (available in digital format at
(6) See Roland Barthes, ‘La mort de l’auteur’, in Idem, Oeuvres complètes, Tome III: Livres, textes, entretiens 1968-1971, Paris, 2002, p. 40
(7) See Jeroen Peeters, ‘A visitor’s ramblings and jottings’, programme text, April 2003 (available in digital format at
(8) See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, New York, 1994, pp. 67-70