Some personal reflections on my criticism which I am reluctant to call my 'Poetics'

Sarma 5 Nov 2002English

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Contextual note
This "poetics" on Siegmund's critical writing was commissioned by Sarma and published on the occasion of its launch in November 2002.

I came to dance criticism via the theatre, as I suppose a lot of writers do. I was an avid theatre goer even before I took up my studies at Frankfurt/Main university in the mid-eighties. Having lived (and still living) in Frankfurt during the eighties and nineties was for anybody who is in the least interest in the future of theatre and dance as an art form, a formative experience. With William Forsythe beginning his groundbreaking research into the world of ballet and institutions like TAT (part of a whole network of theatre producers throughout Europe) and Mousonturm working with artists like Jan Fabre, The Wooster Group, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Saburo Teshigawara or, more recently, Jérôme Bel, Meg Stuart and Xavier Le Roy, it was and still is exciting to be here. I always got to see a lot and a lot of different work without having to travel. I always got to see new, exciting and controversial performances in an international city who has a reputation for avant-garde art that breaks boundaries and genres, work that does not stick to labels and could not care less whether you call it dance, or theatre, or performance. I think my approach to dance still is one that could not care less whether what I had seen is called dance, or theatre, or performance. I am grateful for that.

My first aim is to always try to understand what the choreographer's aims are. Which tradition, style or context does s/he work in? This includes a period of exposure to or a period of preparation and familiarisation with the artist's universe. Talk to them. Listen to them. Read your history and give them something back from your point of view. I do not believe that the realm of the artist and the realm of the critic as a representative of a larger public are separate. We are in this together. We only, and necessarily so, occupy different positions in the same boat. I do not believe that the pieces are self-evident and self-explicatory and if I fail to understand them, than the pieces are a failure. More often than not this attitude in critics only masquerades the fact, that what appears to be natural and self-evident has been acquired in a long historical process of naturalisation. It is, in Roland Barthes' terms, a myth. Those critics also have a theory albeit a conservative one. Mistrust what you know. Sometimes this nagging doubt comes too late and the review is already written. Yet, there will be others to continue the dialogue with the artist's work and universe.

This is an intrinsic approach and my first criterion for a value judgement is also an intrinsic one: did s/he succeed what s/he set out to achieve? Were the means chosen to articulate his/her thoughts, ideas or concepts appropriate? The means I am talking about consist of he whole theatrical framework and its signs that constitute the meaning of the piece. This is where my theatrical and semiotic background is most prominent. Movement is only one, arguably the most important one, but still only one feature that characterizes dance. Its lack can be just as significant. Concert dance takes place in a system of theatrical representation which makes up parts of the piece's discourse. This has to be taken into consideration. Unlike Martha Graham, I believe that movement can mean anything you want it to mean, unless that is, you restrict it to a specific movement code that is legible. I am wary of associating specific meanings to specific movements. On the one hand, it all depends on the context, so that movement analysis, however detailed, is not the sole route to salvation (bye, bye structuralism). On the other hand, it is precisely this indeterminacy which is at the centre of my fascination for dance. Maybe I don't want it explained other than as an allegory of a wider range of socio-politico implications.

In order to decide which means are appropriate, one has to leave the intrinsic observations. Dance, like all theatre, exists in the here and now. So why is it important to do this piece now? Why is it utterly superfluous to show that piece now, although the dancers' are beautifully trained and highly articulate? This includes, more than the intrinsic step, a more conscious choice of an aesthetics on my part. Or a more conscious argument of what I consider to be questions worth asking. I have to provide a context for the work to be understood in. A review is an informed opinion based on an argument. There are always others. Having said that, I still believe it is my duty as a critic to get to the core of the piece where its truth, meaning its faith in its material, lies. This is being horribly Germanic, I know. But still: Not any thing goes.

Some people have told me, what they like about my reviews is that I put the reader in the picture. I like to describe settings or seminal scenes to give the reader an idea what is going on in that particular piece. To provide a synopsis of events that shortcuts some and leaves out others completely. This provides a basis for my abstract reasoning on which every reader may decide for him- or herself whether they could like the piece. Sometimes the descriptions sound interesting enough that my judgement, if there is one, becomes irrelevant. This is my duty towards the readers: give them information and space to decide for themselves. Sometimes the whole tone of the review is either so appealing or so appalling that people want to go and see the piece. The tone of the review decides itself in the process of writing. Passive voice. More often than not, even my verdict decides itself in the process of writing. It becomes what it is through language. Sometimes I cannot say "yes" anymore, after everything that I have said before. The review writes me.