CriticalDance Forum

DTJ Writing on Performance Conference
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Author:  Rosella [ Thu Apr 05, 2007 3:40 am ]
Post subject:  DTJ Writing on Performance Conference

On March 31st and April 1st 2007 Dance Theatre Journal has organised a conference titled "Writing on Performance". The conference was held at Laban, London. Some interesting debates on dance and diversity, on the relationship between dancers and the written texts and the like took place. The issue is very complex and it may be a good idea to prolong the debate in this forum, where people who were not at the conference can express their opinion and enrich the discussion. Here is the link to the programme of the conference which also featured two performances:

Author:  Rosella [ Tue Apr 10, 2007 3:18 am ]
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Laban, London, 31st March – 1st April 2007

What is the language used to talk about performance? Who writes it? Who writes it for? Where is it published? How does performance engage with writing? These and other questions were at the base of a two-days conference organised by Dance Theatre Journal in collaboration with BBCF (Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund) and ADAD (the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora). As Martin Hargreaves, editor of Dance Theatre Journal, explained, the reasons that led him to organise this event were multiple and had to do with meeting the readers of his journal, raising its profile and stimulating the debate on this issue. The conference was divided into four sessions, two for each day. It also offered the opportunity to see two very different performances, “Climbing with Bare Feet” by Adesola Akinleye and the UK premiere of Raimund Hoghe’s “Swan Lake, 4 Acts”.

The first session offered two parallel choices, either focusing on the basis of criticism, a practical session led by Thom Shaw and Katie Phillips, or on searching for sources, organised by the staff of the Laban library and archive. The second session was titled “Dance, Diversity and the Language of Criticism” and it came after “Climbing with Bare Feet”, Akinleye’s performance in the Studio Theatre. Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man”, the piece features two male dancers, Sean Graham and Daniel Baird, fighting against invisibility. They “represent the man’s mind in its fight for identity against projection”. A long piece of veiled fabric is placed following a diagonal all along the space of the stage. As Akinleye explained, it embodies prejudice and it symbolises a kind of barrier at the beginning of the piece. The two dancers seem unable to move beyond it. Once they do move on the other side we see that little by little the fabric becomes a kind of prison to them, as it is moved into a narrow v-shape position. The dancers often move at a low level following upside down positions. They sometimes dance fighting duets, sometimes just solo phrases. The piece also benefits from a complex set of visual effects such as the words projection on the transparent fabric at the beginning of the choreography or the video projection of the two men dancing towards the end.

After the performance the discussion was led by Alessandra Lopez y Royo, from Pulse magazine in conjunction with Akinleye herself and Akosus Boakye from ADAD. Questions like how do we engage with African Dance in a globalised world? How important is the knowledge of the context of a work? And how do we confront with diversity? Were at the centre of the discussion which in some instances was too much rooted in the specificity of African Dance, thus preventing the development of the debate towards other more general issues.

The late afternoon was left free for people to relax and elaborate on the two sessions. Then the UK premiere of Raminund Hoghe’s “Swan Lake, 4 Acts” was presented at the Bonnie Bird Theatre at Laban. It was a real challenge for those used to ‘dancing dance’ and even for those who are not too used to go and watch performances in general. Characterised by a series of walks performed by Hoghe and by a slow paced rhythm, it stages “a dream of love” through a series of memories and fragmented, subtle quotations from the adapted piece. The music is by Tchaïkovsky as conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Pierre Monteux and others. Diversity plays a fundamental role in Hoghe’s pieces and this is no exception. As a small man with what is commonly called a ‘non-normative’ body shape, due to a pronounced curvature of his back, he “refuses to apologise for putting his body on stage” as Dominic Johnson has highlighted. In that he represents a radical break with the aesthetics of the ‘perfect’ body shape that characterises the history of dance.

He recalls the example of another non-normative body, that of Dixie FunLee Shulman who, as a robust dancer, has created works, such as “The Thinnest Woman Wins”, that question the category of beauty in Western society. Hoghe often turns his back to the audience who has to face his diversity, he seems isolated from the other dancers who performs little arm movements reminiscent of “Swan Lake”. He enters into physical contact with Lorenzo De Brabandere, they exchange their t-shirts and recurrently stand facing one another. One of the most intense moments occurs when they put one arm on each other’s shoulder, it is intimate and tender. The climax of the piece takes place towards the end when Hoghe completely undresses himself and lays on the stage floor back centre. As Hoghe’s himself has underlined, some saw the influence of Franko B in his dramatic gesture. The naked body becomes a kind of surface, a canvas, in Franko B’s words, where pain, love and loss are articulated together with a sense of vulnerability. In Hoghe vulnerability is paired with tenderness and eroticism that emerge especially in his movement relationship with Lorenzo De Brabandere.

The morning after, the participants to the conference had the chance to talk with Hoghe, who explained some of his ideas and methodologies during the fourth session, titled “Texts in Performance”. Hoghe is interested in “the memory of the dancers’ body” and that is why he asked his dancers to trace the movements they remembered from the classic version of “Swan Lake”. This is evident mainly through Ornella Ballestra, the only woman in the work and a ballet trained dancer, who also performs a phrase en pointe. During his research on “Swan Lake”, he watched a very old Russian movie of the ballet and was impressed by its freshness. Compared to it, he found all the other versions boring. Other speakers in this sessions included Wendy Houston, Rajni Shah and Simon Vincenzi who talked about the texts used in their performances. Houston focused on her ‘resistance to words’ and her ‘battle with gravity’, Shah on her latest work, “Mr. Quiver”, a four hours long performance where the audience is free to come and go at any time and Vincenzi talked about his experience of creating a performance for a set audience, in his case of children.

The third session, just before that one, presented yet another way to look at the issue of writing on performance, hosting a group of people from Live Art UK. Its coordinator, Emmy Minton explained the growth and development of Live Art UK, a platform of venues and facilitators whose aim is to promote live art events. Among their initiatives there has been a writing project to stimulate the production of reviews and other written material related to live art. This session was the most lively of them all and questions such as what mainstream publication is about, the boundary between criticism and academic writing or the necessity to invest in the education of an audience for these cutting edge events were raised. As Martin Hargreaves highlighted in the plenary session in the afternoon, in many cases the conference slipped towards performance rather than writing and some of the opening questions remained under-considered. Among them the notion of dance writing as “an art form of its own”, a point underlined by Maggie Morris, Chair of the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, who had spoken before the opening sessions on Saturday. As she said quoting Joseph Conrad dance writing relies on “the power of the written word to make you…see”.

Author:  Rosella [ Mon Apr 16, 2007 5:53 am ]
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Here are some links to the websites of some of the artists who took part to the conference:

I could not find much about Wendy Houston, the following seems to be an interesting link: ... uston.html

Author:  Rosella [ Tue May 08, 2007 7:08 am ]
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It is quite interesting that nobody is posting any comment under this subject. It may be due to various reasons, but I feel like discussing the topic of 'dance writing' is not an easy thing to do, it has not only to do with what to write but how to do it, and this last aspect requires an awareness on one's own writing that we are not necessarily taught to develop.

Still, I think it could be a fruitful exchange that should not just be limited to nice writing styles. For what concerns me, it took me a long time anmd lots of posts and articles before I could become aware of what I was writing: was I being fair to the company I was reviewing? Was I selecting the most interesting dance phrases to describe the piece? Was I forgetting major elements? Would it be better to start a piece talking in general about the company or focusing directly on the piece? These and lots of other practical questions obsessed me and still do. Furthermore, there are more theoretical issues dealing with race, class, gender, age and cultural background. As an Italian woman who writes in English and is mainly interested in Graham and flamenco, how am I going to write about say ballet or butoh?

I stop here for now and I send some other links of people mentioned in the piece:

Author:  LMCtech [ Tue May 08, 2007 12:58 pm ]
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I do think the subject of dance writing is ,ironically, difficult to write about. Did you experience any revelations while a t the conference. anything that made you rethink the way you read or write about dance?

Author:  Rosella [ Wed May 09, 2007 3:35 am ]
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Unfortunately not, at least nothing I did not already know about, mostly because there was not much talking about writing, but rather about performance. It takes a good amount of self-relexivity and in most cases there were choreographers or other figures talking about thier experience rather than writers or scholars presenting a wider picture. Dominic Johnson (who chaired the 'Texts in Performance' session) and Raimund Hoghe who, besides the fact that they are performance artists have also experience as writers, did not focus much on the issue.

There seemed to be an omitted belief according to which writing about performance is not very important, not so relevant. This was in a way confirmed by the fact that some of the choreographers and artists invited do not care much about reviews, some of them even ignores articles written on thier work, which is perfectly fine but it did not help the discussion.

Years ago, I think it was around 2000, Laban and Dance Theatre Journal organised another conference with a similar intent. It was done in collaboration with the Society for Dance Research, it was called "Articulations - Exploring Dance and Writing" and it included dance journalists and other experts. I do not remember much because I was in my initial phase of studying Dance Theory and History, but I think it was more focused on the subject.

However, in this instance there were many good points such as the discussion on Black Dance in the UK, Hoghe's performance and several witty comments.

Author:  LMCtech [ Wed May 09, 2007 10:58 am ]
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So was the conference's focus more on literature in dance or using words in dance rather than writing about dance?

Author:  Rosella [ Mon May 14, 2007 3:39 am ]
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Yes, basically yes. Like I said it was very stimulating but a bit off-centred for what concerned its main topic.

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon May 14, 2007 11:26 am ]
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But that is a fascinating topic too. Using text in dance has been very popular in the San Francisco dance scene recently. some choreographers are more successful than others. It would be interesting to do a similar conference in San Francisco.

Author:  Cassandra [ Tue May 15, 2007 3:27 am ]
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There seemed to be an omitted belief according to which writing about performance is not very important, not so relevant. This was in a way confirmed by the fact that some of the choreographers and artists invited do not care much about reviews, some of them even ignores articles written on thier work, which is perfectly fine but it did not help the discussion.

On the whole I think that is understandable, when I worked with a dance company it was the comments of colleagues and others closely associated with the group that were taken seriously, not the opinions of professional reviewers. On the other hand a review of a small company can be good free publicity.

I still personally think that standards of dance writing have gone through the floor in the last couple of decades, perhaps if honesty and accuracy played more of a part in reviews more artists would be prepared to read them.

Author:  Rosella [ Tue May 15, 2007 5:26 am ]
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I agree with you Cassandra, the state of dance writing in papers in Italy is dreadful, it is so superficial and often full of stereotypes! There are few good writers but on the overall the situation is not good.

However, I feel the dance world would benefit so much from more interaction between the critics and the dance companies...I think this disconnetcion is probably in part due to how dancers and choreographers deal (or not deal) with words...there is an engaging topic opened here "Training dancers to understand the power of words" (under Dance Issues) which may shed some light in this direction...on the other hand, critics sometimes think of themselves as gods on earth, and they abuse of their power or, as you say, are not very accurate.

With regards to words used in dance LMCtech, it was very interesting, nothing against that (it is in a way the topic of my PhD), but again I wish they had insisted on it a bit longer. For example Akinleye's work is inspired by a very interesting novel, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man", but not much was said on it and on the connection between her work and the novel.

Author:  LMCtech [ Tue May 15, 2007 11:41 am ]
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I think you bring up a good point about critics who abuse their power. I think it is one of the reasons so many artists completely ignore many reviews and critics. I have heard so many dancers and choreographers react to a bad review with dismissal of the critic's opinion because "they didn't get it" or "they hate me" or "I didn't kiss their #### last year, so I'll get bad reviews from now on". Very rarely do they ever really read the review carefully to distill any constructive criticism from it.

Author:  ksneds [ Tue May 15, 2007 4:28 pm ]
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Oh, I think companies, large and small, do take critics seriously - whether for the criticism or the publicity. They certainly wouldn't be losing out on so much potential income by allocating lots of free press seats if there wasn't some payback from reviews/features/interviews. And at least some companies post reviews in their offices so they can be read by staff and dancers.

I've certainly know (or known of) both dancers who take reviews seriously and those who don't, either because of the (lack of) quality of the critics or because, as I think LMCTech has well put it, they don't learn how to distill constructive criticism from the reviews. Biased or lazy reviewers are a problem, but so are dancers who lack the skills to read constructively.

When I first started my PhD, it sometimes was very hard to deal with feedback from my advisors, but now I've learned that most of it isn't personal and that my advisors want to help me improve. They comment because they care.... and I think that is vital for reviewers.

One should review because you care about the aft-form and communicating to dancers and audiences (potential and existing). When it becomes a simply means to get free tickets etc., that's when you need to take a break. Sometimes I've scaled back so that when I do review, I'm enjoying it and comfortable in what I am reviewing.

Whilst dancers & choreographers may place more merit in what they hear from their peers, it's probably wise for them to remember that the vast majority of audiences have little dance background. Dancers should certainly have an inner and peer-driven motivation, but in the end the final product needs to work for the audience. It might look great to your fellow dancers, but it if it leaves the audience cold, there's a problem. Bums in seats as they say...


Author:  Rosella [ Mon May 21, 2007 4:10 am ]
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Thanks Kate, for your reply. I think you are right, the critics are a kind of crucial piece in the chain that connects dancers and choreographers to the audience and their role should not be underestimated. In my experience when I had a good feedback on my pieces from choreographers and/or dancers it was often after I had met them and spoken with them about their work. So maybe it could be good to meet the critics and not just in press conferences.

Another aspect which was mentioned during the conference dealt with the programme notes. Sometimes they are obscure, some other times they are not very accurate and in some cases they are very helpful. It is certainly an integral part of the performance, in a way it gives us direction to 'move' in there.

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon May 21, 2007 11:25 am ]
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Kate, after your comments I amend my comments. I agree with you that critics are an essential to the full dance experience and that dancers often don't know how to read a critique to get the most out of it. The ones who do, of course, grow more quickly and effectively as artists. I also think that the "big" companies definitely take reviews and critics VERY seriously because they understand how valuable and powerful they can be.

I also think that San Francisco dancers can be particularly ornery when it comes to critics. When I lived on the East Coast it seemed my dancing colleagues were much more accepting of critique. Maybe it's the West Coast "pioneer mentalitly" that makes us more testy and dismissive of criticism.

As to program notes, I think it is very important to carefully consider them. Dance is such an abtract art that I think program notes are essential for audiences if you are doing a dance that is supposed to have any kind of meaning. But they can definitely get too pretentious or wordy or myopic to be helpful.

I have found San Francisco Ballet's program notes to be very helpful because they often include anecdotes from the dancers about their feelings making or rehearsing the ballets. They also often include the background of the choreographer so the audience can better understand the personal experiences that inform the choreographers work or the historical context it should be viewed from.

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