A Critique on Critics!

critique:
noun
a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

critic
1 a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something : critics say many schools are not prepared to handle the influx of foreign students.
2 a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, esp. one who does so professionally : a film critic.

Alistair Macaulay’s tactless comment about New York City Ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy Jenifer Ringer is still not sitting right with me. It was egregious, catty and no doubt hurtful to Ms. Ringer. In addition it was insulting to all the ballet dancers who might actually look like women (yes, some real ballerinas have curves). What makes me so irascible is how susceptible critics can be to becoming distracted or side tracked by a dancers physical aesthetic, so much so that they completely forget to notice of the actual performance. Clearly in Macaulay’s case Ringer’s zaftig form caught his eye, so we know she was fuller than the average, we know little to nothing about her skills or artistry on that evening?

Next to the “play by play” style of critique, the critic who becomes enamored with performers beauty, form, or the opposite polarity grates my nerves. Like a civilian in Trueblood’s Bon Temps they can be easily “glamoured” by arched feet, sky-high legs, rippling chests and backs, skimpy costumes and light catching cheekbones or vice versa, they forget that they are there to see more deeply into the work. Critics are charged to evaluate the structure, content and composition of the work, to deconstruct movement phrases, perhaps even identify the linage of its roots, to make note of the harmony or contrast that the movement has to the music. They are charged with rendering their opinion as to whether the performers executed, and embodied the work, was their technique brilliant or brittle? Did they draw you in or push you away? Did their performances elevate the choreographer’s work or drag it down? When a critic gets caught up or distracted by certain physical characteristics that have little to nothing to do with the work, not only is it annoying but in actuality they are not doing their job, because they are missing it.

Quite frankly as a performer it’s insulting. While performing with Armitage Gone! Dance I personally experienced the effects of the glamoured critic’s gaze. In the founding days of the company was a small bunch, (Eight for the first project, reduced to five when the company “officially” formed) everyone was visible and in certain ways featured. Our racial diversity made it even easier for critics to distinguish us since no one looked alike, and as five, there were only two women Megumi Eda and myself. As is the mode of contemporary dance companies we danced half nude in couture leotards designed by Donna Karan’s own Peter Speliopolous. The preview press articles for the company were favorable and I was dubbed the Amazon from Philadelphia. One of our board members loved to introduce me as the “Amazon from Philadelphia” I was tickled as I had learned to take pride in my height and power, and frankly at the time I was feeling quite fierce!

Our premiere season at the Joyce was a hit! Karole was pleased and we were pleased for her and ourselves. When the reviews began to roll in we were all favorably mentioned but there was uniformity to my mentions:

At one point, Theresa Ruth Howard crossed the entire diagonal of the stage in three huge grands jetés, with her partner running to keep up with her. It was like having a javelin thrown at you.
(Joan Acocella http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/22/040322crda_dancing)

Ok, I’m a javelin.

…notable is the powerful Theresa Ruth Howard, shaken so her head snaps by William Isaac, the writhing line of her body achieving the asymmetrical punch of the music by Bartok. (Tamsin Nutter http://www.dpsny.org/onlinemag/review_en_2-3-04.html)

I’m powerful

The next season we performed in this Dream that Dogs me for 3 weeks at the Duke Theater. The piece was in three movements the first feature myself in a quartet with the three males of the company (William Isaac, Leonides Arpon and Brian Chung) In it was thrown, slid, twisted, untwisted, shaken and stirred, it was like a fight for my life. In my mind I was a superhero fighting off three villains with an element of high sexual tension. In rehearsal I made jokes that at the end it was like an episode of CSI “It looks like the body was battemented here, dragged then Krumped here, then left to die downstage. There were at least three assailants.” In the middle of the violence was a gentle pas de deux for Chung and me, a shift in dynamics and quality form the beat down, slow, sexy and dreamlike movements (one of my rare moments) these were some of the comments that dogged me.

Theresa Ruth Howard, a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem with a build like supermodel/beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, is the center of a knot of activity, her muscled legs unfolding at the center of the skirmish made by three men of vastly different sizes and temperaments: quicksilver Leonides D. Arpon, tender Brian Carey Chung and regal, aloof William Isaac. The Art Fuse: http://artsfuse.org/?p=155 Debra Cash

Ok, that’s so bad, I mean to be compared to a supermodel, who could be mad at that? However my body is nothing like Gabrielle Reece’s, I am closer in type to a bigger Naomi Campbell but the Reece reference help let the reader know how “Athletic” and “Strong” I was. I took it for what it was and kept it moving:

Three men and one woman emerge in blue for an energetic quartet with the fluid grace of liquid ink. The incredibly buff Theresa Ruth Howard drives Leonides D. Arpon, Brian Carey Chung and William Isaac like a team of eager sled dogs as they wind themselves over, under and alongside of her. (Lisa Rinehart http://danceviewtimes.com/2005/Autumn/10/armitage.html)

I am incredibly buff; ok that’s better then a lard ass…

Theresa Ruth Howard’s untamed mane, powerful, sinewy musculature and explosive energy constantly caught the eye of the audience, (Jennifer Wesnousky
The Joyce Theatre http://www.exploredance.com/article.htm?id=1746)

But before I get overly cynical (ok it’s too late for that but let’s pretend) let me just point out that saying that I am “Muscular” or “Buff”, is akin to saying that I’m Black. It is the second most blatant thing about me and you needed me an expert to observe that. So my thing was, what else did you discover Columbus? Where my body issues are not the responsibility of the critic sitting in the audience they are valid in this particular discussion. I have always disliked the muscularity of my body. I hated the way my body looked dancing but loved the way dancing felt. I have work hard to learn to “soften” or “feminize” my movement to compensate for my structure, which whether real or imagined I perceived as masculine. I have explored the variances of movement dynamic worked to use what I have including clean technique and flexibility, and yes power and strength to create depth and character. Every time I read a review that made mention of my build I felt defeated. All the work I had done in the studio to create relationships both physical and energetic with my fellow dancers, the weaving of an underlying emotional story was pointless. As far as the critics were concerned I could just came out in my little blue velora two-piece costume and posed like a hulking body builder. The comment that cut deepest, and shut me down was made by Seth Rogovoy critic-at-large of the Berkshire Living Magazine he wrote:

In Armitage’s case, while her female dancers aren’t on pointe (as are McIntyre’s for much of the time), there are still plenty of references to and uses of the balletic vocabulary in her works, which, other than for the lack of point, at its most extreme can seem like ballet on steroids. Armitage favors taut, muscular bodies — the phenomenally ripped Theresa Ruth Howard displayed some muscles I never even knew existed on the side of her hips — and much of her choreography builds on pairings — duets, trios, and more — and includes lifts, twirls, and all manner of interlocking activity that both is and isn’t balletic. (http://rogovoy.com/news1306.html)

Let me explain. I have always had these overdeveloped hip flexor muscles, I have always hated them so they make me feel mannish. Later I discovered that I have an extreme case of hip displysia – basically I have no hip sockets, and these hateful muscles are the only reason I have never dislocated. I have since learned to appreciate the wonder and intelligence of my body I managing to hold me together. However this review came long before this discovery. The idea that of all the things that I did on that stage that night, this person could only see- or thought the only thing worth mentioning about me were my bizarre hip muscles. I felt reduced. Rogovoy not only used my body as an extreme example of Armitage’s body type, but he said precious little else about the actual work.

As a dance writer and sometimes critic I do understand how one can get sidetracked in a performance. It happens to me all the time, the way that a dancer holds their neck or uses (or doesn’t use) their feet or arms, or if they seem to be trying too hard to draw focus, things like these annoy me and are hard to shake in the process of watching. However if saddled with the task of reviewing the work I have to get past myself and force myself to see more broadly. Everyone has a preferred aesthetic and is either drawn to or repelled by particular things, critics are human albeit one would expect them to be adroit enough to circumvent such blatant pitfalls. We expect a critic to go deeper than the average layperson, to render some insight, some cultural, historical, or artistic context to what is being presented; hence why I detest the play-by-play I think it’s a cop out. After all your half blind grandma with a hearing problem could probably do that, but we don’t let her word influence whom gets grant money and future bookings do we? It could be called lazy, or bad critique, but often I think it has more to do with the critic not really knowing how to deal with what they are seeing, not knowing where to “place” it. Perhaps it goes against a core aesthetic preference or the standard of the form and they can’t get their heads around it, perhaps it makes them inappropriately uncomfortable or aroused, or perhaps because of their hubris they can’t admit that they just don’t get it, can’t explain, it or it’s just far beyond them, but they have to say something so they wing it by either stating the obvious or giving a blow by blow or worse feigning comprehension. Let me be clear I am not talking about not liking a work and giving an unfavorable review, I am talking about not “liking” a work or reviewing around it primarily because they don’t get it, either aesthetically, culturally or it is not what they perceive as the type of work that particular group “should” be doing or typically does. There is a difference. Sometimes things are just bad and sometimes thing are just different.

There is nothing more infuriating to directors, choreographers and dancers alike then when you read a review and you know that the person is clueless, lost in comprehension and pulling things out of their ass. It happens quite a bit especially when there is an expectation as to what the work of a particular group or choreographer should be or look like. If it challenges the predefined concepts of the expected, then the critic might find themselves at a loss and go with the above mentioned stand bys of critique, or even discredit or dismiss the work entirely. Once again I’m not saying they have to like it, but what would be so wrong in saying that they don’t get it, that it falls outside of their scope of understanding (genre, culturally, historically) then go onto share their experience of the work which would be completely valid. You can’t be an expert at everything, and you don’t have to be, when in the position of not knowing, a visceral response base on your expertise would not only suffice but be much more useful and respectful.

Not to pull the race card (perhaps given my being black Amazon I am more sensitive to this side of things) but I see it quite a bit with the work of artists of color. For example if Ailey does something understated, and not as “high energy and crowd pleasing.” (As has become it’s trademark) it can be considered a let down by critics. It can be hard for them to see those dancers, those bodies do…”less”, and have it be recognized on the same level as their usual work. There was a critic who labeled the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin Robert Garland choreographed to in Return (Dance Theater of Harlem) as music of “Disco era”. Seriously? There are elements in Alonzo King’s work that I think confounds critics all around, especially coming from a man of color who works through the ballet technique. African dance based work as well as pure Hip-Hop and the fusion of all of the above often go over their heads culturally, thus they resort to the camouflaging tactics that make them look and like they had a clue, where they may sound erudite those in the know know better! Why BS? Just say you are clueless, actually that might be more interesting and you might what to do some investigation and learn something for the future. It certainly would be more honest.

It may seem like a digression but I find it part and parcel of the issue, it goes to an inability to assess work beyond certain elements, and giving a limited analysis of work or an artist for whatever reason. We like to think that the people charged with rendering critique are more knowledgeable in the field then the common person, they must have a deep understanding of dance or theater and will use that information to back up their opinions. And often times they do, but I suspect when they sit in a darkened theater, and the curtain goes up and they are presented with something that stupefies them (good, bad, inexplicable) or they get stuck on something they can’t get beyond there is a sense of vulnerability that must wash over them. That vulnerability is quickly sublimated into panic at having to write about it. To compensate for uncertainly they choose an angle, sometimes they take the easy way out and state the obvious, or make thinly veiled connections that have nothing to do with what was really presented but makes them appear erudite. Sometimes they feel themselves drunk with power and the possibility that an insult or dig whether well crafted or warranted will cause a ripple though the community and wield their words thoughtlessly. I get it, I just would like to pose a question to them, when your work goes to print, does it support, or contribute to the art form? Critique is often a hard and thankless job and sometimes it hurts. However when it serves to elevate, educate and inform, after the sting wears off there is something substantive left behind to be taken into consideration it can be appreciated. So I would like to ask the critics of the world to do something for me, basically tell me something I don’t know.

3 thoughts on “A Critique on Critics!”

  1. I have had to write multiple dance critiques, and they are hard! Because I am a dancer, I do look at things like body type and technique, not just performance. But if I became a professional dance critic, I could never critique somebody else’s body type. That’s how they were born! It is nothing to be critiqued, and it should have stayed out of the review.

  2. I know it’s hard! We all have our preferences but I think that as a critic it is one’s responsibility to present some deeper understanding or knowledge. If a preference is expressed it should be stated as such. Also if a personal preference does not effect the over all content or presentation of the work then it’s probably more our issue- and if stated should be qualified!

  3. I choreographed a dance my senior year in college which had mostly Black dancers in it, with 4 solosists, 2 white and 2 Black. Essentially the only feedback I got from the senior advisory board, which was comprised of accomplished dancers/choreographers/teachers, was that they perceived that the dance was clearly a statement on “race relations” (it wasn’t) because I had “interracial duets” and “all those Black men.” I wondered if any of them had actually noticed any of my choreography.

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