Many of you probably read about the fracas over a review of David Dawson’s “The Human Seasons” at The Royal Ballet. Brief summary: The Arts Desk published a negative review, someone (purportedly Dawson’s assistant) published a comment blaming the dancers and their egos for the piece’s shortcomings.
It’s not worth commenting on that gaffe. Having the sense and decency not to disparage colleagues in a public forum isn’t a dance or writing issue.
Read the review, though. It’s designed to provoke, and I’d argue not in a useful way, unless you care how the reviewer felt. I don’t as much as I want to know what the reviewer saw. Reviews such as this are built for debate rather than discourse. There is a more sustainable form of reviewing.
Many dancers think of reviewers as vampiric, feeding off the art and giving nothing back. I don’t think we are, not if we are doing our jobs correctly. Our position exists in symbiosis to the art, as analysts and chroniclers.
So what can we all do better?
With the caveat that everything I say not to do below, I’ve done before at some point and will most likely do again:
What critics can do
- Report more
A cardinal rule of good writing: Show, don’t tell. Watch every performance you write with an eye to the details that back up your assessment, and get them in the piece. Your opinion is not enough.
- Take “I” out of your writing
“The work didn’t seem ready for the stage.”
“I felt the work wasn’t ready for the stage.”
The first sentence is about the work. The second is about you. You don’t need “I felt” or “I thought” if you use a conditional phrase. If you don’t want to take cover under a conditional, just come out and say “The work wasn’t ready.” This is a review; it’s already part of the ground rules that it’s your opinion. Make the observation and show us what you saw. Only use first person if that’s the only good way to phrase the thought. It’s not about you.
- Use fewer superlatives
Superlatives are tempting because they’re passionate, exciting, and oh-so-quotable. They’re also bullshit that invites a savvy reader to prove you wrong. Was this really the most passionate Odette? Ever? Who have you seen do it – more to the point, who haven’t you seen? You can just as easily make the point about the level of the work without a comparison that you haven’t thought through.
- Rely less on your opinion
I made one of my biggest jumps as a critic when I let go of thinking people cared about my opinion. They don’t, unless you agree with them. Some of my best writing has been about pieces I didn’t instinctively like that were still important works. Liberate yourself from whether you liked a work or not and don’t lecture your readers. Talk to them. Show them a path into the work.
- Rely less on your taste
Without your taste it’s not a review. But your taste doesn’t make the world go round. No one made this work that savages your aesthetic on purpose to offend you.
- Prescribe less
I recognize the irony in prescribing less prescriptives. Still, if I had been editing the article above, one of the sentences I would have tried to guide the writer to cut would have been the breezy “Let’s see no more of this, please.”
We’re not here to tell the world what we need more or less of. Again, nobody cares. We’re here to be skilled, engaged observers. Half the time we say what ought to be done or what would make something better, we’re wrong. As an editor said to me, “Don’t give notes.”
- Judge a work for what it’s trying to do, not what you want it to do
The best, first question to ask: What is this trying to do? And the next question: Did it manage to do it?
- Be a scalpel, not a mallet
If a performance was not good, make the review only as long as needed to make the point clearly. Say what happened. Say what went well. Say what went wrong, why it went wrong and give examples. And get out. If the victim is dead, don’t keep stabbing.
What artists can do
- Don’t freak out
Part of your maturation as an artist is believing in your work, even as you put it out into the world and invite a response. You can’t control what that response will be. Some people will understand the work as if they were inside your brain as you made it. Others will seem to view it from an alternate universe. That’s how the game is played.
- Don’t ask for critics to “get” your work
More of the same. One of the hardest things for an artist is to let go of is trying to control how people experience your work. Do it anyway. You have to accept that all viewers, including critics, meet your work on their terms. My duty is view it professionally. For me, that means analytically (and I will be taking notes).
- Don’t take the bait
You should almost never react to a review. Reviews are directed at the reader and the audience, the information you get, and your reaction to it, is as distorted from your needs and perceptions as overhearing someone down the hall talk about you. Unless the review was factually in error, there was real negligence (such as the very rare but notorious cases of reviewers reviewing something they didn’t see) or was written by someone with a direct conflict of interest, the best tactic for dealing with a poor review is to ignore it.
- If reading reviews makes you crazy, don’t read them.
Put them away for six months and read them then. Get a friend to read them for you and give a summary. Or don’t bother with them at all. The person who knows how you did, and what you need to do next, is you.
What readers can do
- Don’t reward bad behavior
The reviews that get clicked on, talked about, passed around, shared and quoted are the nasty ones. What message are you sending?
If reviewers are in a position of disproportionate influence (I’d say this goes for everyone at the New York Times) it’s incumbent on them to recognize the power they have and wield it responsibly. A bitchy arts review in the Times can do exponentially more harm to an artist than in any other outlet in the U.S. The writer has to take responsibility for that. A Times review is not a personal blog read by 30 people.
When done well, a review should be part of the conversation, not the conclusion of it. And in the end, it has no more power than we give it.
copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
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