Being reviewed is a frightening process – you pour months or years of your life into creating something and someone you don’t know comes in and judges it.
When they like it, it’s elating. When they don’t, it’s crushing. There’s an old saying worth keeping in mind about artists and reviews, “Anything besides a bouquet is a brick.” Don’t expect to assess your reviews rationally. It will feel like someone reviewing your baby. If you’re a dancer rather than a dancemaker, the experience is just as scary; judging your performance feels as if they’re judging you.
Here are things to think about before and after the review.
Will there be a review? Maybe. It’s fair to ask when a reviewer requests a press ticket if they intend to write. If they said yes, it’s legit to follow up on when the review will be published.
Sometimes a reviewer intends to write, and doesn’t. It could be for any number of reasons: writing backlog, real life demands on time or finances, or just thinking that it would be better at this point not to formally review your work. If the last, it’s probably better that they didn’t write.
If you’re a performer, you might not get mentioned in a review. This happened more often because there wasn’t enough room or the reviewer didn’t have anything specific to say about you than because you were horrible and the reviewer was being kind.
Not all reviewers are good, or fair. Having an opinion doesn’t make a reviewer trained or informed. As in every profession, a few of the people in it suck. This is a field that rarely pays money anymore. Most writers are doing it on their own time, and with the exception of the ticket, at their own expense. Because it’s self-subsidized, there are few barriers to entry and little oversight. Sometimes, someone reviews something they know nothing about.
In New York, partly because of the quality and quantity of work done here, we’re used to reviewers who specialize in the subjects they write about. But sometimes one person reviews everything from food to dance, not always by their choice. There isn’t much further to say about an incompetent review, except that there’s difference between a review that you disagree with and an incompetent one. Let’s assume for this article that the reviewer knew what they were doing.
A review is not about your work. It’s about the act of viewing your work. If a reviewer is doing a good job, they should be able to clearly describe sections of what you did. They will also give opinions about it. The mixture of fact and opinion in a review is an analysis and recounting of what you did. But more accurately, it’s not actually an analysis of what you did, but of what (and how) they saw.
You are not the intended audience. Even when a review sounds like a letter to, or a jab at you, you were never its intended audience. A review is meant for viewers, from the point of view of someone sitting in the house. The information you get from a review is as useful as overhearing a conversation about you down the hallway. It’s unfiltered, yes – but also distorted.
THEY LOVED ME!!!! they hated me. Either is possible. And believe it or not, both positions are valid. Again, a review is an account of the experience of watching your work. Two people can see the same thing and come to such different conclusions that you might even wonder if they were in the same theater. One reviewer may have an aesthetic disagreement with classical ballet; the other may feel the same about contemporary work. The differences aren’t in what they saw, but the weight they give to specific details and how they added up the score. You can’t value outside praise or damnation more than your own assessment of your work and progress.
If you’re a dancer, the same advice is even more apropos. It’s easier to be objective about a ballet. A reviewer’s assessment of you as a dancer tells you as much about what they like in a dancer as whether you’re a good one. Dancers are like perfume, you don’t choose to like or dislike a smell. There may have been technical issues with your performance, but chances are you know what they were.
This review wasn’t fair! This review was mean! A review does not have to be fair or nice. Both are good things, and some reviewers are more concerned about them than others. I’m not crazy about mean reviews either, especially not ad hominem mean, but a reviewer’s real job is to write something interesting or entertaining to read. That isn’t always going to put your feelings first. Coming back to the main point yet again, a review describes an experience of watching your work. There is no fair or unfair in that. And as hard as it is to believe, especially for something you put so much blood, sweat and tears into, the reviewer may have hated watching it.
The reviewer didn’t get it! It is the job of the reviewer to understand your work, but from their point of view, not yours. As understandable as it is want a writer to “get” your work, (you’d be a ficus plant if you didn’t) it’s unfortunately about as realistic and mature as wanting someone to love you.
The review was biased! In some sense or another, probably. Every reviewer is biased, culturally and otherwise. But as with your audience, you meet a reviewer where they live. This is a scary thing. You can educate, but it’s not realistic to expect them to dump their experience, taste and worldview in one show. That said, part of being a good reviewer is the belief that a reviewer should try and meet artists where they live as well.
I want to react to this bad review. Don’t. Seriously. It makes you look petty, even if you’re reacting to a petty reviewer. If you can’t handle a bad review, don’t open the show to review. It’s rare to do that, but there’s no reason you can’t. Just state towards the top of your press release “This performance is not open to review.” Or just don’t read reviews. Arguing in public over a review only prolongs the amount of time the review will stay in people’s heads, as well as your own. The goal is to move forward. Let it vanish, which it will more quickly than you think.
The rare situations where an artist should speak out publicly are extreme. Examples would be if the review is egregiously factually wrong (the reviewer writes as if someone danced that night who didn’t, or about a work that wasn’t performed) or when there’s a real conflict of interest. Not one in your head. A real one is that the reviewer was trying to benefit a competing organization. One in your head is that the reviewer happens to know someone from a competing organization.
Let go of trying to control how your work is perceived. You’re performing for the public. Our reactions, no matter how ignorant you find them, are part of the package. That’s part of being an artist, and an adult. Let go of needing everyone to like your work, or even wanting them to view it exactly as you do. If you only want your work thought about the way you approve, invite only your friends to see it and make sure to tell them in advance what to think.
Consider a bad review a badge of honor. If you’re fair game to be discussed with gloves off, you’ve made it pretty far as an artist, haven’t you?
“X is just not in my corner.” There are reviewers who will never like your work, because they have a different aesthetic. This is your mantra to deal with that and move on. Maybe your work really does have flaws or need improvement. Or maybe someone else will love it.
No one says you have to read reviews. There’s some value in an outside perspective, but not at the expense of your own. You can delegate someone else to read reviews, read them a few months later when you have some distance from the performance, or skip them entirely.
Even an educated opinion is still an opinion. If you’re going to survive being an artist, the compass that guides you needs to be within you. It takes time and skill to get there, but in the end, the person who knows best what you need to do next, or whether you did a good job or not, is you.
Leigh Witchel © 2017
Got something to say about this? Sound off here
The Log’s handy-dandy primer on dance press – what it is, how to get it and how to cope with it.
Part 2: Pitching to us or sending us PR.
Part 3: Press at your show