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Dance Criticism - A Report from the Attakkalari India Biennial 2011
- Ranjana Dave, Mumbai

June 7, 2011

This report was intended to be an ongoing chronicle of the workshop 'Writing on Dance', which was a part of the Attakkalari India Biennial 2011. Because the biennial was a whirlwind of activity, I never finished writing the report. But now when I revisit it, I find that the facilitators Gabriele Wittmann and Esther Sutter-Straub covered a stand-alone module dealing with dance criticism on the first day itself, the only day I actually found the time to write this little diary entry.

At the start of the workshop, participants raised general questions that dealt with dance coverage. Some topics covered were the reliance on technical terms to describe a dance piece, the relationship between photography and a piece of writing, where photographers are mostly not able to participate in the process of choosing a picture (and often the writer can't choose either) due to the hectic pace of journalistic work and the scarcity of print space.

Gabriele Wittmann spoke about the high importance placed on the wants of the reader in Germany and how this gives the medium of criticism a certain direction. Journalists are often encouraged to find something that a reader can connect with, even if the first paragraph of a dance critique ends up being unrelated to the rest of the critique. For instance, a dancer who enjoys gardening might attract the attention of readers who share the same interest. Also, she pointed out that it is important to contextualize the dance itself by placing it within other structures.

Wittmann developed a four-point outline for dance criticism. A sensual description of dance augments the capacity to receive sensual input, she feels. This includes the kinaesthetic experience of watching the dance and feeling involved with the movement. She feels that the place of such description remains unchanged despite this being the age of video. Describing the dance is doing a service to the reader, giving them the facility to 'watch' the dance, making them want to know more or conversely, stay away.

The problem of all cultural journalism, and especially dance, Wittmann feels, is that no one writes about the dance. Writers describe the costumes, story, lighting but not the movement. Critics must dare to write about the movement, she says. Writing about movement does not mean producing an adjective-laden piece but instead brings out how the writer understands the piece. Verbs carry movement well; they help describe the how of the movement. The challenge in dance writing is to desist from adjectives and find words that match the movement you perceive and seek to analyse.

Wittmann discussed the viewpoints of three dance critics who emerge from three different historical standpoints. She started with Eva-Elisabeth Fischer, a German critic who emerges from a post-1945 Germany. According to Wittmann, Fischer may have known an art that was subjected to censorship and restricted by the state. Hence she finds it very important to be critical of work. She does not believe in getting close to artists or the public. She does not subscribe to the notion of criticism as a tool of promotion for dancers, and strongly resists situations where critics might be invited to a festival, all expenses paid. They are then under pressure to write positive critiques; Wittmann feels Fischer's anti-PR attitude is the ethical path to dance criticism. Simultaneously, she acknowledges the pressures of being a dance writer in a world where the importance given to cultural journalism is fast decreasing. Opportunities to earn a livelihood out of impartial critiquing are few and it is sometimes not economically pragmatic for critics to refuse festival invitations.

Then Wittmann moves to USA in the 1970s, discussing Deborah Jowitt's writing. With people from different cultures and performances from different cultures making their way to the USA, all the critic can do is to offer an experiencing body. And the body cannot be critical or objective in the face of so many new experiences. So no judging or interpretation is possible, mainly a description. Also, this is subjective, and the critic must position herself in the personal, as 'I', before going on to describe a performance through the sensual effects created in the body.

She returns to Germany, where young critics like Constanze Klementz perceive the position of the critic differently. Klementz feels that the focus need not be on an 'object'; what is more important is the process of communication that results in the meeting of art and watcher, creating what she calls an infiltrated monologue. Artists are no longer burdened by the mission of enlightenment after modernism, postmodernism and perhaps post-postmodernism, so the objective of art has changed drastically.

Summing up before lunch, Wittmann says that criticism requires one to be analytical and perceptive at the same time.

Taking up a question Asoke raises about the purposes of writing and dance itself - to entertain or to critique and thus disenchant those who look to the Sunday papers for which he writes as a source of relaxed reading, Wittmann steers the discussion to the question of cultural differences that define expectations made of criticism.

In Sri Lanka, Asoke tells us, dance has space in the Sunday pages where writing must be tailored to the appetites of coffee-time readers. Also, while the performing arts are not very politically engaged, politically unsafe critiques of works are not advisable in the current climate, he feels. Such critiques could put the lives of their writers into danger and threaten the fate of the works they deal with. Then, are critical reflections of the time we live in not welcome, someone asks. Wittmann points out that dance is taken to be a sub-category of music, with university music departments often heading a smaller dance section. Going back to criticism, she says that in Germany one is neither expected to be a spokesperson nor a judge of the dance. Instead, the emphasis is on trying to understand what the artist does. After a century of avant-garde art questioning tradition, what new directions does it take? Is there an expectation that new work must be political and provocative? New threads are showing up but the old ones are being cut before any continuity is established. Society's problem is that it must now function so much and so quickly.

The question of negative emotion inspiring performance is raised. Instances cited by Wittmann include Alain Platel, who works with movement drawn from sickness and Alain Gingras, who uses movements drawn from parkour, which has connections with the Vietnam war. Wittmann begins to wonder if working with some dysfunctional aspect of the body is fashionable. The conversation briefly touched on differently-abled dancers and imperfect bodies on stage. Wittmann then has the participants watch a short piece from Daniel Léveillé's work Amour, Acide et Noix. Without contextualizing the piece, she makes them watch it twice, reiterating the need to use verbs to convert an emotion into a sensation between the two viewings. Take your emotions very seriously, she says; mark the strong feelings you experience while watching the dance, so that you can go back to them and ascribe sensations. Based on various responses by the participants, she lists out some verbs and some adjectives that could be converted into verbs. Each word has a denotation and a connotation; the latter gives it its symbolic frame. Choosing verbs also comes embedded with the choice of connotations we seek to include. Here, the verb tops the food chain because it stays the longest in the minds of readers. It belongs to a category of words where one can do something.

Ayesha asks if sensation must be physical, leading Wittmann to wonder what body signifies. Where does it end? Dance must be felt through the subcutaneous sensation it makes possible, Wittmann feels.

She ends addressing the question of pre and post-performance interactions with artists. In her opinion, a critic may not benefit from such discussions. In Germany, critiques and other performance-related writing are separate tasks best done by two different people. However, economic sense sometimes thwarts this logic and the tasks of a critic often overlap with other performance writing.

Ranjana Dave is a writer, Odissi dancer and researcher based in Bombay. She holds an MA in Arts and Aesthetics from JNU, New Delhi. She has written for publications like the Indian Express, Asian Age and The Hindu.

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