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Critiquing the critique
- Lucinda Al-Zoghbi, London

June 20, 2011

Just like dance, the art of criticism varies widely too. It seems to me that there are several key factors that determine, or at least point towards, the kind of critique that a work will invoke. Dance genre and venue will determine the interest of a critique whilst writer and publication will determine the coverage. In other words, certain dance genres, venues and writers require, or demand, a certain type of critique. In the UK, ballet dominates the dance world and this is proven through the sheer number of critiques and features in dance magazines such as Dancing Times and broadsheet newspapers such as the Independent and Telegraph. Ballet is regarded as a 'high-art' dance form which, as a result, requires a 'high-art' critique?! Well perhaps yes but the dance world is continuously expanding to accommodate cultural exchange and emerging choreographers - in other words the breaking down of that 'high-art' structure and the stigma that can comes with it. For dance criticism, there are many more outlets other than the expected broadsheets and specialist magazines, and with the development of technology and the realm of social media, there are journals, websites and blogs which accommodate the broad spectrum of dance that is available in today's world.

I would like to highlight two critiques of Tango Fire at the Peacock Theatre in April earlier this year. These critiques are both sourced from newspapers but these two publications are very different, and so by way of comparison, I am interested in whether the critiques differ, and if so how. This comparison aims to give a snapshot of dance criticism and how it can change form just as the movement of a dance work can. The first critique is by Clement Crisp from the Financial Times and the second is from the Metro's Siobhan Murphy. The former is a renowned dance critic the (dance) world over with over forty years' experience in his field, the latter is an emerging entertainment reporter who covers dance, books and music in critiques and features. Of course these two writers are at very different stages in their careers and so hold very different experiences of professional dance writing; however a comparison will be made all the same.

Firstly, to Crisp's critique - one full of detail and expertise. His choice of words are specific, informative and, more often than not, poetic. I like the way he conjures some strong imagery, particularly: '...a man and a woman explore a duet, embroidering it with acrobatics more usual in ice-dancing...' Despite his masterful way with words, Crisp describes the performance setting and costume in very simple terms and by doing so he appeals to the well-informed reader as well as the reader with no specialist dance knowledge. Further, Crisp uses some strong linguistic devices to shape the critique - for example at the opening he suggests an alternative title for the work, and cleverly returns to it for the close. Crisp decorates the critique with a wealth of knowledge that leaves this reader feeling confident in the writer's capabilities but also a little inferior to his over-ruling critical judgement.

Secondly, to Murphy's critique -also full on detail and expertise but in quite a different way. Like Crisp, Murphy utilises an extensive vocabulary but unlike Crisp, she prescribes more of the critique for description with the occasional aside. Additionally, Murphy shares her previous viewing experience of the work. Here she writes with a pleasant informality, placing herself as the spokesperson for the audience, and by doing so, she connects to the reader with more ease. Perhaps. But then this is a very different reader/audience - Murphy writes for the Metro, a free daily paper for the morning commute. The critiques and the other articles of the paper need to be more of a sound bite than a prolonged account. Despite a similar word-count, Murphy writes about the performance with more generality than Crisp's intense write-up in the broadsheet newspaper, the Financial Times.

The fact that Tango Fire is not a mainstream work - i.e. not ballet or contemporary - that is not performed in a mainstream venue - Sadler's sister venue, the Peacock Theatre - is a significant factor to the art of critiquing the work. Perhaps it is not capable of filling a main dance house so does that mean it is not capable of filling a double-page feature spread in a specialist magazine or broadsheet newspaper? There well may be a feature or critique on Tango Fire but I doubt it would be the main critique of the publication because of the dance genre and its performance location. Perhaps this pre-determined role of the dance critique will change one day and technological advances might be the way to go for opening up the coverage of dance criticism in Western dance theatre.

Courtesy the author's blog

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