Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Becoming a Dance Critic

I didn't plan to be a critic. Even though I'd spent years hanging around dance studios, learning everything from ballet to contemporary to tai chi, I was set on a career in academia; my subject was English literature, not dance. So when a string of circumstances led me to write my first dance reviews, my models weren't professional critics. Most of the writers I knew and loved best were novelists: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and John Updike.

None of them could offer guidance when it came to describing a perfect pirouette, but they were ideal masters to learn from. Two marks of a great novelist are the ability to observe human behaviour and the ability to judge the exact words that make those observations ring true. Both skills are also essential for dance critics, who have to capture the combination of movement, music, design and human personality that make a work unique.

When I started reading dance reviews, the first writers I went to were American. There was a practical reason: Edwin Denby, Arlene Croce and Deborah Jowitt had collections of their reviews published in book form and, pre-internet, it was much harder to study the British newspaper critics.

But there was also something inspirational about the best of the American writing. It had a novelist's sharpness of language and gaze, and almost never resorted to cliche. I remember reading the Denby collection in one sitting and marveling at his exactness. Take, for instance, this description of the ballerina in Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, as she is lowered slowly to the floor at the climax of a pas de deux: "She rests her foot on a single sharp point and pauses. It is the effect . . . of a deliberate and powerful plunge into a wound." In this unsettling image, Denby managed to concentrate everything he saw and felt. In the daily routine of being a critic – rushing to meet a deadline, wondering how to cram it all into 400 words – it's good to remember how high the critical bar has been set.
- Judith Mackrell
From this article in The Guardian.