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Raising the Barre: Should Dance Critics Take Class?

September 22, 2011 · 3 Comments

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog MyTwoLeftFeet.net and is reprinted with permission.

By Brian Schaefer

A few weeks ago, Gia Kourlas in The New York Times profiled the wave of Gaga classes that flooded the city over the summer, part of the strategic efforts of Gaga USA to export Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s movement language (or technique or philosophy or whatever) to the States and beyond. Gaga is that secret ingredient which, to my mind, makes Naharin’s Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company one of the most exciting contemporary dance companies in the world, that element of controlled chaos that allows his dancers to punch with delicacy, as Naharin is fond of saying.

Living in Israel for the past year, I have taken a number of Gaga classes, participated in a Gaga intensive with the company in which Naharin himself taught daily class and in which we applied its principles to choreography from the company’s repertoire, and I have written about the technique on my blog as well as on other sites, such as Makom/Haaretz.

Kourlas describes the sensations of a Gaga class well, captures the playful and deeply psychological language used, shows us the enthusiasm with which dancers around the world have embraced the technique (hundreds from abroad braved the Tel Aviv heat in July for the summer version of the workshop). But here’s where I’m disturbed: somehow she thinks that she shouldn’t be there.

“My job,” she writes, “means that I don’t belong in dance class anymore; that is a dancer’s sacred space.” She calls it a “personal rule,” though “In the case of Gaga,” she continues. “I needed to understand its mechanics.”

But why the self-imposed exile from dance classes? Why is the world of the studio off limits to those critics who write about dance? She even goes so far as to say that “dance critics must join gyms,” a statement that, frankly, gives me chills. I studied and fell in love with dance in college. Yet I simply decided early on that writing about it gave me more pleasure than performing it and that writing is where I wanted to make my contribution to the art form. But dance class is still my sacred space, too.

What is the fear? Is it that we might share a barre with a choreographer we will someday review and are hesitant to get too friendly to be objective? Is it because we are wary of the wrath of the choreographer we gently put down the weekend before? Or maybe it’s just that we’re afraid to be judged ourselves.

Kourlas doesn’t elaborate here and this article really isn’t about this issue, but her casual remark shouted aggressively at me, hiding an assumption that somehow participating in the dancers practice space leads to a professional conflict of interest, that experiencing on our own creative movement and strengthening our own bodies through dance somehow makes us less effective writers and reviewers of dance. Apparently, according to Kourlas, the proper critic sticks to Stairmasters and dumbbells. I can’t think of more mind-numbing activities and a more uninspiring place.

Granted, not all dance critics come from dance backgrounds—some of the best ones historically never studied it and I don’t believe dance training is necessary to be a good critic. If you prefer the gym, that’s great. But we shouldn’t force ourselves there because we feel it’s inappropriate to be in a dance class.

Has my casual study of Gaga made me a biased writer of Naharin’s work? I don’t think so. I found his work brilliant before my first class and I find it brilliant still. But Gaga has given me new insight into its origins and intentions, has given me a new vocabulary to discuss the way it affects and touches me. Kourlas’ comment implies that a true critic keeps a cold distance from dance. But in taking the Gaga class, she seems to have found a connection to pleasure by allowing herself to get in the middle of the technique and I wonder if perhaps we critics—and dance in general—would be well served to consider getting up close with dance (choose your technique, any style) and write from a place not of distance but of warmth and intimacy instead.

Brian Schaefer is a writer, arts journalist, and presenter from Los Angeles and a current board member of the Dance Critics Association. He holds degrees in dance and communication from the University of California, San Diego where he wrote about dance and the arts for San Diego News Network, SanDiego.com, and Power Line Magazine. He received a fellowship in arts journalism from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007 at the American Dance Festival and served for three years as the program and audience development manager at ArtPower! at UC San Diego, the university's multi-disciplinary arts organization. He currently lives in Tel Aviv where he has worked at the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance & Theatre and written for the Jerusalem Post, Makom/Ha’aretz, Dance in Israel, and his blog MyTwoLeftFeet.net. He is currently pursuing a masters degree in English literature/writing at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

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Tags: Commentary · Criticism

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marcus // Sep 25, 2011 at 12:41 PM

    Brian,

    Thank you for sharing this article. When reading your initial take I had a similar dislike for Kourlas' take on class and the dance critic. However, after reading the article it is clear to me that she has some previous insecurities or preconceived notions of how the "class" functions in our lives.

    I have always and WILL ALWAYS have a strong belief that dance critics MUST be practitioners of dance. DANCE (the act) is the major player in this field. It is that act that serves as the foundation. I cannot be an effective dance teacher, choreographer, scholar, or critic without understanding the practice and purpose of class. She obviously missed the boat and perhaps had a tough time growing up in dance.

    I agree with her that the studio is a sacred place but so is the gym for many. I think it's all about perspective and what the intention is for the practitioner.

    Thanks for sharing

    MRW
    theofficialmrw.com
  • 2 Johnzane // Oct 13, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    Critics should always be held to a journalistic standard, and not confused with your hothead variety of bloggers, who may take up the argument that a student of dance is more likely to appreciate the art than a journalist who isn't, only because their idea of critique is limited to praising an artist. I prefer the writings of critics who have studied artists, their lives as well as their works, who they collaborate with, who they fall in love with, who pays their rent, and who they can be compared to. Perhaps taking a dance class would inform them, but I seriously doubt the necessity. Therefor, I understand Koulas' preference not to engage too deeply in the study of Gaga.

    To do so would be to break the fourth wall that separates audience from practitioner. Take note, Mr. Shaefer, there is a difference between reporting, which you have attempted to do with Gaga, and critique.

    Then there is proselytizing, what bloggers have confused for professional journalism, in which a writer will resort to questioning the "insecurities" and "preconceived notions" of those who distance themselves from what they believe is the purpose of a good critic, to extoll the virtues of their subjects, raise ticket sales, and historical notoriety.

    Put simply, you cannot long maintain an objective viewpoint if you fall in love with the object.

    Cheers,

    John Zane
    director
    danzhaus
  • 3 Marcus // Oct 14, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    John,

    Thanks for your insight to what I assume is a response to my blog comment. I think you have some extremely valid points including that the key role of critics is to keep an objective "outsider looking in" perspective in order to create effective journalism. I won't contest that.

    Moreover we must acknowledge that bloggers are a different set of individuals whose opinions though not journalistic have some weight with the change in technology.

    I think my point of contingent is how Kourlus went out of her way to mention that going to dance class is not in her job description

    "dance critics must join gyms"

    One could decipher this as AVOIDING the practice of dance as opposed to simply being at "a distance." I think she has an insightful journalistic objective view, however, is this the MOST accurate voice? She becomes the authority of credible dance. I think Brian was just proposing (or rather my reading into it as) a question on whether or not her authority is less legitimate because her avoidance of "the sacred space" and doing so publicly. Just a thought.

    MRW
    theofficialmrw.com

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