Dance critics have an important role to play in the ecology of the art form and their work needs supporting, says journalist and editor Penelope Ford.
The scene: the critic comes to the theatre, vampirish, waiting to pen her review with the blood of artists, to a soaring imagined click count. The ‘hatchet job’ has become a cliché; the culture of humiliation as embodied by the ‘nasty judge’ on so many TV talent shows. This cute kind of writing not only fails the art form itself but also the art of criticism too: it distracts rather than informs, and worse, it fails to take its subject seriously.
Impressions, in the end, are cheap and this situation is created out of desperation. The critic, in a bid to keep her job, dons a persona associated with the culture we have created around performance art. Fortunately, it is not the case with most dance writers, who are fans and advocates of the art they love. And, for the dance marketer, a good critic is golden.
For most, ballet is rhetoric, and contemporary dance is bewildering. Naturally enough, the world is already full of those things, so why would you need to buy a ticket? But a little education goes a long way in dance: enter the dance critic. She is the link between the company and the audience, giving dance a voice, and audiences a vocabulary to have their own discussions about dance beyond ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it.’
The critic is there to provide context, cue new ideas, and give reasons why a performance is worth the price of admission. Criticism’s function is different from advertising, which can say what but not why. Even if it does say why, it doesn’t have the authority to. Social media, a powerful marketing tool garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and follows, proves affection is only skin deep, as evidenced by declining trends at the box office.
The key is this: if you have identified a critic working in your area, cultivate a trusting relationship. Opportunities for previews, interviews, as well as reviews can provide the basis for a stronger critical context around the performance, and help reach new audiences. While marketing departments are often keen to push certain selling features of the show or the season, it must be of interest to the writer for it to be of interest to the public. Follow this process and the critic will be more enthused to pitch the story, which counts when media budgets are tight.
The disappearance of dance critics from newspapers in recent years, and the decline in coverage of dance in the media in general, is often brought up, and is problematic. The visual arts world has addressed this lack of media interest by supporting criticism at an institutional level. The Andy Warhol Foundation recently offered generous, no-strings-attached grants to arts critics, and it also sponsors a number of visual arts journals.
Dance institutions would do well to follow their lead by being proactive about criticism and cultivating a critical environment. Even if foundation levels of funding are not available, options such as hosting Q&As with dance critics, or running a critical blog are low-cost ways to develop a consciousness of the value of critical context, and to encourage a multiplicity of voices to be heard.
Critics are a vastly undervalued resource in the dance industry, and opportunities for them to write and develop are already precarious. Yet their place in the ecology of dance is vital, impacting upon the art, the audience and ultimately the box office. The critic-company relationship is a symbiotic one; where each is engaged in growing audiences, and moving the art forward, the industry is strengthened as a whole.
Penelope Ford is the editor of Fjord Review.