Dialogues: Writing Dance

Julie Malnig, Ann Nugent, and Leslie Satin

The articles that follow in this section developed out of an improvised dance and papers presented by a panel of scholars based in the United States and the United Kingdom at the Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS) 2008 conference at Skidmore College
Julie Malnig is an associate professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She is the author of Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance (New York University Press, 1995) and most recently editor of Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2009). She has written extensively on twentieth-century social and popular dance in numerous publications. She also publishes in the area of feminism and performance; one of her recent essays is “All Is Not Right in the House of Atreus: Feminist Theatrical Renderings of the Oresteia” in the collection Feminist Revisions of Classic Works (McFarland, 2009). She is a former editor of Dance Research Journal (1999–2003) and has also served as editorial board chair for CORD. Malnig holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. Ann Nugent is a dance critic and senior lecturer in dance at the University of Chichester, where she specializes in criticism and European dance. After more than a decade of writing about William Forsythe’s work—a doctoral thesis (University of Surrey, 2000) and some forty published articles and papers—she is finalizing a manuscript for publication entitled Writing William, Reading Forsythe: A Critical Approach to William Forsythe’s Choreography. She is British correspondent for Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan and was previously editor of both Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal. She is a board member of the Society of Dance History Scholars and chaired the Selma Jeanne Cohen Award for three years. She began her career as a dancer with the company now known as English National Ballet. Leslie Satin is a choreographer, dancer, writer, and teacher living in New York. Her dances and interdisciplinary collaborations have been presented at many venues in New York City and elsewhere. Satin holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. She is a member of the Arts Faculty at New York University’s Gallatin School; she has taught at Bard College and State University of New York/Empire State College. Satin, who recently co-edited Movement Research Performance Journal 34, was a long-time member of the editorial board of Women & Performance. Her performance texts and other dance writings have appeared in Performing Arts Journal, Dance Research Journal, Theatre Journal, Dancing Times, Women & Performance, and Gesto (Brazil), as well as the anthologies Moving Words: Re-Writing Dance (ed. Gay Morris, Wesleyan University Press, 1996) and Re-Inventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (ed. Sally Banes, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).
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and have. in common is our interest in developing new writers. in the process of developing their writing. We see many students engaged in the pursuit of different kinds of dance knowledge. moving to a series of email exchanges and conversations about these concerns. rhythm. Satin addressed the relationship of intellect and dance. and in teaching writing and criticism to students studying dance at the university level. while a DVD of two of Ann Nugent’s students engaged in a studio improvisation played. As academics. and dance artists who also write.in Saratoga Springs. a world where dances and responses to them are available in the time it takes to press a computer key—and in which skepticism over traditional printed matter is widespread. We wanted to address these areas through perspectives opened up by our own academic and professional experiences as writers. particularly in contemporary 90  Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009 . the ways that students learn about dance and writing through their joint practice. How might students be helped to navigate that difficult journey between seeing the dance and thinking about it and then communicating that experience to others? How might they. university students have to write essays as part of their degree. editors. even develop a passion for writing? We decided to incorporate both dance and language into our panel to foreground their interaction. Of course. Malnig proposed a range of approaches to teaching critical dance writing. processors of the text. What we had. some of them are focused on performing and choreographing. We would like to find a way to harness students’ seeming love of the image with a close attention to the form. Some students have grown up in a world dominated by visual imagery and are comfortable with that imagery yet unable or unwilling to bring it together with language. and the attitude of dance students and dancers about professional dance writing and criticism. in particular. become better critical readers? Might they. and stylistics of language. Nugent’s paper focused on bringing together the theoretical and historical with studio work. structure. a sense of what it means to look at. Some are afraid that applying language to dance may destroy its essence and inhibit their creativity. Team building continued at the CORD conference later that year at Barnard College. Then all three of us presented papers drawing on our own reflective research and empirical experiences. and thinking. dancing. to see. What we wanted to explore at the Skidmore panel was the experience of teaching writing about dance. dance. we need to engage and acknowledge the circumstances in which our students see dance and write about it: a world of YouTube and the Internet. It was a panel that fell into place following a chance meeting at the 2007 SDHS/Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) conference in Paris and the discovery of shared academic concerns over the problems of writing about dance. Others lack both visual comfort and the ability to use language concretely. Leslie Satin began the session with a scored improvisation. there is the added challenge of describing and writing critically about a famously elusive practice. and all of them have some level of visual awareness—that is. then. moving while answering Julie Malnig’s unscripted questions about everyday life. but often they come to college without a clear sense of how to structure language or organize and articulate critical thought. finally we came together in a panel at SDHS. For students experienced in dance.

for sure. But they labor under a slightly different constraint in that the forms of dance they feel most comfortable writing about. but please don’t ask me to write about dance!” Others tell me that they are willing to try writing about dance but declare they know nothing about it— or don’t understand it (more on that later). as many of them are unschooled in various forms of contemporary performance. many are dancers. As it turns out. who pointed to the integrity needed for writing about dance and spoke to the value of dance writing as an essential discipline. if a little wary. to consider contemporary approaches to dance criticism. My syllabus explains that the course aims to help writers train their “eyes” to enable them to become more critical viewers of performance and then translate that “looking” into descriptive and analytical prose. “But How Do I Write about Dance?”: Thoughts on Teaching Criticism Julie Malnig For the past several years I have taught an advanced writing seminar at New York University’s Gallatin School called Writing About Performance. The mix is refreshing. by the end of the semester many a student has accomplished just this.” are those they have studied—usually ballet or some type of modern dance—and not postmodern dance (more on that later). but not all. In addition to these papers there was a fourth presentation by noted dance studies editor Barbara Palfy on the precepts and mechanisms of editing and their value to emerging writers. At the beginning of the course. some are journalism students. We would like to open up a world in which dancers and dance students could be encouraged to articulate their experience of dance and in so doing become exhilarated. or quietly approaches me after class. Most have some interest in the arts. to say that she is terrified of writing about dance. the relationship of dance and writing in and out of the academy. Deborah Jowitt and Marcia Siegel. Easier said than done. if sometimes challenging. more broadly. if not more. I have discovered a curious phenomenon in these seminars. others anthropology and art history students. Ultimately. Our audience for the panel included two noted dance critics. there is invariably one student. Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009  91 . The students are from a range of backgrounds. we sought to raise questions about students’ relationship to critical writing about dance—indeed. went so far as to plead with me—“I’ll write about virtually anything.1 One student (who turned out to be a fairly strong writer). Then there are the practicing dance students who are usually curious. who either boldly raises her hand. Our long-term goal is to continue this conversation with publication here. at the prospect of translating their kinesthetic understanding of dance into prose. as we review the syllabus and I discuss the assignments.choreography. and which they feel they “know. While dance is not the only focus—we write about various forms of live art—it is indeed a central component. which we hope will prompt reader responses about new initiatives for teaching dance writing and.

such as Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce. helped pioneer new audiences for modern dance. how it worked on them. exhibits superiority over the subject rather than asks questions. One of the reasons. it takes practice. A third issue. judges rather than analyzes. for instance. it is often because they are as yet unequipped to respond to the work by placing it in its aesthetic. And partly for that reason many young writers want to get through the description quickly. But also. as writer Jeanette Winterson notes. this kind of criticism. and enter them like tunnels” (1995. connoisseurship critics—or. re-calibrate their expectations. This leads me to the second problem of students not trusting their ability to apprehend the work for what it is. even in a self-selected class. For many student writers. is a “thumbs up. before the easier and what seems like the sexier (and fun) part of delivering an opinion.” with absolutely no evaluation) is their preconception.” consumer variety of connoisseur criticism that enables students to hide behind a veneer of self-importance that masks their inability to have really penetrated the performance at all. this type of “thick descriptive” writing is a discipline to be learned. and literally get students to open their eyes to the phenomenological experience of the dance itself: not only to report on their “experience” or their “feelings” but to address—with their senses fully turned on—what they saw. for students’ resistance to many of the tasks I ask of them (and this includes writing a straightup “performance description. it may contain within it an analysis and interpretation of how the dance does what it does. wear them. is the difficulty of writing specifically about postmodern dance. to write from one’s experience often means stating whether a thing was good or bad rather than. and to which students seem to respond. whether they are fully conscious of it or not. resist this type of writing. At its heart. “she can eat them. of attempting to explain what the work did. when done well. and what elements provoked specific reactions. historical.and it’s thrilling to see a student open her eyes to dance and performance in a way that she hadn’t before. they often simply confuse opinion with experience. this is knowledge they have yet to acquire. I believe. in the daily newspapers and popular press. Certainly the problem is not limited to the classroom. postmodern dance . thumbs down. when students engage in judgmental criticism. and. objective” (xxxiii). or cultural context. to see that words are visceral and that. But what I would like to ponder with you are some of the reasons why students so often. in the Susan Sontag-ian sense. and what some of the possible avenues might be to alter their preconceptions. As dance critic Deborah Jowitt (2001) has explained so convincingly in “Beyond Description: Writing Beneath the Surface. xxxiii)—exists in varying degrees of extremes all around us. I don’t want to demean this type of criticism altogether—we have had many of our own eloquent connoisseur critics. I believe.” descriptive writing. “becomes the enforcement of a set of standards regarded as universal and eternal. But the kind of criticism I am referring to. From the students’ perspective. Denby. does more than look at surface details. shared by dancers and nondancers alike. Granted. in his exacting 92  Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009 and elegant prose. 172–73). On the one hand. to discover the joy of inhabiting language. what dance critic Ann Daly has called “canon criticism” (2002a. that criticism is a form of writing that tears down rather than opens up. as Daly notes. hence.

An avowed formalist. one reason may be that postmodern dance challenges ingrained ideas about the “theatrical” and doesn’t tell spectators what to think. I have in the past invited to my class cultural arts critic Matthew Gurewitsch (a writer for the New York Times. “Critics Should Look at Art But Also at Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009  93 . but it also can be helpful to have students read essays by.” he has said. of course. and other publications. While on the one hand it seems that students might find variations of postmodern dance to be more accessible than other forms of dance—because of its democratic impulse. “how to watch” (185). that dance theorist Susan Foster reminds us was “reframed” for performance and “newly ordered” [1986. and therefore explainable. as Edwin Denby explained. working critics on their relationship to their craft. and one that will function as an historical record of what occurred. confuse description and evaluation. Kirby’s abandonment of the subjective altogether makes his proposition problematic. is primitive and naïve.seems to connote some “secret language” for which they feel they lack a code. 414). If the work contains the semblance of experience that mimics real life. and substitute subjective feeling for objective detail” (66). on theater. Kirby was writing from the position of scholar/critic. This is Sontag’s argument in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1979). and dance) who offers the refreshing view that criticism is not just about reviewing. Gurewitsch tells students that what motivates him to write every day is to think about a subject that arouses his interest or creativity. its matter-of-factness. How else. “an unexpected aspect of one’s own sensibility” (1947/1968. Many critics. arrogant. or hear from. “objectify their taste. how audiences reacted to a piece. Near the beginning of each semester. But from a pedagogical perspective Kirby’s essay is useful because it stirs up students’ ire in a usually productive way that challenges their assumptions. and the impact the work had in its social and political moment. “What kind of world do I want to live in?” asks Gurewitsch. 169])—it nonetheless usually baffles young writers. I have students read the late performance historian Michael Kirby’s unveiled polemic. and its pedestrian movements (movement.” From the get-go he states: “Theatrical criticism. that the urge to connect the artwork solely to its “content” is in part an attempt to make it manageable. In a revealing New York Times piece.” a totally value-free criticism unburdened by the reviewer’s own subjective views or judgments of the performance. “Making people curious is my aim. might we envision the experience of criticism and critical writing and draw young writers in? What might be some new modes for engaging them? One way is simply to expose them to different ideas about performance criticism. then. Kirby notes. of course. as Foster notes. My sense is that any dance that doesn’t convey an overt “expressiveness” of character or a narrative pull poses problems for the young writer. opera. or. and immoral” (1974. surely. Kirby goes on to promote what he calls “performance documentation. containable. Although this is a much larger discussion. “Criticism: Four Faults. as we know it. He calls “pseudo-objective” the kind of judgmental criticism that is essentially more about the reviewer’s own taste and preferences than the work itself. one of the pleasures of reading criticism is to be moved by another’s description and understanding of a performance and thereby discover. then the writer feels on surer ground because she can attach “meaning” to it. 59).

E2) Jefferson urges the critic to be open to artwork beyond her traditional purview. would like to change about the way critics work. too. “What more appropriate image for the art of criticism: the tightly closed fist. xxvii). She comments. the open and relaxed hand? The one concerned with defining 94  Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009 boundaries. She quotes from a passage in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to make her point. on the long. Johnston “took seriously the [ Judson dancers’] credo that meaning is made by the viewer and that anyone could be a performer” (2002b. What about intelligent questions asked forthrightly? What about admitting sometimes that we’re not sure we’re asking all that needs to be asked? And what about ambivalence? Well expressed ambivalence is as interesting in criticism as mixed motives in fiction or microtones in music. pushing beyond boundaries. In another example. as Oates recounts. 100). the other with presenting the subject sympathetically. historical tradition of the artist’s statement and urges more dancers and choreographers to “practice the art of writing about their work” (101). and including them in their own critiques. an observer comments on the eminent writer Gustav von Aschenbach: “‘[He] always lived like this’—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—‘never like this’—and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair. Jefferson says that she would like us to ask questions as vehemently as we sling judgments. passing judgment. In the mid-1960s iconoclastic performance and dance critic Jill Johnston claimed that criticism was a place for the writer to “stake out a claim to be an artist” (1965/1971. Reading more of these kinds of artist statements. both in the classroom and perhaps (dare I say) within the professional world of criticism. and to risk balancing vulnerability with a sense of authority. In her 1965 essay “Critics’ Critics” (in part a response to a blistering article on the state of contemporary criticism by Clive Barnes).” says Oates. to be up front about one’s own biases. Johnston argued for a type of creativity that might include the writers’ own visceral response to the work and a writing style that evinces the style of the dance. in a piece in the New York Review of Books. as a critic.” cultural critic Margo Jefferson responds to a question a friend asked her about what she. As Ann Daly has noted. builds on this idea of the “self-effacement” of the critic as a characteristic to be admired. finally.’” Says Oates. novelist and essayist Joyce Carol Oates. what if we could engage our student writers with actual dancers and . “it is far easier for the critic to revile than to reveal” (2007). In the opening scene. a predilection for appreciation and praise?” “Contrary to what might be assumed. Another strategy. might be to try to narrow the gap between writer and performer so that each might see themselves as contributing to the critical and artistic enterprise.Themselves. might offer students a different understanding of what dancers themselves experience in the process of choreography itself. inflicting punishment. We’re still inclined to believe that critical authority comes mostly from assertion or virtuoso displays of intellectual mastery. And. It might foster more of an internal exchange with the dancers’ ideas to disavow the still prevalent notion of the critic’s role as “speaking for” the “mute” dancer. (2000.

employing Lerman’s model. may be a way to think about bringing writers closer to performers.”2 It’s these stirrings and glimmers that give me hope—when the writers begin to open their eyes. 1).choreographers. their bodies take the forms of beautiful birds. 10). It’s interesting to think about what type of critical exchanges might get ignited if. which she developed in 1990.” Or another. Jones’s Still Here. but a closer coming together of ­ the two might break down and demystify a process that too often pits the all-knowing and educated critic against the intuitive. choreographers. they happily scream their names. that artists and critics have different missions and preoccupations. from Dance to Dessert” (2003)— Lerman employs a four-step system that involves a series of structured questions posed to both the performer and a respondent. or dance teachers.4 I teach writing courses at M. I realize that I have emphasized what young writer-critics seem not to be doing. Lerman’s interest in writing about her dancing stemmed. as in one student’s critique of Bill T. see with their senses. as Ann Daly has noted. but I am of course encouraged and delighted when they do begin to break through their own resistances and get underneath the surface of the work. from her desire to “give myself a voice” in response to the varied critics writing about her work (1995. the critic became the “respondent” in dialogue with the artist. Extending Critical Voices Between the Lecture Room and the Dance Studio Ann Nugent The majority of students come to us at the University of Chichester in the United Kingdom. arms longing to reach the corners of the ceiling and. and for most writing will never be a career contender. and behold what is there to be seen. in which she engages community members as part of the creative process. the idea is to help audience members deepen their understanding of the work and help artists push their thinking further. In her Critical Response Process—subtitled “A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make. and undergraduate levels and find that students are often uncomfortable about letting their Dance Research Journal  41 / 2  winter 2009  95 .” for instance. as their faces stretch to confront the audience’s. her process. where I am a dance lecturer. nonthinking dancer/performer. backs arched. invite them to the classroom (or make the classroom the studio) and have them share their work and their ideas and insights about their work? Choreographer Liz Lerman’s “civic dialogues.A. because they want to develop careers as dancers. of course. which she refers to as a “brashly bold piece” that “stings the senses and hurls the hearts of its viewers into rapid palpitations of agony and ecstasy. More than a “feel-good” exercise for both parties. on Elizabeth Streb’s “aerial creatures”: “Once airborne.3 They are usually attracted by the opportunity to improve their dance technique and/or to be creative rather than to align themselves with the more conventional avenues of academia. one leg tightly pressed against the other. has evolved into “a truly dialogic model characterized by moments of what she [Lerman] calls ‘colliding truths’” (2002c. It is true. in part.