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What Guidelines Critics Follow

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I've pulled something out of what Paul W wrote on the Critics/Comp Tickets thread that I thought might provoke an interesting discussion.

Paul wrote: "I've been trying to understand exactly what guidelines critics follow (if any) in writing a review. It's not obvious."

Paul, I'm not sure whether you mean ethical guidelines, or what criteria (re judgment) critics use when writing a review. Could you clarify?

Either would make a good discussion -- perhaps those who aren't critics could go first this time. Is it obvious to you what guidelines critics follow? What guidelines do you think they should follow?


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Sorry Alexandra, I did use the wrong word in writing "guidelines", what I intended was more "criteria" which a ballet dance critic might use in judging (evaluating). For instance I've seen a lot of references to "sickle foot" used on these posts. I can picture this as being something a critic would notice, but maybe it would not be high up on a list of "things to look for" that would be influential to the writing of a review. And thanks for addressing this. Perhaps there is some rather loosely constructed set of criteria a critic would be looking for in a ballet performance by an individual dancer (probably would change depending on the ballet) and from the production as a whole.

But, I wouldn't be averse to hearing about ethical guidelines also.

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I think that the most important criterion for a good dance critic is experience, experience, experience...in seeing live dance. Overall, the critic should be a well-rounded & highly knowledgeable person, who has traveled throughout the world, has read fine literature and seen the great works of art (particularly Western art history, to relate to the Western dance genre of ballet). S/he should be able to relate other art forms to the ballet being reviewed, e.g., Balanchine's MIDSUMMER NIGHT's DREAM meant more to me after seeing Botticelli's PRIMAVERA.

To summarize, the ballet critics whom I most admire and respect are: (a) Well read and with a command of his/her native language, (B) knowledgeable in all facets of Western art history, © well-traveled and, most importantly, (d) have attended a heck of a lot of live performances before putting pen to paper! - Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 24, 1999).]

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Sorry again Jeannie, but I wasn't referring to the criteria a critic should meet to qualify as a "good" critic. I'm more interested in the criteria a critic uses in evaluating a performance. Having trouble making my question clear here.

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Thanks for clarifying the question, Paul. For all it's worth, here are my own criteria when I review a performance for a.a.b. & the Kirov web site;


* Do all components blend into a unified, coherent whole, i.e., choreography, music, sets & costumes, lighting, general accomplishment of the soloists & corps, etc.


* Is the dancer "right" in the role - does s/he have the correct style & "look" for the role being performed (e.g., I look for Russian-looking dancers in the Petipa repertoire; I look for Danish-looking dancers in Bournonville; etc.)

* Is the dancer musical? (I'm big on musicality)

* Is the dancer charismatic? (I try to convey my inner-guts feelings about a performer & how that performer affected me.)

* Quality of the mime, in story-ballets

* Details of technique: I like to share "technical highlights" (or "lowlights," if glaring) with the reader. To capture these highlights, I use a mind-mapping technique of jotting down 1 or 2 key works in my memo pad. The word triggers an idea, so that I will be able to recall the moment when I am writing the review.

* If the story of the ballet is not well-known to the average reader of the a.a.b newsgroup, then I take the time to convey the plot

That's a start. Maybe our fellow-critics on this board can add other criteria? - jeannie

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I take a somewhat unorthodox stance towards dance writing, trying to veer away from the review and towards the essay. I do this for practical purposes, it's impolitic for me to review my colleagues. However, there's more to it than that. I began writing because I wanted to do what I could to ensure that there was an audience that saw the things I thought were important in ballet (the structure and form of the dance) When I write on a performance, I try and speak of it in terms of a greater choreographic issue - an example from my site might be the piece on "Non-Bournonville Bournonville."

In conclusion, I think all dance writers are dance lovers, and much as I say I *try* not to make qualitative judgments, they sneak in, because I write for myself as a record of what I saw.

To see a more in depth essay on what I look at in a dance - I refer you to an essay on my site, "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers." http://members.aol.com/lwitchel/looking.htm

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Very helpful to see your list of criteria Jeannie! This is more like what I was interested in, and it does seem like a logical and appropriate way to evaluate a performance. Thanks.

Leigh, I found great insight in your essay "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers". Thanks for listing your URL! I think using some of the techniques you refer to will be very helpful in getting myself more tuned in to what is happening on stage as I watch. I appreciate your perspective! I was particularly struck by your position (my interpretation of what you said) that once a piece has been choreographed and is set, it is quite unimportant whether the viewer of the piece being danced actually interprets the choreography exactly the same way the choreographer intended when creating it. I like your implication that the dance is like "fertile ground" for the seed of the viewer's own interpretation. This is somewhat of a revelation to me, whereas I have been inclined to be intent on searching for the exact meaning the choreographer intended. (it's not that easy for a technical person to step back from a problem-solving, precise and regimented way of thinking)

This opens up a lot of possibilities.

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I've held off on answering this one because it's so complicated! (As all the best questions are, Paul.) First, I'd like to say that Jeannie's list looks quite comprehensive, and that I read Leigh's "Looking at Dance" essay, which I think is SUPERB and would recommend that people read it. (URL is in Leigh's post above.)

My criteria have evolved over the years, and I don't have a checklist exactly, but if it's a new ballet, I try to understand the choreography -- I do think it's important to try to judge the ballet against the choreographer's intent, not step by step, but in an overall sense. Obvious example, don't criticize an "abstract" ballet for not having a "story," (although it may well have a pretext and/or atmosphere). If I'm seeing a revival, or a production that's not original, I do as much reading as possible (if the work is unfamiliar to me or I need a refresher) and compare what I'm seeing to what I think is the ideal of that work. As for dances, I give points for style as well as technique. Acting (where applicable) and stage presence matter to me as well. Musicality is very important (we could have a nice chat about what that means someday).

I watch dance from a comparative perspective, meaning that I can't look at something as distinct and apart from the whole world of dance. I have "measuring sticks" for both ballets and dancers that are too numerous to go into here and that I'm not really conscious of, until I'm tempted to write, "Perhaps the greatest Giselle of our time."

What I actually write depends on where I'm writing. Different publications not only have different audiences (and editors) but different lengths as well. When I started at the Post, I had six inches (about 300 words) which is a ridiculous length, but was probably good training. When I left, I usually got 12 to 15 inches (600 to 750 words); pretty good, but still a squeeze when you had to do a weekend's five cast changes. Many people don't realize that the critic doesn't choose the length of the review AND that we don't write our own headlines. The headline can skew a whole review, and this often happens, especially if you're trying to write a "shoe drop" review (He's wonderful, he's marvelous, he's a fine choreographer...but....) The headline writer will find that "but" and lead with it. They also tend to sensationalze. If someone had written that Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty" wasn't quite as dreamlike or romantic as a previous work, the headline would have probably read: "Petipa Hits New Low with Three-Act Snoozer."

But I digress. I just finished a Dance Magazine review of 400 words. They consider this a long review. For DanceView, of course, I can ramble on at will and often do. Ballet Review is also extremely generous with space -- and has printed essays about ballet, as well as straight reviews, since its founding. Dance Now prints both short and long pieces.

The criteria don't change from publication to publication, but I kept the Post reviews as general as possible. For the other magazines, I can assume not only more knowledge, and more interest, on the part of the readers and write accordingly.

That's the short version.


[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 28, 1999).]

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Instead of criteria, might I offer some questions I ask about a performance? Sometimes I might answer one in a review, sometimes all of them: What was done? Was it done well? Was it worth doing? What does it remind me of? How does it connect and to what? With a master choreographer's new piece: How does this piece fit into the sceheme of the total work? As for the critic, I like Victoria Leigh's method for silencing a potentially bothersome airplane seat mate: "I am a dance critic." It does tend to shut down a room, a dinner table, you name it. I wonder what you all think the role of the critic is.... (Some of you answer this in an adjacent thread, I have since found.)I think the role of the critic, to quote the wonderful late art critic John Candaday, "is to clarify, intensify, and enlarge the pleasure people take in seeing art." And, of course, to take the occasional revenge on Bad Art.

[This message has been edited by Nanatchka (edited April 19, 1999).]

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Welcome Nanatchka! I use the questions approach, too, not necessarily a check list, but before I write, I have to be able to answer the question WHY was the performance -- transcendental, terrible, mediocre, almost there but not quite, etc. Until I can answer that/those questions, I can't write.

A small correction. I'm not sure Victoria would like to be accused of being a dance critic. The comment to fight off airplane chatter was mine, and I always say "ballet" because I've found that that's the word a lot of people can't deal with (I understand "opera," with a particularly bright smile, will accomplish the same thing). When I've said "dance critic," they think I mean I write about ballroom dancing -- I have no idea why -- and it doesn't seem to deter them a bit.


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