Raising the Barre: Should Dance Critics Take Class?

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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