When is your dance wrong? I asked myself this question after reading recent reviews that misunderstood the intention of a project I directed involving several different choreographers interpreting theater works through dance. Two separate critics reviewed the same performance. One harped on text bogging down and competing with movement, complained that one piece had too many props, and bemoaned a soloist who did everything but dance. The other critic held the project up against a definition of German expressionist “dance theater.” Considering the program was called “Dance/Theatre: inspired by theatre, created through dance,” this writer decided to measure the project’s every component against his applied understanding of dance theater. The first critic never explained how, in her eyes, the text overwhelmed the movement, how many was too many props, and what is dance if what the soloist did was not dance. The latter reviewer demonstrated his need to define and reference my project to something in his experience by interpreting the project’s title, but not understanding its plainspoken intent: dances inspired by theater works.
The evening featured individual choreographers, some of whom employed theatrical devices, while others used only movement. As the overall director of the project, I allowed for interpretation by skilled choreographers. Certainly, in light of these critics’ particular standards, this project might seem confusing and its dances, therefore, could seem wrong.
Now, well into my career, at the instigation of these critics’ questions, I return to the reasons I chose this path. I think a lot of people take for granted the value, relevance and importance dance provides to those who do it – and those who experience it. From afar it might seem a frivolous, superfluous activity -- just something to play at. Yet, for many, dance allows us to make sense of the world. Dance, dancing, and choreography in particular become a process of negotiating self. Choreography extends how one sees the world -- each graphic, sculpted movement, an abstract version of that impression. Movements we select are personal, similar to the way we shape sentences when speaking. When we are being romantic, we choose different words from when we are arguing. Our energy, phrasing, and timing differ as well. To criticize these differences is to deny the artist the option of expressing and shaping an opinion. When someone says they like red, someone else can easily state they don’t like red. Opinions can be quite absolute. Often, I think that suspicion on how someone arrives at an opinion raises questions and not the opinion itself. When you are inside a dance you are literally a part of a singular moment where expression, acceptance, and personal success by way of effort, trial, and exploration become one with your identity. A large share of being in this field is being allowed to continuously experiment. Art is driven by artists’ needs to form and disseminate their opinions about the world. When an audience forms opinions about art, they are relating to how it affects them, and possibly agreeing or disagreeing with the artistic opinion offered. Still, isn’t criticism of an artist’s approach or product more about the audience’s or critic’s expectations or ability to appreciate it, and not the artist’s? I am not suggesting artists do not have a responsibility to think about how their work is perceived, but when the audience has a need to know or receive information in a singular way, this restricts artists’ creative abilities, approaches, and experiments.
No Good Reason for Right and Wrong
The dancemaker’s job is to challenge himself and audiences about dance and the conditions it portrays. Life is not perfect and some works celebrate life’s imperfections and problems. Audiences will appreciate one’s work based on what they might need from art at the moment. Audiences are also expected to find their own interpretations of creative work, finding themselves unwitting armchair choreographers deciding for themselves what each dance is about. They may still dislike a work despite this participation. However, there is still no reason for good and bad, right and wrong.
Frankly, I think this is partly semantics, but when the forum is a critic’s, it carries authority over work authored by someone else with the capacity to declare something good or bad. The result can be dangerous and misleading. When a review describes a project without taking into account the standards it was created with, trouble ensues. I see artists constantly held accountable in their work to an outsider’s standards; they are asked to describe it, define it, direct it in a particular way because the public, especially critics, can’t seem to conform to the artist’s expectation or interpretation. The artist, in that sense, becomes “wrong,” even if he or she is the originator of the work. Artists, of course, maintain the option to agree to disagree with the audience response, which is a respectful, conscious, intelligent choice in this critical continuum.
The stage -- the very place that was once the safest, most trusted zone, the space where the expansion of self seemed infinite -- can also become the most controlled space because of outsider’s expectations. Change and progress are always difficult and are often met with opposition, yet I avoid the need to immediately decide whether something is good or bad -- in relative terms anyway. Like everyone else, I appreciate and understand, like and dislike. But good and bad, right and wrong? Those words elude me because they leave out the effort in artistic production by dismissing the risk, experimentation, the hopeful desire, and the urge artists feel to unequivocally exert their presence and express their viewpoints.
Dance making amounts to more than just good or bad, right or wrong. Dance making is about communication (among other things) and being willing to be liked or disliked so the experimentation and exploration can continue.
The pressure of wanting to be liked, whether socially or on stage, matters to all of us differently at different times in our lives. Some of us continue dancing because of public affection or despite it. Difference is not about resisting and it is certainly not about ignoring the public. After all, you would like your work to inspire conversation, but also appreciation of the effort it takes to share your opinion and the way you see the world. Dance making amounts to more than just good or bad, right or wrong. Dance making is about communication (among other things) and being willing to be liked or disliked so the experimentation and exploration can continue.
Peter G. Kalivas is an award-winning choreographer, Fulbright Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow nominee, a senior cultural specialist in dance for the U.S. Department of State, and executive/artistic director of The PGK Project, a contemporary dance company. He is also a presenter of dance, a dancer, a master teacher and a speaker on dance appreciation.
Photo: Peter Kalivas teaching a master class during a residency with Kansas City Contemporary Dance Company, in Kansas City, MO.
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