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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Whose sound dies on the wind
Animated, Summer 2000. Critical debate and evaluation have formed the centrepiece of Dance Northwest's work during the past eighteen months. Evaluation draws on a wide range of perspectives to assess and formulate a coherent response. Here, celebrated Canadian based dance critic, Max Wyman, reflects on his experience of dance criticism
'Memories are hunting horns whose sound dies on the wind'(1)
All live theatrical performance is defined by its transience. But dance, the most physical of all the arts, is the one that speaks most eloquently about the implications of mortality - and at the same time voices our defiance. No other artform speaks so directly about the ephemerality of life, or about the human instinct to aim for that perfect moment of self realization. No other artform gives such a visible immediacy to that transience, that striving. It is an artform that marries celebration to regret: an artform that, entirely through the language of the body, speaks about the whole human conundrum. Yet it happens, and is gone, nothing more than a trace in the air, as evanescent as a dream. What we treasure about it, as much as the moment of dance itself, is the memory of that moment.

The New York critic Deborah Jowitt has suggested that dance critics, probably more than critics in any other discipline, have a responsibility to posterity, because, often, what they write is the only tangible record of what has gone on. She is right, to a point. In an age in which the disposable is increasingly preferred to the permanent, an age in which now is the only point in time that seems to matter, there is clear value in the documentation of what's done and gone. A society ignorant of its history is a society condemned to go on reinventing itself. Ultimately, we should treasure the artefacts of our arts past for the same reason that families treasure their faded photographs and letters: they give its tangible connection with those who preceded us. They are part of our roots. Without them, we drift across the surface of the land. And the sound of our memories dies on the wind.

However, I take issue with the novelist John Updike, who writes, in his recent collection of essays and criticism, More Matter: 'Just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.(2) It sounds clever, and he is no doubt trying to be witty, but he is wrong, of course; wrong and misguided. Not only about criticism, but about maps; not only about criticism and maps, but about their resemblance to each other, which is slight.

A map is a synoptic representation, in visual symbols that have easily assimilable form and size, of a set of facts that exist at a scale that defies immediate human comprehension. A map that was the same size as the territory mapped would contradict its function. Additionally, a map is a functional and factual affair and is not expected to offer interpretations of its subject or commentaries on the aesthetic qualities of the charted landscape.

A review only partially fulfils the function of a map, and if that were all it did it would not be a review. It is based, true enough, on the facts of an artwork, and should do its best to present a synopsis of those facts clearly and fairly, in language and imagery that have easily assimilable form. But beyond that it is all interpretation and argument, and whilst one hopes that this interpretation and argument is buttressed and validated by logic, context and informed reference (for without these things we might as well seek an opinion from the cheerful butcher), it is also, inevitably; a biased and subjective thing, as a map should never be.

We read reviews not just to know what artistic terrain is open to travellers, but also to hear what those who have been there have experienced and how they have reacted. We know better (do we not?) than to make our own decisions about our travels based solely on those reports, but we are interested in the intelligent views of others. Often, they can lead us into fruitful explorations of our own.

One of the problems with art is that it is so darned wriggly: No sooner do you think you have got a grip on it than it slips out of your hand and slithers off across the floor, leaving strange marks. A problem I have always faced as a critic is this: critics make their judgements from a set of criteria that are based on intelligent, ongoing examination of the artform, but they are criteria that do not really apply. We are judging new creativity by a template of the past from which the creator has already escaped.

Not surprisingly, critics and artists have always had a chequered relationship. Here is Byron: 'As soon seek roses in December, ice in June; hope constancy in wind or corn in chaff; believe a woman, or an epitaph, or any other thing that's false, before you trust in critics.' (3) Christopher Hampton, the playwright, once said that asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs. A prominent theatre director once defined a critic to me as someone who goes to the top of a high hill and watches a battle in the valley below, then goes down and stabs the wounded. And you remember the big argument in Waiting for Godot? As Vladimir and Estragon scream abuse at each other, the insults intensify, culminating in the ultimate: 'Critic!'

I have been threatened with violence as a result of reviews I have written. Once I was hanged in effigy outside my office building. That is understandable, it goes with the job. You are writing about individuals who have put themselves on the line for art, and you are liable to be trampling on some fragile ground. Ego is not carved from granite; it bruises as easily as a peach. The critic who does his job properly does not have many friends in the business he writes about: sooner or later, with the best will in the world, toes are likely to be stepped on. Few friendships will survive much of that. Yet, for all the antagonism, we are all fighting on the same side, or should be. And I might best support that assertion by trying to define what a critic is, starting with some of the things a critic is not.

Some of the things a critic is not
1. A consumer reporter. One of the myths about critics is that they are power crazy individuals intoxicated by the thumbs-up/thumbs-down selling power of the reviewer's written word. Most critics I know are quite diffident folk. Those who gloat about their power are usually crummy critics, and petty to boot. And outside New York, and not even there all the time, it is frankly ludicrous to believe that a critic can hold the power of life or death over a work of art. However, whether we like it or not, the critic is often used as a guide to purchasability. The general public, being in its usual hurry, is for the most part quite content to have its mind made up about art by the professional critic, in effect delegating by proxy the privilege of personal choice
2. A seller of tickets. The critic is not in the job of pulling in the punters, whatever the desperate concert promoter or gallery owner might wish. Sharing enthusiasms is not at all the same thing as doing public relations for a product, yet I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked to do 'a little something' to help ticket sales. If people feel inspired to check out a presentation as a result of something a critic has written, I would be the last person to object. I will even urge attendance if the quality of what I have witnessed so moves me. But a benign endorsement simply for the sake of helping out attendance figures is as misjudged as a review that excuses bad art with a half-hearted pat on the back. You are doing no one - least of all the artform - any favours. When people ask for that sort of help, I send them the advertising department's rate card
3. A judge. That is not what critics are for, either. No critic of integrity is interested in making or breaking reputations, either of artworks or of performers. Nor should he set himself up as an arbiter of public taste. Theatre director William Gaskill once said: 'Critics always get the theatre wrong because they are concerned with judging it, when what they should really be doing is experiencing it.' In the same way, audiences get critics wrong because they are concerned to read judgements. Rationalized judgement is part and parcel of criticism, but writing clearly and intelligently about the experience that Gaskill mentions brings us closer to the critic's real role
4. A teacher. Despite their distrust and antagonism, artists often claim to look to reviews as ways to learn, as if the critic has a responsibility to instruct them in their art. That is not the critic's function either ... though, again, if he is doing the job properly, knows the field to the depth that he should, and is being passionate about applying his own standards of understanding and interpretation to what is on offer, maybe some crumbs of insight helpful to the artist might fall free.

So what is a critic and where lies his or her responsibility?
Expressed at its simplest, the critic's role is that of an interface. His or her responsibility is to the reader, to provide a form of mediation between the artist and the audience, between the event that the critic attended and the readers of the review. And if we agree that involvement with art is a way of explaining the world to ourselves, and a way of engaging ourselves with the world in an imaginative way, the task of the critic intensifies and becomes more interesting: to evoke the impact and implication of a work of art in the mind of someone who has not experienced it; to prolong and amplify the perceptions and feelings of someone who has; to share enthusiasms, and to set those enthusiasms, and the work that provokes them, in context; to perceive carefully, to respond openly, and to express those perceptions and responses clearly.

Ideally, an intelligent reader learns from a critic not what to think about a work of art but how to think about it. And if this presupposes a commitment to involvement on the part of the reader, it also makes wide demands on the critic.

Enthusiasm, perhaps, should come at the top of the list of requirements: a lasting, even irrational love of the artform, a willingness to see it grow and let it have its say, a willingness to be changed. We go to the theatre or the gallery to have an experience that will in some way modify the way we think or see the world: the most interesting work is often the work that challenges our preconceptions, makes us broader, more tolerant, even perhaps more understanding individuals. In that regard, you have to be brave enough to open up entirely to the experience: to be a virgin every night, ready to be ravished, going to the theatre in the hope of having something new and wonderful and ecstatic done to you. Presuppose disappointment and it will fall heavily on you. But, at the same time, we need to care enough to be upset if what we experience falls short of its potential. We find ourselves having, if you like, an ongoing lover's quarrel with art ... wanting it to be the best it can be.

Involvement, then, is crucial: only a masochist or a chronic unemployable (both definitions of critics, according to the more jaundiced) would wish to spend night after night in a darkened room in the company of strangers looking at something that guaranteed no pleasure. It is a search, and a lot of the time you may not find anything particularly rewarding, but lock yourself off from creative possibility and you close down the unexplored avenues of your mind. You are denying yourself access to the ultimate moral function of art, which is to help us become clear in our perceptions of life.

That introduces another essential requirement: an attentiveness to what the artist has to say, and a willingness to make the connections that are being offered. The critic needs to be what Henry James called one of those people on whom nothing is lost. That is sometimes a hard trick, because it requires a strangely schizoid state of mind - summed up best by the American poet Edwin Denby, one of the greatest dance critics of this or any other century, when he said there were two aspects of looking at dance as a critic: one is being made drunk for a second by the experience, and the other is expressing lucidly what you saw when you were drunk.

That reinforces the notion that the act of criticism is quite unlike the experience of being a member of an audience. As an audience member you can surrender yourself entirely to the experience; as a critic you are always on your guard. A critic has to trust in what the philosophers call the naive or intuitive response to an artwork, simply responding to the immediate experience in an unreflective way, then proceeding, and this is perhaps the critic's value, to rationalize that response: to build a bridge of explanation and justification between the event and the reader. That ability to explain why and how is what separates serious criticism from the kind of off-the-moment opinion we exchange as we are putting our coats on.

Objectivity, that great tripping-stone of the critic's critics? Those who cry for objectivity in a critic are shouting into the wind. Objective is a news report, one hopes. Criticism is bias, predilection, ignorance, enthusiasm, argument. The critic acts from instinct, intuition and insight, and hopes to convert that, through the application of intelligent analysis and argument, into something that might be helpful for someone else to read.

Jowitt's notion of the obligation to provide a record? We need to be careful about expectations there, too. Each critic creates, in a sense, his or her own experience, through selection and emphasis in what he or she chooses to record, and it may be far from the experience even of someone else who was in the same room at the same time. It is an entirely subjective act, unsubmissive to the roles of legal evidence or written history: one person's moment, filtered through that person's perceptions and prejudices, expressed in that person's language and images, to the best of that person's talent and ability. Objective, definitive, a reliable record? Not at all.

Still, consideration of the reader should never be far from the critic's intent. High on the list of prerequisites for the job must come the desire to communicate what has been learned, however imperfect that learning might have been. High, too, must come a pleasure in writing, a commitment and dedication to the uses of language. Kenneth Tynan believed a critic would find readers if, and only if, he wrote clearly and gaily and truly. But that is a task fraught with challenge. Writing about any artform other than writing is immediately a step removed from the art itself. Ideally, a critic of, say, dance should dance his or her review: but I would not want to inflict that on anyone, and in any case it is not practical or possible in print, so we resort to words.

They had better be good ones: well chosen, to the point, accurately evocative, cogently argumentative. And this is where the critic's own artistic skill, as a writer, comes into play. The rules are the same as for any lively writing: show, do not tell. Evoke through metaphor, descriptive language, well-chosen images. Avoid the passive voice. Stay well clear of weasel words that sound meaningful but mean nothing. Support your assertions. Have fun: it is not, as Pauline Kael said about movie reviewing, heart surgery. Give wit airy play; entertain your readers as you enlighten them. A review should be enjoyable as a piece of writing on its own terms.

The challenge is unending, lifelong. Read as widely and as wisely as you can. Let fine practitioners of your craft influence you: Denby on dance, with his keen eye, his ability to relate the specific dance moment to the human universal, but many others for style and language: Tynan, for instance, on theatre. Ultimately, out of all those influences and your own particular take on art and language, should emerge your own particular and recognisable style. If you are a writer, and you write about dance, and you hope that what you write will help preserve the sound of our memories before they die on the wind, the evolution of that is something you will thrill to.

Max Wyman, international writer and broadcaster, specializing in dance; senior writer, specialising in the arts, The Vancouver Sun and author of Dance Canada: An Illustrated History and biographer to Oleg Vinogradov, former artistic director of the Kirov Ballet. He is also a member of the Board of the Canada Council for the Arts, the country's principal arts-funding body.

1 Apollinaire, Guillaume, Cors de chasse, in Les Soirees de Paris, 1912
2 Updike, John, More Matter, Essays and Criticism, Random House, 2000
3 Gordon, George, Lord Byron: English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001