Getting It

A choreographer squares off against critics of an evanescent art form

If I were writing a review of a performance instead of a feature story, I wouldn't be asking him these questions. He wishes my colleagues and I would ask them. I don't think he's envisioning a re-creation of the art world scenes of the '50s, when critic Harold Rosenberg boozed with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning at the Cedar Tavern, or climbed the stairs to de Kooning's loft bearing a bottle of whiskey. But O'Connor does mean, "Let's go out to lunch and talk," hoping that reviewer and choreographer together might start to find a language with which to discuss the artist's work. He says this idea will probably make my hair stand on end, and it does, but not on account of hubris or a closed mind.

The issue O'Connor raises has bedeviled critics for years. How much should a critic know about a choreographer's intentions and talk about them? There often seems to be a disconnect between what choreographers say they're doing and what actually occurs onstage. Although several colleagues I queried mentioned the value of advocacy criticism at a time when new and unfamiliar art is baffling the public (John Martin on modern dance in the '30s, Jill Johnston on radical dance in the '60s, and Rosenberg on the abstract expressionists come to mind), we also found we had similar reactions to O'Connor's brief that critics familiarize themselves with an artist's intentions beyond those in the program notes.

Acocella: "I do not see my job as requiring me to go to artists, find out their intentions, report their intentions to the reader, and then talk about how they fulfilled or didn't fulfill their intentions. There's actually a word for that approach; it's the intentional fallacy in criticism (that is, you judge [a work] on its intentions). . . . I see myself as a member of the audience, so whatever the artist's intentions are, many of them—maybe most of them—I won't be able to discern."

Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times: "I don't think reviewers should have any inside knowledge; it seems to me very important to respond as an informed audience member. I hate the word critic; I like the word reviewer because I think that [what I write] is a second view, a re-view."

John Rockwell of the Times: "Even if [critics] think they're deeply involved in the birth of a work, they have to be seeing it from the outside—and not just as the audience's representative; the very nature of the perception of artwork places one at a distance from the creator, or indeed anybody else watching the artwork. To pretend otherwise is kind of futile."

Rockwell also puts forth the notion of criticism as a parallel art form: "Then the issue is not so much replicating the choreographer's thought processes and somehow analyzing the work in the terms that the choreographer himself would use; it becomes a parallel exercise in which some combination of intellectual analysis and poetic and tactile invocation are all used in an effort to create for the reader a vivid picture."

O'Connor's wake-up call has instigated some provocative projects. He's curating a two-week performance series at DTW this May, with the working title "The Nothing Festival." Eight invited choreographers will enter a studio and, with no prior plans, create short dances for the series. His goal is to engage the audience on many levels, and he'll request that critics not take notes.

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Matthew Rogers, Erin Gerken, and Hilary Clark in O’Connor’s latest work, Baby
photo: Tere O'Connor

Movement Research is launching "Critical Correspondence" on the organization's website to coincide with O'Connor's March season: A choreographer (in this case O'Connor) will be interviewed about his or her intent and methods. That interview will be posted and links to subsequent reviews will be added. According to Guy Yarden and Alejandra Martorell, who are working on the project, the site will eventually— depending on funding—facilitate a "blog-like approach" in which selected responses to those reviews and other thoughts can be posted and a (monitored) ongoing exchange about art and criticism can ensue.

A critic usually struggles to get at something essential about a dance (and is very happy when a choreographer feels he or she has succeeded). However, it's impossible for anyone to write of an artist's work exactly as the artist might, nor would the attempt necessarily produce interesting prose. To me, reading dance reviews opens multiple perspectives on a single event (somewhat the way O'Connor's choreography does). I wouldn't want controversy to fade from the commentary that surrounds the art form and, I hope, supports it.


Tere O'Connor's Baby plays at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, from March 22 through April 1. Call 212-924-0077 for information and reservations.

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