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Life sentences: on reviewing and renewing

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Can performance reviews escape from the sentences of the courtroom or the classroom, and live a little more?

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To write a review, to keep writing reviews, is to learn one lesson, over and over again: you failed. No matter how inept I think the performance I’ve just seen, my writing – however good I try to make it – will fail to do it justice. I will overlook, distort, misremember, invent. The review, then, becomes a kangaroo court in which I serve as both unreliable witness and biased judge. Corruption compounds failure. And the cycle repeats.

Should I ‘fail better’? This exhortation to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and get back into the game has become popular in self-help, sporting and entrepreneurial circles, and you can see why: it suggests, in its peppy, TED-talkish way, that with enough resilience and application, you can turn failure into success. But for Samuel Beckett – who coined the phrase in the first place – failure was an existential condition. To fail better is not, then, some lesser version of to succeed. It is living with failure. Or even: living as failure.

I’m with Beckett on this. Reviews are failures, by definition. Objectivity, fair representation, impartiality, completeness – these are unattainable fantasies, and it is better to accept that than to strive to achieve them. In other words: get real.

One way of getting real is to declare our subjectivity. On the witness stand, we no longer vow to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, one hand on a holy book. Rather, we place a hand upon our own heart, and declare our partiality. If I cannot be fair, we say, I can be honest.

I sympathise with this stance, but as with objectivity, it has its pitfalls and its failures: it can be a lazy excuse; none of us is honest; and who is this ‘I’ anyway? It can also become self-authorising (I feel, therefore it is ) or self-centred (this is about me ) – and hence all too easily neglect the performance, or the reader, or both. This journey from failed objectivity to avowed self-reflection reminds me of Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston in 1960s New York. In accordance with her developing views on art and criticism, Johnston’s writing grew more explicitly subjective (or ‘megalocentric’, as she called it, in hindsight), so her practical-minded editor duly changed the title of her column from ‘Dance’ to ‘Dance Journal’ and finally to ‘Jill Johnston’ – and hired another critic (Deborah Jowitt, who was to become a major figure in the school of ‘descriptive criticism’) to review dance.

In the end, I find this perennial objectivity–subjectivity debate – the whole kangaroo court caboodle – more interesting in theory than in practice. It may be good for college essays, but it is no guarantor of good writing, and the lesson I learn is always the same: fail, fail, fail. Can we get out of this courtroom, or classroom, and do something else?

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Right now, as it happens, I do find myself in a different classroom. A Zoom-room. The Covid-19 crisis, having put a spoke in the wheel of dance performance, has flipped me out of the reviewing cycle and I am instead teaching dance writing online for Siobhan Davies Dance, an artist-run space in London that is currently locked down. I’ve done writing workshops before, most often with Springback Academy and Magazine, but this is the first time they’ve been entirely uncoupled from live performance, and so from the overlapping agendas of artists, promoters, publicists, publications and readers. We meet online, see no live shows, and since we watch only dance clips and I consider dance on screen to be film rather than performance, we write no dance reviews. I have found this a blessed relief: I’m out of the kangaroo court and into a more open-skyed place where we can look at the connections between writing and dancing. Here are some of the things that – with much help from my students – I have been discovering so far.

First: with no outcome to aim for – the written review – it’s possible to change the classroom into a playroom. A place of exploration, not achievement. Dance artists talk about ‘movement generation’ before they shape their material into phrases, arcs and scenes. This is our equivalent: word generation.

Nevertheless, it is surprisingly hard to have fun with writing. Much easier to be serious. A legacy from our school and college days, I guess. Speech, interestingly, doesn’t have the same chokehold. So I encourage us to verbalise; that is, to talk with each other. This personalises our interactions. With practice, it personalises our dance writing too, so that we sound less like disembodied texts, more like people communicating.

In the goal-oriented review, writers – and readers – often focus on three questions: what did it mean, what’s the backstory, was it any good? Interpretation, contextualisation, evaluation. Without that goal, I’ve been finding it more rewarding to explore two other areas: what happened (description) and how to write interestingly (engagement). ‘Description’ (or ‘observation’, as I prefer to call it) is often pooh-poohed as unscholarly – that is, naive – but it is the very intersection of our medium (text) and our topic (art), and nothing else works without it. Combine the two questions – what happened and how to write interestingly – and there is nothing naive about it at all.

Blue Quote Mark

Scholarly writing is edifying, but post-mortem: the subject is dead

Blue Quote Mark

Finally, there are some matters of life and death. I mean, in our sentences. Scholarly writing – the application and illustration of theories, the showing of inner workings – can make dance feel like a butterfly pinned to a board, or a corpse dissected for display in an anatomy theatre. It is edifying, but post-mortem: the subject is dead. Can we give life to text, set our sentences in motion? I look for answers in neither dance theory nor critical theory, but in creative writing, with its musings on storytelling, imagery, voice, scene and style.

When I get out of this Zoom-room, post-Covid, will my writing change? Will my students’? I cannot say. For the moment, I am thankful to be learning some different lessons. I am discovering how much I prefer writing sentences to giving verdicts. How freeing it is to release sentences from the solemn duties of courtroom and classroom, and allowing words and thoughts to play together. Rather than inert marks pressed upon page or screen, writing comes to feel like a living network connecting subject, writer and reader. Ultimately, when dance returns to live performance, I will try to remember this: to live is more valuable than to know. 

I’d like to acknowledge two books in particular that have suffused my mind – and spirit – during this pandemic period, both by Joe Moran: If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace (2020) and First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing… and Life (2018).

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This is a keynote text for the first of three Why Criticism? debates hosted online by Radialsystem Berlin, available from 17.00 CET on 8 December, 12 December (in German) and 15 December 2020 (in English). Springback editor Sanjoy Roy will also be speaking at the third panel. Details:

Theme: Covid
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