You can’t google that
I decided a long time ago I would make Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray my ultimate dance-writing guide. I am perfectly aware it was part of my search to put the imposter syndrome at ease. I am also perfectly aware that it has failed to do so. Still, it is an amazing preface (not to mention the book).
At some point, it goes like this:
(…) The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. (…) All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. (…)
Were I a firm believer in destiny, I would think it no coincidence that Dublin, Wilde’s birthplace, was Spring Forward ’23 destination – the place to confront my imposter syndrome and, to some extent, make peace with it.
On the first day of Spring Forward, Springbackers and mentors met at Dance Ireland to get to know each other and for some quick-deep talks on dance writing. I am not sure if I felt relieved, worried or sympathetic (or all of the above) on hearing mentor Kelly Apter say that ‘the imposter syndrome never leaves’.
When discussing whether it is a good idea to take notes during a performance, Kelly said ‘I’d rather focus on how I am feeling — you cannot google that.’ I wonder, what senses does a performance awaken on us? At the end of the day, it is not about whether we understood the steps, but rather what intention the work carried, and if it made us feel something. ‘If you licked the show,’ asked Donald Hutera, ‘what would be its flavours? What does it smell like?’ – bringing the whole experience to our senses, and adding ‘It’s intellect and sensation, different ways of perceiving.’
An avowed note-taker, Donald mentioned that ‘writing is a channel with the work’. The experience of taking notes during a performance, and I would add, writing about a performance, is also a medium to assimilate it and, ultimately, to communicate with the work itself. But it is not about the writer, it is about the piece you are witnessing. ‘Bring out your personality as you serve the work,’ Donald added.
The phrase as you serve the work echoed in my mind. While reviewing, we are dealing with the work, intention, and message the creator/performer wants to give voice to; but the way we receive it, surface and symbol, may feel very different from one person to another and even from the creator/performer — Nabinam by Jean-Baptiste Baele, When the Bleeding Stops by Lovísa Ósk Gunnarsdóttir, and Atlas da Boca by Gaya de Medeiros, for example, come very quick to my mind while I write this.
After all, added Sanjoy Roy, when reviewing a performance, we are not only dealing with the piece itself, but with all that comes with it: the artist, the concept, the media, the place where it is presented, but also our own background, our path, all the pieces we have watched so far, our mood that day, where we are seated, and so on. At this point it certainly feels like a mode of autobiography. But let’s not get confused. One thing is to make the piece about you — as if the way you perceived it is an absolute truth and the only available lens. Another thing is to understand how the way you write about a piece naturally reveals something about your own views, your own perspectives and, ultimately, your own life.
‘The dance writer is like an interface to the reader. Leave space for them to learn more about the show”, said Sanjoy. To give space for other people to ‘create’ their own autobiographies sounds like a good way to serve the work as well. If dance is, as they say, a universal language, then it seems only fair to leave room for anyone to take their conclusions, with all its freedoms and constraints. As Laura Cappelle said, while speaking about writing in English as a second language and the importance of writing in an accessible way rather than to sound smart: ‘perfection is not achievable, and is not a very interesting goal.’
Certainly, after watching 21 performances in three days, everything eventually feels like a performance — the streets, the choreography of everyday life. To write about dance is also to confront ourselves with our own existence. And that, I guess, you cannot google either.