How to dislike dance

According to a study I recently came across on a pop-health website, human beings are hardwired to be negative. Apparently it dates back to our earliest days in self-protective fight-or-flight mode, when nothing could be trusted save perhaps the instinct to survive.

Fast-forward 200,000 years or so to today, and me. As a veteran free-lance arts writer I’ve led a pretty privileged life. Even with no job security, and juggling what could be called a portfolio career, I think I’ve cultivated a positive attitude towards art and art-making. I love artists and am grateful to them, and not just because their efforts have supported my livelihood. Without them doing what they do, I wouldn’t have had loads of great experiences during four decades as a (professional) witness to their work.

I’ve also had my share of bad times. I know artists want to give their best. But, much as I’d like to like all of the work I manage to see, sometimes I just can’t. A glaring case in point is Mathis Kleinschnittger’s provocative and highly problematic solo Grrr, I’m Dancing. (See Springback reviews for my response.) But I might just as easily have spotlighted the duets Rehearsal on Love or F63.9 – each, to me, an almost mystifying dud. All three performances I’d regard as artistic failures.

I do wonder, sometimes, if I ever fail a show. I mean, it’s possible that my taste or yours simply doesn’t chime with that of the artist/s. The result is bad chemistry. There are, however, ways of flipping a negative art-based experience around. The sage American dance writer Marcia Siegel once commented that every time you write about a performance you’re learning about, and defining, your own sensibility. The concept – art as a form of self-education – is valid even without the crit-bit thrown into the mix. Try it the next time you’re confronted with what might be deemed an unpalatable or even seemingly intolerable waste of cultural time.

I think I’ve only ever used the word ‘hate’ in reviews twice, but each time I took care to justify the term. What I’ve learnt above and beyond that is there’s no need to feel guilty if you don’t like or, indeed, deeply dislike a given work. This holds true even if people around you are on their feet shouting bravo at the end. Again, what might be useful, either during or after an artistically smelly experience, is to try and identify the source of your antipathy towards the stink. Essentially that’s what critics do. It’s our responsibility to be as articulate, honest and fair as possible about both the glories and the garbage we consume. It’s not a question of saying who is/isn’t an artist, or should get outta the game while the going’s good. Just because someone’s created what you judge to be crap or, using more measured language, a major disappointment, that’s no reason for anyone to slit their wrists. Setting aside our common human ancestry, negativity isn’t necessarily easy to express. But I believe we can dislike, or even loathe, something and still be respectful towards those who made it. To put it another way, you can heap praise on work that matters to you as well as intelligently fling dirt on what does not.

Donald Hutera