Dance Critique How Ballet Critique Became Dance Critique

„Sylvia Pas de deux“ by George Balanchine, with Daria Sukhorukova and Lukáš Slavický, Bayerisches Staatsballett; photo: Charles Tandy
„Sylvia Pas de deux“ by George Balanchine, with Daria Sukhorukova and Lukáš Slavický, Bayerisches Staatsballett | Photo (detail): Charles Tandy

Critique was a male prerogative. Thoughts on dance critique in Germany from a female perspective on the occasion of the death of Horst Koegler.

Critique was a male prerogative. After the Second World War this was the norm in the stage arts, in film and even in literature. In Germany it was only in the fine arts that there was an internationally renowned female critic: Doris Schmidt. Women were the objects of critique - as celebrated actresses, singers, ballerinas. The woman imitated whatever fantasy, text or music had been provided by men. As such she did not have to think, she had to be beautiful, have a powerful voice or a body of ethereal delicacy. The diva, the star was only reproducing, not actually creative in the true sense of the word, but she was at least the celebrated counter-principle to the mother and housewife, who was forced into extremely rigid role clichés in the stuffy 1950s. Although ballet was disparaged as female art – not only because of the ballerinas – only men wrote about ballet. At that time even female newspaper editors were very thin on the ground.

The profession of dance critic in divided post-war Germany

The profession of critic thus seems to be more closely influenced by socio-political circumstances that one would think. In the GDR (East Germany) ballet became a victim of politics. At the SED (Socialist Unity Party) convention in 1952 aesthetic guidelines were established and with them socialist realism also became compulsory for stage dance. The purely abstract neo-classicism of a George Balanchine, who first toured the BRD (West Germany) with his New York City Ballet in 1956 and made a lasting impact on choreographers such as Erich Walter, remained for the most part terra incognita for the eastern bloc until the Fall of the Wall in 1989. Hence since 1952 there was Ballet East and Ballet West. Leading critics such as Klaus Geitel and Horst Koegler travelled East with tourist visas and wrote about what they saw there; East critics were not granted this privilege.

Geitel and Koegler were the ballet tsars who presided over the weal or woe of dance with a thumbs up or thumbs down. Both were originally music critics, and they described ballet according to musical criteria since it was usually a certain piece of music that was being “danced to”. In the case of narrative ballets performances were reviewed in accordance with dramaturgical guidelines. In German multidisciplinary venues ballet was consigned to an unpopular third section together with opera and operetta – with one or two evenings per season solely for ballet as a motivation “carrot”, and it had the same inferior ranking in the feature pages. A music critic was expected to have learned to play an instrument and to be able to read a score. But nobody demanded of a ballet critic that he had ever practised at the barre. Any kind of aesthetic discussion took place internally, within the discipline, in the magazine ‘Tanzarchiv’, founded in 1953 by Kurt Peters and the only ballet journal that warranted serious attention until the late 1960s. Peters was incidentally as a dancer and pedagogue the only notable exception among the dance journalists. In the 1970s a law graduate and a practising medical doctor joined their ranks.

New tendencies in dance – new tendencies in critique

The change in dance critique was triggered by the change in dance itself. The co-determination model of Cologne’s Tanzforum as well as the provocative new creations of choreographers such as Johann Kresnik and the female trio of Pina Bausch, Reinhild Hoffmann and Susanne Linke that emerged from the Folkwang University unleashed a veritable dance revolution that divided not only the audience but also the critics. Koegler and Geitel launched their campaign against the choreographic and dance theatre claiming that there was not enough dancing. Jochen Schmidt, critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung since 1968, had also never danced himself, but he recognised the political and psychological dynamism of this new stage dance form. Rolf Garske founded the journal ‘Ballett International’, which appeared initially as a seditious flyer.

It was no longer enough to judge a work in a genre-immanent manner according to musical, dramatic and ballet-technical criteria. In dance theatre expressive dance, that in aesthetical post-war escapism had been banned from the repertoire because it had curried favour with Naziism, slipped through the back door onto the German stage in a freer form, with new dramaturgy and completely new contents. Moreover, dance theatre also used language to enable it to convey its complex contents more clearly – and it revelled in exposing ballet as a merciless drill of depersonalised dancers. It needed critics who could at least understand and, if possible, appreciate the antiauthoritarian, enlightened, depth-psychology based, even anarchistic thinking of the dance-theatre protagonists.

Along with the new creative women there also emerged, albeit rather belatedly, female critics, first of all Malve Gradinger and the author herself. They had to struggle to encroach onto a terrain that in the USA was almost exclusively a women’s domain. It was an arduous process, deliberately obstructed by the phalanx of established ballet critics. Meanwhile, among male and female dance critics there now prevails exactly that pluralism that was promoted in the heyday of contemporary dance in the 1980s. Thus, at some point, each new art form brings forth the critics it needs.