Dance Criticism
The Pleasure of Dance Texts

Tanz im Feuilleton
Dance criticism in the feature sections | © Kathrin Schäfer

Dance criticism is no longer relevant. It is high time that it allows itself to be spurred on by dance and takes the risk of questioning its certainties.

Dance criticism today is an empty space, since it does not treat the subject it is discussing on equal terms. Since the 1990s, dance has become more complex, self-referential and self-critical. But the feature pages carry on as if nothing had happened. Contemporary dance asks what a body is and what a movement is. It works at opening up its structures and making critical self-reflection a fixed part of its vocabulary. Calling into question one’s own practice in this way has taken place at fruitful points, particularly between disciplines, for example in interaction and discussion with various performers and artists from the fields of music and the visual arts.

Any criticism worth its salt should be inspired by this movement. When artists rock to its foundations the understanding of their own work by operating at genre boundaries where the artistic concepts and the criteria for art to be successful are no longer secure, the success of any work can only be measured on the basis of the criteria it develops itself. When describing and evaluating such choreographies and performances, the patriarchal, self-assured attitude of a critic who takes one look before making prima facie categorisations and judgements becomes questionable. The aim now should be to reflect on one’s own subjective position. The aim should be to follow the movement and opening of dance, to let it reason in the space of writing, rather than to replace or use a critique to reshape what one has seen. Criticism should allow itself to be spurred on by what it experiences in art, because therein lies an opportunity. An opportunity to reflect on its own means, and to develop an awareness of its own practice and position, often an unchallenged position of power involving an unhealthy combination of personal and professional aspects.

Impossibility of judgement

Thus, criticism imitates what it discovers in art. It questions its certainties, sets its concepts and positions in motion, taking pleasure in doing so, and deals with its own impossibility. Philosopher Christoph Menke has proposed what that might mean in his essay The Aesthetic Critique of Judgement. “The judgements of aesthetic criticism are such that they call their own content into question through the way in which they are made.” The act of judging is itself put in such open terms that it calls into question the making of a judgement. That is why, according to Menke, criticism cannot be determined by its result, the judgement. Rather, criticism’s decisive insight lies in the fact “that there is an unbridgeable yawning gap between the grounds for the judgement and the act of judging.“

There is an unsurmountable difference between the occasion for writing, a choreography for example, and judgements. In making clear that it is aware of this difference, criticism simultaneously becomes a special practice of judging and a criticism of judging. What is called into question is whether the subject is to be seen as the basis for making a judgement. Self-assured attitudes and knowing judgements are replaced by calling into question what the writer thinks he knows and attempting to approach artistic work in ever new ways. The approach of this judgement is not certainty but brokenness; the act of judging may be read as an indissoluble tension between the singular and the general, between experience and concept, moment and concept. Thus, judging itself is entrusted to a process, becoming an unfinished dialogue with the work.

Structural weakness and necessary demands

In this written dialogue with contemporary dance, criticism must make itself vulnerable, which is all the more problematic because its structures are currently eroding. That is because structurally, dance criticism has undergone fundamental change in recent decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was wide and diverse coverage of dance in the German features pages. Every major newspaper afforded itself a dance critic on its staff, who, from today’s perspective, published amazingly extensive reviews. In recent years, however, writing about dance has been reduced to just a column, and it concentrates on a few well-known names. At the same time, established forms of criticism are often reproduced in the feature pages; the scope for experimentation and more open forms of writing is shrinking.

Discourses on developments and issues in contemporary dance have been forced to shift. Firstly, into theatre institutions themselves, which are making huge journalistic efforts to make a public impact and communicate what they do. Secondly, into the proliferating specialist literature. That involves losses. For performers, who lose their independent counterpart. For audiences, who have fewer possibilities to inform themselves about, categorise and contextualise contemporary aesthetics – a subject that sometimes requires a great deal of background knowledge. Not least, for the critics who lose opportunities for working and thinking.

What remains to be done, then, is to invent new structures that do justice to the demands of contemporary dance, are willing to develop new formats and make demands on themselves and on readers, for example, an acceptance of complexity and foreignness, an openness that gets deep down into your pores, and a cultivated enjoyment of the text.