Alexis Branagan: On Snark

Hi, my name is Alexis Branagan, and I’m very happy to be sharing my Princeton-based comments here. I met the original Princeton Comment-er, Barbara Figge Fox, in February at an American Repertory Ballet On Pointe EnrichmentSeries event. A few email exchanges later, she invited me to be a guest blogger.

A bit about me: I lived in Princeton for four years in the “orange bubble” of Princeton University, and now I work at the Princeton-based American Repertory Ballet company. It’s rumored that Princeton students never leave the bubble, except to cross the street to Prospect Ave. or Nassau St., but I often ventured all the way to Harrison Street to take class at ARB’s Princeton Ballet School. I graduated in 2011 with a degree in English and “Certificate” (Minor) in dance, but I continue to frequent ARB’s studios. I work as ARB’s Marketing and Development Associate, which affords me free ballet classes and the ability to blog as part of my job, amongst a lot of other things. On freelance bases, I write for Pointe and Dance Magazine and dance for Armitage Gone! Dance and Princeton-based choreographer Susan Tenney.

And now I will finally get to my comment(s). Recently, I’ve been thinking and reading a good deal about dance criticism. I have had conflicted thoughts and feelings about dance reviews lately, and my inward conflict is pretty much summed up by the conversation between Robert Johnson’s “Defense of Snarky Reviews” and Wendy Perron’s blogged response, “A Debate on Snark”

Like Perron, I think many recent reviews published in major papers are over-brimming with craftily-worded jabs. Snark is rearing its sarcastic little head into reviews too often. Perron says, “I’ve seen audience members who enjoy a night out at the ballet and then are appalled two days later when they read a totally dismissive review. I’ve heard one person say, ‘Are the critics trying to destroy the dance world?’” …I might have been that one person.

Johnson resists this thinking. He asks, “Why are artists the only ones who matter? Don’t ticket-buyers deserve consideration, too? When someone slaps a plate of sour hash on the table in front of you, and a smiling publicist assures you it’s filet mignon, are you supposed to masticate dutifully and say thank you? Hell, no!”

I definitely see his point. Assuring readers everything is filet mignon, or, to take this metaphor a step further, a “different”, “unique”, “avante garde” dish that’s just as delicious and well-crafted, would make dance criticism way too airy-fairy. It wouldn’t challenge dance enough for the art form to reach new heights. Presenting an honest opinion is crucial, and, yes Mr.Johnson, the critic should be a “watchdog for the consumer.” At the same time, Perron is spot on when she writes, “I am not asking for critics…to forgo their honesty. But I want them to have some sense of balance, so that one annoying thing about a work doesn’t eclipse whatever is strong about it.”

Yes, I’m conflicted on this topic of snark, but I think I’ve distilled my thoughts a bit, thanks to the dance scholar Sally Banes. In her book Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism, Banes quotes Edwin Denby:

“[A] writer is interesting if he can tell what the dancers did, what they communicated, and how remarkable that was.” Banes goes on to say that critics “can perform” the operations of: description, interpretation, evaluation, and, her addition to Denby’s assertion, contextual explanation.

I think the critic not only “can” but rather has the responsibility to include all of these operations in his review.

To an increasing degree, dance critics are reveling in evaluation and skimping on the rest. Okay, so you were annoyed by that dancer’s hand gestures and you think the choreographer’s use of the music was simplistic…but what happened on stage? Let’s say I like that dancer’s hands and don’t mind straightforward musical interpretation…so I want to know what else I can expect to see! Description would represent the strong and/or memorable parts of the piece, and this should not be eclipsed, to use Perron’s word, by snark. Description is not an account of what looked good and what looked bad. It is, as Banes says, what the work looks and feels like.

There needs to be a few words unfettered by evaluation that give a glimpse into the world the
piece created, whether the reviewer liked that world or not.

“For the critic’s job is to complete the work in the reader’s understanding…and to enrich the experience of the work. This may be done, of course, even for those who have not seen the work,” Banes says. I often think about the readers of a bad review – a review comprised almost totally of evaluation. Their nderstanding is not enhanced; it’s manipulated. A review too heavy on evaluation presents a skewed view of the stage.

Banes compares dance criticism to ethnography. The reviewer, like the ethnographer, must relay a cultural experience – a glimpse into a new world. Of course this will include a fair share of opinion – personal highs, lows, likes, and dislikes. However, if an ethnographer published a paper without describing objectively what he saw and contextualizing the culture he explored, he would not be taken seriously in his field. Should we take dance critics seriously if they don’t describe and contextualize the pieces they critique?

Snark becomes damaging when it is all a reader can glean from a review. Critics, be as sarcastic and cutting as you want, but, for the sake of dance and of dance criticism, please be thorough: Describe; Interpret; Contextualize; Evaluate.

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