How much context do you need for dance?

Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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I interviewed Matthew Bourne this week about his current production of Sleeping Beauty – a work that completes his Tchaikovsky triptych, following The Nutcracker (1992) and his all-male Swan Lake (1995).

He was such an amiable chap. We had a nice chat and at the end, he said: “thanks for a lovely interview.” I usually like his work for New Adventures and now I also like him as a person. I’m going to be at Sadler's Wells on press night, covering Sleeping Beauty as a review, and it suddenly struck me – what if it’s shit? Would it sway my judgment of the piece, having talked to Bourne all about the show, having a little choreo-crush on him and a better understanding of the intricacies of the performance?

Sometimes it can be good to go into the auditorium with some contextual knowledge, but when does that become a hindrance rather than a help?

It’s one thing to know the work of a choreographer so that you can place a new piece within a wider framework, but is it important, or necessary to have a deep insight into the exact whys and wherefores?

[pullquote]Even critics, those elusive dragonistic beasts, may sometimes think “jeepers, if they loved it and I didn’t, is that a reflection on me?”[/pullquote]

For example, at a recent minimalist dance perf, I chose not to stay for the post-show chat with the choreographer. Lots of critics scuttle off as soon as the lights go down – either to beat the crowds to the tube station, or to not be persuaded by audience enjoyment (yes even critics, those elusive dragonistic beasts, may sometimes think “jeepers, if they loved it and I didn’t, is that a reflection on me?”). But when you’re judging work on its final merits, is it necessary to hear the choreographer’s minutiae? Surely a work that doesn’t translate at all well on its own merit is failing in some way?

In my case felt I was there to judge the work objectively, to read my own thoughts into the medley of visual metaphors presented. If I had then listened to the exact process that led to this product, there’s a chance that may have confused my own thoughts about the piece and that I’d be parroting the choreographer’s words rather than giving an evenhanded review.

Of course we all enter into the theatre with our own ‘baggage’ – from what mood we’re in that day to how similar a narrative we’ve experienced to relate to what we see on the stage.

I remember seeing a piece about a woman with post-baby blues when I was 22. It was about the entrapment of domesticity, destroyed kitchens and bedraggled appearances (I remember lots of flying flour and vegetable peel being thrown around the stage, wild hair and wrestling with aprons). At the time I neither knew nor cared about women with children and what that might entail so I completely dismissed it as being irrelevant. It didn’t mean anything to me. If I saw it now, guaranteed, I’d be sobbing for the duration, saying “I KNOW! I know. Come here, let’s burn Gina Ford’s book together in solidarity.” Now that I’ve lived it, I can appreciate it.

But how much should we know about what we see? Some choreographers demand it, others present you with a narrative that is totally alien to your own personal experience – does that mean you shouldn’t judge it?

Obviously each work has to be taken on a case by case basis and as always in the judgment of art, there are no right or wrong answers. Which is an excellent get out clause – I wonder if I’ll need to use it in the case of my NBFF. Watch out for my review on December 10 to see…


  1. Knowing an artist’s intention can help focus a report in a way t ht going in blind can’t. The tough thing is pulling off the critic’s hat trick, switching my personal focus from the person to the work. It can be done, though truth be told, one is often a little kinder when criticizing the work of someone they have met and had tea with. The criticism does not go away, just the severity of the tone. If it is a good work, with surprising elements, knowing too much ahead of time can take away the discovery element. I opt for more knowledge of the artist’s vision and goals since a review can help establish if they were successful in reaching them. But we are all different and have to make our own choices in these matters.

  2. Thank you for beginning this discussion. I watch and write in a smallish city where I have interviewed at length many of the choreographers whose work I also, from time to time, review. There’s no getting around that fact, and Mr. Murray’s point that “The criticism does not go away, just the severity of the tone” is quite helpful, and I can certainly think of experiences to illustrate that. I am lucky in that many of the artists understand the importance of thoughtful reviews and are supportive of my work in general (although it’s easier to support objectivity and context when it’s not your own piece being dismantled). But, I’ve recently decided not to review performances whose choreographers I write about in advance; I feel that I need the space for perspective, to see which bits of context stick and which do not. I think that, had I seen the baby blues piece at 22, even if someone had, at length, explained to me the context, I wouldn’t have *really* gotten it, not in the way I would after having children. So perhaps the most valuable context is what we learn through experience, not what is told to us by the choreographers about their intentions . . .

    I am also one who dashes out before the post-performance talks, in general. I’m too easily charmed by artists, I think. But I also think that since the audience may arrive 5 minutes before and leave right after, what happens during that time is really what I should write about–the dance/work itself is the thing that goes away, and so that is what I am driven to chronicle.

  3. The reason why the Guardian has two dance critics in Judith Mackrell and Sanjoy Roy is that I feel, it isn’t ethically right for the same writer to do a preview then a review. Previews do have to be positive, or what’s the point of publishing them (certainly companies don’t need bad press before opening night)?

    So to write a positive get-your-tickets piece which you then give a bad review? I know critics can keep a level head and not be swayed by who they’ve spoken to earlier, but for their readers it present an irony, an inconsistency.

    Also personally when I’ve seen a work in rehearsal / heard about via an interview, I inevitably form impressions /expectations in my mind which I take to the theatre. It’s not often that these expectations are met, and it’s hard when the actual work falls short of them to shut them out. The work on stage deserves my full attention, and a clean slate of my mind, instead of trying to measure up to the imaginary piece I’d orchestrated.

    I usually read minimal coverage on a piece I’m covering – a quick skim of the programme notes usually suffices. Then all the research / reading is done after the show, when I sit down to craft my review.

    Post show talks are always a maybe. My decision on whether to attend them is dependent on the work and whether I feel it merits me knowing more about it. But also I run the risk of disliking a piece I liked because a choreographer couldn’t articulate his concept / dissipating the mystery by which a piece engaged by finding out about it.

  4. There is something to agree with in Katie Columbus’s inquiry into this issue and with all three comments above. I also take it on a case by case basis, sometimes craving more information before I go in. After attending a lec/dem by Shen Wei in which he explained his tripod-based choreography, what was to have been a half-hour phoner interview with him once turned into a two-hour, scintillating conversation as he realized I had fully apprehended his demonstration and how helpful it would be to me to evaluate (a word I prefer to judge as the dance is not on trial) whether or not he meets his intention. At times I do decline to review someone I’ve interviewed. But as I have with Pina Bausch, Matthew Bourne, Shen Wei, Edouard Locke and a few others whose choreographic intentions are so difficult to grasp at first, I find it an exhilarating challenge to also review them. The process is often as important to me as the final product. So when a choreographer offers a tantalizing process, I want to do my best to wrap my head around it so as to channel it to the readers as much as show them what they might have experienced in the theater. Within any artist’s oeuvre there will be the so-so or the dreadful and whether or not we’ve taken tea with them should not influence how we review. But we can place a failed work within the context of the full body of work. Did every work of Pina’s stand up to her best? No. Did we love her anyway? Yes. Can we still write about it objectively? We ought to.

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