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…