Can dance critics be "trained"? Until recent times, no one really thought of trying, which is one reason working members of the profession have arrived at their posts from so many different, unrelated starting points. The question has no simple answer, it's like asking whether composers or novelists or choreographers can be trained.
Nevertheless the inquiry is worthwhile. The upswing in dance activity and the growth of the dance public are insuring that more will be written and read about dance in the future than at any time in the past. If follows that any measures to foster more informed, enlightened criticism are a boon to writers and readers alike.
These musings were prompted by a recent brief visit to the Critics' Conference of the American Dance Festival, convened for the eighth consecutive year at Connecticut College in New London under the joint auspices of the festival and the National Endowment for the Arts. This year's conference, directed by Deborah Jowitt, dance critic of the VIllage Voice, runs for three weeks and involves 11 "fellows," writters and critics from a variety of publications across the country seeking to enlarge their background and skills in the field of dance criticism. The group includes young men and women from such places as Buffalo, Seattle and New York, as well as Canada.
Much of what they can achieve will depend upon individual proclivities and gifts - critics aren't exactly born, but they can't be manufactured, either.
Many obvious prerequisites can be mastered with sufficient application and interest, if a person has the time to invest - knowledge of dance and its sister arts and their history; an understanding of the cultural milieu, past and present, in which dance forms of every kind have developed; the ability to write clearly and precisely about dance movement; familiarity with the mechanics, condidions and peculiarities of journalism. But the passion, the commitment, the literary fluency and the visual and kinesthetic sensitivity that made Edwin Denby, for example, a paragon among dance critics, are not traits that can be instilled by instruction.
The ADF Critics' Conference attacks the problem from several different sides at once, an approach that not only seems to make good sense, but has also had demonstrable practical results in the professional work of past and current fellows.
Each day begins with a movement session - something like a dance class, but not quite the same in content of purpose. Dance classes are graded routines designed to perfect a particular technique. These sessions are intended to enhance the kinetic awareness of even the nondancer, to impart a feeling for anatomical possibilities and limitations, to focus perceptions of space and time and alert one to the relations between self and surrounding.
One morning, for instance, the entire group, faculty and fellows, performed exercises on the general theme of shape, under the canny supervision of Marcia Siegel, dance critic of the Soho Weekly News and author of "Watching the Dance Go By." One such exercise consisted of passing a series of well-defined movement impulses around a circle, each of us taking our cue from the person to the left, and transmitting the impulse through our own bodies to the next one down the circle. In another, we paired off and generated sequences of body shapes by responding to the stance or gesture of our partners.
The aim here is the development of kinesthetic empathy: The more dimensions of movement one has experienced directly, the better one is able to perceive and verbalize them in others.
But movement classes are only the springboard of the conference sessions. The crux lies in the actual reviewing of dance performances, and the detailed post-mortems. A dance festival is an ideal setting, because it provides a continual round of performances for savoring and analysis.
The weekend before I arrived, for example, Indian dancer Lakshmi had given a solo recital in the genre known as Bharata Natyam, and each of the fellows was called upon to write a review, to pass copies to all in the group, read it aloud and discuss the writing and interpretation it contained. Carrying out such assignments is in itself a training in moxie, for it takes no small amount of courage to face the combined scrutiny of colleagues intent on sharpening their own wits by any possible means.
Even in two days, it was clear that the difficulties encountered by dance critics are pretty much the same everywhere. There are, to begin with, the fundamental challenges of historical fact and observational accuracy. There are the common worries of journalism - how to cope with restrictions of time and length; how to get started and not be hung up by the search for a "lead"; how to get down to brass tacks and not be deflected by temporizing maneuvers that delay the agony of choice; how to write directly, in one's own voice, without being overbearingly first-personal; how to keep things simple, without oversimplifying; how to persuade an editor, who in nine cases out of 10 won't have the faintest idea of what you're talking about, of the significance of your topic.
Then there are the innumerable challenges that are unique to dance criticism, because they are unique to dance: how to see dance movement in all its intricacy, how to distinguish its parts, discern its character, and then retain these perceptions long and securely enough to render them in words, words that not only describe the who, what and how of a dance performance, but also relate one's vision to the myriad expressive, stylistic, cultural and intellectual implications of the bare choreographic fact.
It's a large order, and three weeks is too short a span to do much more than scratch at surfaces, for the most part.
But in a field of endeavor so subject to vague formulations, half-baked methods, wishy-washy impressionism and second-hand knowledge, it's heartening to see professionals working with each other in a joint quest for higher standards. The critics, all of us, can't help but benefit from the attempt, and it can't hurt our readers any either.