Rant & Rave

Dancers Are Choreographers, Too. It's Time for Dance Criticism to Reflect That.

Ahmaud Culver, Jasmine Hearn and Anna Witenberg in "Transmissions." © Paula Court.

Dancers are more than just vessels performing set material. We make contributions to creative processes all the time. Some of these are obvious: We often improvise material or generate entire phrases to be incorporated into a work. Others are more innocuous: Dancers are sometimes asked to give feedback that ends up shaping the composition of a work.

This is choreography.


As working relationships between dancers and choreographers evolve, the dialogue on crediting authorship needs to reflect the collaboration at the heart of so many works. I'm currently performing in Nick Mauss' exhibition "Transmissions" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From Mauss' prompts, 16 dancers created movement phrases to generate, with Mauss' direction, the choreographed material that appears in the show. During the creative process, the curatorial team and Mauss facilitated the kind of dialogue that should always happen with collaboratively created works: We discussed and workshopped language to accurately credit how the work was made.

Sadly, this doesn't feel like the norm. In other projects I've contributed to or heard about, these conversations never happened. As a result, the creative labor of dancers was erased. Even when the contributions of dancers are outlined in a program, critics sometimes distort the reality of the creative process in their writing. In Alastair Macaulay's review of "Transmissions" in the New York Times he wrote: "Mauss proves, with the cooperation of his dancers, something of a choreographer."

The language created by us and sent by the Whitney's press department read: "The choreography performed in this exhibition has been collectively generated by the following 16 dancers in collaboration with Nick Mauss." The distinction between "collaboration" and"cooperation" might seem nit-picky, but the syntax of Macaulay's sentence gives the insidious impression that dancers were just along for the ride of Mauss' creative vehicle.

It also speaks to the distance from which critics often write about a work. While objectivity is often cited as a goal of critics, nuance too easily gets lost with this remove. But all interpretations are inherently subjective, and filtered through a viewer's history, preferences and biases. Instead of pretending like dance writing can be objective, what if critics embraced subjectivity and used it as an opportunity to delve deeper into the work they're seeing?

Anna Witenberg and Ahmaud Culver in "Transmissions," Photo by Paula Court

Typical dance criticism rarely goes beyond a description and an assessment of what happened on stage. What might dance writing communicate about a work if a writer had more insight into a process? By attending a rehearsal or conversing with the collaborators, for example, dance writers could go further in their reviews. They could shed light on dynamics an average audience member may never discover. Perhaps most importantly, they could accurately acknowledge and credit the creative labor that dancers bring to making a work.

In a world where dancers are already underpaid and at times mistreated, it's essential to recognize the creative contributions we make to a work in addition to our performances. Dancers have been choreographing for a long time. Writers, let's make sure our words capture this.

The Conversation
Rant & Rave
Devon Teuscher performing the titular role in Jane Eyre. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Story ballets that debut during American Ballet Theatre's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House are always the subject of much curiosity—and, sometimes, much debate. Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre was no different. The ballet follows the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Brönte's novel as she grows from a willful orphan to a self-possessed governess, charting her romance with the haughty Mr. Rochester and the social forces that threaten to tear them apart.

While the ballet was warmly received in the UK when Northern Ballet premiered it in 2016, its reception from New York City–based critics has been far less welcoming. A group of editors from Dance Magazine and two of our sister publications, Dance Spirit and Pointe, sat down to discuss our own reactions.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Courtesy Davies

In dance, we sometimes hear of a late bloomer who defies the odds. Or of dancers who overcome incredible injuries to return to the stage.

But both? That's not a story we hear often. That is, however, Darla Davies' story, one that she tells in her recent book Who Said I'd Never Dance Again? A Journey from Hip Replacement Surgery to Athletic Victory. Davies, who is now 61, started her ballroom dance training just twenty years ago, and has won two U.S. championships—one of which she earned after a hip replacement.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox