Pre-script: This article talks about the general trend noticed, but I would like to acknowledge that very rarely, there has been some good writing on dance and some in depth reviews. Having said that, that its rare to find good writing on dance is what compelled me to write this piece.
Dance journalism in India leaves much to be desired. Dance is rarely spoken or written about in the media, and when it is, it is usually uneducated, badly researched, and uninterested journalism. The rare writings on dance mostly take the form of reviews/critiques of performances. Dancers across India use these critiques to legitimize their work. But really, dance criticism in India is a dying art. Only a handful of critics validate or discredit the work of thousands of dancers. These reviews have come under criticism in the past (see Sadanand Menon’s newspaper article in 1984 on Dance criticism titled ‘Those Large Liquid Eyes’) and largely today’s reviews also leave many questioning the validity and legitimacy of the critics themselves.
Why do many reviews leave so many dancers feeling dissatisfied, cheated or misunderstood? The main reason, I feel, is that the relationship between the critic and the dancer is not of mutual understanding and learning as it should be. A dance critic must critique work in order to constructively guide a dancer, to improve the dancer. A dancer must feel like he or she learnt something from the review. Critique should constructively criticize, not demoralize and vex dancers. But there is such a dearth of critics that they are easily placed on a pedestal and become unquestionable. Thus critiques are like ultimatums – a dancer has to accept the reviews regardless of prejudice or bias, if any – and has no way of questioning the critic or explaining him or herself. The lack of communication and dialogue in a democratic atmosphere fuels the mistrust.
But why does this mistrust exist?
First of all, critics often get facts wrong. This often tells of badly conducted research. Recently, a newspaper article on Mandeep Raikhy’s ‘Inhabited Geometry’ claimed that its choreographer was Desmond Roberts, who was in fact the photographer of the photograph enclosed in the article. Earlier this year, another review got the dancer’s history and nationality wrong – an Indian dancer was written off as a German because he had worked in Austria for a while. In yet another article, a Bharatanatyam dancer was said to have studied at Kalakshetra in Chennai, when in fact she had trained in the Kalakshetra style of dancing in Delhi. Poor research and lack of attention, I imagine, lead to the dancers feeling nervous about trusting the words of the critic.
Secondly, critics often lift descriptions of dance pieces from programme notes and pass them off as reviews. This makes one feel that the critic is lazy to critique anything and is trying to fill up space on the newspaper page. Descriptive, rather than analytical pieces of writing betray a reluctance to scrutinize and appreciate the work. A recent review in the Hindu described a dance performance minute by minute, expending precious space on the description of the event, and a mere two lines talking about the performance and its dancers. Who was there at the performance and how many people were present is surely not more important than what the dance performance entailed.
Third, critics make sweeping statements which often contradict themselves. A review a few months ago mentioned that the ‘charismatic’ dancer ‘lacked energy and emotion’ and then went on to say that she performed an abhinaya piece ‘in a captivating manner’. A classical dance performance lacking energy and emotion is a dramatic accusation which requires further explanation – in what way did the performance lack energy, specially since the critic also thought that the dancer was ‘charismatic’? Moreover, if the performance lacked emotion, then how does the critic explain the captivating abhinaya? These sweeping statements have no value because they explain nothing, and serve no purpose. They are useless whimsical words that are of no help to the dancer at all! It is the same as when a critic says the dancer was full of ‘grace and poise’. Even a lion resting under an acacia tree in the Masai mara can be full of ‘grace and poise’. And it doesn’t take a skilled critic to see that. I would want to know what was graceful about the performance and what made the dancer so poised.
There are several other reasons for why dance criticism in India is in a bit of a state of crisis, but even the reasons above are proof enough. Dance criticism needs an overhaul, without which one might lose faith in it entirely! This is so dangerous, because dance criticism is a lively and integral part of the dance world. A good system of critique keeps dancers on their toes. It also informs the larger world about works by dancers and choreographers. Furthermore, it opens up the possibility for a dialogue between the performers and spectators – something that brings the art and artist closer to the people. All this is so important. We need this overhaul now so that we can have faith in our critics. We need to have faith in our critics so that we take them seriously. Critics and critique need to be taken seriously in an intelligent and responsive dance community.
Please do check out ‘DanceCritique Anon’, an initiative of Pratyayin and NrityaYoga to start a dance criticism forum where audience members anonymously critique the work of dancers and choreographers. DanceCritique Anon currently has a facebook page –  DanceCritique Anon – and will soon have a website.