“Snark”, according to US film critic David Denby, is abuse of a particular kind: personal, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious and knowing. In his book, Snark, he writes that it has infected journalism and common discourse, largely through Web 2.0. Now everybody is a vessel of opinion and a well-turned 140-character phrase can turn viral. A snark can become a meme.
For journalists, an error can easily be corrected online and is a minor worry, but the fear of getting left behind the zeitgeist has become a terror. “It is this anxiety, particularly among young men and women, that produces the snarly tone...If you have nothing solid or fresh or interesting to say, you can always add a little twist of curdled wit that signal to editors, writers and friends that you have not fallen into the dust as the caravan moves on,” Denby writes.
Denby's movie reviews for the New Yorker magazine sporadically contain wit that is close to curdling, and well-aimed pot-shots at Hollywood excess are accepted, if not welcomed, by readers. Further downtown at the offices of the Village Voice, dance critic Deborah Jowitt has recently bowed to pressure from her editor and left the paper after forty years.
The reason? “What are often termed “irreconcilable artistic differences” have surfaced between me and Voice arts editor Brian Parks and forced me to make the difficult decision to stop submitting reviews to the paper and its website,” Jowitt said in an email to fellow critics. “What I write doesn’t seem like arts criticism as he defines it. To put it more baldly: I do not write enough strongly negative reviews.”
Jowitt is no easily-bought cheerleader for dance. She has a pedigree as one of the most influential observers of New York's dance scene as it evolved through the past forty years. Her columns and books, in particular Time and the Dancing Image, are considered a lodestar for other critics.
“I think it's because I employ a lot of description in my reviews that he used the term ‘reporting’ as a pejorative,” she told ITM in an email. “And, of course, I think that the kind of description I attempt isn't in the strict sense, reporting, along the lines of: 'He lifted his left arm to the side, turned to the right on his left foot and …' And my kind of ‘description’ often contains opinion (negative or positive).”
Describing movement, what Jowitt calls the “for instances” in her reviews, remains a recurring challenge for all dance critics, no matter how rich their storehouse of action verbs. Younger critics are still drawn back to the writings of Edwin Denby who wrote about modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham. Denby saw himself as a poet first and dance critic second. According to Julie Van Camp, he used criticism to function as a teacher - of audiences, performers, choreographers, and company managers - bringing to bear his training and performance experience in Europe. “He also saw himself as a participant in a dialogue with the other members of the art world. Reviewing Martha Graham's Punch and Judy he said, ‘I leave you to judge, by comparing your own impressions with mine, whether I get it this time either.’ ”
According to Diana Theodores, former dance critic with the Sunday Tribune, “artists and critics are involved in a continual process of making and remaking the values by which their work is made. The dance we have must be the dance our choreographers are making and the critical dialogue accordingly needs to reflect new tasks of observation and new tasks for the dialogue itself.”
Deborah Jowitt tells a simple anecdote that illustrates the difference between a critic in dialogue with the work, versus the consumer guide. “After the one performance [Village Voice arts editor Brian Parks] and I attended together—a group of solos made for Baryshnikov, two choreographed and performed by David Neumann, and one by Steve Paxton—his first spoken response had to do with his liking this or that one and not the others. My first thoughts were about how choreographers used this amazing performer (Baryshnikov) and about the differences between Neumann and Paxton's solos for themselves.
“Basically, Brian sees me as handling dance with kid gloves, downplaying any negative opinions or not stating them unequivocally enough. A couple of times he said I often seemed to be cheerleading for dance, writing from an insider's perspective. And, he confessed apologetically that sometimes my reviews made for boring reading.” So, is there a danger that active participation in this dialogue leads to a dulling of critical authority?
There is no doubt that the language employed in dance criticism is often an empathetic language. The words that writers choose reflect the movement, so Marcia Siegel's lean prose reflects the minimalist dances that she was reviewing, just as the sweeping technical language of Arlene Croce reflects the textured choreography of George Balanchine. But it's within the descriptive language that the reader finds the critic's biases - theoretical, cultural, and personal.
When dance critics do become negative and snark makes its way into reviews there is normally a swift reaction. In a hilarious review of Michael Flatley's Celtic Tiger, New York Times critic Claudia La Rocco whipped up the Irish American community when she mentioned that “screaming audience members, many of whom had been well served by the beer vendors, surged to their feet.” Earlier this year, reviewing New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, her colleague Alastair Macaulay claimed: “Jenifer Ringer as the Sugar Plum Fairy looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” Ringer had left the ballet company for a brief period in 1997 suffering from eating disorders.
There's plenty of snark to be found in reviews on websites such as "The Dance Insider". As more content goes online – often without the filter of an editor – there is a danger that the language used to describe dance will change and the dialogue between creators and critics will break down. If the dance critic is to be a conduit for the reader then they must approach the performance with a position of understanding and empathy. It's not a question of being positive or negative. It's about connecting with the performers and respecting their vision through a language that isn't dismissive of the sweat it took to put it onstage.
Michael Seaver is Dance Critic with the Irish Times. On Wednesday 25 May he will chair a discussion on dance criticism: 'Between the lines: dance criticism under the spotlight', co-hosted by ITM and Dublin Dance Festival. Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 6 – 7.30 p.m. Admission free.
Dublin Dance Festival continues until Saturday 28 May. www.dublindancefestival.ie