The first installment of “Critical Dialogues,” a series I’ve created for In Dance, is now in print and online. Here’s an excerpt:
“What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this first installment, LEVYdance associate director Scott Marlowe met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the June 26, 2014 performance of his first work, Soar.
RACHEL HOWARD: I’ll start with things that appealed to me about Soar, and then you can share the things that you were happy with. And then I’ll share my reservations, and you can tell me where I’m off the mark and what your intentions were. And then, I have this burning curiosity about what a choreographer wants in a review. I think, of course, they want publicity, but . . .
SCOTT MARLOWE: Right. It’s always interesting to me to see that some choreographers will not share the negative reviews. And other choreographers will share every review that comes in.
RH: I liked the wholeness of the work—an evening-length work with one clear structural concept. You had a complete commissioned score [by Ben Juodvalkis]—
SM: I’m so happy with the score. I listen to it on repeat on my iPod.
RH: And I thought you did a great job making the theater in Z Space into an alternate reality. The costumes were great. LEVYdance costumes always seem to be hip clothes you could find at H&M or Forever 21, and for Soar they had a nice soft palette. And I thought the dancers were strong and loved their diversity. Interesting personalities.
SM: Which side of the theater were you on? [Note: For Soar, audience members sat on stools arranged on the floor, with the dancers first performing in the center and running through the rows of seats. Audience members were then asked individually by the dancers to choose “red” or “blue.” A curtain was drawn to divide the stage space in half, and each audience member was led to one side of the other.]
RH: I chose blue, so I was on the north side.
SM: With the coffee table.
RH: Yes. And the woman in that duet—Angela [Rollins]—she was out there in her connection with her partner, no inhibitions. So what about the work were you happy with?
SM: I was happy and shocked that everything we were trying to do in giving the audience agency seemed to transpire without hiccups. We thought, what if everyone in the room chooses blue? We had backup plans, but every night was about 50/50. The feedback was that people found personal investment. They said, I wanted to vault off the table with you guys.
RH: So here’s where I am going to admit something that will make you hate me. It’s embarrassing.
RH: (curling into a ball of shame) I decided to leave the theater at about the 45-minute mark. Obviously if I were reviewing, I would never, never leave before the end of the show. But now I’m relying on you to tell me what happened.
SM: (remarkably gracious) So at the end of the piece, we invited the audience to move to the sides and they created a corridor. And we then launched into really dancey material. Then we took tables and nested them against each other and one by one the dancers ran up the tables and took a big belly fl op into the air, and the other cast members caught them. They did it over and over and over—that was the crescendo. And what I loved was that so many audience members said that they wanted to hop up there and do that with us. So I knew that they felt connected, that we reached them as humans and not as performers separate from the audience.
RH: What time mark did that happen at?
SM: Around 45 minutes—
RH: About right after I left. OK. Let’s say your dream review came out. What specifi cally would you like to hear the critic say?
SM: I would love to hear the critic fi nd a personal relationship to the work, and to put that out there, to expose themselves.
RH: Hmm. I always walk into a work wanting that to happen. But if doesn’t, it doesn’t always mean it was a failure of my openness.
SM: No, but if and when that happens, it points to the success of the work.
RH: Right. But let’s say—the critic’s job is also to analyze the aesthetics of the dance, and how it works. What piece of analysis would you hope for?
SM: Hmm. I would hope they would point to the honesty and the vulnerability in the performers. That human connection is why LEVYdance produces work. So to think about how it would be analyzed is hard—because ideally I wouldn’t want someone to be sitting outside of it to analyze it. Even a critic.
RH: Even a critic. That’s interesting. I feel that analysis is still an important role. The critic has to think about how art works, why art has its effects. I think, speaking also as a writer, that sincerity can get you a long way. But there’s something beyond the sincerity that is the artfulness that channels the sincerity so it can cross the divide. And has to do with how the work is structured, and the form—
SM: That creates the access—
RH: Right—and so I feel that the critic’s job does need to be thinking about how the art is working, because otherwise . . .
SM: Well, then in this case it would be amazing to hear the description of the audience around the critic as well, because the audience interaction was so much a part of what we were doing.
RH: So that sounds to me like pure descriptive criticism of the kind that Jill Johnston and a generation of writers in the sixties advocated. No aesthetic judgments.
SM: And actually reviews in that vein really do irk me. I don’t care to read a beautiful description of what a person saw. I want to know what they felt.
RH: So then, if a critic—me, for instance . . . well, in Soar I appreciated the dancers, but I didn’t feel emotionally moved. So if that’s the case—If I had ended up reviewing for the Chronicle, it would have been a very tough review to write. Because I like you, I think your dancers did an excellent job—and my honest reaction was that I was disappointed. It couldn’t have been a positive review.
SM: And I think that’s what a review is supposed to do.
RH: So in that case, a critic can’t be purely descriptive. So here are my reservations.”
You can read the rest here. Going out on a limb with this new form–candid feedback much appreciated. The next critical dialogue, with Pear Marill, will be out next month. For future installments, I’ll invite other critics to conduct dialogues. The experiment continues. Great thanks to Wayne Hazzard and the In Dance staff for making it possible.