I?m going to say something sacrilegious. I think assigning ratings to dance reviews is not a bad idea.
You know ratings: five stars, a scale of one to ten, or at the paper I currently freelance for, a cartoon man in various states of interest, from sleeping to falling off his chair with enthusiasm. That balding bowler-hatted guy holds his own copyright and big sway at the box office. (If you doubt this, talk to any theater producer in the Bay Area.)
The ?little man? also draws readers to the movie, CD, and theater reviews he graces. He?and any rating?is a snap visual handle, an instant way to engage with the critique. A rating makes you want to test whether the writer can persuade you that ?Shrek 2? is more than a marketing bonanza, or that, as the Chron?s pop critic Aidin Vaziri has provocatively argued, Prince?s latest album is actually mediocre.
The Chronicle, like most papers, currently draws the line at the high arts: Classical music, visual art, and dance are ostensibly too lofty to place on a scale of relative merit. Until recently, I bought in to the usual arguments for the distinction: ideas in ?serious? art should be grappled with, not assigned value; reviews of dance should not be presented or construed as ?consumer advice.?
But why shouldn?t we recommend dance performances to one another with various degrees of enthusiasm? Why shouldn?t we codify that degree of excitement in a symbol that will bring more readers to dance reviews? Instead, right now, the absence of a rating signals to the Everyman Joe reader, ?Don?t bother reading about this show, it?s very serious and too arty for you and therefore can?t possibly be entertaining.?
Ratings would help box office. Small, local modern dance performances that rely on word of mouth would hardly face a rush of returned tickets should the little man be caught sleeping. And let?s say a dozen Joe Everymen (and women) saw the clapping guy and showed up at Paul Taylor expecting something more on the order of ?Riverdance.? Among the disillusioned, serious dance would undoubtedly win a few pleasantly surprised converts before the house lights went up.
Dance companies?ballet companies in particular, I would guess?would protest the new ratings, say it cheapens their art. But I think ballet would have the most to gain. Ballet companies are perpetually striving to convince that golden demographic, 19- to 34-year-olds, that going to the ballet is fun and hip. Many companies have tried to do that by setting ?ballets? to everything from Prince to Bruce Springsteen. With exceptions for Twyla Tharp, the result tends to be a neither-fish-nor-foul compromise of the art form and a mixed message. Ballet wants to appropriate popular art but remain untouchable in its high art sphere.
But imagine this: a review of ?The Sleeping Beauty? in the paper with a little man falling off his chair, next to a review of ?Lost in Translation? carrying the same rating. The message? Different art forms, both worthy of your interest. You might even get a few 19- to 34-year-olds in the opera house door to see that evening?s Aurora. And some of them, having encountered a new art form on its own terms, might even come back.