Dealing with criticism

As a dancer, I'm being critiqued all the time.


My choreography, alignment, musicality and anything else about how I present myself as an artist are always up for critique. And any artist can tell you that criticism is par for the course. Good, constructive criticism is how you grow and learn and sometimes what helps keep you humble. Of course, there is also a lot of the opposite type of criticism.

Basically, you'll have three major types of critics:

  1. Instructors and mentors (and sometimes family/friends) who truly want to see you improve and develop your craft.
  2. Professional critics (who may or may not like what you're doing). 
  3. People who just aren't fans of your work (or even not fans of you personally).

That's a lot of information coming at you from all angles. And then there's criticism in your personal life, too! So, how do we process all this information and let go of the stuff that does not help us? It takes practice but we definitely need to filter and prioritize criticism as artists in order to maintain our sanity. Well, here are my thoughts on processing constructive criticism and discarding the "negative matter" that would hinder you (and, honestly, just bum you out big time!):

Ask yourself: What are this person's credentials?
Is this a well-established choreographer, tenured patron of the arts or some person off the street that may never have seen a ballet before in their lives? While we all want an audience to like our work, the person who knows the most about what we're creating has been there and done that. We should weigh the comments accordingly.

Ask yourself: Who is this person to me?
Mentors, instructors, and people who genuinely care about you and have your best interest in mind should always carry more weight than someone off the street, commenting on a blog or writing a general review in a newspaper. Length of acquaintance paired with genuine concern and interest always trumps someone who would never have spoken to you other than this particular event.

Ask yourself: What is this person's motive?
You can generally identify the people who have the best intentions right away. If they obviously want to see you grow and develop your career, it's a fair assessment that you might want to give their criticism a second thought. On the other hand, the Internet rewards the negative so keep in mind that some bloggers and reviewers might only be antagonistic because that generates more readers.

Ask yourself: Is this really going to help the work?
Let's face it: sometimes your work is just fine and the critique you receive is more a matter of personal preference than a flaw in your creation. Here is where you consider the remaining advice that made it through the above filters and tweak your work accordingly. Or not. As the artist it is ultimately up to you.

And how should we respond to critics?

To the people whom you value and whom give good, constructive advice, you thank them whether or not you intend to act upon that advice. Keep things as polite as possible. If you feel like they absolutely misunderstood your method, motive or vision, by all means give them an explanation. Given that they truly care about you, an open dialogue can be helpful to your creative process. You hone the skills to defend your work and discover why they felt what you created didn't exactly come across as you envisioned.

To those who give unsolicited-often negative-comments the best response I have found is silence.  (If it's in person you can nod and change the subject.) You don't want to give them more fodder for their argument by getting defensive and often times it does help the negative stuff fade away much quicker if you don't give it any credence.

Some thoughts on giving criticism.

Everyone needs to remember that art is such a deeply personal thing and, so, when we feel the need to critique others, it should be for their benefit and not ours. I recommend three parts to a critique:

  1. Start with a praise. (If you can't think of something nice to say first, don't say anything at all) Always begin the conversation with something positive. It doesn't matter if you can only comment on the color palate, musical choice or use of the stage, just be kind. You want to take their feelings into account and this step helps the critic do a self-evaluation: Did I not like their work for personal reasons and not because it needed a lot of work?
  2. Follow up with what could be fixed. Be constructive. Sometimes an artist can't do anything about a lighting flub or a costume malfunction on stage. A turned-in fouette, an awkward transition or a mispronunciation, however, are somethings that can be fixed.
  3. Offer a solution to fix the issue. "If you don't use so much force in the pirouette, you won't have such a hard time ending in a tighter fifth position." or "Fosse is actually pronounced with a long 'e' at the end." This is another self-evaluation for the critic, too: Am I qualified to give advice? If you can't help the artist potentially fix an issue ("potentially" because it is ultimately up to them whether they act on it or not), you're better off staying silent. Or just stick with #1 and be kind... that's always appreciated.

How do you deal with criticism?



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