Recently a reader who is not a dancer asked me how I determine if a performance is "good" or not which opened a great dialogue. It's always a wonderful experience to talk out these things with someone who is not in the dance world because I generally end up coming away with some new insights on my own craft.
When talking with a non-dancer I can't necessarily use the same terminology or examples that I would when talking to a fellow artist. This makes me get down to the most basic of concepts and actually forces me to examine even my own motives more carefully.
I thought I'd share some of the main points of the conversation with you here:
Dance criticism-like all art-will always be partially subjective.
Many of the aspects can really be a matter of taste which is why it is possible to receive varying reviews. One person might consider a performance in a vat of red Jell-O to be avant garde while yet another might find it gauche and a waste of perfectly good Jell-O. (I haven't seen anything like that yet but I'm sure someone has probably done it.) It's an extreme example but you can see where it might not appeal to everyone. Especially not to those of us who get a little squeamish about Jell-O!
And then there are the concepts which are a little more concrete in nature:
How is the technique?
This isn't so much a problem with professional companies but when watching shows like SYTYCD one thing to watch for is consistent technique. Dancers who study several types of dance in the same week can sometimes make a muddle of the conflicting styles. Other things to look for are the all-important pointed toes, posture and alignment where applicable.
Does the dancer appear confident?
Appearing confident is key even when one may not feel that way. If a dancer looks like he/she knows the choreography that makes for a good performance. Even a hiccup or stumble can be covered well when a dancer continues on while never breaking character. Better to make an incredible improvisational moment when you forget the choreography than to stand frozen on stage.
Does a dancer use his or her own body to the best advantage?
A tall dancer really makes the most of those long limbs so they appear controlled. A shorter dancer engages in the intentional reaching and lengthening of the limbs to make the dance look like it stretches beyond their allotment of personal space. Taller dancers have to work a little harder to make their limbs look controlled through every motion and position. Both should take the choreography and make it look so effortless that it could have been their own work.
Do I notice the empty space?
This question can be interpreted a couple of ways: The first being that the dancer makes the choreography look bigger on the stage. A good dancer draws the eye almost as though they are taking up the entire stage. Secondly, you can look at the group on stage. The dancers should be spaced in a way that they appear to take up every bit of the stage with no glaring blank spaces. A group could also be clustered on one side of the stage but-like a soloist-is so riveting that the rest of the stage is irrelevant.
How is the music used?
Not all dance performances utilize music but this can be a "make it or break it" moment for the ones that do. If the music does not capture the feel and theme of the dance, it can be very distracting. At the same time the dancers should exhibit a good understanding of the tempo and timing in the music with relation to the dance.
Is there a quality of "showmanship" to the dance?
Dance is a good portion acting and to show emotion through the dance is all the better. The audience should get the impression that the dancer is actually the character they are portraying. That he or she is feeling what the character feels. Depending upon the style of dance, there may also be times where it is really important to make a connection with one’s partner and/or the audience (facial expressions/eye contact... the "showmanship" factor).
How is the choreography?
A good dancer can be a victim of poor choreography which is out of their control. Sometimes choreography just doesn't work and it looks like the piece is disjointed. It can also look like the piece is held back by the use of props or elaborate costumes.
There are probably a lot of other little things that either make someone think a dance performance is quality or otherwise. The above list is a good start when it comes to what I look for, however, and I hope it's helpful to understand the mind of one critic.
Readers, how do you determine if a dance performance is quality or not?