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Theoretical Dance Posted on November 13th

theory or practice? 

In the New York Times, an article entitled “Mind and Body at Yale,” discusses the push to make dance a more academic discipline. Professor Joseph Roach, from what I gather, is one of the more prominent dance professors–he lectures on “World Performance” and is part of the groundswell to classify dance studies as a part of a liberal arts education. The article isn’t specific on what, or how, dance as an academic discipline differs from “dance,” but it seems that the dance world is in the early stages of creating a field of dance-specific criticism.

 I honestly have never considered dance as something that could have critics and criticism. Perhaps I am guilty of “a very perverse and strange holdover of the patriarchy, and a bizarre separation of mind and body,” but I assumed  the physicality of dance rendered criticism superfluous. The discussion is fascinating, though, because much can be learned about the nature of all criticism–art, literary, performance–by watching a field grapple with accepting criticism and theory as part of its identity.

The arguments for and against intellectualizing dance are telling. At this early stage, it seems that even theorists like Professor Roach see performance as still an integral part of academic dance. “Studying dance without practicing it is akin to taking a chemistry class without stepping foot in a lab.” Dance scholarship seeks to break the “false distinction between practice and theory,” and create, as far as I can tell, a theoretical discussion about dance that includes actual dancing.

In the other arts, however, one doesn’t need to create to comment. In the field of literary criticism, being a novelist or poet is certainly not a prerequisite for being a critic. Indeed, poet-critics and novelist-critics are often seen as less rigorous theorists than those who stick to an austere diet of Foucault and Derrida. The distinction between writers and critics is sharply defined, and both seem to depend on this to maintain their identity. There are the writers, and then there are critics.

In art criticism, the situation seems to be much the same. Art critics and artists exist in different spheres. The relationship of artist to critic is often antagonistic–the artist is suspect of the critics’ reductive, beside-the-point intellectualizing and the critic feels that art can not be properly addressed or appreciated without words and ideas. Viewers are torn. Some relish the explicating of museum catalogues and others think the work should speak for itself.

There was a discussion on artblog.net a while back about how art and art criticism are at odds because art does not share enough in common with language–language can not adequately describe something that is not formed in words. Dance would seem to have this problem to an even greater degree. Dance is both transitory and body-based, and therefore any verbal or written criticism on it will necessarily be far divorced.

If dance and dance theory do manage to exist together and do break down the walls between theory and practice, it will seem more absurd that literary criticism and literature should be so opposed. They are both language talking about language–it would seem that literature, not dance and not art, would be the field most likely to collapse the wall between criticism and creation.

The relationship of a creative endeavor to its criticism says much about the state of a field. For now, the art and the theory of dance have not yet diverged. This is the moment when the best criticism can happen, when two separate strands of seeing dance are still connected but pulling opposite directions. This tension is what makes for great art and great criticism.   Theory and practice police, and therefore improve, each other.  But when criticism and practice permanently diverge, as in the case of literature, both become complacent.

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Some Responses to “Theoretical Dance” :

  1. “Theory and practice police, and therefor improve, each other.” - I see little evidence for that. Do you?

    Commented catfish on November 14th, 2007.
  2. Since in some ways art and criticism are natural enemies, they both improve by trying to one up the other. An artist wants to create something that a critic can’t easily describe–because something unoriginal or too obvious in its intentions would be too easy for the critic and probably bad art. (I think a lot of artists’ internal critics are like real critics: “Great move. Like that motif hasn’t been explored to death by Miro. Everyone’s going to know the last exhibition YOU went to…”)

    And critics do their best work when they have good work to write about…because good art asks more of the writer. Of course, you’re probably right–there’s probably not much evidence of this. But when I read literary criticism from 50 years ago, it seems to be more tied in with literature itself…I can go from reading Hawthorne to reading one of his critics and feel like I’m still reading literature. If there’s some back and forth between the two factions–even if its antagonistic–its better than none at all.

    Commented admin on November 16th, 2007.
  3. I assumed the physicality of dance rendered criticism superfluous.

    Your assumption was correct. The physicality of art renders criticism superfluous as well. Criticism is a subsidiary pleasure of creative production and has no other real purpose. They’re not natural enemies, they’re separate activities, and the latter is utterly dependent on the former. When people try to make it have a life of its own, the results are monstrous.

    Commented Franklin on November 17th, 2007.
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