This is an excerpt from Dance Appreciation With HKPropel Access by Dawn D. Loring & Julie L. Pentz.
Students may not realize they already possess the skills to review dance concerts—skills they have honed on their own time in the company of friends or even family. Imagine having a discussion after watching a movie and identifying small, meaningful moments and how they contribute to the theme or describing parts of the movie and interpreting a scene or the actor’s motivation. An evaluation of the movie is especially important, as it may determine whether you consider the movie entertaining or successful, or not. These are the same skills needed when watching and reviewing dance concerts.
Take a notepad and pen with you and take notes during the performance. Write down images and phrases that come to mind in the moment. Read the program to glean as much information as possible and save it to reference later. You don’t have to talk about every piece, nor do you have to mention every aspect of the performance. Separate your thoughts into the four sections of a review: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation.
A description should describe WHAT happened in the dance piece and what the dance looked like. Note how many dancers were in the piece, who they were, and what they were wearing. Mention if the dancers held or manipulated any props or danced on or under any structures other than the floor, and mention the type of movement used, for example, balletic movement or pedestrian movement. Describe the music used; the lighting before, during, and at the end of the dance; and the overall environment and atmosphere of the dance piece. Describe the overall structure of the dance: How many parts did the dance have, and how did the parts relate to each other? Perhaps the dance had two distinct sections that were very different from each other. Did you notice mostly locomotor movement—running, jumping, sliding—or was the movement mostly non-locomotor—reaching, melting, falling, swaying? Once you feel you have a good, comprehensive sense of the piece, the next step is to analyze the parts.
An analysis breaks down the dance into the primary elements of time, space, energy, and form and discusses HOW the elements were used in the dance. Think of how TIME was expressed in the piece. Was the pacing, or tempo, fast or slow and did the music and movement relate so closely that the driving force of the piece was music? Or did the movement and music have a looser relationship? Think of how the dancers used SPACE: Were movements large or small and did they seem close to the audience or far away? Consider the level of movement: Did it occur on the floor or in the air, or was it mostly on the standing level? Did the dancers create pathways on the floor or was the dancing performed in place? Perhaps they faced an unexpected direction or the dancers remained close to each other or focused their attention on the audience, rather than each other. What does the movement look like? Is it sharp and jagged or soft and flowing? Describe the ENERGY level and changes in energy. The Laban Movement Analysis terminology can be useful for describing movement with precise language and chapter 3 contains a discussion of the categories.
Report the unexpected and unique as well as the expected and familiar. Did the dancers only use their arms or was the movement all off-balance? Were the dancers portraying people or animals or ideas and how did they use their bodies to achieve this effect? Was the movement curvy or straight, alone or connected, large or small?
The interpretation is entirely up to the audience. This step answers the WHY question. If you put the analyzed pieces back together, what did the dance mean to you and why? What connections or relationships did you see between the performers and each other or between the movement and the music? Locate and describe any imagery or movement that evokes a picture of something for you. Is the theme obvious or is the situation presented as an event you could recognize or relate to? How would you describe your mood after watching the dance and what contributed to your reaction?
The evaluation answers the question Did the dance do what it set out to do? Most audience members will have a response to a dance, and personal opinions are one step, but it is important to stretch further and explain how the dance succeeded or fell short of its goal. Many choreographers place clues in the title, music choice, choreographic tools utilized, or costume color that can help a reviewer connect the piece together or compare it to others. Sometimes a choreographer will discuss the inspiration for a dance in the program notes or provide a quotation to give the audience a sense of why the dance was created. Some choreographers seek to explore movement and design without attempting to communicate a specific message. Were you able to enjoy the movement journey and appreciate movement for its own sake? Occasionally, the dancer’s performance can greatly affect the piece in a positive or negative way. The evaluation can be a place to discuss live performance aspects and identify areas of improvement, or what you might like to see next.
Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process
Although dance critiques are a useful exercise for writers in honing their craft, offering a critical perspective to a beginning choreographer is challenging, as one does not want to share non-constructive, or poorly considered criticism; it doesn’t serve a positive purpose and can inhibit another student’s creativity. Inconsiderate criticism is offered before it is requested, can be purposefully unkind, or attempts to remake the work of another. To avoid inconsiderate criticism, dance students and choreography teachers grapple with finding effective methods of communicating about choreography in ways that can improve the product and not alienate the creator.
As part of the ongoing learning process, dance teachers, professionals, and choreography students engage in sharing feedback about dance pieces. Because dance exists on our bodies, it can be difficult to separate the dancer from the dance and it can also be challenging to give and receive constructive feedback. Liz Lerman, modern dance choreographer and founder of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a multigenerational dance company based in Washington, D.C. (1976-2011), created a feedback method called the Critical Response Process to reduce anxiety about showing unfinished and finished work. This method is designed to help artists make dances more of what they intended by creating a safe space to share a dialogue about the dance piece.
The process has four steps for the artist and the responder (the audience):
- Responders provide statements of meaning that describe what was meaningful or striking about the work.
- The artist asks specific questions of the responders.
- Responders ask neutral questions about the work, without offering opinions to the artist.
- The artist either can ask for responders’ opinions or choose not to elicit opinions.