23 Eylül 2018 Pazar

Dance Criticism: A Dialogue Between Art and Understanding

Berna Kurt[*] 
February, 2018

(Paper presented at ADD-IST Theory in Art and Design Symposium & Exhibition. For the proceedings booklet please see: https://www.aydin.edu.tr/tr-tr/akademik/fakulteler/guzelsanatlar/Documents/addist.pdf)


Dance criticism searches for an understanding of dance and creates a language for understanding dance. It opens a dialogue between art and understanding. Giving feedback to the artists, creating a discourse, creating and chronicling dance history, it also contributes to the development of the dance field itself. In Turkish context, where contemporary dance has a very short and complex history, we need dance criticism to “exist” on the cultural and artistic agenda.

Introducing the historical development and the contemporary practices of dance criticism, this paper takes the case of a dance and performance workshop organized in Istanbul and seeks for recommendations for better practices.

Keywords: Dance criticism, art criticism, choreography, collective writing

Dans Eleştirisi: Sanat ile Zihinsel Algının Diyaloğu

Dans eleştirisi, dansı algılayabilmemizi sağlayacak bir dil inşa etme çabasıdır. Sanat ile zihinsel algının diyaloğa girmesine katkıda bulunur. Sanatçılara geri dönüş yaparak, söylem inşa ederek, dans tarihi yazımına katkı sağlayarak, dans alanının gelişimine de katkıda bulunur. Çağdaş dansın Türkiye’deki kısa süreli ve gelgitli tarihsel bağlamında, bu sanat türünün kültür-sanat gündeminde kendini “var edebilmesi” için ihtiyaç duyduğu bir alandır.

Dans eleştirisinin tarihsel arka planını ve günümüzdeki uygulamalarını tartışarak başlayan bu çalışma, İstanbul’da yürütülen bir dans ve performans yazım atölyesinden hareketle, uygulamada ortaya çıkan sorunlar ile alanı geliştirmeye yönelik olası önerileri tartışmaktadır.

Anahtar Kelimeler: Dans eleştirisi, sanat eleştirisi, koreografi, kolektif yazım


1.      Dance Criticism in Theory and History

1.1. Why (Do We Need) Art Criticism?
Art criticism gives rise to an elaborated aesthetic experience of artworks and contributes to the development of a theoretical discourse on arts. Sometimes pointing out to new artistic developments, it broadens art followers’, the audiences’, participants of artistic events’ perspectives. Building a ‘knowledge’ or theory by making definitions, categorisations and judgements, it also implies its power upon the artistic fields.

1.2. Why (Do We Need) Dance Criticism?
“Criticism in its ideal form would create discourse, translate the discourse created in and by dance into “the public”, and open a continuous dialogue between art and understanding. It would be less about taste and its hierarchies, and more about viewing and contextualizing.” (Cramer, 2004.)

Having a sophisticated historical and theoretical background on dance, the dance critics or dance writers analyze the artworks from a broader perspective –i.e. evaluating them in the context of the historical, choreographic or artistic tradition, making connections and comparisons... etc.

In a methodological order; observing, describing, analyzing, interpreting and evaluating a dance piece and sometimes adding more information about the artists, the company, the relevant style, school or genre… etc, they provide a detailed account to the reader. Broadening the reader’s viewing, experiencing and evaluating possibilities; they contribute to the knowledge and discourse on dance. Producing written documents, they also contribute to the dance historiography and archiving.

1.3. Dance Writing in Historical Context
Dance writing can be traced back to pre-Renaissance period, but ‘dance criticism’ -in the form of a review published in journals or newspapers, evaluating some elements of staged performances- began in 17th century.

In 18th and 19th centuries’ Western world, some dance writers -generally having no dancing experience and also writing in other artistic fields- published their reviews.
After the 20th century, the dancers’ and choreographers’ accounts on dance have been proliferated and dance criticism began to be a much more ‘professional’ work in terms of expertise and financial benefit. Increased numbers of choreographer-critics published dance reviews. Dancers, choreographers, producers, managers, dramaturgs, critics, scholars and audiences / participants collaborated more than the past. (Theodores, 1979).
For example, the dance critics / writers aren’t considered as the first hand creators of dance pieces but recently some of them are also taking part in the choreographic processes. Attending rehearsals, undertaking the role of ‘outsider’s eye’ or first spectator’, commenting on the early phases of the work and giving feedback to the artists, they contribute to the aesthetic development of individual dance pieces. Some of them work in the preparatory phases of a work and undertake the needed documentary research; meanwhile reflecting and commenting on the orientation of the artistic work in progress. This summer, I will do a similar (dramaturgical) work during a residiency in Bonn with Tümay Kılınçel and Baly Nguyen. Our choreographic research project We’R’Dansöz” will be based on the ‘belly dance’ and contemporary dance to be (re)constructed as a medium of self-empowerment for women (http://www.theaterwrede.de/flausen/werdansoez/)
In recent historical context of inter-disciplinarity, the dance critic’s / writer’s function becomes multiple and varied. Historical and theoretical knowledge and -if possible- kinesthetical, physical or technical experience are needed to make a critical reflection on dance.

As long as the ‘author’ is a subject in question, considering the artist’s intention and priorities rather than the writer’s / critic’s personal judgements takes precedence.

The dance writer / critic is considered as a kind of mediator between the choreographer and its follower / audience, the creator of a dialogue between art and understanding. If the dance piece is designed to deconstruct such artist-audience relation, s / he can also contribute to the creative process with his/her feedbacks. Such sense of ‘creativity’ can also be applied in the very act of writing a dance review. Producing a sophisticated as much as creative and accessible account is always possible (Theodores, 1979).

2. (My) Dance Criticism in Practice

2.1. My Background as a “Critic” or “Dance Writer”
Since the mid 1990’s, I have been involved in various contexts as performer, choreographer, translator, editor, dance researcher and instructor. In my studies, I combine various disciplines like dance history, ethnochoreology, performance studies, political theory and gender studies.

My first attempts of dance writing began in 2006. My short dance reviews have been published in newspapers, theatre journals, some performing art portals etc. Then I began to collect and publish all my writings in a personal blog called “dansyazıları” (http://dansyazilari.blogspot.com.tr/) in 2010.

The critical point in my interest in dance criticism was the Summer of 2008: I have been selected as the “emergent dance writer from Turkey” by Bimeras Cultural Foundation. Therefore, I have been granted to participate in Critical Endeavour educational and workshop programme for emerging dance and performance journalists, organized in the framework of ImPulsTanz – Vienna International Dance Festival. This project was realized in the frame of the multi-annual cooperation project Jardin d’Europe, funded by the Culture Programme of the European Union.

During this three weeks’ festival, under the mentorship of the German dance critic Franz Anton Cramer, eleven dance writers from different countries participated in workshops from four dance critics (Tiago Bartolomeu Costa, Gérard Mayen, Gia Kourlas and Peter T’Jonck). We also saw choreographic work programmed during ImPulsTanz and acted as a jury for the Ö1 Prix Jardin d’Europe award. (ImPulsTanz-Vienna International Dance Festival’s e-archive, https://www.impulstanz.com/en/archive/2008/proscene/id1925/). Thanks to that experience; I had the opportunity to “question, challenge and expand the boundaries of what constitutes the ‘choreographic’” (http://www.jardindeurope.eu/index.php?id=39) And two years later, I also get involved as a co-coach in the same workshop’s edition in my native country, in the framework of iDANS04 (Istanbul 4th International Contemporary Dance & Performance Festival).

As such, getting a much larger viewpoint on choreography and continuing to write on dance, I had a different international opportunity in 2013: an invitation from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland –organizing the 600th year of Turkish-Polish diplomatic relationship celebrations’ cultural program. Related to their aim of cultural cooperation and exchange between professionals writing about art, I made a four days’ study visit in Poland; participated in dance festivals in two different cities: Varsaw Dance Days and International Dance Theatres Festival in Lublin. I watched many dance performances and participated in the conference entitled: “Image of the Polish Dance Throughout the World”. Finally I summed up my impressions in a feature to be published in their culture.pl website, TEB Oyun Turkish theatre journal and my personal blog.

I also get participated in Orsolya Bálint’s and Evren Erbatur’s workshops organized by DansYazım in 2016, the initiative who invited me to do my first workshop on dance criticism that I will mention below in detail.

2.2. My First Workshop on Dance Criticism
My first professional experience as a mentor of a dance criticism workshop happened in October 2016, during the second edition of the A Corner in the World performing arts festival in Istanbul.

The Dance and Performance Writing Workshop within A Corner in the World Festival was a part of a bigger project aiming at establishing a platform of dance writers who, by their different backgrounds and experience, would start a fresh discourse about contemporary dance in Istanbul. It was the second event organised within the Dans Yazım Project. (http://www.acornerintheworld.com/dance-writing-workshop/)

During the festival, ten workshop participants were required to attend three performances out of the five I had previously chosen. They were also required to attend panel discusssions with the artists after the performances -enhancing closer understanding and collaboration between critics and artists themselves. They were expected to hand in at least one review.

Our meetings were organized as three hours of intensive workshop throughout three days in two weeks and a feedback and discussion session at the end. I firstly gave an introductory lecture about dance research, then tried to summarize the Western theatrical dance history and the Turkish dance scene. Last part of my theoretical lectures was about the different approaches and styles of dance criticism. During the workshops, we made quick personal writings and collective feedbacks. We also shared our impressions about our pre-selected performances and made little group discussions. In the last session, we gave feedback on each othersreviews, I facilitated a collective writing and we evaluated the workshop itself to better organize similar ones in future.

A blog is created by the organisers of the project where all the participant reviews have been published. The blog was bilingual -Turkish and English. Some of those writings were based on very personal impressions and had poetic languages; few others were more analytical. The reviews of Mine Söyler, Ömer Uysal, Lale Madenoğlu, Elif Ekinci and Müge Olacak on the pieces of Nancy Naous ‘These Shoes Are Made For Walking’; Ceren Oran’s ‘Heimat... Los!’, Gizem Aksu’s ‘Yu’ and Mokhallad Rasem’s ‘Body Revolution’ were published as a result of the two week programme. And the collective writing of Lale Madenoğlu, Elif Ekinci, Didem Gökay and Ömer Uysal about the festival’s event “Walk around the Corner” showed a new approach to art writing by emphasising collective creativity and production. This last one was based on four participants’ personal sentences, adjectives, definitions, impressions etc. organized by me and re-written by a volunteer among them  (Dans Yazım - Festival Edition, p.7)

3. Concluding Remarks: Further Concerns for Dance Criticism

I learned so much from that experience as both dance writer and lecturer/researcher in performance studies. During the workshop, I tried to give much oral and written feedback to writers as a mentor, I facilitated collective feedbacks and works in small groups. I think that the mentors are there for experience sharing that’s why they mustn’intervene in the wordings and writing styles of the writers. I just tried to make very few and simple contributions to make the writings more accesible/easy-to-read -like subtitling, changing the places of some paragraphs, opening and simplifying some complex discussions… etc.

I also tried to remind the problem of power relations when we write; the need to refrain from imposing of power upon the artistic fields.

I think that getting the feedback of the participants for better workshops in future is very important. At the last meeting of our workshop, we discussed on the evaluation criteria and methods for the dance artistic pieces. We also questioned the function of our writings –for the choreographers, writers, performers, audience and festival organizators etc. Is it:

-Giving a feedback for artists?
-Opening a dialogue between art and understanding? (Cramer, 2013).
-Giving rise to an elaborated aesthetic experience of artworks?
-Creating a discourse or translating the discourse created in and by dance into “the public”/audience?
-Creating a language for understanding dance and searching for an understanding of dance (which is the purpose of dance criticism) (Theodores, 1979).
-Creating and chronicling dance history… producing written documents, contributing to the dance historiography and archiving/documentation in the long term? (Theodores, 1979).

When we prepare similar workshops, we need to practice as much as possible, especially to overcome the fear of writing most of us -especially the artists- have. We must open a space for much shorter, creative, maybe videographic feedback styles for artists –like the one we defined as “collective writing” in the workshop designed to overcome such fear of some participants or the “quick scan” style that I learned from Orsolya Bálint in her workshop.

In a country where contemporary dance has a very short history with ups and downs, Cramer’s concern below becomes much more meaningful:

Our artistic genre –dance- had been considered of little value compared to some established ones (painting in the middle ages, theatre in the age of enlightenment, architecture in the late 19th century)”, we “need discourse in order to impose ourself on the cultural agenda” (Cramer, 2003).

Therefore, “paying particular attention to facilitating an informed yet accessible discourse and writing on contemporary dance and performance practices” (Critical Endeavour 2010) is always an important endeavour both for audience development and the development of the dance field itself. We have to fight to “exist” in long term and I think that dance writing is one of those attempts of such “existence” or “survival”.


Cramer, Franz Anton. (03.02.2003). “Dance Criticism: Negotiating Knowledge, Taste and Power”, Sarma, http://sarma.be/docs/1037, [16.08.2013].

Cramer, Franz Anton. (16.11.2004). “Dance Criticism in Berlin / A Critic’s Perspective: Franz Anton Cramer”, Sarma, http://sarma.be/docs/968, [16.08.2013].

“Critical Endeavour 2008”, ImPulsTanz-Vienna International Dance Festival’s e-archive, https://www.impulstanz.com/en/archive/2008/proscene/id1925/, [18.12.2017].

“Critical Endeavour 2010”, http://www.jardindeurope.eu/index.php?id=39, [18.12.2017].

“Dans ve Performans Yazım Atölyesi”, A Corner in the World Festival web site, http://www.acornerintheworld.com/dance-writing-workshop/, [18.12.2017].

Dans Yazım (Dance and Performance Writing Workshop), A Corner in the World Festival festival edition (2016). https://dansyazimcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/dans-yazim-a-corner-in-the-world-festival-edition-oct-2016.pdf, [19.11.2016].

Kurt, Berna, personal blog: “Dans Yazıları-Berna Kurt” (http://dansyazilari.blogspot.com.tr/)

Theodores, Diana. “On Critics and Criticism of Dance”, New Directions on Dance, 1979. Sarma, http://sarma.be/docs/707, [12.08.2013].

We’R’Dansöz” Project, Flausen Young Artist in Residence web site, http://www.theaterwrede.de/flausen/werdansoez/

[*] Assoc. Prof. Dr. İstanbul Aydın University, Fine Arts Faculty, Arts Management Department, bernakurt@aydin.edu.tr.