Today we’ve got Kimberly Peterson back with her thoughts on So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD)…..
A teacher I had in college once told me that no one creates or performs a dance thinking it will be awful. No matter the outcome, they always begin with the idea of creating a great dance. There is always something, even a small thing, in that work that is valuable. When critiquing a piece, it is important to try to find the value they see in it and harness your critique to that end. Through my education and into my professional life, I’ve held that notion close.
In the book Dancers Talking Dance, Larry Lavender approaches dance critique through his use of ORDER:
Observation – one carefully and consciously sees or attends to the work of art.
Reflection –viewers describe and analyze the aesthetic object or experience.
Discussion – share reflective notes, formulate and discuss interpretations of the meaning and significance of the dance.
Evaluation – judgments are articulated and debated.
Recommendations/Revision – recommend how the work could be reshaped, assess revised dance.
While lately, I’ve been overjoyed with the caliber of performance and the quality of the works presented, I’ve been left more than a little disappointed by the lack of quality feedback and critique offered to the dancers competing, as well as to the audience both in studio and at home.
The show, while built on drama and entertainment, is also a beacon for the dance world – inviting millions of weekly viewers into the performance and choreographic process, as well as providing them an outlet to speak of dance, to learn about dance and to educate themselves aesthetically.
It’s clear the show is aware of its broad influence with the Dizzy Feet Foundation, the boards who regularly discuss the finer points of the dances/dancers, their work with the White House for National Dance Day as well as the public’s shift in popularity of genres. Which is why I find it so odd that the dialogue from the judges is often very poor, focusing on a dancer’s story or appearance. Worse still, the criticism can completely dissolve into loud noises or fall back on preconceived assumptions. I’ll give you a few recent examples:
Dance performance and focusing on the Story
Marko Germar’s fantastic performance of Travis Wall’s contemporary statue piece was stunted by the response from Nigel that he worries about him because of the bullet lodged in his shoulder. Really Nigel? You worry about an injury he sustained a while ago, has been working through, is cleared by doctors? You worry about that in the middle of the performance?
This focus on his injury takes the focus off the dance itself – instead of turning the focus onto his performance in the work, not with his injury – but despite it. Regardless of their body’s condition, which is likely to get pretty rough towards the end of this competition, the idea is that they continue to excel. How can the judges expect this kind of rigor and then sabotage it with their dialogue? Comments like this give the dancers nothing to work with, they don’t further the comprehension of the dance work, and they don’t direct the dialogue towards the performance at hand – but rather tangential stories with no relationship to the work.
Dance performance and focusing on the Body
Auditions revealed, as they always do, how the judges deal with difference. Santa krumper was a prime example of a dancer they found to be unattractive – not desirable. However, he had technique, he had a character, he had a great personality and he did perform the movement well. Now was he right for the show, no. He was limited in scope, not likely to do well with choreography and they were right to send him home. But the dialogue during their critique – specifically the screams of disgust by Mary during his audition is more than simply not constructive, it’s unprofessional.
There was no discussion about his technique or his character or personality – it was a patronizing glossing over of a situation that they were either unwilling or unable to deal with. This lack of dialogue does a great disservice to the changing role of the body in dance, the politics of a body in motion, and the cultural shifts happening towards dancers and ability.
Dance performance and focusing on Assumptions
In a similar vein, the critique and even the support of dancers of difference can be just as patronizing, and just as destructive to discourse, as outright dismissal. This was made very clear during the audition and resulting Vegas week for Natalia, Top 20 Sasha’s sister.
While the judges were overall accepting of her dancing and performance, it was always done with the notion that they were astonished that she could move that well – you know, being big and all. The comments from Nigel, while seeming to be accepting, were often double edged. Comments such as “you’ve got a lot more to move out there than the other girls” or “you obviously don’t have the ideal physique” but then always quick to add, that he was impressed with her ability.
There was no real discussion with her that didn’t focus on the judges assumptions being smashed. There was no treating her like any other dancer, it was always the assumption first followed by their continued astonishment that she could do the same choreography at a similar caliber.
To be fair, I think they made the right decision to not put her on the show. She was very good and I think she should try again next year after working a bit more on her performance and some technical skills. But she wasn’t quite at the caliber of the other dancers chosen for the Top 20 this year. The competition was extremely tough, specifically with the ladies.
But while they encourage her to continue to knock down barriers, knock down walls, they themselves keep those same walls up. And instead of treating her as you would any professional dancer, they once again focus on their own assumptions instead of critiquing the dance/dancer at hand.
Dance performance and focusing on Experience
Mary’s screaming is a cop out – plain and simple. While it expresses her joy in the experience, it communicates nothing else. Her screams and over-exuberance are little more than a giant red flag for “I have nothing valuable to contribute”.
Even with Iveta, she doesn’t use her technical expertise to contribute to the dialogue about the styles, but instead dissolves the discussion into screaming matches. This happened three times in the course of the first 20 performers: Miranda & Robert, Missy & Wadi, Iveta & Nick. About one in every three performances.
And what is with all the name dropping? Nearly every other word from Nigel or Mary was a choreographer, a project, a personal memory about the style’s evolution…half the limited critique space was devoted to nothing more than commercial filler. Very disappointing.
Truthfully, the commentary from Megan Mullany during the first week of the show was stellar in my opinion. Not only was she very on point, she often drove the discussion forward and elevated the dialogue. I often feel like the judges play to only Observation, Reflection and some Discussion while completely ignoring the Evaluation or Recommendation aspects.
Further, this lack of a critical eye and proper evaluation was made clear in the decision by the judges to not eliminate two dancers after the first week of voting. It highlighted the lack of critique, the focus on the dancers’ stories, their own experiences, and their own expectations in place of honest evaluation.
I certainly hope that we see more of a critical eye, more honest evaluation, as the show continues because the dialogue is so important to the dancers, their audience’s aesthetic education and pushing the field of dance as a whole.
Critique is very important for a number of reasons. It helps shape dialogue by which people speak about the art-form. It trains people to look beyond their initial reactions to discover why it is they enjoy what they do and what specifically it is that they enjoy. It not only takes the pulse of the culture and its relationship to the art-form, but it helps shape it. To give the audience great dance performances is only half the battle at best, if the dialogue isn’t set in the right direction.
Contributor Kimberly Peterson is a transplant to Minneapolis from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. She has received her Bachelors and Masters of Arts degrees from Texas Woman’s University’s prestigious dance program.
Her graduate research entitled: B-Sides: Independent Record Labels and the Representation of Dancers explored the parallels between the independent music industry and current methods of dancer representation. This research has produced a vision of a for-profit system of representation for the arts based largely on the institutional structures of independent record labels, for profit businesses, and the unique atmosphere of her time at Texas Woman’s University. This research is still developing and Kimberly continues to develop her research for future presentation and publication.
She has taught as a substitute teacher for Denton Dance Conservatory, a pilot after-school program with the Greater Denton Arts Council, a master class series with Dance Fusion and a number of personally choreographed works. She has also served from 2000-2004 as the assistant to the coordinator of KidsDance: Rhythms for Life – a lecture demonstration on the principles of dance to area second graders that is now in its 11th season.
Drawing on her experience with producing dance works, Kimberly has served as a lighting designer, stage manager, event coordinator, volunteer and as an advisor in various roles: most recently RedEye Theatre, The Soap Factory, Minnesota Fringe Festival and MNPR’s Rock the Garden in collaboration with the Walker Arts Center.
She was also a featured choreographer, representing her university at the American College Dance Festival Association’s South Central Region’s informal concert series in 2002. Her work has been commissioned by Tarrant County College in 2006 and has been set upon Zenon Dance Studio’s scholarship dancers as a featured choreographer in 2010.