Hi, how are you, I recently discovered that dance criticism has been dead since 2015 and I’m real sad about it.
How did I discover this very under-the-radar tragedy? I went to see Edward Clug’s Carmina Burana the other night–produced by Montreal’s Grands Ballets, along with another Clug piece, Stabat Mater on the program–and when I tried to read about the choreography later, the internet left me very uncharacteristically at a loss.
The first short review I found claimed that “music is the star” of the performances. Which I’m sure made any number of the incredibly talented dancers in the company, not to mention the choreographer, feel super warm and fuzzy inside… (To be fair, yes, the music is amazing, and yes, the Grands Ballets orchestra definitely upped their game and yes the solos were beautiful… Still…)
The second review focused on the fact that the choreographer’s main job lay in pulling this star-quality music away from the audience’s common associations with it (ie: big budget action films).
At which point I decided to go poking around in the French journals to see what they thought.
The Journal de Montréal review contained an interesting reflection on the significance of the massive ring, which formed the majority of the set design, along with lighting. In the choreography, dancers were both pulled to and repulsed by it, which makes sense, given that the circle itself represents the wheel of fortune (O Fortuna, velut luna, etc.). And really, what is one’s fate if not at times times attractive and at other times repulsive?
And Le Devoir focused on the sheer number of dancers on the stage, and the effect created by their simultaneous movement: “L’impact vient de la démultiplication, de l’effet produit par le grand nombre de danseurs. La beauté naît de voir un geste sur des dizaines de corps répétés et de la plus-value d’énergie que cette accumulation produit. C’est le levier chorégraphique principal qu’utilise le chorégraphe.”
Now, what’s special about the Devoir’s review is that it is pretty resoundingly negative. And that’s fine. And it was a well-written review with a distinct point of view that points out some of the stylistic (Carmina) and sociopolitical (Stabat) problems of the program. But what’s frustrating about this review is that it makes some great points, but it does not quite do the work of taking the ballet on its own terms, in order to judge whether it lives up to its own project. Yes, for example, some of the “humouristic” movements fell flat. I agree. But why did they fall flat? And why was there physical humour in a piece about the suffering of the Virgin Mary (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) at all?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think these pieces represent journalistic “fail” by any means, (maybe the first one). And we all know, from Rory Gilmore, how tough it is to review ballet. What I think has happened is that no one (or no one paid to write in a daily) really knows what’s going on in ballet/dance anymore. Which is to say, I’m not sure that anyone has any language for tying movements of the human body to meaning.
We seem to have a lot of ways of talking about music and set design, props and costumes, political implications and gender. But very little language to express what it means when an entire stage of dancers lie down on the floor and start shaking erratically, as though charged with electricity. Was it the passion of spring? Was it a nod toward early modern psychiatric therapies? Was it supposed to be funny?
There is so much going on in modern ballet. And it is so rich and so very ephemeral. Which is to say that it is as breathtaking as it is fleeting.
Here’s a quick thought exercise, to compare an art that is symbolically driven but text-based, to an art that is abstract but has no tangible / reproducible Thing.
Imagine you’re at a poetry reading, and you’re trying to figure out what the text is “about” and the author keeps coming back to some weird allegory about a lamp and a cucumber and you’re like “Uh huh…the lamp is probably knowledge and the cucumber is a phalice, but why they’re on a yacht in the middle of Lake Michigan is really anyone’s guess…umm…the alliteration is pretty though…” and it’s confusing and weird but also enjoyable and if you haven’t understood the full impact of the Thing, at least you can buy (or google) a printed version of the Thing and go back and read it a dozen more times until you figure it out.
So, imagine that, but with over thirty bodies on a stage and no text. And an orchestra. And the visceral connection of being a human body watching other human bodies contort themselves to rhythm.
The human body contains all the potential to form imagery, tone, and plot points, in at least in the same capacity as poetry or music. So shouldn’t we talk about it in at least as much detail as other forms?
I have to admit I spent only a small amount of time searching around for other writing on dance–mainly looking into what had been written about other pieces I’m familiar with. And the only thing I learned is that ballet seems to be the only form of art (that I know of) where it is perfectly acceptable for a review to be a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, based on opinion.
And if that’s the case, I supposed I am at least qualified to give Edward Clug’s Carmina a thumbs up. With the small caveat that a double-Clug bill is just too much damn Clug. But, in and of themselves, and taking them on their terms as best I can, I enjoyed both pieces. They were dramatic, thought-provoking, and well executed.