Dance writing
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com

September 16, 2009

Apart from more mileage being given to Page 3 type of reportage, the shrinking of art coverage in publications has been attributed partly to bad quality of writing. Since there is no guidance available for budding dance writers, Narthaki.com conducted a week long dance writing workshop in July 2009. It was "a labor of love" for eminent critic Leela Venkataraman, the mentor of the workshop, as she set about guiding the earnest young dancers on how to shape themselves up into credible writers.

One of the activities of the workshop included a visit to the dance department of the MGR Janaki College, where she spoke about how she came to be a writer. Being in this field for around 40 years, she had so many observations to make, so many experiences to share and so many pointers to help budding writers improve their dance writing skills.

A critic in the West once wrote a piece on why she would not write about victim art, about a piece that had background video of Aids sufferers with dance in the foreground. The New Yorker magazine gave her two pages. This became a national issue. The debate ended in the verdict that once an art goes on stage, it becomes art. Dancer Lata Pada's guru objected to her 'Revealed by Fire' being a personal trauma put on stage. Watching shows evolved out of personal experiences, some comment that it amounts to self indulgence and they did not come to see a highlighting of someone's personal tragedy. While some identify many elements from a work as reflected in their own lives, others feel the artiste is trying to project herself as a tragedy queen. If a dancer brings in elements like Sita and tries to find a parallel, it would give the implication of trying to find legitimacy for the work. As a critic, the challenge is how you would react to such performances. It would be best to look at a work of art as itself and not try to transpose your convictions.

Regarding arts coverage, performances by established dancers are covered by demand. These dancers have already 'arrived'! It's the upcoming dancers that need to be written about. They need a sense of direction, to know where they should better themselves.
A big problem in true reporting is, no one wants to write about controversies. The most popular excuse is, "I want to write, but I can't." Either you write about such things rudely and be ostracized, or you make compromises, hold back on your evaluation and stay on. The writer may not like to do it, but is forced to. This is one of the main difficulties faced by a critic.

Writing frankly is fine but there is no need to be rude. Try and mention the truth not brutally but frankly and with no emotion visible in the writing. Rudeness as some believe in, would be hurting - and the aim of the critic is to educate and correct, not humiliate the artiste. Even more difficult is the criticism of very senior artistes who take umbrage and who one does not want to bring down in stature. How to treat these dancers in criticism, is far more difficult and a delicate job.

Dance writing is a tremendous responsibility because on this depends the truth of the perspective. Watch dance. Write about it. The more you watch, the better you can write. Write about the performance, not the performer. 'I was there' by a critic in the West is about 100 performances by people you have heard about but never seen. It is about the dance, how the audience reacted. This makes the beginnings of dance history. It is not necessary that one should only write about performances. Attending seminars and conferences is not only educative, but also provides opportunity for research and dance history. For non-dancers and dancer writers who do not wish to get involved in reviewing other dancers (and having to bear the brunt of dance politics!), this is a good avenue to channelize their writing skills.

Dance for stage and dance for film are different, and Merce Cunningham knew this only too well. For the video shoot, he would change the choreography so it brought out what he wanted to convey. He went behind the lens to see how it worked and altered the movement perspective to convey his ideas. Video documentation is also dance history but some believe that video art is art but not going to help as dance history as it can be manipulated.

When you write, you are recreating an experience for a reader. You may see many performances in a week, but you must be selective in what you need to write about, what particular quality of a performance appealed to you and all this put together in a word limit of 400 to 500 words that is allotted for a piece. It is a question of how you treat it in your writing - a person's appearance (a portly figure, yet the dancer has become the dance!), quality of dance, background, lights and so on. The criteria to become a critic is to watch, write, fall, make mistakes, see things better, pick up information, watch more, improve....slowly you will develop confidence to write what you feel and express your convictions.

A critic should not have a water tight mind. Opinions can change. Be generous to admit it. A good critic should have an open mind. Some knowledge of technicalities is essential and an openness to appreciate a performance. Just watch and don't compare the performance of one artiste with another. Have honesty of your convictions. If you don't understand something, don't be shy to ask. Get your doubts clarified. While watching some performances (for example, nudity on stage), you cannot afford to be prim and proper and moralise. Vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder!

Usage of too many technical terms will take you out of reach of general readership. It can be on a high level for scholarly magazines, but for the lay man, tone down the high sounding words. Of course, certain terms have to be used as these cannot be substituted. Continue to write (for yourself too), till you develop a flair for the language. To develop a vocabulary in dance writing, the more you write, the easier it would be. So, continue to write!

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This article was written as part of the dance writing workshop conducted by narthaki.com from July 18 - 24, 2009 in Chennai.