A Critical (Performance) Manifesto[1]

I

I don’t know about criticism in general particular but I kind of know about writing in general. Or maybe my “Freudian slip” was correct. I don’t know about criticism in general, but I do know about writing in particular. Writing is being particular.

And peculiar—the dismay that “it’s all been written before” seems to me actually the dismay that “all the easy things have been said before.” You know that feeling; that “dialing it in” actually won’t be good enough? This feeling always terrifies at first, because what if you have nothing new to say? But what lies underneath that fear is an even greater one: that the new thing you have to say is weird. Possibly powerful… but definitely rejectable.

At least that’s an experiential analog for my thought process. Vulnerability sucks and is hard. But I guess I’ve trial-and-errored my way to the belief that the only way out is through—and faking it doesn’t work.

My mentor (Maestra, we call her)[2] says that when she’s reading she needs to see you make yourself into a character. If you’re bitter or angry or resentful it will come out, and then she won’t trust you. But if you too see yourself as bitter or angry or resentful and can laugh at yourself a little bit, then you can own your subjectivity and move on. The “view from nowhere” doesn’t exist; we might as well stop pretending. You can’t be the whole audience, you can only be you. Readers can enjoy it, or they can read on elsewhere.

 

II

I don’t know about performance criticism in particular but I know about performing in general. As a writer about performance, you should try to feel empathy for the particular terror of stepping into a live art form. You should not confuse a piece of constructive criticism with an opportunity to lambast. On the other hand, nor should you view a piece of praise as a necessarily valuable gift to an artist. (Another mentor, Mark[3], upon hearing I’ve seen a show, immediately asks, “What did you think?” He is not interested in the surface-level “It was good!” or “I liked it.” Even if my friends were in it, even if his friends were in it—especially then.)

You should fuck the word “should.”

You should know that my opinion is that performance, and thus performance criticism, is a unique case—it’s not a conversation… it’s more like a pair of parallel monologues in different languages. What makes it not a conversation is that the artist doesn’t get to speak back, especially not in the same form, especially when the medium is dance. And one of the “speakers” (that is, the performance artist) always originates the “conversation”! Well sort of; I guess you could argue that the artist too is responding to a previous monologue in a different language. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Okay fine.

Maybe I’m being too precious about the “sanctity of live performance.”[4] And yet I persist in insisting upon this.

Okay so maybe it’s more like the beginning of a debate—opening statement and rebuttal—but the debater (that is, the critic) need not disagree? But they do need to add something! So maybe “conversation” is an apt word. The set of actions just doesn’t phenomenologically feel like a conversation.

If it is a conversation, it’s an odd one, protracted over a lot of time and space.

 

III

Like a conversation via love letters. I think critiques should acknowledge that more often than not they are a (sometimes highly encrypted) love letter. How does the critic endure such a labor if not out of love?

And one who loves does not take the easy way out; does not use “problematic” as grounds for dismissing a piece, when really what is needed is a look at what value a piece might offer in spite of its problems. Does not say “It didn’t like it,” and leave the un-thought hanging in the air like a feather in the air.

One last mentor: “But I mean we gotta get over this ‘I liked this’, ‘That was less well-done,’ Audrey. We know that, we take it as a given that you respect the artist and her work. We have to move from making value judgments to making arguments about the work we see. It’s the way of giving the work and the artist the highest amount of respect.”

Still, I remember watching a recording of William Forsythe’s Quintett with him. The “black market”[5] video was amateur but clear enough. Tommy[6] admitted that the end of the dance—which was, many have said, one giant love letter from Forsythe to his late wife—always rendered him speechless. “I mean what can you say, really?” was what I think he said.

 

 

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Notes

[1] Thanks to Claudia La Rocco, for this assignment.

[2] Cherríe Moraga.

[3] Mark Jackson.

[4] See Elena Hecht’s comment to the piece “Acting,” by Siobhan Burke, on The Performance Club. http://tinyurl.com/la4dy9z

[5] Meaning, bootlegged and dutifully circulated amongst fellow academics, critics, and/or artists.

[6] Thomas DeFrantz.