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Final report on
“Critical Endeavour / Prix Jardin d’Europe”,
in the framework of ImPulsTanz 2008, Vienna

As part of the larger European project Jardin d’Europe, ImPulsTanz 2008 hosted the first edition of a training and workshop programme for young dance journalists called Critical Endeavour. Together with the project Prix Jardin d’Europe, the programme was realised between 21st July and 10 August of 2008.

It brought together eleven journalists from ten countries (nominated via the participating partner institutions) and was to combine practical training in writing tools and conducting a selection process to award one choreographer among twelve pieces presented within the [8:tensions]+ Young Choreography series, curated by Christa Spatt.

The aspect of creating new realities and of giving a framework to rethink some of the aspects that are usually presupposed in dance writing and dance appreciation were among the most important points of interest within this programme in which I had been invited to participate as a mentor.

Project structure

Dance criticism needs professionalisation and larger acceptance both by the field and within the media landscape – this was one of the basic observations from which the set up was starting.

It turned out quite quickly during preparation that the three weeks’ duration should concern three thematic units called

1) definition of tasks: What does a critic actually do?

2) reversal of roles: What do choreographers think of it?

3) realities: how to define the responsibilities for critical acts?

 

For each one of these topics, one to two guests were invited to conduct workshop-like meetings to give input, to discuss, to work on texts written by the participants. Within these blocks with more or less self-explanatory subjects, the two general axes of the programme had to be pursued: critical writing and jury work.

The aim was to present a wide range of approaches and ethical insights concerning both activities and to deepen an understanding of responsibility at stake in evaluation, selection, judgement –– be they in reviewing existing work or in encouraging future work.

Durchführung

As the participants were quite diverse in their background, their relation to the field of contemporary dance and performance, and their experience in writing and authorship issues, the workshop had to meet with several demands.

It became obvious within the first days that besides apparent problems of fluency in English (the common working language throughout Critical Endeavour), participants were not used to work with concise formats of writing (such as restriction of characters / words, limited time for writing, meeting deadlines). Also some participants had problems to sustain their impression or to make explicit their “feel” of a show or choreographic statement when asked insistently to do so.

Furthermore, certain individual strategies and formulae in reviewing work appeared to be more mechanically adopted than intellectually sought for. Most invited experts therefore worked on issues which might be called “technical”:

  • investigating stylistic and rhetorical figures such as adjectivation, qualification, elliptic writing
  • subjectivity of criteria (see notes by Pieter T’Jonck), sublinguistic criteria and elaboration of piece-related criteria
  • clarity of statement and structure of article
  • own implication (physical, intellectual, participatory …)

 

More general aspects were continuously brought to the fore during the individual work sessions:

Tiago Bartolomeu Costa raised the topic of what role critical discourse should claim and can have, and where the realms of individual discursive power and macro structural mechanisms confront, merge, subvert, or affirm each other. The critical position can never be innocent, just as an artistic statement cannot be disregardful of its discursive environment.

Pieter T’Jonck questioned the individual competence by hinting at the structural lack of knowledge (viewing experience, knowledge about the artist and the social context, historicity) and the necessity to first see what was there before explaining or evaluating what was understood.

Hooman Sharifi explained the way in which dance makers can claim independence from existing structures of dance criticism by either refusing to use it as a publicity and marketing tool, or by inviting selected authors to produce writing rather than be reviewed at random by regular newspaper critics.

Gia Kourlas insisted on the continuity of writing as a self-sustaining system, the necessity of producing writing “as much as possible” and to conceive of dance criticism as a field of its own (history, subject matter, style, business, etc.) which tends to overcharge the individual writer but draws its strength from the very specificity of its actors and the complexity of the artistic field.

Gérard Mayen considered the making of the dance piece (as “oeuvre”) in the act of viewing and introduced some elements of his ongoing research on movement analysis as a basis for dance criticism by conducting an exercise in which each participant was invited to view a work according to different tasks (focussing on movement, focussing on objects, writing continuously, listening to different music, etc.).

 

All of these propositions helped to draw a broad picture of possible aspects and challenges related to dance criticism as a professional field. Each actor needs to shape their own reality, but in constant dialogue with the realities around.

 

Public appearance of the project

Reality making was also part of the three public appearances of Critical Endeavour, realised in the form of open forum discussions of the participants with interested audiences. All three of these encounters (they have been audio-recorded) promoted a communication of common as well as conflicting interests.

  • The first was about the self-understanding and the quest for a new kind of exchange between criticism and art-making;
  • the second was about what choreographers and dancers expect form dance criticism;
  • the third one tried to raise questions about the ethics and the responsibilities in awarding and the necessity to consider this beyond narcissistic impressions or power relations.

 

A second element of outside visibility was the cooperation with Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard. Due to some last-minute changes in the cooperative scheme, this part was less in tune with the project than originally planned, but nevertheless offered a worthwhile experience for the participating authors who created a full page in the regular edition of 7 August of 2008, dedicated to the different cultural and especially discursive backgrounds present in the group, and their influence on critical practice and self-understanding.

The presentation of the jury’s decision within the Award Gala on 9 August was a third element of public visibility. Each member of the Jury delivered a short statement of interest for each piece in the [8:tensions]+ selection, thereby insisting on the fact that each one piece was appreciated and thoroughly considered, and also introducing each member of the Jury in person, in style, and in face.

Jury work

Concerning the second axis, the process proved just as complex. After having seen almost all the performances in the [8:tensions]+ series twice, the group had very diverse, even opposing attitudes towards the award and the pieces eligible for being awarded.

Long and intensive deliberations were necessary so as to understand, respect, and make constructive these oppositions. The agreement had been set quite early that wherever possible, no one would be overruled and that neither numerical systems nor sheer majority votes should be adopted. The issue at stake therefore was to reconcile individual criteria and appreciation with group issues and readability concerns of the overall picture.

As is explained in the final jury statement, the creative reshuffling of the award’s conditions helped to find a consensual and, as it were, creative solution to the intense debate and the media and material reality which would be created with the award. In retrospect, this process and its successful outcome seems to me one of the most worthwhile results of Critical Endeavour / Prix Jardin d’Europe.

Conclusion

It is my firm impression that the three week programme has marked each one of the participants and will have helped them in gaining a clearer vision of their role and capacity within a complex field; during the last public discussion someone has called it “the choreographic industry”. If Critical Endeavour has achieved to (re) shape the view of this industry and to reattribute some roles within it, then the project can be considered a full success.

Franz Anton Cramer, August of 2008

 

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