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SPOTLIGHT:
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Dancing with tenses

by Lewis J Whittington
August 15, 2014
It is an hour after a dance performance and you are a dance writer trying to organize your thoughts about what you have just witnessed. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it can be daunting to convert moving pictures into a 600-word review with perceptive meaning. But you are in the zone and your ideas are humming along as you try to write a cogent, entertaining review, when suddenly you are tangled up in tenses.

A review of a recently attended live performance automatically implies everything will be described in the past tense. The mechanics of writing engaging prose to describe what happens in the temporal stage world of dance performance requires an amount of stylistic and grammatical finesse. Grammatically, past participle perfect tense is in order. But that stricture can also weigh down your style. What are the governing applicable, if not perfect, rules of grammar or any exceptions to those rules.

I checked my 1999 edition of "The New York Times' Manual of Style and Usage" and it does not have concrete rules regarding tenses for review writing. But what most newspaper and magazine editors are always expecting structured and clear declarative sentences. It is a balancing act of past- present-perfect- progressive tenses. Although there would be logical reasons to keep the review text in past perfect tense as in they danced around, not they dance around. There is also compelling reason, in discerning prose style, to use past perfect progressive or action tense that jumps off the page better.

Noted 20th century dance writer Edwin Denby acknowledged the 'clumsiness' of writing about dance with the determinedly elusive goal of being that even if an unversed dance reader will be drawn in if the writer conjures "vivid picture of what actually happened onstage."

Using past perfect progressive draws the reader in and evokes more visual immediacy. Grammar masters William Strunk and E.B. White in "The Elements of Style" indirectly support this approach in this entry about tenses-

"In summarizing the action of a drama, the writer should use the present tense." can clearly be applied to dance-writing, but the they also follow that rule by asserting the writer "may use the past if it is more natural to do so" the revered grammarians advise. That seems to settle the matter, but they are also self-contradictory with the directive to be consistent throughout because "shifting from one tense to another gives the appearance of uncertainty…" So much for the experts.

The nature of dance performance itself often calls for traveling tenses. What if you are comparing the same dancer reprising a role and making the point the they were better in one than the other. The previous one would have to be couched in the past perfect tense next to present progressive. The 'tense' tango often comes in references to the choreographic content vis-à-vis the dancer's performance. Here's a serviceable example from a 2009 review by New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay:

"Ms. Vishneva…danced Juliet with liquid ease and riveting focus; Mr. Gomez's Romeo is an embodiment of chivalry."

The tenses are on a dance time continuum, and Macaulay's points about the performance moments are perfect clear in the respective inferred time lines.

Consider this 'you are there' passage from dance critic Christopher Blank, in a review of Ballet Memphis, using a real-time prose re-enactment of a dance scene, skillfully illustrate present perfect form. "To start, happy hub workers in white suits move robotically to the urgings of a plucky string quartet. Shipping boxes pass briskly across this conveyor belt made of people." ("Ballet Memphis performers soar in 'Taking Flight' Commercial Appeal, 2013). This prose imagery is so potently evoked through words that any tense adjustment would mar its clarity. It has a 'you are there' atmosphere always an engaging journalistic quality. Get the picture.
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