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Robert Abrams
How to Write a Good Dance Review

Some Tips on How to Write a Dance Review

by Robert Abrams
October 17, 2006
There are people who can write a review without taking notes during the performance. I am not one of them. There are basically two ways to take notes during a performance. The first method is to get a pen with a little light on the end, available at many stationary and office supply stores. These tend to be fairly discreet, but you still run the risk of annoying the audience members around you. If you want to avoid this, you need to learn how to write in the dark (in such a manner that you will be able to read what you wrote later). Here are some of my tips on how to write in the dark. I use a finger of my non-writing hand to keep my place on the page. I err on the side of using a lot of space between lines so I don't accidentally write two comments on top of each other. While I am watching the dance, I also try to visualize the shape of the letters as I am writing them. Try to be as quiet as possible as you flip the pages of your note pad.

Writing a dance review is basically a process by which you convert motion into text. There are several ways to approach this challenge. Here are some of the ways I approach the challenge. If you are seeing a program with many short works by many different dance companies, one way is to find one or two positive or interesting things to say about each work. This doesn't usually produce rich analysis, but it gets the job done. Another way is to choose to focus on one or two elements within the dance. For instance, you might decide to just focus on the costumes. If you are writing a review as part of a team, each team member could be assigned one aspect of the dance to focus on. Another way to approach writing a review is to try to create a "theory" of the dance in the first half of the dance, and then to use the second half of the dance to confirm or disprove this theory. Some dances are more amenable to this approach than others.

Some publications like dance reviews that are very objective: they describe what was performed in accurate detail and render a judgment based on generally agreed upon standards. Some publications like subjective reviews: you still need to accurately describe what you see, but you are also expected to invest the review with your unique perspective. For instance, I am a social dancer. I used to compete in Ballroom and now mostly dance West Coast Swing. This tends to color the way I react to partnering in ballet and other non-social forms of dance. Rather than pretending that your own background and experience doesn't exist, you can acknowledge relevant experiences in the review. So long as you don't let the review become entirely about you, it will likely strengthen your review. But keep in mind that this is a style choice. Reasonable people disagree on how much of the reviewer's self should show up in the review.

Reasonable people also disagree on whether you should read the program notes before seeing the dance. Brian McCormick thinks you should read the program notes. I sometimes feel that a reviewer shouldn't read the program notes before seeing the dance because the dance should be able to communicate its meaning through the dance itself without extra explanation. Sometimes I do read the program notes because I am looking for clues as to what I might want to look for in the dance. If you are seeing a story ballet, I recommend reading the program notes. This is especially true if the story is one you are not familiar with. My experience has been that story ballets are often staged with the assumption that the audience already knows the story. For those of you studying theatre, this would make story ballets more Brechtian than Stanislavskian because you are watching for how things happen, rather than what happens.

It is also important to keep in mind who you are writing for. Are you writing for your classmates, the rest of New York City, for tourists, or for the choreographer and dancers? How will your review help your audience become more capable?

How quickly will you write your review? A review written for publication the next day is known in the trade as an "overnight". While it is good practice to write the review as soon as you can, sometimes writing a draft and then letting it sit for a while gives you more time to deepen your analysis.

Finally, you are always welcome to incorporate short phrases or a sentence or two from someone else's writing, but make sure to use proper citations and links. A review is, usually, not an academic paper, so you don't need pages worth of references, but a few well placed citations or links will show the reader that you are sophisticated because you know what is going on in the world outside of the specific dance you are reviewing.

And just remember, the more you write, the better you will get at it. Chances are you won't end up working for a living as a dance critic, but if you can write intelligently about dance, you can write about anything. Writing well will open many doors.

(If you are serious about dance writing, consider joining the Dance Critics Association. They offer great resources for a modest membership fee.)
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