You Too Can Write A Review
by Stuart Sweeney
Much has been written about the Internet, but for me, bulletin
boards and sites like criticaldance.com represent one of the most
significant benefits. However, there is one opportunity that
surprisingly few people take up - the chance to write reviews,
traditionally an impossibility for all but a select few.
Why should you want to? If you enjoy talking about dance, then
it represents another way of sharing your views and initiating a
discussion. It can also be an advantage to other readers. For
instance, through sites like criticaldance.com, many have the
benefit of views about new works or productions. In addition,
rather than having the view of a single critic from your
newspaper, on criticaldance.com and similar sites you have the
possibility of getting the benefit of several views. Another
advantage is the opportunity for breadth of coverage in reviewing
smaller scale work or 2nd or 3rd casts of the major
Since I started writing reviews for websites, I find that I
have a greater focus when I go to see ballet and dance and I
certainly enjoy playing a small part in promoting an art form
that I love. Further, it's rewarding when people are
complimentary about a review or, even better, that they have
enjoyed seeing a work that you have recommended.
But, I hear you say, "I'm not a specialist and I don't have
the detailed knowledge to inflict my thoughts on an unsuspecting
public. In short, I'm not a critic." Well, if you've ever written
a memo or letter and had a 5-minute conversation about a dance
work, then you too can write a review! Remember, dance is one of
the most subjective Art forms with opinions from newspaper
critics about a particular work sometimes varying from, ".. I
wished it had gone on all night…" to, "…I left at the
interval." This diversity is a great benefit to a new reviewer,
as it underlines the universal truth that all views are valid.
The key point is a love and interest in the genre and your
reactions to a work, rather than a detailed technical
So, how to get started? Clearly the comments below are just my
own thoughts and hopefully others will add theirs. Let's assume
that you have been to a performance that you have really enjoyed
and has left your mind full of fresh images of exciting
- Imagine that you are writing an email to a friend about the
experience. This is actually how I started It can be useful to
jot down some key thoughts and then form them into an outline
structure, before you write the piece in full.
- The key point is to describe what you saw and to give your
reactions to the piece. This will usually involve talking about
the style of the piece, your thoughts about the choreography,
what the key performers bring to the work and the quality of the
ensemble sections. Most important is to convey why you enjoyed
various aspects of the piece or visa-versa. Where appropriate, a
discussion of the sets, lighting and costumes can help to give an
impression of the look of the work. It can be useful to put the
performance in context by writing about recent work by the
choreographer or the company (the programme notes can be very
useful for this sort of information) or why you decided that you
would go to see the work.
- You might want to finish with some more general comments -
your overall impressions, whether people should consider seeing
A few points to remember:
- Don't make your review too long, unless you want it to double
as a cure for insomnia. I suspect that most reviews of single
performances will be between 300 and 800 words. Reviews of
multiple performances may be longer, but are likely to be in a
more abbreviated form if you want the reader to make it to the
last sentence. When time is pressing a few quick paragraphs can
still be enjoyable and useful for readers.
- Just as humour is invaluable in a lecture or presentation,
it's often useful in a review, but don't let it take control.
Avoid the Sewell Syndrome (fine art critic of London's Evening
Standard), where you emphasise the things you don't like. You can
be critical and even harsh when it is merited, but bear in mind
it may be that you have simply missed the point through
insufficient knowledge. Professional reviewers as well as amateur
ones can damage their credibility in this way. It's worth bearing
in mind that the person you are writing about may well be going
to read your review. A further test is to imagine that you are in
a lift with the individual explaining your views.
- If something has gone wrong in the performance, don't do what
I did on one occasion and get the names of the dancers wrong! The
message is to check the cast list carefully. You can mention a
piece of noteworthy dance even if you have not been able to
identify the dancer - it may be that another reader will be able
to provide the name.
- Try to avoid repetition of words or expressions; not always
easy in dance reviews, when you've already used 'work' and
'piece' 6 times each.
- Be your own sub-editor. Remember that, unless you arrange it,
you won't have the benefit of another pair of eyes looking over
your work. If time permits, put the piece to one side and reread
it after a break. If you get the bug and want to do more reviews,
it can be helpful to take some paper to a performance to scribble
some notes, as even a few words may be useful in triggering
memories of a work. Also, I find a reference work, such as 'The
Dance Handbook' (pub. Longman) by Robertson and Hutera, handy for
spellings and general information.
How does your review tie in with
- Most website page widths, including those on
criticaldance.com, are narrower than those for a paper
presentation. This can make text look indigestible, so more
frequent paragraphing than usual is advisable with a line space
after each paragraph.
- The Postings page input box is fine for brief comments, but
is not helpful for 500+ word articles. Best to write your piece
in Word or something similar, so that you can spell-check etc.
then Copy and Paste into the Postings input form. Of course, this
way all the writing is done off-line, as well.
We have a Reviews section to keep some of our homegrown
reviews for posterity. If it's a help, please feel free to
contact grace, Azlan or me for further advice either before a
performance or email a draft afterwards for comment and perhaps
The Internet is a great enabler and ballet.co.uk and more
recently criticaldance.com and Dance Europe magazine have helped
me get even more out of dance and part of that has been through
writing reviews. If you haven't tried your hand yet, why not give
it a go for your own and our enjoyment.
Stuart Sweeney's 10 point Guide to CD Review
- All views are valid. Include overall impressions.
- Put the performance in context.
- Describe what you saw, including context (sets, lighting,
- Include your own responses, and reasons for those
- Appropriate length; very frequent paragraphing for the
- Avoid repetition of words or phrases (& check
- Keep a good reference book handy.
- Bear in mind that your subject/s may read your review.
- Put aside and re-read after a break.
- Feedback available if desired before posting, by emailing to
any CD Administrator.
See the discussion on
this issue in our forum for additional
comments by writers from various dance publications.
Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.