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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 companies.

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 knowledge.

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 dance.

  • 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 the work.

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 criticaldance.com?

  • 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 some reassurance.

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.


Summary
by Grace

Stuart Sweeney's 10 point Guide to CD Review Writing

  • All views are valid. Include overall impressions.
  • Put the performance in context.
  • Describe what you saw, including context (sets, lighting, costumes).
  • Include your own responses, and reasons for those responses.
  • Appropriate length; very frequent paragraphing for the screen.
  • Avoid repetition of words or phrases (& check spellings!).
  • 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.

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