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Dance reviewers are fond of telling the world how infernally difficult dance reviewing is--largely because we lack any readily accessible vocabulary for quotation or illustration. I'm talking here about reviewing, rather than criticism. Criticism properly refers to writing about the practice, aesthetics, and perhaps occasionally the social politics of the art itself. Reviewing, on the other ink-stained hand, is concerned with writing about the art in connection with specific performances.

But as dance critics or reviewers--and most of us play both roles at different times-we all have problems in describings things, or our reaction to things, that do not lend themselves to description, and certainly not to brevity. As a result, virtually every reviewer/critic has a whole arsenal of "hooray" or "boo" words, which really mean very little in themselves and owe their value to how much the reader credits their source. We all pick our favorite reviewers, the ones who share something of our own views, and accept their "hoorays" and "boos" accordingly.

Typical "hooray" words are, say, "brilliant" alternating with "dazzling," "scintillating," "coruscating," even the simple "bright"--as in "brightly danced." "Boo" words, from "ghastly" to "dismal," we will pass over quickly to protect the injured pride of every performer who has been on the wrong end of such a blunt instrument. Then there are the slightly more subtle weapons in the critical armory--such as "stylish" or its booful equivalent, "unstylish." Sure, this means something to the writer who knows the style he or she is looking for, but how much does it mean to a reader? Stylish is often in the stylistic eye of the beholder.

But few of the casual "boo" and "hooray" words carry such weight and promote such controversy as "musical" and "unmusical." The words splatter the dance landscape like howitzers. What do they really mean? Let's face it: "Musical" is not a generic adjective like "brilliant"--it should mean more.

What some people mean by "musical," others refer to by the oddly opprobrious but perfectly apt term of "mickey-mousing." Why mickey-mousing? Well, the grand corporate artistic identity of Disney has used cartoon movement and music in strict unison, note for note, matching movement for movement. It describes choreography that sticks strictly to the beat; Balanchine's Symphonic Concertante provides a perfect example. It is a ballet he made first in 1945 as an experiment in musicalization. He had wanted to discover how far he could go with the simplistic mimicking of musical structure, and soon found out it wasn't very far. It's unmusical. Although the work was recently taken up, and danced exquisitely, by American Ballet Theatre, Balanchine never had New York City Ballet perform it after 1953.

Dance first found its voice, which proved to be the beginnings of music, in rhythm. But while it can even be performed to silence, what it cannot do (or shouldn't do) is to allow itself to be tethered to individual notes or even rhythmic impulses. Incidentally, the power of its overwhelmingly insistent rhythms makes Stravinsky's Rite of Spring difficult to choreograph, and Balanchine never attempted it.

If a musical choreographer or dancer shouldn't be tied to a score's rhythm and notes, what should they be tied to? Musicality in dance can be summed up in two words: "rubato," easy to explain, and "tone," which can't really be described in words, however fancily you try to put it. Let's do the easy one--rubato, or tempo rubato, for Italian "robbed time." This is a musical term simply meaning the retardation, or even the anticipation, of the beat--slightly playing around with the strictness of the beat, giving a sense of spontaneity. In choreography, a perfect example is the Twyla Tharp/Philip Glass In the Upper Room. In dancing itself, look no farther than any video of Margot Fonteyn.

"Tone" admittedly is tricky, partly because, like style, it tends to be in the eye of the beholder. And because it is hardly ever used in dance reviewing, although I think we all, perhaps subconciously, take it into account. In singing we have a sense of a singer's tone--often in terms of temperature ranging from cold to warm, sometimes in terms of manner, such as strident, powerful, and so forth. In dancing it is our subjective reaction to the performer's actual musical response. Dancers (or choreographers) can't be, like singers, physically out of tune, but they can be out of tone. You don't musically dance Aurora as you would dance Odette or Clytemnestra!

That's pretty woolly, I admit, but it's the best I can do. In any case whether you are dancing, looking at dancing, or just reading about it, always think of those magic words, "musical" and "unmusical," in their context.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance review
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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