Poet, columnist and dance critic Joshua Muyiwa kicked off the The Craft of Journalism —a series of Lec -Dems at Meta 2015– with a talk titled, ‘Dance or Write like a Man’.
“I worked with Time Out for 8 years, writing about dance,” Muyiwa began. “I never wanted to write about dance — I came to it out of pure chance. Now, 8 years down the line, I’m asking why more people aren’t writing about dance, and where the space for dance writing is”.
As a way of talking about narrative in dance, Muyiwa played a video of Michael Jackson’s song, ‘Beat It’, without the audio. “This is so that you appreciate the actual dance movements better. Dance is a performance that tells a story all on its own”, he explained. He talked about how a writer can read into a dance performance by looking at ‘filters’ — where it’s happening, the title of the dance, the form, etc. Muyiwa also told the audience that he’s never really learned dance writing. “My approach is a very subjective one, visceral almost. I’m interested in looking at the tension in the body, how stiff the performer is, how much of the body he’s using, and so on”.
The second video was a slow-paced dance called ‘Beautiful things 2’ by Padmini Chettur, a Chennai-based choreographer and dancer. “Chettur works with this idea of reducing the body to its basic movements, the shapes you create and the space that these shapes occupy”, Muyiwa said. The video showed a dancer performing to an eerie track, and basic and rigorously slow choreography. And though Muyiwa only played about 3 minutes of it, it was still very exhausting to watch. Later, in the Q&A session, someone in the audience asked what Chettur and others interested in this kind of slow movement were trying to do. Muyiwa answered, “Chettur’s idea is that the audience must invest as much time watching her performance as she did in making it”.
To show a contrast in the range in contemporary dance, Muyiwa played another video by the Nritarutya Dance Company, a Bangalore-based group who perform Indian contemporary dance. The performance, called ‘Kali’, was energetic and alive, in both, movement, and the music they danced to. “What I’m trying to do is to show you the different kinds of works within contemporary dance. Each has its credit and discredit, but when you’re writing about dance, you have to look at them on the same plane”, Muyiwa said. “I find a safe of way of writing about performances that I don’t like, and that’s by describing them, instead of forcing myself to have an opinion”.
Muyiwa made an interesting point about how writing about dance is a kind of choreography. This happens when the writer translates his own experience of the performance, and depends on considering who will read the piece, and where it will be published. It also depends on the credibility of the writer. “When I was at Time Out, we mostly previewed performances. I wouldn’t have seen the work, but I was telling audiences a week or two before to go for the performance. So, I was always interested in the process of creation of the work — what it took to make it and how the dancer conceptualised it; what the rehearsals were like, where the story in the dance came from, and so on”.
Talking about reviewing performances, he spoke about the responsibilities while writing about dance. Writers have the same responsibility towards form as dancers do, and a dance writer must look into the processes behind the performance. “What is there in their work? What are they trying to do? Writers must create a space for any dance to exist, despite their opinions. It’s very important for writers to know the context of the performer, because it’s easy for a writer to be harshly critical about a work without knowing the circumstances that it came from. I have a little rule; if a performer is well-funded, I sometimes feel its ok to be mean when critiquing them”, Muyiwa said, chuckling. He said that the essential idea of being a dance writer was to be informed, watch as many performances as possible and be invested in the art.