writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, international edition

Dance Criticism: Cross-Cultural Views

Eastern European Criticism Initiative
Budapest, Hungary
April 2004

by Kate Mattingly
copyright © 2004 by Kate Mattingly

The invitation to go to Europe to talk about dance criticism came at a time when American policies abroad were being questioned and criticized. Dance may not be at the center of today’s turmoil, but public policy infiltrates every sector of our society, from elections to culture. This was especially evident while I was in Budapest, Hungary for the week long Eastern European Criticism Initiative (EECI) from April 21 to 27, 2004.

Following the original initiative organized by Dance Theater Workshop in 2001, critics from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia have set up programs to foster exchange among artists and writers. This EECI, organized by Budapest’s Workshop Foundation, gathered one critic from each of the following countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, and Slovakia.

It was immediately clear that there were marked differences among us. For example, there was a period of approximately 40 years from 1950 to 1990 when little experimentation appeared on dance stages in Eastern Europe: under communism, national ballet and folk companies were supported, while modern and contemporary choreographers were not. As a result of this treatment, “we have a hidden allergy to ballet and folk dance,” one critic said. Writers fight to have contemporary dance covered in newspaper sections that are separate from music or theater. For artists working in this region, many needed to travel to western Europe and the States to see the investigation of new ideas that drives contemporary dance today. Related to this, festivals in each of the cities play a major role in fostering an exchange of ideas about contemporary performance.

I was a little nonplussed when I read that, through EECI, “premier figures in dance and criticism from America will provide guidance, support and models for achieving higher standards of dance criticism.” Deborah Jowitt and I were the American representatives, and although we can speak to writing about dance in New York City, I did not see our experiences as “a model” for these writers.

In fact, being overseas I thought about the crisis in dance criticism that artists and writers face in New York: the same handful of critics have occupied the scarce reviewing jobs for 20 to 30 years. This has created a staleness in dance writing. Moreover there’s a younger generation of dance-makers who do not have critics commenting on their work from the eyes of peers, not parents. The perspective of a writer familiar with a particular generational culture understands the work differently. Fortunately the web has provided a much-needed venue for dance writing, and it was great to talk about Jane Comfort’s work in Budapest and then see—thanks to DanceView Times—that her Underground River is being performed again.

The differences between print publications in Eastern Europe and the States were astounding. Imagine a theater or dance magazine that has no ads. Since most cities that have dance magazines give financial support to the publications, there is no conflict between advertising and editorial departments like those that control decisions in the States. Budapest’s “ellenfény” and “Színház” are two examples of magazines that are full of beautiful photos and lots of articles on both dance and theater. Such subsidies also make them less dependent on subscriptions, so there is more freedom in terms of topics chosen by the editorial staff. One of the other moderators, Nina Vangeli from Prague, is the editor of “Dance Zone,” a Czech and English language magazine that offers in depth essays on a wide range of subjects and artists.

Some problems mentioned by participants were similar to those we face in the States: Jurate from Lithuania spoke about cultural magazines and weeklies that are happy to have dance writers contribute, but writers are paid a year later. In Lithuania, there are no magazines for dance or people employed for writing about dance. And, similar to some American publications, editors change material without consent.

Evenings were filled with performances by Hungarian choreographers: Pál Frenák, Gerzson Péter Kovács, Márta Ladjánszki and Reka Szabo, to name a few. One afternoon we visited the Hungarian National Theater Museum, located in the former home of actress Gizi Bajor. Inside the museum, a dance exhibit highlighted performances in Hungary by artists between 1898 and 1948. There were exquisite photographs and films of Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg, and Gret Palucca.

On our last night together we went to a performance by the Russian company, Derevo, called The Divine Comedy. It took place in a tent and was packed. The show itself reminded me of a cross between Cirque du Soleil and Zingaro (but no animals). It was hard to believe the top ticket price was 1200 forints (about $6).

It wasn’t easy to say good-bye after an intense week of listening, thinking and writing. Anja, a critic from Slovenia, said it best when she talked about the idea of “home.” It is not a specific structure or even one area, but the gathering of people who share your values and passions. The camaraderie of the participants and moderators—the curiosity about each other’s countries, artists, predicaments—was so wonderful and so rare. It created a unique place where we could be together and be inspired. It was home.

Budapest's Trafó House of Contemporary Arts


Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 18
May 17, 2004

Copyright ©2003 by Kate Mattingly



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last updated on May 17, 2004