Reflection on the Occasion of My 100th Review
One hundred dance reviews and counting! My career as a dance blogger came about so organically, that it was in full swing before I could question its advisability. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking I should write about dance. It had, in fact, never occurred to me, until I saw an amazing piece and felt compelled to record my experience.
Jen Norris attending a show at Davies Symphony Hall
Once I finished my first review, I realized I didn’t have a way to share it with people. Sending it via email seemed intrusive; we all receive too much electronic communication. I needed a place where people could go find it if they wanted; a space where I could send social media followers. After some cursory online research, I set up a website with a blog. I didn’t suffer over the details, and was thrilled to have created an easy-to-use portal within a few hours’ time. No clever names for me, I called it Jen Norris Dance Reviews.
While I am, by nature, very independent, I am also comfortable asking for help. I like to be of service to others and believe others do also, so I sent my initial offering to author and dance critic Rachel Howard, to whom I had been recently introduced. She read it and wrote back enthusiastically with some essential feedback. She noted that I changed tenses mid-review, suggesting that either present or past tense was fine, I should stick to one within a given piece of writing. She commended my evocative descriptions but noted the piece lacked context. I failed to mention where and when I saw this dance. Rachel generously edited several of my earliest reviews, before assuring me that I was ready to proceed on my own.
Classical music writer Joshua Kosman responded to my queries regarding word count and turn-around-time expectations for arts reviewers. Several choreographers provided feedback from their perspectives. FACT-SF’s Artistic Director Charles Slender-White suggested I describe dance in shorter sentences, to allow the reader to see one movement phrase at a time. Publicist John Hill has been nothing but encouraging, helping me craft a personal narrative for submittal to fellowship opportunities.
My dance reviewing practice developed quickly. Beginning in June 2022, as indoor theatrical presentations were picking up steam. For much of my adult life I have seen three to four live performances weekly; now I have switched my focus more exclusively to dance-based performances.
As a member of the Isadora Duncan Awards Viewing Committee, I maintain a calendar of upcoming shows. Once a week I make decisions about what to see in the coming weeks. After seeing a show, I write for two to three hours, heading to bed between midnight and one. Waking early, I read the first draft, make edits, before passing it off to my wife, Doris, for a read. A retired English teacher, and more of a music lover than a dance fan, she is the ideal editor. She realigns my punctuation, while also noting when my sentences are self-indulgent or nonsensical.
After incorporating Doris’s notes, I add production credits, a photo or two, typically a wacky shot I took at curtain call, and publish to my website. I post a link to my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and send an email to the show’s publicist or producer. Challenging myself to work under the conditions of a professional reviewer, I initially aimed to publish between ten and noon on the day following the show. More recently I have adopted a more flexible publication timeline, hustling only when an early review might help a show with multiple performances gain more traction in the market.
Reviewing a show takes 8-10 hours inclusive of ticketing, travel, performance attendance, writing, editing and formatting for publication. In the past eighteen months, I have spent approximately 1,000 hours crafting 100,000 words into coherent reflections on 100 dance-centered events, which begs the question: WHY?
I write dance reviews because I love the art form and I want others to love it too! I see the arts struggling worldwide and I want to help. I observe choreographers and dancers working for many months, sometimes years, to deliver a performance in the absence of a meaningful feedback loop. As an avid reader of reviews, I know an array of voices improves the field of arts criticism. While news organizations continue to reduce arts coverage, my words fill a void in the ecosystem providing quotes that may support a grant application or brighten a marketing piece. As a retired arts professional, I have the requisite time, interest, knowledge, and skill.
I challenge myself to see a diversity of work, and to be transparent about my expertise or lack thereof. I seek to demystify contemporary dance by sharing my thoughts, and making clear that, as with all modern art, many responses, interpretations and experiences are valid.
When my calendar overflows and I can’t see it all, I typically choose the work least likely to get a review from another writer. If I see something I really don’t care for, I may choose not to review it. When I have something less positive to share, I strive to make my criticism constructive, and to reinforce that mine is but one opinion. I have credibility to maintain, but also personal likes and dislikes. I much prefer the movement to tell the story, rather than words. I notice I carry higher expectations for established organizations and presenting institutions, than for newcomers. My favorite evenings are those in which I have no idea what I am going to see until I arrive at the venue and then go on to discover a talented new-to-me artist.
In order to craft reviews rich in description, I record the stage proceedings continuously during performances. I never want to look away from the stage and the theaters are dark, so I have mastered a blind-note-taking technique, which even includes little figures which aid me in recalling postures. These can be pretty amusing in the light of day. Focusing on the choreography, dancing, production design, and soundscapes in this formal way has enriched my experience of dance immeasurably. I feel lucky every day to have chosen to pursue this passion. Thanks for reading.
Reflection by Jen Norris, published November 8, 2023