Dance Roads is a European Union funded programme in which innovative choreographers and dance artists from various nations are supported to take their work to audiences across the continent.

Dance Roads 2016 consists of five pieces, which have been touring throughout the home countries of the companies concerned; a tour which ended at Chapter, Cardiff with performances on 7 and 8 June.

In between the two shows, Coreo Cymru, the Arts Council of Wales-funded Creative Producer for dance in the principality, invited a number of dance and theatre reviewers and arts bloggers to see Dance Roads 2016 and to take part in a forum with some of the choreographers and performers involved, to examine the relationship between practitioners of contemporary dance, critics, and audiences, and consider how it might be enhanced.

The pieces were as follows:

  • Yonder (from The Netherlands; choreographer Jasper Van Luijk) in which a naked male dancer (Jefta Tanate) enacts the human life cycle whilst interacting with a suspended light installation;
  • Of The Earth, From Where I Came (Wales; choreographer Gwyn Emberton; performer Albert Garcia)—a response to Dylan Thomas’ poem Fern Hill, whose male protagonist struggles, in a rural landscape, to come to terms with his apparently inescapable connection with the natural world;
  • Noeuds (Knots) (France; Compagnie Adéquate; performed and choreographed by Lucie Augeai and David Gernez); a duet, in which a couple play out the tensions within a long-term relationship, largely to a baroque soundtrack, dancing both together and separately, interacting sometimes harmoniously, often fractiously (this was the piece which I found most accessible);
  • Qui, Ora (Italy) whose anorak-clad solo dancer (choreographer/performer Claudia Catarzi) explores the performance space, mostly in silence, aside from a brief intervention by Johnny Cash (perhaps the most opaque offering of the evening);
  • and Layers (Romania; dancer and choreographer Cristina Lilienfeld)—a highly personal solo piece involving some audience interaction, where the shedding of skin (and clothing) represents the rejection of the judgemental perceptions of others.

The discussion focussed initially on the state of dance criticism in Wales, and the fact that there are no critics currently working here who have a background as dancers (or, indeed, in the academic study of the form). Reviewers present argued that their role ought to be to communicate with the general audience, most of whom will have an equal unfamiliarity with the technicalities of movement, or the historical context in which a dance piece has evolved.

Ways of developing the relationship between critics and dance companies were discussed. In some of the other European countries represented, critics are routinely invited by venues and companies to sit in on rehearsals and discuss the background and intentions of pieces which are in development. The fear was expressed, however, that the development of personal relationships might compromise the integrity of reviews.

The fact that contemporary dance is better funded in other European countries than in the UK was highlighted, as was the greater support for the art form from the public and the media—the difficulty of getting features in national newspapers and on television and radio in Wales, and the UK in general, was noted. It was broadly agreed that companies inevitably benefit when they reach out to potential audiences in the communities in which pieces are being produced.

Some of the performers present expressed frustration at the democratic nature of online discourse resulting in the opinions of bloggers, who may have little knowledge of dance, being given equal weight by the casual reader to those of experienced and highly informed broadsheet critics. The damage which can be done to a production either by undeserved, gushing reviews (resulting in disappointed audiences) or uninformed, damning ones (with long-term implications as regards funding) was remarked upon.

For their part, members of the critical fraternity bemoaned some of the abstruse terminology used by dancers and production companies in attempting to explicate their work. The objection is that this tends to reinforce the idea that contemporary dance, especially where it shades into performance art, is speaking a language which only its practitioners can understand.

“Where does critical authority lie?” was the question posed towards the end of the two-hour session. An unanswerable one, perhaps, but it is to be hoped that if frank but civilised conversations like this one continue to take place, practitioners, reviewers and audiences will eventually be better equipped to come up with their own conclusions.