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18 November 2006

...but it's kinda in the job description.

Last night I reviewed a dance recital.

I am the very LAST person qualified to review a dance recital.  Not only do have no knowledge whatsoever of dance, I have only attended a handful of dance recitals or concerts in my life--and most of them were performed by the under 13 set in the years when Jeri took ballet lessons.

When I was asked to be a critic, back in 2000, I knew I could review musicals.  It is, obviously, something with which I have great familiarity.  I had less experience with drama and zero experience with dance.  The sum total of my knowledge of ballet terms was "pas de deux" and "jetté" and I thought I could tell the difference, since the first involves two people and the second involves flying through the air.  But get beyond that and I'm totally lost.

The day came when I was assigned a dance recital to review.  I called the choreographer, whom I knew peripherally, and confessed that I was willing to review the recital, but she had to know that I had absolutely zero expertise, or even background with dance.

Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre

"Great!" she said.  "You're just the kind of person we want to attract."

So I reviewed the show and found that, since I didn't have any pressure to know what I was talking about, it was easier than I expected to review it. 

I have reviewed several dance concerts since that time.  It's never something that I feel wonderfully confident doing, but somehow the words come and I don't cringe when I read the printed review, though when I compare them with reviews written by people who know what they are talking about, they pale in comparison.

I sort of feel that I am to theatrical reviews what Jon Stewart is to news.  Even after six years, I think of myself as a faux reviewer.  I would never make it as a reviewer for The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle or even The Sacramento Bee, but I think I have a unique voice for a small town newspaper.  My reviews read, I think, like the kind of information you'd get if you asked your next door neighbor how she liked the play she'd seen the night before.

I don't delve into the deep psychological significance or compare The Music Man to Proust or talk about when some obscure Broadway star I've never heard of did a certain role.  I just talk about how I liked a show, and what I didn't like about it.  Sometimes I throw in a bit of interesting background that comes in the information packets that reviewers get in some theatres.

(And I suppose I do have some knowledge from having been involved with theatrical productions for the past 30 years or so!)

Some people tell me they enjoy reading my reviews.  Some people tell me that they attend productions they otherwise would not have attended because I said I liked it.  That makes me feel good.

The problem with reviewing in a small town is that you keep running into the people whose performances or productions you are reviewing.  I was actually asked many, many years ago if I wanted to be a reviewer and turned the job down because at the time some not very good actors, who happened to be friends of mine, were performing a lot and I didn't see how I could possibly write an honest review of the performances.

Some time ago I interviewed a man about an upcoming production of a play that I had already seen several times, through the years.  He was taking a novel approach to the play, which I didn't quite understand, but figured it must be good because he was such a learned man.  I also interviewed some of his cast who were not happy with his approach. 

When the play was presented, the actors did a good job and, having done the interview, I could see that the director had accomplished what he had set out to accomplish, so I gave it a good review.  But within hours of turning the review in, I had second thoughts. I admitted to myself that I really hated his interpretation and regretted terribly the positive review I'd written.  I called the editor to ask if I could resubmit, but it had already been sent to the printer, so it was too late.

The show got a good audience, and I'm happy about that, because it was a "message" show that I felt should be seen by a lot of people, but to this day when I see the director, I cringe because I regret not having been honest in my review.

It's a mistake I try not to make now.  I hate it when I have to give a bad review to people whose efforts I try to support, or people with whom I'm friendly.  I'm uncomfortable when I then see them again, knowing that they had to be very unhappy with my review.  But it's one of the down sides of this job.  You can't please everybody and if you want any credibility at all, you really need to report the bad along with the good.

I try to include all the positives I can to soften the overall "this production is lousy" review, but when a show is not good, you can't say that it is, no matter how many individual performers were outstanding in their roles, or how friendly you are with people involved with the show.

Bottom line, I guess, is that I have come to feel more confident in this job, even when it comes to writing about something I know nothing about.  Seems to me that a lot of public figures talk about things they know nothing about, so at least I'm in good company.




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