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Mary Elizabeth Phillips

Dance criticism and its role within the cultural arena.

Phillips, Mary Elizabeth: Dance criticism and its role within the cultural arena", 15th International Congress on Dance Research, Ioannina, Greece, 7-11/11, 2001.

1. A definition of the term ‘criticism’ and its application in dance

Before getting into the analysis of the role of the dance critic, it is useful to consider the term ‘criticism’. According to The Cambridge Dictionary of English the word ‘critic’ comes from the Greek word and it is used to describe the one who forms a judgement (supposedly balanced and well-reasoned) subject, especially on literary and other works of creaart; a person professionally employed in the writing of judgements on dramatic and musical performances, literary publications etc.; a fault finder. (Stowell and Hill 1980, p. 377)

According to Wollheim, there is no single word in the English language that can be applied to all the arts which describes the ‘process of coming to understand a particular work of art’ (Wollheim, 1980, p. 185). Whilst in literature the term ‘criticism’ is used to denote this, in the case of the visual and performing arts the word is used to indicate an evaluative process.

It would be useful, at this stage, to make the distinction between the terms ‘interpretation’ and ‘evaluation’ as they are being used in dance criticism in order to understand exactly what is meant by ‘evaluative process’. The term ‘interpretation’ in dance is used as the overall term for recognizing within a dance piece, elements such as character, qualities and meaning; in other words things which can be ascribed to the dance without making a comment about the worth of the piece. On the other hand, the term ‘evaluation’ is used as the overall term for judging the worth of the dance in terms of its merit, goodness and greatness (Hodgens cited in Adshead, 1988, p. 92). Although evaluation is, by nature, quite personal in the sense that it has to do with how each individual experiences the dance, the dance critic ought to value it through certain features, forms, qualities and meanings that can be observed within the piece.

Enjoyment and appreciation of a dance piece are the results of hard work and this is where the critic can prove to be useful as people do not automatically and without guidance find enjoyment in complex works. They learn how to do this and are amply rewarded. (Adshead, 1988, p. 10). Enjoyment and appreciation, however, can and do take place in different levels. It might be very general or very analytic in character requiring a more thorough technique of description of events which directs the reader/spectator to the text; in the case of dance it is the combination of the components that make up the piece (i.e. movement, dancers, visual settings and aural elements). And although dance criticism is about dance, it should not be restricted to these components. It should also make reference to the ideologies and the attitudes of our societies in which cultural forms are created.

The critic…uses analysis combined with extensive socio-historical or other biographical and cultural background material in order to evoke the dance in literary terms and thereby to inform, to educate, to interpret, to appraise and to evaluate works of art. (Adshead, 1988, p. 190) The value of dance criticism rests primarily on its capacity to give access to the dance piece and to enable the spectator to see clearly and to make sense of what is seen. “Making sense”, however, would be very limited if it only remained at the level of generalizations about the meaning of the dance or its qualities. It is essential that critics make some reference to the movement vocabulary and the structure of the choreography, since it is this that supports and validates any statements they make. Conversely, attention given only to the detail of the movement and structure without any reference to the qualities and meanings would be equally limited (Adshead, 1988, p. 181).

Good criticism, therefore, should go beyond statements such as ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. Professional dance criticism is a personal evaluation that nevertheless needs to be made in response to certain features in the dance. An important part of the critics’ job is to use an analytic procedure whereby the reader will have the freedom to agree or disagree on the basis of good reasons instead of absorbing the opinion of the ‘expert’ critic. It is only then that criticism will be useful for the education of the reader.

2. Today’s criticism becomes tomorrow’s history

Preservation of dance does not only include film and video recording but also critical and analytical writings. Criticism is a valuable source and very important to our understanding of the past for a number of reasons. It is a record of the personal experience of the most knowledgeable and specialized members of the audience and in addition to that, it reflects the artistic and cultural concerns of the time whilst on many occasions it is the only the record that we have. “All too often, today’s criticism becomes tomorrow’s history” (Copeland, 1983, p. 26) and this is why dance criticism is regularly used as a primary source of historical evidence. The existence of good co-operation between the actual practitioners of dance and the dance intellectuals is essential for the preservation, study and analysis of dancers, choreographers and their work. Marcia Siegel quotes Mikhail Baryshnikov to illustrate the point that whilst there is no intellectual infrastructure for dance, there are artists who feel that there is not a great necessity for one, I was never interested in documenting or even recording my life as a dancer… I live in the present and don’t think about the past or the afterlife. It doesn’t bother me whether people remember me or my performances; it was never my aim to preserve my works. (cited in Morris, 1996, p. 29)

Clearly, unless artists like Baryshnikov support the work of the critics and the historians, there is not going to be a major progress in the field of dance study and research. The critic writes history, whether she/he does this consciously or not and very often the reviews that we read from the past are not read for their opinions per se, as for the insights into the age they are writing for. Often they are the only history to inform us of the earlier forms and styles and of how dance reflects the society as well as politics, mores and ethics of that generation.

Of course it wouldn’t be appropriate to argue that the dance critic has the same function as the dance historian. Their primary aims are different; the critic records his experience of the present whilst the historian uses those experiences to make connections to the past. In addition to that the historian is perceived as an objective recorder of facts when the critic who is writing her/his personal experience of the present, is regarded as highly subjective. The position of the critic is a peculiar one because she/he is seen as someone whose ‘personal’ judgements represent something supposedly inherent in the objects of judgement themselves. (Williamson, 1993, p. 15)

In other words, on the one hand the critic’s opinion is seen as totally personal whilst on the other, as highly subjective. The notion that the critic looks- or at least should look- at art works with a fresh and thus ‘innocent’ eye is a common perception and McFee illustrates how this perception is formulated in a number of ways in our every day life. In aesthetic education, for instance, children are believed to have a purer and clearer vision than adults because it is not unblemished with preconceptions. This is also applied to art which should be available to everyone and hence not depend on knowledge or experience thus only open to an elite.

All this, however, is a great misconception and as Wollheim remarks, referring to what he describes as the ‘heroic proposal’ that one can have understanding in the absence of a conceptual background, the aim of which is to ensure the democracy of art…This proposal…has little to recommend it except its aim. (1980, p. 194) However, such a proposal rules out the possibility of understanding and to see why, we need to recognize the connection that exists between what one sees and her/his cognitive stock by which we mean the knowledge and experience one has in order, for instance, to distinguish between categories of art. The critic, therefore, must bring with him a lot of information that is external to the work of art; general truths about the world, conventions of art etc. but any truth internal to the work should be gained from a close examination; While it may not be no indictment of the artist that he does not provide the critic with external truths, surely the work is flawed if it cannot be understood simply by looking at it, given that the viewer has a grasp of external truths. Or so one might argue. (McFee, 1992, p. 136)

The fact that the myth of the ‘innocent eye’ applies to the work of the critic, does not necessarily follow that it finds no application to that of the historian. Both operate within theory; and as Carter argues If theory is a way of looking, all critics operate with it, and it is the job of the historian who is using criticism to tease out that ‘way of looking’. Not only can this locate the dance performance under review within a specific critical perspective, but that perspective is not just a personal one; it is one which is part of the current of critical thinking in a particular time and place. This is where the review plays a vital role as historical source for it doesn’t just tell us about the dance, or about the critic; it tells us about the cultural and critical climate of the time. (2001, p. 18)

Therefore if criticism has theory embedded in it, then history has a touch of personal perspective in it; “history is always someone’s history, told by that someone from a partial point of view” (Appleby, 1994, p. 11). So in a sense the historian is writing a review of the past based on the reviews of that period and as Carter argues “academic history is, therefore, not just ‘truth’ and criticism not just ‘personal opinion’” (2001, p. 18). The recording of historical facts seem to have gone through a series of filtering, influenced by each writers’ opinion and bias whilst in criticism the facts are given through only one person’s point of view and as a consequence they are more likely to be nearer to the truth. Hence Carter encourages students to have more scepticism about the knowledge they encounter in books and less scepticism about the review, which they tend to dismiss as ‘just her opinion and who does she think she is anyway?’ (2001, p. 18)

In general, criticism has rarely been acknowledged as a valid source for historical evidence. In his book ‘The nature of history”, Marwick lists twelve different types of primary sources; in his list he does not include criticism but he includes the performing arts themselves - although dance has been omitted! Dance historians have always used criticism but they have always been very careful to compare the critical view of one person with the views of others. This seems to be the right thing to do but we should treat all the sources in the same way; even history. Accounts of dances, written by the choreographer, a dancer or critic, and drawings and photographs bring their own problems in being open to (mis)interpretation but therein lies the interest also, in the point of view that accompanies, or is built in to the description and interpretation of the dance. (Adshead, 1988, p. 20)

Despite the fact that the critics have the responsibility to capture the real facts, their primary responsibility is to the readers of today and it is in this way that they serve history more correctly; on the whole… a primary source is most valuable when the purpose for which it was compiled is at the furthest remove from the purpose of the historian. (Marwick, 1989, p. 201-202) Although it has been illustrated that the work of the dance critic and historian is quite distinguished, they both record their personal interpretation of facts within a theoretical framework. Their work is of equal importance in extending our understanding, knowledge and appreciation of dance. The historian and the critic complement each other’s work and the one cannot carry out her/his task without having access to the work of the other. The critic captures the moment in time which is then used by the historian and hence it is necessary to treat their work with equal attention and caution.

3. Critics as agents of power

The debate of role of the critic within the cultural and social arena has been a very extensive one. Peter Conrad’s article “What does he know that you don’t?” (1998) raises many crucial issues regarding the current state of criticism with his main concern being focused on the role of the critic and the extent to which she/he is a necessary figure in the cultural world. When tracing the history of criticism, Conrad illustrates how the role of the critic has gone through some radical changes. In the 18th century the critic was very often ridiculed and Dr. Johnson, who was himself an established critic, attributed this to the fact that criticism was seen as a means …by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. He who nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of the critic. (Johnson cited in Conrad, 1998, p. 1)

It was not until the 19th century that the critic became a respectable figure as his work was considered to be essential “in influencing the shape, texture and direction” (Conrad, 1998, p. 4) of the culture. This is a very clear example of the fact that the critic’s role alters alongside art and of course the needs of the society. In the 19th century the critic was very important because she/he was the person who made art more accessible, through the analysis and explanation of challenging or obscure works. In other words she/he was responsible for informing and cultivating people in relation to the new art movements and artists.  

In the current mass-produced era where the leisure industry has literally taken over culture, Conrad observes that the role of the critic has been radically transformed to that of a consumer’s guide consulting people on what they should spend their money. The role of the critic has been described as creators of culture which puts into practice Foucault’s ideas about truth and power. Foucault’s work has created many questions about the understanding of the relations of culture and power and of how the cultural forms and activities function in the context of the relation of power which condition their production, circulation and deployment. In particular he argued that in societies like ours political economy of truth is very often produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few political and economical apparatuses (university, army, writing, media)” (Foucault, 1980, p. 131) and is subject to constant economic and political incitement.

Some critics do take advantage of the power they hold with the aim of influencing the audience’s preference and consumption. They achieve this by working closely with producers and distributors with whom they enjoy what Hoberman described as ‘a symbiotic relationship’ (cited in Berger, 1998, p. 76). In consequence critics have the potential power of the deciding force that dictates which performances and shows will be successful and which should close. Maurice Berger wrote An unfavorable review in the New York Times can close a Broadway play overnight; a negative spin on a fashion designer’s collection in Women’s Wear Daily can turn away buyers as well as potential backers. (1998, pp. 4-5)

Critics are not only those who write for the daily newspapers but also those who work in the specialized publications, known as the academic critics. Despite the fact that the object of study is the same for both types of critics, their roles are quite distinct. The role of the media critic is very important partly for providing a wider circulation of ideas and information about dance but mainly as a medium through which less known dancers, choreographers and companies become better known to the wider public. In a sense the daily newspaper (media) critics has a great responsibility because he is referring to the wider public thus reaching more people on whom they have the most immediate impact; The critics that audiences, artists, and managers pay most attention to are the daily newspaper critics, who have the most immediate and often the greatest long-range effects as well. (Booth, 1991, p. 189)

This does not follow that they are more important than the critics of specialized publications whose task is often viewed as peripheral in terms of publicity and promotion. Not only does a greater academic and scholarly work bring a unique depth of insight and analysis of dance but it also improves its status among the other art forms. Academic criticism achieves this by providing a ‘framework for the discussion and articulation of dance theory and practice upon which dancers, critics and the public’ (Mackrell, 1982, p. 114) can usefully draw.

The critic of the specialized publication, however, refers to a highly informed group of people who form a very small section of the population and their articles include “detailed analyses of a given book, art exhibition, performance, or film well after it has disappeared from the market” (Berger, 1998, p. 5). Contrary to that, the timeliness of the newspapers and the magazines that appear on a daily or weekly basis “demand that reviews be published concurrently or even prior to a work’s premier” (Berger, 1998, p. 5) which gives the critics influence over what consumers spend their money on. A characteristic example is the critic of the film industry who often writes to be quoted or paraphrased. The ‘six-word reviews’ as Hoberman (cited in Berger, 1998, p. 75) called them, have a multiple function; they provide free publicity for the reviewer- who often has her/his name and review in as large letters as that of the artist’s- as well as for the newspaper or periodical that employs them. Reviews of this kind were included in The Sunday Telegraph (8th of October 2000) where a quarter of page was dedicated to an advertisement for the ‘Billy Elliot’ film. The ‘six-word reviews’ that were included in the advertisement were as follows:





Of course this phenomenon is not unique to the nature of the film industry; in the April-May 2001 programme of the Royal Festival Hall, this type of review-advertisements were used underneath a short analysis of the work of each choreographer. The following are some examples from the programme; AKRAM KHAN- ‘POLAROID FEET’: “Fiendish mathematics of rhythm and footwork” The Guardian. “Immaculate phrasing that is sublime in its accuracy” Evening Standard.

CANDOCO- ‘I HASTENED THROUGH MY DEATH TO CATCH YOUR LAST ACT’ AND ‘SUNBYRNE’: “ A double-bill that crackles with personality, individuality, passion and humour” The Herald. CARMELILLA MONTOYA & CO- ‘ARTE FLAMENCO’:

“An inspired artist who sets the house on fire. One admires the fabulous technique of her wrists that palpitate like a flight of doves. All her body participates in the dance. She gives an astonishing role to her dresses, which play under the lights and whirl with subtle address” Le Figaro.

Similarly in the programme of the Finnish dance festival that ran from the 2nd of June until the 1st of July 2001 in London, review-advertisements accompanied the text that described the work of each artist; KENNETH KVARNSTROM & CO.- ‘SPLITVISION’: “I’m overwhelmed and elated by such beauty and precision” Dance Europe. JYRLI KARTTUNEN- ‘DIGITAL DUENTE MR. & MRS. BETLEHEM’:

“Star of the present crop of Finnish dance-makers” Dance Theatre Journal.


“Boisterous and refreshingly carefree” Ballet International


“Well-crafted, engaging and richly suggestive” Dance Now


“Poetic dance…This company is to be watched.” Liberation, France.

“…striking in its sense of colour and composition, focused on clarity of line” Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times, on Westward Ho!

Review-advertisements are being used in all the art industries with the purpose to catch the consumer’s eye. Small sentences like the above are more accessible to the average reader than the large articles, as they are much easier and quicker to read. Furthermore the promotion companies are very careful in choosing key words (i.e. ESSENTIAL, BRILLIANT etc.) within those small sentences which they then highlight or write in bold letters thus making sure that the message is very clearly communicated to the reader. The frequency with which reviews are used in the promotion and advertisement of art events, reveals that the word of the critic does have a strong value and thus influence over the public’s decisions. …the importance of critics as opinion leaders should not be underestimated. (Hill, C. O’Sullivan and T. O’Sullivan, 2000, p. 39) and having realized the power critics have over the decision-making process of the arts audience, arts organizations use reviews to reinforce the advertising message.

4. Dance criticism as a tool for administration

In understanding the importance of the role of dance critics and the extent to which their power can have an impact on dance, it is important to see what their position is within the administrative and decision-making mechanism. Board members of arts organizations depend on the opinion of critics despite the fact that the former are able managers and fund-raisers; they are not always sophisticated in the art form they are involved in and this is why they seek the opinion of the ‘experts’. According to Booth “…among the results of a bad review may be telephone calls from members of the board of directors…” (1991, p. 53) who are interested in seeing the seats being filled in order to justify expenditure. It is for this very reason that arts organizations which are publicly funded have to show figures of attendance to the performances on a regular basis.

Tina Ramirez who is the founder and director of the Ballet Hispanico in New York is very aware of the importance of the critics; “We (also) depend on government grants…so if we don’t get good notices our funding is finished… that’s the way of the ball-game” (cited in Booth, 1991, p. 136). The drawback to this is that arts organizations are forced to put the demands of the public and the critics over the demands for artistic achievement. In other words excellence and innovation in the use of new forms and the preservation and renewal of art forms           from either minority cultures or the past. (Hill, C. O’Sullivan and T’ O’Sullivan, 2000, p. 17) is often seen as a barrier to building big audiences and/or increasing the number of visitors to a new performance.

Adorno illustrated how the relationship between culture and administration worked, arguing that without administration, art couldn’t exist or reach the public. He noted that there is a conceptual distinction between culture and administration; he saw culture as something pure and unalloyed. Culture is created in special conditions and it exists in independence from any technical operation and this is why it seems to be beyond administration; Culture is viewed as the manifestation of pure humanity without regard for its functional relationship within society. (Adorno, 1960, p. 28) Administration, on the other hand, involves management, regulation and planning. Therefore it is obvious that the precise planning of administration contradicts the nature of culture which is characterized by creativity, spontaneity and spiritual liberty.

Despite the ideological differences of culture and administration, it is widely acknowledged that the former cannot exist without the latter. Adorno quotes Eduard Steuermann, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, whose view on culture and administration is that “the more is done for culture, the worse it fares” (cited in Adorno, 1960, p. 28). Adorno continues this paradox by saying that Culture suffers damage when it is planned and administered when it is left to itself, however, everything cultural threatens not only to lose its possibility of effect, but its very existence as well. (Adorno, 1960, p. 28). Culture exists through institutions that have a specific purpose. Nowadays institutions’ goals depend on what Adorno called the forces of material life, namely economics and profitability. As culture has to reach its audience which can only be achieved through the institutions, it also depends on economics.

Even critics participate in the administrative apparatus of culture and in order for dance to exist the artists have to co-operate with the administrative network. The danger with this, as it has already been mentioned, is that the artist’s first concern will be to comply with the rules of the administrative network instead of concentrating on her/his own creativity, spontaneity and freedom of expression. One example of such a situation was when Igor Tchernichov, one of the leading dancers of the Kirov Ballet, tried to stage a new, one act of Romeo and Juliet in 1969. The performance had to be approved by critics and representatives from the Ministry of Culture and from the Kirov Theatre who attended the final dress rehearsal. According to Barbara Aria “this was standard practice for every new production. If changes were required, they could be made in time for the public debut” (1989, p. 53). Apparently the performance was banned on the spot because according to the critics it was considered decadent,“too erotic, immoral and formal” (Aria, 1989, p. 53). The power of the critics and the representatives of the state who were part of the administrative apparatus of the Soviet Union were not only strong enough to ban the performance but also held the power to send Tchernichov out to the provinces.

In this instance, the critic together with the other components of administration are seen to be dictating the type of dance that will be publicly shown. This is something that often limits both dancers and choreographers as their main concern will be to produce the kind of work that will satisfy the critics instead of doing exactly what expresses them with the risk of never being able to share it with anyone else. Hence administration imposes limitations to cultural activity, quality and type of performances that are being produced.

This example also illustrates how the essence of culture comes into direct conflict with the essence of administration with the former being concerned with creativity, spontaneity and freedom whilst the latter with organization, planning, calculation and with serving the interest of the organization, or as in the above case the interest of a whole country. The critic is seen as being part of the administrative apparatus and appears to have a substantial amount of power and control over the type of dance that will be funded and shown to the public. It is equally important, however, to understand that it is through that administrative system that culture, and hence dance, exists; something that would not have been possible “if the sphere of culture were left totally at the mercy of the mechanisms of supply and demand” (Adorno, 1960, p. 49). The choreographer creates dances but it is the critic who decides whether to embrace the ideas of the dances and transmit them to the outside world, or not. My assignment there (in The New Yorker), as I understand it, is to write of things that interest me or that in conscience should interest me; consequently, I cover only about a third of the performances I see. (Croce, 1982, p. 1) And in this sense the critic’s job is a form of administration as she/he can create a powerful communication between the dance world and the audience, or not.

5. Conclusion

Criticism is seen as a major agent of power and as “one factor among many that determine the destiny of the arts” (Booth, 1991, p. xii) whether critics write for the daily newspaper or the specialized publication. Despite this, dance critics are handicapped in analysis by the limited evidence of dances, particularly those of previous centuries. This is an reasonable limitation if one considers the ephemeral nature of dance but the situation is exacerbated by problems such as the disagreement of dance scholars, critics, choreographers and dancers over the values and importance of the critical analysis of dance. Conflicting views over these matters are echoed in all art disciplines as the notion of analysis, and in particular the work of the critic, is greeted with reservation by some ‘expert’ spectators or listeners in all arts. Adshead, suggests that this may be due to the fact that Once the reader, spectator or listener is equipped with some means of access to the work s/he simply engages with it and sees or hears it in all its richness and complexity without conscious or deliberate recourse to specific techniques. (1988, p. 7)

The appreciation of dance is, however, a very complex process which depends upon the individual having some elementary skills, such as the ability to observe separate movement components in the dance and to be able to perceive them as related or unrelated events. Constructing a picture of the movement that is being performed, the relationship between the dancers as a group and as individuals and the way in which they coexist within an environment made up of the costumes, scenery and sound is the basis on dance analysis. Once these elements have been seen, the spectator can then proceed to try and make sense of what they mean by drawing on all she/he knows about dance.

The specialist spectator, the critic, uses analysis in order to provide the reasons for interpretation and evaluation of a dance and to deepen her/his response and it is here where, according to McFee, explanations of dance are to be found; Only the kind of informed confrontation with the dance that critical concepts entail will really be a confrontation with the work of art. (1992, p. 129) If one compares, however, the present situation of dance with that of music in the early part of the 20th century, one is forced to accept that the greater degree of understanding is the inevitable consequence of analytical, critical and scholarly study. Critics are essential because through their work they help the dance audience and readers in the process of recognizing artists, keep them in touch with the changing ways in which choreographers think and produce work as well as bring new traditions to their attention (Brenson as cited in Berger, 1998, p. 106). Moreover it shouldn’t be ignored that past critiques are often the only source of historical evidence that we have.

Promoting one’s own views in the name of criticism without giving reasons is simply not good enough. It is important to give reasons for opinions, of ascribing qualities to the dance and offering some means of judging its value. Through this analytic procedure the reader should have the freedom to either agree or disagree with the critic on the basis of the reasons given instead of absorbing opinion masqueraded as facts. It is only then that the spectator/reader will be guided towards greater enjoyment and understanding of dance. It is therefore important that we perceive critics as something more than mere ‘fault finders’ as defined in The Cambridge Dictionary of English (Stowell and Hill, 1980) and look much deeper into what criticism is all about. Dance criticism is indispensable and has multiple functions as it puts

A performance into a broader artistic context and includes analysis of the judgements and reasoning. It puts works of art and artists into cultural and historical perspective, and it includes descriptions of works that are ‘literary’ in their style and grace. (Van Camp, 1986, p. 15)


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Carter, A. ‘Capturing the moment…in time’ in Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 16, no. 4, 2001, pp. 18-19.

Conrad, P. ‘What does he know that you don’t’ The Observer Review, 26 July 1998, pp. 2-3.

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Hill, E., O’Sullivan, C. and O’Sullivan T., Creative arts marketing. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000.

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McFee, G. Understanding dance. London/New York: Routledge, 1996.

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Stowell, G. and Hill, R. (eds.) The Cambridge dictionary of English. Great Britain: Lowe and Brydone Ltd., 1978.

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Van Camp, J. ‘The humanities and dance criticism’ Federation Review, vol. 9, no. 1, January/February 1986, pp. 14-17.

Williamson, J., Deadline at dawn. London/New York: Marion Boyars, 1993, p. 18.

Wollheim, R. Art and its objects. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1980.

Mary Elizabeth Phillips


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