Written by Chi Hui-ling
Translated by Siraya Pai
The late 1990s in Taiwan saw an increasing interest in performance reviews when several major newspapers (United Daily News, China Times, Liberty Times, and Min Sheng Daily) regularly or occasionally invited writers to contribute their articles. The longest-running Min Shen Daily Reviews started in 1996 as a newspaper column focusing on drama and theatre, before it soon expanded to include music, traditional theatre, and dance, while it later collaborated with Taishin Art Awards in its new special column Taishin Arts Review, offering a broader platform for performance reviews and criticism. Meanwhile, there is also Performing Arts Review (now Performing Arts Redefined), a professional magazine acknowledged for its long and ongoing dedication to critical writing.
The bloom of performance reviews in the late 1990s was closely related to the thriving performing arts scene at that time. It was a weak era for Taiwanese films, where the award-winning ones with international acclaim were frustrated by the almost empty auditorium. However, the situation was quite different for live performances. The touring shows of Ping-Fong Acting Troupe, let us take the most popular and prolific company then for example, could attract over 30,000 attendances around Taiwan, suggesting a much bigger market for live performances than Taiwanese films.
The New Wave Cinema of Taiwan during the 1980s was a movement pushed forward by film critics, and their “auteur” criticism aesthetically established the status of New-Wave master filmmakers. Although it was sometimes criticized for its disconnection from the public, but their criticism fundamentally changed the role of cinema from the one and only option of entertainment to an individual artistic creation as well as a social reflection based on arts and humanity, making significant contribution to cinema as an art form. In comparison, performance reviews indeed had its prime, with Cloud Gate Dance Theater, Lan Ling Theatre Workshop (also translated as Lanlin Theatre Troupe), and the Ya-yin Ensemble of the 1970s as well as Contemporary Legend Theatre and Performance Workshop of the 1980s receiving high critical acclaim, followed by a more organized and feverish writing of performance reviews in the late 1990s, but even until today, the vigorous stage has not yet seen much of the impact from criticism. Why is it? The lack of “professional” or “expert” critics and a platform for criticism is the critical reason.
As mentioned above, it is not performance reviews we have lacked, despite of its ebbs and flows, but a definite status of professional critics and a regular place for them to pave the ground. In the late 1990s, both Min Sheng Daily and Performing Arts Review recruited a group of professional critics, who up till today are still the main contributors in the arena of performance reviews in Taiwan, and published their reviews on a regular basis. For the media, however, did they “provide” a space here to create a possible three-way dialogue among the market (audience), creators, and critics? Or was it just a pleasurable convenience for critics’ whimsical play with words?
The previous experiences with newspapers or magazines showed that not many of them had taken criticism as an exchange of ideas seriously. Most of the mass media did not have a regular section for performance reviews, while even Min Sheng Daily, a rare exception as it was, would not have been able to continue it if without the support from Taishin Arts Award as an Art-Business collaborative project. While Min Sheng Daily’s column could be taken as exemplary for performance reviews, the space was still limited, not to mention other newspapers or magazines.
The increasing presence and strength of performance reviews in the late 1990s solidified the status of critics. Although many of them were not only critics but with multiple roles such as artists, creators, or members (in a loose definition) of theatre or dance companies, they tried their best to maintain the independence of criticism away from both external and internal pressure. Unfortunately, the decline of print media after the strike of sensationalism and overheated politics news led to the eventual disappearance of arts and culture section. As criticism has lost its farm, the role of professional critics returned to ground zero and expected a new beginning.
In recent decades, writing for the Internet has become a trend where everyone can say what they want to say, but its anonymous nature and diverse writing styles somehow disturb the conventions of reviews. It seems, in general cases, the reviews published on social media or weblogs are often personal feedback, while academic journals featuring wider concerns and serious discussions only have limited readers, and the impact of professional magazines are mostly within the reach of their circulations. Therefore, the most accessible reviews are the ones occasionally published on mass media (newspapers), but they are not frequent enough to form a trend.
After all, performance reviews will have to regroup itself on its previous establishment and to begin again. Performing arts are impossible to replicate. It dies again and again at every curtain call, and critics can never reexperience the performance for reexamination. Within the given period of time, they have to absorb and digest a great number of symbols and intentions, and many of them even take notes in the dark auditorium to fulfill such as a difficult task.
While there are certain “techniques” to follow in music, dance, or traditional theatre, most of the modern theatre practices depend on individual judgment, and their approach to acting/staging varies from production to production. In the duration of the performance, reviewers reflect on the work, diachronically and synchronically, from its techniques to the artistic intention, from the aesthetic to cultural meaning, from the here-and-now experience to a retrospective view of the past. Their concerns may be all-inclusive or missing some points. Right after the onsite experience, they have to submit their words. The task is not easy for it demands solid skills and experiences.
There were much fewer performances taking place in the late 1990s than today, so the critic committee of Min Shen Daily often had problem with finding performances to be reviewed or even repeated reviewing the same ones. Nowadays, the number of productions and performances multiply, but the place to publish criticism somehow declines. Perhaps we are waiting for the second wave of performance reviews.
Indeed, we see a group of emerging writers accumulating their experiences and improving their critical vision and writing, with a new stimulation came from the newly-founded Reviewing Performing Arts Taiwan under the National Culture and Art Foundation. These fresh-faced critics (since their names have rarely appeared in print media) may not yet have an impactful role by establishing a systemic and solid critical perspective, but as long as they continuously sharpen their writing, it is expected that they will soon build a strong force in criticism and make the practice vigorous again.
Is the critic an arbiter, a mentor, or just some bystander? Are they writing a comment, a judgment, or a discourse? There are multiple possibilities, and it all depends on how a critic defines themselves. If we go back to the choice of the word, “comment” can be more subjective while “discourse” is analytical; to criticize suggests the attempt to “judge” or “evaluate,” but it is never a quick judgmental attitude. A good critical writing is how critics should propose an argument within the word limit, while post-performance feedback and comments are far from being qualified.
So what can we do to build an argument? It involves one’s knowledge about the particular art form, its creators and context, and thus demands experiences, research before the performance, and studies of historical texts to set oneself in the performance and its context for a further examination. As for the discussions on techniques, expressions, and artistic intentions, or the analysis on a higher level concerning its cultural, social, and aesthetic meanings, they are both important aspects as well.
Some may argue that critics should avoid overinterpretation beyond the work itself, insisting that “criticism is an independent creation” which neither serves the artists nor the audience. Even so, criticism still has its fundamental principles rooted in both what is being reviewed and what the argument is based on, and the critical spirit is thus manifested in the ongoing dialectics between the two as the argument fully unfolds.
There are also people talking about criticism being subjective. In fact, it reveals the true meaning of criticism as “another creation.” It is agreed that critics should avoid subjective judgment and feelings as much as possible, but the inseparable ideology and aesthetics will influence the critical perspective (or we can say that criticism is where critics aesthetically establish their view about the work) too.
These are not the necessary evil for criticism, but important parameters to examine the reviews or critiques. Instead of maintaining an excessive distance to filter negative comments and obscure the real argument, the better form of criticism requires a bolder step as if the critics were dance battling with the artists between perspectives and defenses. Whether one gives in or breaks away is determined by the strength shown in the dance duet, where it stirs the hearts or part ways.
The ethical code for critics is more about freien Beweiswürdigung rather than fixed rules (such as that critics should not participate in related discussions or accept free ticket, for example). After all, the ethnic code is a restriction imposed, and within the small circle of performing arts scene in Taiwan, it is sometimes inevitable when everybody knows everybody. When it comes to the content, especially whether the argument should be based on theories with authoritative quotes to be qualified as “professional,” we respect the fact that everyone has one’s own answer.
Conceptually, even the clearest argument is still a language-based representation, while the ambiguity of language and linguistic meanings has already been widely discussed. If we agree that the performance text is semiotically complicated due to its multiplicity, diversity and ambiguity, then an arbitrary belief in the rationality and objectivity in critical writing is thus more like a wishful thinking.
Similarly, theories can help solidify one’s argument sometimes, but every theory has its own scope and there is no right approach for all. To establish a style for one’s critical writing, it is about the accumulation of meaningful writing experiences and continuous improvement of knowledge and vision. The argument should be formed before the first word written, and the framework is crucial to support the dialectal structure.
Preparing oneself with a lot of reading, from classics by great thinkers to critiques by established critics, and broadening one’s knowledge may be a way of training, but one should never forget, as emphasized again: when we expect a space for professional criticism and subsequently professional critics, what really matters for a “critic-to-be” is the mental preparation. Writing for pleasure with an amateur attitude is not what we need.
If we consider critical writing a kind of creation, the irresistible desire and excitement to “say something” may be equivalent to the creators on/behind the stage, and reading a critique/review thus can be as fascinating as rewatching the performance, offering the greatest joy to the readers and spectators.
Formerly a newspaper reporter on arts and culture with nearly 20 years of experience, Chi Hui-ling has built a particular knowledge of the arts and cultural industry. During her time at the newspaper, Chi was in charge of several columns, including the Ming Sheng Theater Review and Performing Arts Review, and became the first journalist in Taiwan to run a regular column on performing arts. Since 2011, she has been the director of NCAF's Reviewing Performing Arts Taiwan. As the website's editor-in-chief, Chi has also contributed as a writer herself, critiquing theater, drama and dance works. While bearing the historical context in mind, Chi has been able to connect with the contemporary hearts and minds and progress side-by-side with Taiwan's performing arts.
Siraya Pai is a freelance writer, translator, theatre critic and musician in Taiwan. Her recent writing focuses on the relation between theatre and music, text and translation, language and music, to list just a few. Siraya Pai received her B.A. in Literature from National Taiwan University and later received her M.A. in Theatre with the specialization in Musical Theater from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Her theatre-related publications include the Mandarin translation of To The Actor -- On the Technique of Acting by Michael Chekhov, Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski by Phillip Zarrilli, Theatrical Public Sphere by Christopher B. Balme, A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, and Empty Stages, Crowded Flats: Performativity As Curatorial Strategy (edited by Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza), and Props by Eleanor Margolies, while other performing arts-related articles and critiques can be found in ARTCO, Performing Arts Redifined (previously Performing Ars Review), and ARTALKS.