Why is giving feedback so touchy and so difficult? When we talk about others’ work, it can be hard to clearly differentiate between the piece of work and the person’s talent. Feedback becomes personal because we don’t know how to talk specifically about the work. The choreography process itself is so personal and inspiration-driven that it is nearly impossible to pin down. So how do we give suggestions or make comments about someone else’s process? Right now, we can’t.
Our discomfort in giving feedback comes from the way we learn choreography. Today’s dance students see choreography as an extremely personal process that is almost entirely based on fleeting inspiration. But it doesn’t have to be. Choreography is an art, which means it takes practice, knowledge, technique, and skill. When students are taught choreography as a technique in a way that separates their skills from their self-worth, it becomes easier to separate the work from the person when giving or receiving criticism. Peers can comment directly on the work they saw and offer help without an infringement on the artist’s self-worth. Choreographers learn that the tools they use to create do not define them as an artist. Simultaneously, their peers learn how to comment on the tools the choreographer used rather than the choreographer’s creative abilities. When we comment on the tools instead of the artist, there is no room for whether the work was “good” or “bad” or whether we liked it or not.
Good feedback happens when the choreographer is able to express the goal of the piece to their peers who are, in turn. able to judge whether the piece achieved that goal. Feedback is only helpful when it allows a choreographer to more effectively achieve their goal. The uncomfortable and sometimes hurtful remarks judging a piece as “good” or “bad” simply have no place in effective feedback.
It is the job of the feedback-givers to explain where and why the piece wasn’t as effective as it could have been. In order to do that job, however, choreographers have to know (and communicate) the purpose and goal of their piece. Feedback-givers could ask what a certain section meant, what tools were used, and how that fits into the work as a whole. They can offer suggestions of other tools to use if they think that the present tools don’t effectively communicate the purpose of the piece.
But they have to be able to explain why the present tools are ineffective and why the suggested tools would be better. Without that important why clause, the choreographer won’t be able to learn and grow from feedback. Feedback is a way for choreographers to view their work through different eyes and see alternate routes that their piece could have taken. When we don’t know how to comment on the technique rather than the person, feedback becomes touchy and personal, and the choreographer loses a huge opportunity.