How to Get Meaningful Feedback on Your Choreographic Work—and What to do With it

Early in her career, choreographer Liz Lerman found herself working on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to provide feedback on the work of other artists. “I realized that I was always looking at other people’s work through the lens of my own aesthetic,” she says. “Where were the old ones? Why didn’t the dancers speak? How come it wasn’t political?”

But Lerman was also frustrated with the feedback she received on her own work and the idea that artists should just sit back and take criticism instead of embracing it. “I hated being misunderstood,” she says. “I felt like we should have a dialogue.”

Generating feedback that aligns with the goals of your work can be a challenge—as well as knowing what to do with that information once you’ve got it. And even when feedback is carefully submitted, it can hurt. Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which she developed in the early 1990s based on her own dissatisfaction with giving and receiving feedback, addresses some of these issues in a four-step process. Key tenets include the idea that makers should play an active role in criticizing their work and that the best feedback comes when there is a basis of trust and a spirit of generosity and goodwill.

Smiling woman sitting in the forest
More information on the critical response process can be found here Criticism is creative, a new book by Liz Lerman and John Borstel, from Wesleyan University Press. Photo by Lise Metzger, courtesy of Lerman.

Feedback can be as casual as inviting a mentor to a rehearsal, or as formal as traditional audience talkback. However, feedback is an invaluable part of the creative process, especially for young choreographers, says Spectrum Dance Theater Artistic Director Donald Byrd. “Feedback is an antidote to hubris,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to learn; knowing something you didn’t know before.”

Know what you are looking for

Getting everyone’s opinions on your work can certainly lead to interesting interpretations. However, you’re more likely to generate useful feedback if you consciously articulate what you’re asking about and why. “Be really clear about the question you want to ask,” says Gesel Mason, a choreographer and faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. Mason, who performed with Lerman’s Dance Exchange, often uses CRP, or Aspects of Practice, which means asking viewers specific questions about what they saw.

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Woman directing a group of dancers in a large studio
Gesel Mason teaches a master class. Photo by Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Mason.

This clarity will help guide the conversation: do you want to ask specific questions about a section you’re having trouble with, or if an issue is clear? Or do you want to facilitate the viewer’s experience of the piece and let them lead with their impressions and questions? For example, early in his career, Byrd was hungry for the answers he could get and eager to discover what his work was “missing.” Now he’s more selective about whom he asks and is primarily interested in whether his ideas are received.

Your motif will also shape whose feedback you are looking for: an artist from a different discipline? A dancer who shares your sensibility – or not? A trusted friend? An educated stranger? Byrd values ​​most the opinions of those he knows will not approach the work with a strong bias toward their own aesthetic preferences and values. Soliciting opinions from those you hope your work will appeal to, Mason says, helps ensure you’re not in an echo chamber of friends and co-workers.

Beyond “Did you like it?”

While it’s natural to be curious as to whether a viewer has “got” your piece, contemporary choreographer Christy Funsch steers clear of that idea when facilitating talkbacks, pointing out that it’s rarely that simple that a work is either understood or not. Instead, “she’s found that it’s more helpful for choreographers to be given a list of images, expressing an emotional experience that a viewer has gone through,” says Funsch, who splits her time between New York City and San Francisco. “Try to move away from ‘answers’ and instead acknowledge the incredible things dance can do, leading us to find relational truths and resonances that don’t lead to a single answer.”

Man sitting in chair talking to group of dancers in studio
Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theatre. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy of Byrd.

Byrd feels the same way. “I know not everyone will like what I do, and is that really what I want?” He finds it more useful when viewers ask him questions about a play, and when he gives feedback he avoids solutions to suggest, and simply says what he sees.

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feedback feelings

Since one feels vulnerable when receiving feedback, it’s tempting to wait until a work is finished to invite others. But, says Amy Seiwert, artistic director of San Francisco contemporary ballet company Imagery, waiting until you feel ready often means waiting too long when there’s no time to adjust content. Get feedback early and often, suggests it especially when you don’t feel ready: One of her most fruitful experiences was during a residency, when her mentor Val Caniparoli would watch rehearsals for an hour each week, regardless of whether she had something specially prepared to show him or not.

Woman watches as two men lift a dancer over her head
Amy Seiwert (right) rehearsing. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Imagery.

Asking for feedback from people you already trust can make the experience feel less scary. But trust can also be built in the process itself: Lerman’s CRP is designed so that there is trust between the manufacturer during the four steps that begin with viewers simply voicing their observations in step one and end in step four with the exchange of views and the responder. This process also helps artists be more receptive: “If you get defensive, you might as well stop — you won’t learn anything,” says Lerman.

Learning how to respond to feedback is just as important as the feedback itself, Byrd says. “In the beginning you have to record everything so that you learn to deal not only with what you hear but also with your feelings about what you hear,” he says.

What now?

Byrd says it took him years to realize that feedback is just information to use as he pleases. But deciding how exactly to use it — if at all — can be difficult, says Columbus-based choreographer Bebe Miller, because there’s a risk of moving in the direction someone else expected rather than the direction in that you try to do.

Even initially cryptic comments can spur creativity: Unsure what to make of a critique that her movement phrases were too short, Lerman began acting: “What if I was thinking about lighting that was too short or costumes that were too short, right? too short a program notice?”

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Three dancers jump and throw props onto the stage
Hope Mohr Dance in Bacchae before. Photo by Robbie Sweeny, Courtesy Mohr.

When Mason is facilitating feedback sessions among her students, she often has the choreographer make a change immediately. She will ask how it felt, what they learned, and what they would like to take away or leave from this experiment.

Even criticism that you don’t share can be revealing, says Seiwert. She recalls a time when someone didn’t like a song she was using, and after hearing it over and over again and reconsidering her decision, she was able to articulate even more clearly why the song was spot on. “Sometimes you just need someone to point out that your glasses are on your head – you have everything you need but you can’t see it right now,” she says. “For me, feedback can be really effective. Because the choreographic process can be so isolating, but it doesn’t have to be.”

The value of embodied feedback

Non-verbal feedback provided by the movement itself can be instructive in its directness – you don’t have to imagine how a different approach might transform a piece, you can see it happening in real time.

For contemporary choreographer Christy Funsch, one way of doing this is by giving dancers opportunities to influence the work, for example by asking them to ‘perform’ a piece that isn’t finished yet, as if it would be finished. “The choice of performer is a very special kind of feedback,” she says. Similarly, San Francisco choreographer Hope Mohr sees “collaboration as a constant form of feedback” and often asks dancers how the work feels on the inside, using her somatic experience to shape how it unfolds visually.

For an even more direct form of embodied feedback, there’s wrecking, a practice pioneered by choreographer Susan Rethorst in which outside directors “destroy” a choreographer’s work by rearranging and framing existing material to create a new version. Funsch, who facilitates the destruction of her own work and the work of others, says the practice can be generative in its subversion of language and politeness — feedback doesn’t need to be articulated, it’s simply staged. Sometimes Funsch used part of a corrupted version of their work in the last iteration (giving credit to the pest), and sometimes another person’s view of their work confirms why they made the choices they made. – LW

male teacher working with five female dancers
Choreographer Keith Hennessy (right) “destroys” a piece by Christy Funsch. Courtesy of Funsch.

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