Tall, Dark and Critical
by Deborah Dunn

I have been criticized as far back as I can remember. One of my first critiques was about the way I pronounced r as w. I also wemembew that this was my most endeawing twait. Thus began my twisted affair with criticism. Crit was tall, dark and incredibly powerful. When ignored or judged, I acted as though I didn't care, but when my praises were sung, Crit’s approval touched me. I went from being criticized by a military, moneymaking dad, a catholic mother and British private school teachers, to a group of leftist artists, with a few punk rockers in between. I reveled in the contradictions. There was so much to choose from.

At art school criticism was god. At the time I was prolific, hastily spewing out bad paintings while surrounded by people who could hardly pick up a pencil they were so concerned with criticism. They did, however, manage to get through to me, (though they said it took a year longer than it should have), and I believe I am a better artist because of it. But rebel I did and rebel you must, for criticism can suffocate the imagination and weaken one's courage.

Or it can open your mind, enlighten, and challenge you. Of all the criticism I was introduced to at school it was the fiery body of feminist writing that had the greatest affect on me. Unfortunately I have discovered that this language makes the majority of people very uncomfortable. An attempt to criticize anything from a feminist perspective is usually met with rolling eyes and accusations of reductivity. Apparently completely out of style, I harbour these secret words, molding them into different forms, hoping they will come back into fashion one day.

The words were a shock to me at first as well. How maddening that so much of gender is a vainglorious game. How does tall, dark and critical fit into the feminist universe? Will I have to give him up? How could my romantic imagination up to this point have been a plot to domesticate me?

The truth is an awkward, overly enthusiastic pirouette, complete with a few hops, and a desperate port-aux-bras at the end to keep from falling down.

I survived becoming a dancer late by simply ignoring the corrections at first, and exploring the inherent potential of my body. Before I learned any dance technique I could finish a quadruple pirouette, no hops and no crazy arms. Grant Strate told me that when I knew what I was doing, (when I learned how to "dance"), I would not be able to do that any more. He was right. I am still in the process of learning how to dance and I can barely finish a double, but I have been told that I am no longer the hazard that I used to be in class.

I could have told dance technique to take a hike. I could have perfected my blind pirouette, and found some version of tall, dark and critical that was willing to destroy my life. We could have moved into a cave of ignorance together, me continuously turning, innocently expressing my unformed self, he criticizing it constantly. I gave up this romantic picture for another romantic picture. No longer in the cave, I am in a mirrored room with dancers, receiving and giving criticism. From this creative purgatory, we are sometimes given access to heaven, whereby our art falls effortlessly into place and everyone is happy.

Usually I cannot really hear a good critique in the moment. It can take years, and then of course there is the fear that most of it will not make any sense until it is too late. The words float around in my head attempting to become real. Then one day I am doing something and I say "lo … I have learned." Most of those words have come from colleagues, teachers, friends, books, and even a few from critics.

I did not read the bad reviews of my piece The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but a friend told me that the work was described as "banal play acting." Every night when I put on my make-up, I would look in the mirror, snicker and repeat the phrase "banal play actress." I saw all the toil and the love that had brought me thus far; brought me into the arena of banal play-acting. I turned the words around. I saw them coming out of the mouths of people looking disdainfully at me. I saw myself engaging in banal play-acting, and I knew that the banality, the play and the acting were all thwee noble puwsuits; the most impowtant pwactices any sewious woman could commit hewself to.

My twisted affair with criticism is always changing, as is my image of the critic. No longer the black monolith, Heathcliffian and impenetrable, criticism is now a successful middle-aged woman. I see her sometimes in the audience. She is there in the form of a great Canadian dance artist. For a period I would come off stage and say "Peggy Baker was in the audience," only to find out later that she was not. But I would have really seen the silhouette of the long neck and the cropped bob. I would have felt her there. So as you may have gathered, I am in deep with criticism.

After earning a degree in visual art, Deborah Dunn found herself getting steadily seduced by the theatre, first as a set and costume designer, then as a performer and choreographer. She founded her company Trial & Eros in Vancouver in the early nineties and is now based in Montreal. Deborah has created six evening length works: Trial & Eros, Pandora's Books, The Little Queen, The Birds, Blackmail, Elegant Heathens and is presently working on her sixth Nocturnes which will premiere in Montreal at L'agora de la danse in spring 2007. She has also been very active as a soloist with works like Moth, Fuse, Burnt Norton and Macbeth's Wife. Deborah writes from time to time.
"Tall, Dark and Critical" originally appeared in the fall 2000 issue of transmissions (volume IV, no. 1), Rumble Productions' annual publication on theatre, art and ideas.