The Power of Words Versus Pictures Versus Video

You guys, I’m wondering if people can answer a question for me. I guess this applies mainly to my readers who are not located in NY and who have never before seen American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, or any of the companies I write about. But it also applies to anyone who has an answer really.

Do you think if a writer is really good and can convey the beauty of a dancer or of a dance, that pictures are unnecessary? Are there any such writers? Joan Acocella, Arlene Croce, Edwin Denby, Julie Kavanagh, Laura Jacobs? (I use those examples because those writers have published books, in which there are few if any visuals). Is it even possible to convey the beauty of an inherently visual art form in words? Do pictures even do justice since dance is not just visual, but inherently movement-oriented?

Do you need a combination of writing and visuals? Is there a difference between blogs, books, magazines, and newspapers in terms of what you expect?

Do you care more about the dancers the writer is talking about if the writer posts a picture of them? Do you have more of a human connection to them that way? If so, is a full-body picture of them in a dance pose better than a headshot? Do you connect more to the face or body form? Or do you honestly just not care about them at all if there’s no chance you’ll ever see them perform?

I ask mainly because bloggers are beginning to run into copyright violation issues with videos and photos.


  1. I think that pictures are definitely helpful to me. I don’t need a ton of pictures; just a photo or two can be beneficial I think. The pictures that most help me form a picture in my head when reading a review–that interest me the most– are those that are from the dance under review. This is less important if it’s a dancer or dance I’m familiar with, but if I don’t know what the dancer looks like, the clothing looks like, etc. I really like to have a visual. I don’t think it’s entirely necessary, and if I really want to see a picture I can often just look for one on google or something, but it definitely makes things easier for me. As I slowly learn more about dance I feel somewhat less need for pictures, but when I first started reading about dance (quite recently, really!) they were very helpful.

  2. I love photos of dancers – I even prefer still photos to videos. Headshots can bring them ‘up close’. They are a breed apart.

    I do not think one can ever be entirely successful in describing dance thru writing. The best one can hope for is to give readers an idea of how something looked and how it worked on the music chosen, and try to evoke the tone or atmosphere of a given piece. What I am always hoping when I write about something I really like – whether it is SERENADE or OLTREMARE or L’ANNONCIATION – is that I can interest people in going to see it.

    I do think photos are a good supplement to writing: for example Paul Kolnik’s tremendous photos from OLTREMARE give a point of reference to the written descriptions.

    It’s very interesting to read what writers at the time wrote about Nijinsky, Karsavina, Pavlova – dancers whose fame pre-dated the heyday of visual documentation. I like, for instance, to read about Nijinsky in a given role and see a photo of him in costume and then try to imagine him in motion.

  3. Pictures a major plus to me because I don’t know ballet terms as much as I wish I did. Personally, I found Julie’s book very dry, wordy and not enough story…. Just Too many terms. With other dance forms, like Ballroom, it’s a little easier because I know them more 🙂

  4. Tonya, this is very timely for me.

    Tomorrow morning I’m writing post “Writing Through Video.” In nutshell, I’m saying that given the increasing quality of Internet dance video it’s time for dance critics and bloggers to consider new approaches to writing about dance that put much more emphasis on video as a means of conveying insights and commentary about different types of dance. It’s sort of follow-up to last weekend’s Dance Critics Association Conference.

    BTW, I’ve never had a problem with using photos or videos. I usually reference source of photo and link to the source from where it came. In terms of video, I just embed from popular video sharing sites. If somebody doesn’t want me to use multimedia content, I’ll just delete it.

  5. hee, this conversation sounds familiar! I still have to reply to your email, I accidentally left my laptop at home so Im on the lab computer right now. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so rather than reading through a thousand words, its much easier to illustrate with a picture. Especially in reading about dancers Ive never seen in person, I could tell immediately what kind of dancer Tess Reichlen was just by seeing a picture of her in Rubies. I guess I can already take an educated guess by the fact that she was cast in Rubies… but yes, pictures are important.

    It would probably mean more for a newbie as well, who doesnt know how “cool” dance can look, in addition to advertising newer pieces Ive never seen. If I had seen video footage of McGregors “eden/eden”, I would have rushed over to see it earlier than I did.

  6. Tonya,

    This topic raises so many interesting questions.

    First, as you and others who have read my comments may recall, I have no training in dance. I am an architect who has attended dance for 4 decades in NYC but only in the past 5 or 6 years have I done so regularly and it has been ballet and mostly ABT.

    When I first “rediscovered” the beauty and wonder of ballet I was extremely frustrated by my ignorance about it and my inability to see it as often as I wanted – for enjoyment and to learn more of course.

    Two things really helped me. Both from the internet. One was ballet visuals in the form of photos and vids and the second was the web sites, such as this one, Winger (how I found this one) and BalletTalk. These are my learning labs and places where I can share my thoughts – despite my lack of education and engage in interesting and informative discussions about ballet, dancers, the entire genre an the arts in general. I’ve found the dance “world” to be populated with extremely intelligent and verbally adroit people. This was a most pleasant surprise and relates to the whole question of writing about dance.

    Before I go there I need to return to the visuals for a bit. One thing I realized at the ballet is how fleeting a performance is. And each one is so unique. Live performance has this quality. While we can listen to recorded music in the background or books on tape (or whatever they are called) we need to give our full attention to dance. I like that. So unlike opera where I can listen to it over and over again in my car, on my iPod or stereo, I can really only absorb dance at a performance.

    But there are the vids and there are the photos. Vids first. Vids are informative but lack the magic and scale of a live attended perfoermace. They’re so two dimensional and flat and there is no feeling of space when viewing a vid and for me dance is about “carving out space” moving through it, defining it and a flat presentation simply cannot demonstrate the quality. But it can display technique for example and like any 2D photo /image it does contain most of the information. So there is value there.

    Now there are some photographers who “document” dance/ballet like a snap shot of time. The professional photographers do exquisite snapshots, documentary images.and these can be beautiful no doubt.

    But some dance photographers are artists themselves and use ballet/dance as the subject matter of their own art. When I came across some of these types of photos of ballet and dance, they had the magical ability to convey the spacial and visual power of the human for in “dance” and almost trick me into feeling the space as I do at a live performance. This is hard to accomplish and even those who try fail most of the time (if they are trying). When I discovered some of Gene Schiavone’s work and especially his B&W I was felt like I was at the ballet! And there are others, but I credit him with waking me up to the power of images of dance and ballet.

    Now on to writing about dance. I enjoy reading about performances I have attended or dances/works I am familiar with. This writing and discussions inform me and help me see more of what is before my uneducated eyes. I don’t think I would love the ballet were it not for the internet. For although I was smitten by attending a season of ABT, I am continually courted and seduced by the writers and discussions of ballet and dance. Tonya is one of the best, but I don’t read that many to be honest. Even Alistair is informative. But reading about dance has nothing to do, in my mind with the experience of seeing it performed. It’s like writing about the taste of food or the experience of a 7 course gourmet meal. It can make your mouth water, but you can’t taste the food.

    As reportage, accompanying photos or vids are informative and I like them. Head shots I could care less about or even resume photos or promotional ones. If you can get shots FROM the actual performance then that WOULD be a great plus.

    What I am longing for is a “play by play” type experience from a real experienced dancer. I imagine having an earphone in my ear and the “ballet genius” explain what they/we are seeing in real time. What’s good, bad and so forth. Of course I can see good and bad, but I don’t know the names of what I am seeing in the case of ballet and it makes it almost impossible to “think” about ballet, or talk about it when I have no language for it. But I am learning a bit.

    All this ignorance does not stop me from trying to describe, in online discussions what I see, or thought I saw, what I loved or didn’t and so forth.

    But I am thrilled to read the reviews comments and detailed descriptions / analyzes by dancers. Boy would I love to have their eyes.

    Or would I? Sometimes I enjoy my ignorance and wonder about ballet and dance much the way we all do when being in a great work of architecture. The uneducated are thrilled but the beauty and magnificence of architecture, for example and don’t need to understand how it is created or even why it thrills. It is just enough to be awed by it all.

    And I am awed by all the geniuses of movement. The choreographers, the dancers and those who do sets, lighting, music and make it all work together.

    Writing about it can only make the smallest scratch in the surface of the actual experience. But the writing/words is the only way for me to learn.

    And that’s why I am here.

  7. I don’t understand the copyright issue. You’re basically doing free advertising for them. You would think they would want the images out there. I don’t understand how they are damaged by this. You are promoting dance. Crazy. No offense, but I get so frustrated with our overly litigious society.

  8. I wanted to curate an exhibit of ballet photography and contacted the ABT with a proposal and thought they would jump at the idea for the publicity too. I was told there were too many legal issues and contract issues and so on and so on and it was not something they would help me with or even support.

    Nancy Ellison and her husband are doners to the Met Opera and the ABT to the tune of $1,000,000 or more each I believe. Two years ago Ellison did an impressive book with Rizzoll and this yearta book for / about ABT with an exhibit of the photos at the bottom of the Met Opera house.

    See what money buys.

  9. Thanks for the comments, you guys, they’re really helpful. I totally agree, Laurel, and, SanderO, Nancy Ellison is who got me so into dance in the first place — that first book she did several years ago made me fall in love with ABT. It’s a shame you couldn’t do your curation. I think ABT may be differently run than other companies; and I also think there may be problems beyond the immediate control of the company, like unions. But I’m not sure.

    I’m a lawyer but I focused on criminal and civil rights law and know next to nothing about intellectual property. But I always thought that the harm in copyright violation was that you were making a financial profit on someone else’s work product, so that the artist deserved a part of your revenue. (stealing — plagiarism — is something different, but most of us don’t do that; we credit the photographer). Obviously, most of our personal blogs are not making any profits, so there’s nothing for the artist to sue us for even if they did want to do that. But that apparently isn’t even the issue because some bloggers are being asked to take down videos that they’ve posted or linked to. I’ve been contacted by a lawyer about photos I’ve put up too, so photos aren’t exempt. But I do think the biggest problem is with the videos.

    And of course all of this only applies to the personal blogs, not the big high-profiting websites that some of us contribute to or the blogs connected to big newspapers and magazines. Sometimes it just takes so long to get a picture, which is what prompted me to wonder whether a picture is really so important anyway. But apparently it is…

    So, Doug, I think your ideas are interesting, but you’re advocating using videos which seems to be the biggest problem we’re running into with copyright violations. I think we should have a forum on this at some point — but one with the companies so that we can get to the crux of the issue, because trying to figure out these things on our own seems pointless…

  10. Tonya,

    I’m not clear what you’re saying about video and copyright violations. Clearly, this is challenging topic.

    But what I wrote about in my post today was how dance critics/writers can use the dance videos that are on popular websites and embed them in their online posts and articles.

    Why do copyright issues come up in this specific instance? If a dancer, dance company, presenter or other copyright holder demands that a video is taken down, then the video site will take it down. This removal will necessitate a re-writing of the dance critic’s post or article — that should be it I believe.

    I don’t think – as a non-lawyer – that a dance writer has copyright issues to worry about when embedding a video along with their article.

    Tonya, do you see this in another light or are you referring to something different?

  11. Well, I don’t know if I’m really at liberty to say, but I know people have been told to take videos down, which would destroy the entire article, and even to sign agreements that they’ll never do such a thing again. I’m personally not getting myself into that kind of involvement with anyone…

  12. The copyright/intellectual property issues are so interesting yet complicated. I feel like our art form is kind of pre-problem with this because there haven’t been major issues to date. I think it’s more of a problem for the ballet companies posting pictures and videos to their websites (that we bloggers/writers link to or embed) because they have the contracts regarding choreography, union dancers, etc. I don’t think we as the writers would be held responsible.

    I think in some ways its comparable to the recent writer’s strike…there are currently no real rules for this in dancer’s contracts or choreographers, etc so until choreographers formally make restrictions to their work being exposed online I don’t think there’s much they can do about it…

    Something to think about anyway…

  13. Although I was not specifically trying to work with ABT on my project, it would have or could have included their artists.

    Tonya raises a very interesting point. What ARE these unions and contracts protecting by controlling the use of photographs?

    Think about it? How could the use of a photo of an artist damage the artist of the company? Of course bizarre weird uses could be slanderous etc, but if a legitimate effort is made to publish or mount an exhibition of images I can’t see what the hard would be. If anything it might bring ticket purchasers in to see performances.

    And in my “case” the artists would could and should have the right to have their image removed. What these companies are “selling” is the perfomances and if they have already photographer a fee to take the images, for what purpose are they used.. if not publicity of some sort… to increase interest and sales?

    If they have “gotten their money’s worth” why deny the public from seeing beautiful images.

    If some one can explain the potential harm, I am all ears. Nancy Ellsion case proves, in my mind, that the “objections” about unions and contracts are just “excuses”.


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