Former Times head dance critic John Rockwell responds to Apollinaire’s grumblings

Here’s an exchange with recently retired Times head dance critic, John Rockwell, in response to the following two posts about the hire of Alastair Macaulay and not a woman or a New Yorker (Here’s post #1 and here’s post #2, where I’ve summarized recent comments that I can’t get access to. I also made a few revisions to my own post in light of more developments and thinking.)
I know John from when he was the editor in chief of the Times’ Arts and Leisure section. He was a wonderful editor. He left the section editors alone enough that they were happy at their jobs and the section had that satisfyingly bumpy quality you get when editors don’t overwork the articles. John was also very nice when being critical. I wrote and then rewrote one article that never turned out particularly well, and instead of him doing the usual journo thing of “!%%$@^^@%@%@,” he said, “I don’t think it finally worked.” Isn’t that nice? As a writer, that’s something you can live with.
Anyway, he initiated a short email exchange–more than I deserved, given all my grumblings. Something he alludes to: I was offered a freelancer position at the Times a couple of years ago and decided not to take it, for involved reasons including that I would have to leave Newsday, where I am also a freelancer but have an excellent editor (John Habich) and wasn’t one among 4 other dance writers, all with more seniority
John Rockwell:

I may be wrong, but while I may have called the girls girls occasionally, I think the term was Jennifer’s [Dunning]. And she used it affectionately!


I’m sure she did use it affectionately. And that you do too! I didn’t mean for the focus to be so heavily on the word “girls.” I use it all the time, and “boy” too for the boys. I really don’t care what we call each other as long as people aren’t being taken for granted.
I guess the reason I made a deal of it was a conversation I remember last winter. I asked, “So, John, any plans to hire any of the freelancers?” You: “No, I like having all of the girls around.” It was probably less “the girls” than the “around.”


A–If I liked “having all the girls around,” how would that affect a decision to hire one of them on staff (not that any slots were then available)? And if the Times is so anti-women, how come they had Anna forever and went after Joan Acocella in 2004 or whenever it was and have so many women critics in the other arts??
I still think Jennifer was the one who routinely called our stringers the girls, since she’s sweet like that (“bunnies” is another favorite) and was and is concerned, more than I ever was, that we need male critics for the powers to take the field seriously. So maybe I was echoing her, though you could ask her. Whatever.

Editor’s note: So I did ask her–not about whether she called the freelancers bunnies or girls but whether she felt that “we need male critics for the powers to take the field seriously.” She’s out of town. Will get back to me when she’s back. And I will post.
John, continued:

Fact is, however patriarchally, I did bring in three women (and trimmed one man). When I did, I made it clear to them (and to you, when we were talking about you coming to the NYT) that when a staff slot came open, the Times would look both internally and further afield, since no one would expect someone from London or L.A. or wherever to relocate to NY for a stringer job (although I did, in 1972).
I had nothing to do with Alastair’s hire, though I’ve been in phone and email correspondence with him. Apparently they (and “they” included some women editors) felt that none of the stringers had (yet) risen to the occasion, as you suggested. I’m not sure of that, but they all had their chances, in Sunday pieces, critics’ notebooks and reviews. Seems highly improbable to me that consciously or unconsciously they were passed over because they were women. I’m more interested in Paul Parish’s American/New York vs. Britain angle, though maybe an outsider’s perspective will be interesting, so let’s give Alastair a chance.

I don’t think it was ever contemplated to expand or contract the two staff slots now allotted to dance criticism. So when Jennifer retires, we shall see.

Editor’s note: I also asked John why they hadn’t tiered the hire of the three freelancers–that is, hired someone who had more years of reviewing experience who might have been able to move up to the top post, and thus leave only two freelancers competing for the one remaining slot. I mentioned a few writers such as Mindy Aloff and Nancy Dalva and others, just as examples of people with a large body of work, high quality of writing, etc. . He wrote back, in part, “I’m not going to get into the strengths and weaknesses, as we perceived them, of the ‘more experienced’ critics.” Understandable. I wasn’t actually thinking of a blow by blow, but I guess it would come to that… He did also make an important correction: The wonderful Roslyn Sulcas has extensive experience–a bit of research revealed nearly a decade of reviewing in Europe, beginning in the period before the Web craze. She then continued here.

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