How’s the New York Times dance chief doing? Readers respond

…to my assessment of Alastair Macaulay in the previous post.
Lise Brenner, a choreographer in New York, writes:
I want to thank you for a very balanced and considered review of A. Macaulay’s performance to this point.
He IS in a very powerful position vis a vis dance. What’s important is not only what he says about any individual dancer or choreographer or company, but the effect he has on the overall level of discussion. And in recent years that level has often been regrettably uninformed, gossipy, and gratuitously nasty.
Choreographers work hard to learn to look at and discuss work–their own and others. It is one of the marks of a professional in the community to be called upon to act as an outside eye: to critique, question, report what you do or do not see, and in general provide a clear and (to the best extent possible) unbiased and unjaundiced view toward work for which you yourself may very well have no sympathy. But we all have sympathy for the process of making.
I am not saying that bad work should be excused, or that the act of making is enough. Not at all. But there is a difference between commenting on work — whether the choreography or the dancing – and commenting on the person and the personality of the person doing the work.
I’m not saying dancers are vessels and not people — of course they are people. But the part of their personhood being put on display FOR REVIEW is their dancing. There is a way to talk about how someone holds her head that does NOT imply that she is vain, silly, and unthinking. Macaulay did not choose that less punitive way of expressing himself.
He is too good a writer not to know the difference.
I remember in the 1980s, criticism felt like a conversation between critics and dance makers. Saying that something didn’t work didn’t seem like a dreadful thing (although I suppose it did to whoever got the bad review) but more like what happens in the course of an ongoing investigation. I could well be romanticizing and misremembering, and it was mainly the Village Voice and not the Times that I was reading.
Without expecting the Times to fulfill the function that the Voice once did in the cultural life of the city, I hoped that at least some of that sense of us all being in this together, finding things out, questioning the process, enjoying the dancing–that more of this would come about with the change of leadership at the Times reviewing desk.
Lise Brenner
Apollinaire responds:
Thank you so much for writing, Lise. You’ve given much food for thought!
A few things:
You make an implicit comparison between a choreographer looking at her colleagues’ work and a critic reviewing the finished piece. There may be some overlap, but I do think that a critic necessarily takes a different approach. As Foot contributor Paul Parish once put it to me, critics are the only ones to represent the audience–what it feels like from your seat. We’re wondering less how the work might achieve a certain effect than what effect it has achieved.
Nevertheless, I think we all grapple with whether we too should act

as an outside eye: critique, question, report what we do or do not see, and in general provide a clear and (to the best extent possible) unbiased and unjaundiced eye toward work for which we ourselves may very well have no sympathy,

or whether our value lies precisely in our biases.
As critics we’re not simply reporting what we see, we’re reporting what the things we see make us feel and think and imagine. The art is being filtered through our very specific sensibility. Presumably our appeal is in our particular approach. And when we lack sympathy for a particular kind of work, it’s often not simply a matter of it not being to our taste (as the polite classes like to put it), but of it offending something fundamental about how we imagine the subject at hand, this species of dance, etc.
That said, the older I get and the longer I write and read reviews, the more I favor a dispassionate approach, and the more important I think it is to have a chameleonic capacity to shift your frame of reference with each work. (I’ve talked more about that frame-shifting and how it’s especially important for dance writers, who often cover a huge range of forms, in the early post The Frame Game.)
Macaulay doesn’t have to like Kudelka’s “Cinderella”–he doesn’t have to like anything, in fact–but it is his responsibility to situate it accurately. So far, when he doesn’t like something, he tends to tick off all the categories it doesn’t fit (as if that in itself were a fault), then throw up his hands in exasperation, though not before he’s slathered on the derision. He’s generally closer to the mark with ballet than with modern dance of recent vintage.
As blogger Tonya Plank pointed out in her post on “Cinderella” and the situation of reviewing, and as you suggest here in lamenting the shrinkage of dance coverage at the Voice, it would matter less what Macaulay did if there were more reviewers with a wide readership. That there isn’t is another reason each of us should resist knee-jerk reactions even as we remain faithful to our experience.
As for your point that criticism by way of humiliating the dancer is never necessary–

There is a way to talk about how someone holds her head that does NOT imply that she is vain, silly and unthinking–

I agree. What’s interesting about Macaulay’s takedown of ABT ballerina Irina Dvorovenko in the “Swan Lake” review (she annoys me too, by the way) is how unnecessary the chin stuff was.
Here’s the full chin paragraph from that review:

Ms. Dvorovenko comes into her own at curtain calls, especially those after individual dances. The very way she runs off at the end of a dance has a kind of engaged-in-the-moment flair that her actual dancing lacks, and her face comes into full bloom as she bows, whereas while she dances, it is marred by her forever negotiating different angles of her chin.

Now, if editors at the Times actually edited–if they understood their job had a moral dimension and bothered to notice that Macaulay’s elaborate pretend praise traffics in misogyny–this could have been,

Ms. Dvorovenko does have an engaged-in-the-moment flair, but only during her curtain calls. It’s her dancing that needs the charm–in place of the coy theatrics.

Or something. In other words, no less harsh but without the condescension. Does it lose some of its vividness? Sure, but vividness cheaply come by. If you have bad news, deliver it succinctly. And if you’re going to be funny, unless you think the object of your critique is truly hopeless, there ought to be some affection in the humor.
Clive Barnes of the New York Post is an example of someone who can be harsh–even funny and harsh–while allowing his target their dignity. How? He admits he’s giving them a thrashing. If you’re going to give someone a thrashing, you need to own it. (Here’s Barnes’ scathing “Cinderella” review.)
Also, most critics understand to reserve their harshest criticism for the dance, not the dancer. As you make clear when you sort out exactly how much of the person is in the dance, Lise, a dancer’s body isn’t like any other artistic instrument, because she lives with it, meets the world with it (especially if she’s a woman). There’s a vulnerability to the dancer that is unique among artists. While it’s the critic’s responsibility to convey a dancer’s effect on him, gentleness is in order.
From aurix in Bangkok:
Could you tell us a bit about Macaulay’s background?
I’ve read some of his reviews and farewell pieces. It’s clear that he doesn’t see much else besides ballet.
Apollinaire responds:
The Dance Insider posted an informative interview with Macaulay upon his appointment. Here’s the bit on his background:

Alastair Macaulay: I’ve been a dance critic since 1978. In 1980, I was a winner of the Ballet Review competition for young critics. I was founding editor of the British quarterly Dance Theatre Journal in 1983; I served as guest dance critic to the New Yorker during two six-month sabbaticals taken by Arlene Croce in 1988 and 1992; I was second dance critic to the Guardian newspaper (UK) in 1979-90 and have been second dance critic to the Financial Times since 1988. Since 1996, I have been chief dance critic to the Times Literary Supplement.

I taught dance history at BA and MA level between 1980 and 2002 at a number of British colleges, was chief examiner in dance history to the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing for 15 years (1987-2002), and have lectured about aspects of dance in the USA, Canada, and Italy as well as Britain. My former students include the choreographers Matthew Bourne and Lea Anderson, the critic Sophie Constanti, and the dance academics Angela Kane and Stacy Prickett.

I have spoken at dance conferences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley as well as London. See, for example, “Looking Out” (edited by David Gere), the proceedings of the 1990 Dance Critics Association Los Angeles conference on dance and multiculturalism; “Following Sir Fred’s Steps” (edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andree Grau), the proceedings of the 1994 Roehampton Institute (UK) conference on Frederick Ashton; and “Revealing MacMillan,” the proceedings of the 2002 Royal Academy of Dance (UK) conference on Kenneth MacMillan. The latter two conferences were my ideas, as were the 1999 Royal Academy of Dancing (as it was called then, UK) conference “The Fonteyn Phenomenon” and the 2000 Royal Opera House conference “Teaching Dance History.”

Within the dance world of London, I am well known as a lecturer on aspects of classical ballet at the Royal Opera House and in running focus days on the choreographers Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris.

Since 1990, my work as a full-time theater critic has often made this time-consuming commitment to dance exhausting. And yet I’ve needed to go on doing it, even in cases where there was no pay whatsoever. Why? Because I care about the art and history of dance, often passionately, sometimes obsessively, always, I hope, seriously.

With this full-time job as theater critic for the past 15 years, Macaulay may have had to confine his dance activities to choreographers he was already familiar with: Cunningham, Balanchine, Ashton, Morris.
I have a lot of respect for deep knowledge: a good foundation in history can enable a person to understand everything that follows–how art unfolds in all its variety. So far at the Times, that’s not been happening for Macaulay, but he’s only just starting. He could be at this post for decades!
Lise Brenner responds:
Clive Barnes is one of the reviewers I had in mind when thinking about A. Macaulay. I’ve been reading C. Barnes since I was a kid out in 1970’s Seattle wanting desperately to learn about dancing in what seemed at the time to be a cultural wasteland.
You are right, being a critic requires a different viewpoint from a choreographer’s. And yet I think that the essential thing I was trying to get at, and that you put very well in your response, was the ability to retain a generosity of spirit while watching.
One of the reasons I have not pursued writing reviews is my frequent tendency to just get pissed off. Or bored to the point of pissed off-ness. I hate being bored by dance; at my worst moments it puts my whole life’s focus into question.
So kudos for persevering, and for maintaining your own interest and sense of inquiry. It’s valuable and needed.
Apollinaire responds:
Thank you, Lise, though I think being pissed off is GOOD: It shows that what dance does matters to you. Bored, though–yeah, that’s a bit of a liability. But I’ll bet in choreography, your own domain, you find it’s not hard to maintain your curiosity, and that that feeling is a pleasure in itself.
re: “trying to get at”–I thought you got at a good deal, very eloquently. Thank you for the letter.

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  1. bobbie gitter says

    i just want to comment on clive barnes review of tango fire at the joyce theater this month..dec..surprised to find that he was appalled by this company…funny, but the whold audience of joyce regulars stood uo and applauded for 10 minutes…its nice to be welcoming to argentinas tango which left all of us smiling and feeling realy good..sorry we dont agree.

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