Macaulay Watch: The chief Times dance critic is getting better (REVISED Monday)

…and not just because he agrees with ME about “King Arthur,” though I have to say it’s not at all fun writing a negative review of work you generally admire, so I am grateful for the company.

Macaulay has settled down, dug in and begun shedding his mannerisms (the self-celebration as moony, sensitive poet, for example, and the sarcasm). He can describe what he’s seeing and why it matters in ways that are illuminating to dance fans and casual arts readers alike. He’s writing out to us. I actively look forward to his reviews now.

There are still a few problems: a reflexive tendency to find falsity in women (I never saw the mugging and grimacing he faulted the Paul Taylor women for, and I also had seats in the orchestra) and an inability to lay off their perceived physical deficiencies (ballerina Nina Ananiashivili’s flabby arms, for example: I was in the orchestra for that show too and can’t imagine how you could even spot such a thing. Was he looking through spy glasses?). He reminds me of certain mothers toward their daughters–quick to find fault because overidentified. I think he should accept that he has no sense when it comes to the ladies–and leave off the petty criticisms.

Also he’s not very good at shifting lenses. For example, he wants the Russian ballet dancers to look as “spontaneous” as the Americans rather than accepting that they have a different approach. It’s possible for something to be different, not better or worse.

Which is another way of saying that his range is still narrow for the chief dance critic of a major paper. He mainly focuses on the great living choreographers–of which there are four, he recently informed us.

On the other hand, when you have as large a department as the Times does, a legitimate way to organize the assignments is to give everyone areas with which they have particular sympathies. That seems to be the way they’re working over there right now. In which case, the Times dance desk had better give Jennifer Dunning and the freelancers as much room to set the context as they give the chief if readers aren’t going to assume that what Macaulay covers matters more than what’s going on downtown and everywhere that the four great choreographers are not.

Each part of dance is almost its own world–really has its own project. What’s going on downtown tends to have as much to do with art history as dance history, for example. You can complain about that–you know, in a long philosophical essay–but for the purposes of reviews, you mainly need to understand it. Insofar as Macaulay doesn’t understand it–or at least doesn’t write about what he understands–it becomes invisible or diminished. The future of the art form–or at least one vital branch of it–depends on the experimentalists being brought forward and their experiments being haggled over.

Which brings me back to the freelancers I got in so much trouble over last year.

Where have they been? There seems to be a big cutback in freelance reviews and articles… I’ve particularly missed Claudia La Rocco’s reported essays and her reviews about the freaky fringes and Roslyn Sulcas’ reviews about Euro-ballet and the freaky fringes.

Gia Kourlas I have doubts about–for one of the reasons I’ve come to trust Macaulay a bit. Critics in this town tend to develop loyalties to particular choreographers and dancers and stick to them no matter what or, alternately, develop a repugnance and stick to it just as obstinately–as opposed to judging each project on its own merits and demerits. That’s bad enough, but Kourlas takes it a step further, sometimes seeming to respond more to invisible alliances (or their absence) than to what’s onstage.

Sometimes I feel that if she doesn’t think an artist “matters,” she is punishing, while if it will help her politically to praise them, she exaggerates their virtues. She’s a fine reporter and feature writer, but her essays and reviews crackle with the static of ulterior motives.

Anyway, at least Macaulay’s growing more sensitive to what he’s seeing. Thank you, Alastair. Now he just has to get the rest of his flock in order–and give them some roaming room in print so the “paper of record” can be a little bit more of one for dance, in all its contradictory range. (Plus, he should rally for a rate hike for the freelancers. The last I checked–a few years ago–the rate at the Times was $150 a review. Shameful.)

UPDATE: Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa has linked to this post on her own blog, Infinite Body, and added:

Lately, though, I think the Times should be doing a better job all around. With its overall rollout of dance writing that ranges from lethargic to vitriolic, does anyone really think the Times is giving the dance capital of America the coverage it needs and deserves?

Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Eva, for your two cents. Yeah, not sure what’s going on there. I guess I’m most struck by how many fewer reviews there are by the freelancers–and on modern dance shows. Sometimes what happens with freelance writers is that if they don’t get a critical mass of work at one place, they end up having to go elsewhere or rearrange their schedule and do other work for awhile. That happens to me cyclically.

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  1. K.L. Tasens says

    RIGHT ON! Many of us NYC balletomanes have been complaining to each other & in writing to the NY Times about the supreme ego of Macaulay, who has been downright nasty in his reviews. I’d love to send you copies of my never-published letters! SO GLAD to read you.
    K.L. Tasens

  2. S, Z, says

    Just be glad they didn’t hire me. I only love the Ballets Russes, and nobody measures up to Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, et al.

  3. Devika says

    Oof, Gia Kourlas. With the economy, the thousands of dancers in this town, with so many struggling young artists as well as struggling “emerging artists” who have been in this game for years, now mentors… the dearth of visibility for artists and criticism alike, the precious word allotment on a NYTimes page, the politics… how is there room for a paragraph like this:
    “Ms. Nugent presents the final dance, ‘Little,’ a solo marred by self-indulgence. Wearing an unflattering tank dress and lighted by a spotlight, she keeps her distance from the audience at first, her head thrown back in grief or defiance. The movement sensibility is thick and slow, as she uses her rising arms to propel her body forward along a diagonal line. With manically fluttering fingers, she makes her way to the center of the stage, twirling like a ballerina in a jewelry box. The solo is both too full of ideas and lacking in content: In the end it reveals little.”
    Does anyone recall this review? Regardless of what your aesthetic may be, it’s hard to see how writing like this serves this community, the artists, dancegoers (and especially new dancegoers!).
    Apollinaire responds: hmmmm… I think the description of the dance is lovely: concise and evocative. But I’m not clear from the description how the dance is self-indulgent, what the ideas are that it is too full of, and, on the other hand, how it is empty. The description makes it seem full of bathos: mawkish. Which is to say, full of the same old ideas. If Kourlas could align her beginning and end with her middle, we’d have a fine review. But that’s a common problem–I, for one, face it all the time. How to get the description to fit one’s overall sense of the work. How to say more in one’s conclusion than one has said already–not LESS. It just begs the question to say a work is “lacking in content.” It’s being banal about banality. Tut-tut.
    About “serving the community”–I think the main body a critic needs to serve is the readers–not the dancers or the choreographers or other critics or even merely her editors. If the readers aren’t getting insight into the work and, more broadly, into dance, then there’s a problem.

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