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The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Guest Jeannie

I've often wondered how critics of the dance (or any other art, for that matter) can maintain complete objectivity and review a performance fairly when the dance troupe or sponsoring theater/organization provides the critic on a regular basis with choice-location complimentary tickets and other freebies, such as free gala dinners and the like.


As an "informal" and occasional dance critic on the alt.arts.ballet newsgroup & Kirov Academy web site, I pay for my own dance tickets and travel to/from places where a performance is taking place. [Yes, I even pay for my Kirov Academy recital tickets at $25 each, for myself and my husband.] Consequently, as I write, I feel very "free" in my conscience that I am telling-it-like-it-is, exactly as I see it, warts and all. I can say that ballerina-X is overweight or that the ballet company's choreographer-artistic director stinks, if that is the case. Quite simply, by paying for my tickets, I feel that I don't owe the dance troupe or sponsoring organization any favors.


Only once in my "occasional dance critic career" have I accepted a comp ticket & invitations to parties. This happened only because I registered as a critic with that particular organization so that I could have access to the facilities of the press room and be sent a press kit. A representative of the organization asked "Don't you also want comp tickets?" so who was I to say "no"? I accepted. THEN they asked me "Do you want a set of comp tickets for your husband (or companion)." That's where I drew the line--Why on earth would a non-working/non-critic companion be entitled to comp tickets? I also declined a dinner invitation for the press.


So, again, my question is: Do you think that it is appropriate for dance critics to accept comp tickets (& other "freebies") to performances that they will be reviewing? Is it possible for a critic to maintain impartiality in such cases? I am genuinely interested in reading your responses. Thank you, in advance. - Jeannie Szoradi

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Just like any other audience members, I've met few reviewers who were impartial, but it's certainly not the tickets that makes them so.


I think one must consider the position of a professional reviewer versus those of us (myself included) who review on occasion.


It's a reviewer's job to have a broadbased knowledge of what s/he sees, to provide reportage and coverage of events they might not see were it their own choice, to actively seek out new artists and performances. It's not just to write about what they would like to see or inflames their curiosity. I have immense respect for the reviewers in dance who have to turn in daily copy and wouldn't trade places with them for the universe.


Professional reviewers get complimentary tickets, because they are working. It's not a busman's holiday for the majority of them. I've used my press credentials to see new work, but nowadays, especially for major companies and events in NYC right now, if you're not an editor - or you're not on assignment, you don't get tickets.


[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited 03-23-99).]

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I can understand Jeannie's concern, but I basically agree with Leigh's response.


The presenting organizations give out press tickets so they can get coverage. It's like sports, or conventions. The RNC and the DNC give out press credentials to all those reporters at the national conventions, too. Book reviewers are sent free copies of books with the expectation that they'll write a review. Of course, the hope is that it will be a good review, but they don't expect the book back if it's a bad one. If the critic has not solicited the free copy, he/she is not obligated to review it. (I just received three technique-y type of books from a publisher, even though I had told him explicitly that DanceView only reviewed books "you can actually read," as I put it. I'm not going to have them reviewed.)


I was a stringer for the Washington Post for 15 years, and I would guess that at least 50 percent of the performances I covered I would not have attended had I not been asked to write a review. The practical result of having newspapers or magazines pay would be that very few things would be covered.


The pairs is just custom and usage, I suppose, dating from the "good old days" when all critics were men, most had wives, and society functioned more in couples -- military wives, doctors' wives, professor's wives, critics' wives.


I can honestly say that the fact that the tickets were "free" has never influenced me. I never felt obligated to write a good review because I was given a ticket. I've also never been cold shouldered or "punished" in any way by a presenter because of a negative review I've written. That's considered unprofessional behavior. (And I wrote a lot of negative reviews.) I have been questioned by a performer or choreographer, but that's something you just have to live with.


Sometimes I've wished DanceView could afford to buy the tickets, but only because then I could go to all the performances that I need, or think I need, to see. (Because of cast changes, comping dance performances is much more expensive than comping plays, and, as Leigh noted, with the number of critics wanting tickets, presenters have to ration.) When they can, presenters often give tickets to critics who aren't reviewing a particular performance because they know that we need to see as much as possible. (It's nearly impossible to review the second and third casts of something when you haven't seen the first cast.)


I do think that what can influence a critic is getting to know the artists, socializing with artists. It's one thing to write a "Gosh, this is the worst thing I've ever seen" review, and quite another to write it and go to lunch with Maestro the morning after. At some papers (too few) the features writers, the ones who get the free lunch, are different from the critics, and I think this is wise. It is often impossible especially in smaller cities. The pressures on a critic in a one-newspaper, one-company small city must be excruciating. I've been lucky that Washington has no resident company (with apologies to the Washingotn Ballet, which is a very small troupe that doesn't have as great a presence here as the Kennedy Center imports). We don't have to worry about running into the artists we write about in the grocery store.


I hope some people who aren't critics will answer this question. I'd be very interested to know the general perception.




[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 24, 1999).]

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Guest Paul W

OK Alexandra, I'm definitely not a critic. I've been trying to understand exactly what guidelines critics follow (if any) in writing a review. It's not obvious. I think "professional" critics should receive free tickets to as many performances as they can get, delivered to them by their employers, not by anyone in the production companies (I know, the companies just give the employers the tickets, but I think it is important to maintain as little direct contact with official production staff as possible when writing critically about a performance).

But what I think may be even more important is to have an independant volunteer group of ballet lovers like yourselves (those who are not professional critics) rate the performance of critics, by reviewing the critics so to speak after witnessing the same performances. And make these ratings known. I can hear all the gasps. Oh well, I am an engineer (of sorts) after all. And a stickler for consistency in evaluation. Just a thought.

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Paul, I don't think there's any way that the critic can avoid contact with the company or the performing arts venue. That's why those organizations have press liaisons. There's just too much on-the-spot information that needs to be known, especially cast changes, dancer identifications, notes on music, etc. The Post had a same night deadline; had to write a review in under an hour.


I don't think there's any way to evaluate critics. We're all biased. We all think we're trying to be fair. What I do try to do as a critic is to let my biases show. You'll know, reading one of my reviews, that I'm going to not take kindly to an updated Giselle where Myrtha is a biker's moll. And you'll be able to read that review with that knowledge.


I think people evaluate what critics write all the time, but it's usually (in my experience, from letters), "You must have attended a different performance than my wife and I last Wednesday night." Well, short of a tear in the space/time continuum, it's unlikely. We saw the same things. We just saw them differently.


Paul, if you'd like to get together a bunch of "volunteer ballet lovers" to publish a Review of the Critics, I wish you well, and I'll read it, but I can tell you from experience that you won't make any money on it!



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I've pulled something out of what Paul W wrote on the Critics/Comp Tickets thread that I thought might provoke an interesting discussion.


Paul wrote: "I've been trying to understand exactly what guidelines critics follow (if any) in writing a review. It's not obvious."


Paul, I'm not sure whether you mean ethical guidelines, or what criteria (re judgment) critics use when writing a review. Could you clarify?


Either would make a good discussion -- perhaps those who aren't critics could go first this time. Is it obvious to you what guidelines critics follow? What guidelines do you think they should follow?



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Comp tickets and other freebees often comes up in my job in sports. My professor at Columbia told us not to take anything, don't eat in the media room, and don't take any of the little gifts (even those under $50 which is generally considered the water mark for accepting gifts). Unfortunately, I've never covered any of the big "pay day" events, like the Super Bowl smile.gif , that give out lots and lots of stuff. And now most of the press rooms in sports charge for food -- $5 at Madison Square Garden, $7 at Shea Stadium. I think the food is just a matter of convience, so a writer can interview the team before the game, eat, then watch the game.


Well, a co-worker once pointed out that if I could be bought off with a $35 sweatshirt or $45 canvas bag, then I'm a sorry excuse as a journalist. In addition, the seats are often worse than you can buy.


However, over the last few months I've noticed the arts are very different. Tobi Tobias wrote in her review of NYCB Fall opening night that when she tried to get an invitation to the 50th Reunion dinner, she was told only "Anna" and "Clive" were invited. Well, anybody who reads the New York Times or New York Post know that Kisselgoff and Barnes generally write positive reviews of the company. For these one could surmise that in "exchange" they received better access than other writers (especially those who are more negative such as Tobias). The question is, which way serves the readers more. Does that access allow the readers to learn more about the company? It could. Although I have to admit that deprevation could be the mother of invention as it was for Tobias, who wrote a very interesting article about the anniversary without going to the dinner.

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Guest Paul W

Clearly its important for critics to have access to timely information about a perfomance, for deadlines. As Dale implies, a major purpose of a critic's work is to serve readers by conveying information about performances. If access to information is limited to select few, chosen by the producers, a pattern of boosting can emerge. I agree, there's no way to have any sort of uniform opinion on an art form, and I guess individual readers of a critic's columns soon understand, as you suggest Alexandra, where that particular critic is coming from. Access should be freely and uniformly available though, or the producers can use subtle exclusion to shut out possibly more "critical" opinions.

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Guest Paul W

Sorry Alexandra, I did use the wrong word in writing "guidelines", what I intended was more "criteria" which a ballet dance critic might use in judging (evaluating). For instance I've seen a lot of references to "sickle foot" used on these posts. I can picture this as being something a critic would notice, but maybe it would not be high up on a list of "things to look for" that would be influential to the writing of a review. And thanks for addressing this. Perhaps there is some rather loosely constructed set of criteria a critic would be looking for in a ballet performance by an individual dancer (probably would change depending on the ballet) and from the production as a whole.


But, I wouldn't be averse to hearing about ethical guidelines also.

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Guest Kevin Ng

Dale, I always find it strange that in New York which is after all the leading financial centre in the world, there are so few quality daily newspapers - only NY Times, and Wall Street Journal of which Robert Greskovic is the distinguished dance critic. (I don't think NY Post being a tabloid counts as a quality newspaper.) And I understand that Wall Street Journal does not publish as many dance reviews as NY Times, nor does it publish the reviews timely 1 or 2 days after a performance.


In Hong Kong, where I am a resident, there are also 2 English daily newspapers which publish reviews regularly. (I myself write for the Hong Kong Standard.) But in London, it is far better - 4 quality daily newspapers besides the Financial Times.


[This message has been edited by Kevin Ng (edited March 25, 1999).]

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Guest Jeannie

I agree with Kevin. Nonetheless, New York has a couple of high-quality magazines with high-quality critics, too, e.g., Joan Acocella in NEW YORKER & Tobi Tobias in NEW YORK. Also..is THE VILLAGE VOICE considered a "legit" newspaper or a tabloid? Deborah Jowitt is still its dance critic (I think). - Jeannie

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Guest Jeannie

I think that the most important criterion for a good dance critic is experience, experience, experience...in seeing live dance. Overall, the critic should be a well-rounded & highly knowledgeable person, who has traveled throughout the world, has read fine literature and seen the great works of art (particularly Western art history, to relate to the Western dance genre of ballet). S/he should be able to relate other art forms to the ballet being reviewed, e.g., Balanchine's MIDSUMMER NIGHT's DREAM meant more to me after seeing Botticelli's PRIMAVERA.


To summarize, the ballet critics whom I most admire and respect are: (a) Well read and with a command of his/her native language, (B) knowledgeable in all facets of Western art history, © well-traveled and, most importantly, (d) have attended a heck of a lot of live performances before putting pen to paper! - Jeannie


[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 24, 1999).]

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Guest Kevin Ng

Jeannie, I am well aware of these 3 weekly magazines that you mentioned. I greatly respect these 3 distinguished writers too. Arlene Croce's writings in the New Yorker in the past were like a bible to me! I only mentioned about the daily newspapers in response to the last paragraph in Dale's message.

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Guest Paul W

Sorry again Jeannie, but I wasn't referring to the criteria a critic should meet to qualify as a "good" critic. I'm more interested in the criteria a critic uses in evaluating a performance. Having trouble making my question clear here.

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Now, now. The New York Post has a distinguished critic as well.


Kevin, this has happened in most major cities in the United States. It's part of this whole globalization-downsizing-efficiency movement. In the 1960s, I think New York had six or seven daily newspapers. But, then it was about news; now it's about advertsing.


Which brings me back to Our Topic.


The real pressure on critics is through their editors and it's from advertisers. This I know from personal experience, because DanceView, when it was Washington DanceView, took ads. My absolute favorite was a young man who called, on behalf of his company and said, "We'd like to purchase a cover and we think that would tie in nicely with a review of our fall program." Most of the others were more subtle, but the message was the same. It got to the point that if they subscribed they expected you to review them and hinted for features. So we don't take advertising now. But I'm poor enough to be able to afford to do that.



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