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The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Guest Jeannie

Thanks for clarifying the question, Paul. For all it's worth, here are my own criteria when I review a performance for a.a.b. & the Kirov web site;




* Do all components blend into a unified, coherent whole, i.e., choreography, music, sets & costumes, lighting, general accomplishment of the soloists & corps, etc.




* Is the dancer "right" in the role - does s/he have the correct style & "look" for the role being performed (e.g., I look for Russian-looking dancers in the Petipa repertoire; I look for Danish-looking dancers in Bournonville; etc.)


* Is the dancer musical? (I'm big on musicality)


* Is the dancer charismatic? (I try to convey my inner-guts feelings about a performer & how that performer affected me.)


* Quality of the mime, in story-ballets


* Details of technique: I like to share "technical highlights" (or "lowlights," if glaring) with the reader. To capture these highlights, I use a mind-mapping technique of jotting down 1 or 2 key works in my memo pad. The word triggers an idea, so that I will be able to recall the moment when I am writing the review.


* If the story of the ballet is not well-known to the average reader of the a.a.b newsgroup, then I take the time to convey the plot


That's a start. Maybe our fellow-critics on this board can add other criteria? - jeannie

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I agree with what Alexandra and Leigh said

about the fact that receiving complimentary tickets is normal for professional reviewers, since it's their job.


But it shouldn't prevent them to paying attention to the price of tickets (or to the problem of less comfortable seats). For example, it always has strucked me that most

French dance and opera critics always have criticized the Opera Bastille very much, because of its aesthetic, its acoustic, etc.

but none of them seemed to notice that, unlike the Opera Garnier, it has one *big* advantage: one can see the stage from all the seats, even from the cheapest ones (which is not the case in Garnier), and the prices generally are lower. I don't have sadistic fantasies about critics, but sometimes I think that seeing performance from the fourth

floor boxes, second rank, would be an instructive experience for some of them...

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Guest Jeannie

Thanks for the feedback (so far). Sounds like most people agree that the critic him/herself should continue to receive the comps. Let's take this two steps further:


How about a critic receiving another set of tickets for his/her spouse (or accompanying friend)? Alexandra already gave an answer for this...but I don't recall any others.




How about a critic being given all-expense paid trips? Yes...I witnessed this when I was living in Russia. Without naming names--and, again, I am not referring to any "regulars" on this Board--I attended a Nijinska Seminar in St. Petersburg which coincided with the maly-Mussorgsky Theater's premiere of the first Russian setting of Nijinska's LES NOCES. I saw a number of Western-based critics in attendance. An employee of a local museum--which co-sponsored the seminar--pointed out to me 3 individuals who were invited free-of-charge to be in attendance & to subsequently write favorable articles in their magazines or newspapers. [i later searched out the writings &, indeed, they were laudatory even though the performance, in my opinion, did not warrant the gushing.] TRUE, they worked by writing articles, when they returned home, so the trip WAS work-related. They also toured the palaces & went to a gala dinner after the performance that was "unecessary" from a professional point-of-view. Is this sort of "freebie" correct?


Also-I agree with Dale about the ethical questions in sports. In the US Government contracting world (my world), the cut-off amount for gifts/favors/meals is $25, soon to be lowered to $15, by the way. It is best do keep it at "zero." When I go to USAID & have coffee with my contracting officer, I make sure that I buy my own cup of coffee...I excuse myself & stand in another line for coffee.


More opinions, please.


- Jeannie


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


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

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Guest Leigh Witchel

I take a somewhat unorthodox stance towards dance writing, trying to veer away from the review and towards the essay. I do this for practical purposes, it's impolitic for me to review my colleagues. However, there's more to it than that. I began writing because I wanted to do what I could to ensure that there was an audience that saw the things I thought were important in ballet (the structure and form of the dance) When I write on a performance, I try and speak of it in terms of a greater choreographic issue - an example from my site might be the piece on "Non-Bournonville Bournonville."


In conclusion, I think all dance writers are dance lovers, and much as I say I *try* not to make qualitative judgments, they sneak in, because I write for myself as a record of what I saw.


To see a more in depth essay on what I look at in a dance - I refer you to an essay on my site, "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers." http://members.aol.com/lwitchel/looking.htm

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Guest Paul W

Very helpful to see your list of criteria Jeannie! This is more like what I was interested in, and it does seem like a logical and appropriate way to evaluate a performance. Thanks.


Leigh, I found great insight in your essay "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers". Thanks for listing your URL! I think using some of the techniques you refer to will be very helpful in getting myself more tuned in to what is happening on stage as I watch. I appreciate your perspective! I was particularly struck by your position (my interpretation of what you said) that once a piece has been choreographed and is set, it is quite unimportant whether the viewer of the piece being danced actually interprets the choreography exactly the same way the choreographer intended when creating it. I like your implication that the dance is like "fertile ground" for the seed of the viewer's own interpretation. This is somewhat of a revelation to me, whereas I have been inclined to be intent on searching for the exact meaning the choreographer intended. (it's not that easy for a technical person to step back from a problem-solving, precise and regimented way of thinking)

This opens up a lot of possibilities.

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Estelle's point about where critics sit is an excellent one. That's what I'd miss most. Forget the "free" ticket, it's the aisle seat and unobstructed view!


Estelle, in DC, at least, the ticket price isn't printed on "comp" (complimentary) tickets, so we don't know, unless we remember to check an ad. I think critics should be aware, though. My impression that if the tickets are VERY expensive, that usually gets noticed.


But where you sit really does matter a great deal. For the first ten years I did daily reviewing, the Post had assigned seats (M2 and 4, which is about seven rows back in the Ken Cen, on the right). I had been going to the ballet for 12 years before I realized that ballets looked totally different from the left. Stupid, yes, but what did I know? (Many 19th century ballets seem to have been choreographed to "read" better from the left. In some European theaters, that's where the Royal box was.) If I see several performances of a company during a season when covering for a magazine, I try to sit different places -- though never the fourth tier, I admit, although I like watching from the first or second tier, because you can see the patterns, something you miss from close up. It must be ridiculous to someone whose world exists in the fourth tier to keep reading, "Oh, the exquisite stylistic detail, the glance that passed between them when she noticed the ring," etc. But if that's what you see, and that's integral to the ballet and the dancers performed well, then it must be mentioned.


Once John Percival (then of the London Times) watched several performances of the Royal's Swan Lake from tickets he purchased because there were no press nights for that ballet that season. His point (rightly, I think) was that if you were showing the ballet to the public and charging them money, then it should be reviewed, and if he wasn't invited, then he was going to go anyway. It was a great piece. He "exposed" several areas of Covent Garden where your view was blocked by a pillar, or the sightlines were horrible. I think it's a good idea to do that every once in awhile.


Jeannie, often only the daily critics get the pair these days, and often we give the extra ticket to a dancer or young critic, if that helps.


I absolutely agree with you on junkets. It's wrong. There are instances of a company covering a critic's travel expenses when the company travels to another city so he/she can write a piece about it. Sometimes, when there's a conference (cleverly scheduled to coincide with a new ballet that a company may want lots of coverage for) the company invites a critic to appear on a panel and then can pay the expenses if their newspaper won't. That's considered "ethical," while many newspapers will not allow their people to accept air fare and hotels, considering them gifts.


I think it's quite usual for European companies to invite foreign critics to see special programs; don't know about the reverse. The logic is, "We want you to come, we realize you can't blow $3,000.00 to see this. That's okay. We'll pay."


If I read a piece that touts a new ballet or new "great" choreographer, or whatever, especially if it's in a big, influential paper, I think I'd like to know that the free ticket was wrapped in an all-expense paid trip to Paris, or Milan, or whatever.



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I've held off on answering this one because it's so complicated! (As all the best questions are, Paul.) First, I'd like to say that Jeannie's list looks quite comprehensive, and that I read Leigh's "Looking at Dance" essay, which I think is SUPERB and would recommend that people read it. (URL is in Leigh's post above.)


My criteria have evolved over the years, and I don't have a checklist exactly, but if it's a new ballet, I try to understand the choreography -- I do think it's important to try to judge the ballet against the choreographer's intent, not step by step, but in an overall sense. Obvious example, don't criticize an "abstract" ballet for not having a "story," (although it may well have a pretext and/or atmosphere). If I'm seeing a revival, or a production that's not original, I do as much reading as possible (if the work is unfamiliar to me or I need a refresher) and compare what I'm seeing to what I think is the ideal of that work. As for dances, I give points for style as well as technique. Acting (where applicable) and stage presence matter to me as well. Musicality is very important (we could have a nice chat about what that means someday).


I watch dance from a comparative perspective, meaning that I can't look at something as distinct and apart from the whole world of dance. I have "measuring sticks" for both ballets and dancers that are too numerous to go into here and that I'm not really conscious of, until I'm tempted to write, "Perhaps the greatest Giselle of our time."


What I actually write depends on where I'm writing. Different publications not only have different audiences (and editors) but different lengths as well. When I started at the Post, I had six inches (about 300 words) which is a ridiculous length, but was probably good training. When I left, I usually got 12 to 15 inches (600 to 750 words); pretty good, but still a squeeze when you had to do a weekend's five cast changes. Many people don't realize that the critic doesn't choose the length of the review AND that we don't write our own headlines. The headline can skew a whole review, and this often happens, especially if you're trying to write a "shoe drop" review (He's wonderful, he's marvelous, he's a fine choreographer...but....) The headline writer will find that "but" and lead with it. They also tend to sensationalze. If someone had written that Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty" wasn't quite as dreamlike or romantic as a previous work, the headline would have probably read: "Petipa Hits New Low with Three-Act Snoozer."


But I digress. I just finished a Dance Magazine review of 400 words. They consider this a long review. For DanceView, of course, I can ramble on at will and often do. Ballet Review is also extremely generous with space -- and has printed essays about ballet, as well as straight reviews, since its founding. Dance Now prints both short and long pieces.


The criteria don't change from publication to publication, but I kept the Post reviews as general as possible. For the other magazines, I can assume not only more knowledge, and more interest, on the part of the readers and write accordingly.


That's the short version.




[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 28, 1999).]

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Guest ismeneb

Hello all. Interesting discussion about critics. I've demurred about getting involved because I am one (Daily Telegraph, London), and in the past we've lived in our ivory towers of paper, our privacy and perhaps fear of challenge violated only by the occasional reader's letter, which does not always raise such worthwhile issues as you all raise here. The Internet has changed my view. As a critic I think I can't ignore it and its potential for mass challenge to my competence any longer. So donning my carapace of thick skin, I will enter here, because I am surprised at the variance between my perception of my job and that of some of you.

Jeannie was concerned at being offered a "set" of comp tickets for her husband/companion as well as for herself. If she meant a "pair" I am absolutely amazed. It never happens in my experience. If she meant a "single", ie. to accompany herself, then that is normal practice, and as Alexandra pointed it, no doubt is done from politeness. As it happens, I decline a second ticket for about three quarters of the shows I see, and I know two critics here who usually go as a pair anyway, without taking a partner each.

Secondly, Jeannie's point about freebies again, I think, finds her needlessly excited. Certainly I have benefited on many an occasion from a paid trip abroad, expenses generally split with my employer; but a preview feature is not a review. It implies no advance assessment of the artistic value of what is to come (apart from the fact that we only accept preview trips for things we consider have genuine artistic newsworthiness - the article has to compete, once written, with, say, a feature about Radiohead or Ewan McGregor, so it had better justify itself). It explains what the artists want to say, where they come from, and how perhaps their context may affect them.

I deliberately refuse to assess any rehearsal or preview performance in a feature as far as I am able, because after all I want to keep my opinion ready for the review the following week (or I'll only be paid for one piece, won't I?). It is quite easy to remember that this is not a social invitation. (Besides, since when did we spend a weekend with new people and always return saying nice things about them? In the car home, do we not comment on their domestic taste, their personalities, their cooking, their conversation..? We write a kind thank you letter, but a public preview piece in a newspaper is not the same thing.)

In the last post to this topic, Alexandra described a "junket" practice by newspapers of such cynicism that I don't recognise it, but then I realise that America's geography and touring circuit creates very different demands from what we have in Britain. British newspapers are not so enamoured of dance that they will agree to critics going on trips to preview "new" choreographers and "new" ballets that they would not normally justify with the space, uninvited. I refuse the majority of invitations abroad that I receive, before I even put them to the arts editor. (It may be worth bearing in mind that for most dance critics only one person's opinion of their work matters. Their boss's.)

Leigh, Paul and others appear to want a critic to provide "impartial" "reportage" and "information" - to pluck out a few words that raised my eyebrows. Not a soul in the world is impartial, and personally I think simply giving the readers information about a performance (which many of the readers were at anyway) is dull and pointless. Anyone could do that. My job is to convey my enthusiasm and hope for what I saw, and my satisfaction or not at the fulfilment of my expectations. I.e., did I have a good time? That simple question covers the quality of skills, of idea/story, of atmosphere (visual and aural), of individual artistry, of, maybe, historical significance of the production in a company's current position. The answer to that simple question may be yes or no, I had/had not a good time, but it must also answer another - the real question: Would or could the reader have a good time at a dance show? And the answer to THAT question must always be Yes.

My chief crime would be to be so tedious or incoherent in my writing that readers thought dance was a bore. At the end of my review I want them to know that watching dance could enhance their life.


Ismene Brown

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Ismene -


Welcome to Ballet Alert!


I do need to point out that I am being quoted slightly out of context in your post. I most decidedly think critics should provide "reportage" - but not "impartial". My point is that those of us who write see more and of a wider variety that the average audience goer. It is part of the job to inform them of what's out there that they may not have any other conduit of information to.


I certainly do not expect a writer to be anything other than partisan but if we only talk about the sold-out performance and nothing from the periphery, as it were, it's not good for the audience or dance itself. My emphasis was on bringing what's out there to the readers. Not the impartiality of it.


Of course, that's not even every writer's job. 90 percent of what Arlene Croce wrote was about Balanchine and NYCB. It's invaluable for the depth of it, even though I've gone on and on about the need for breadth. I think it depends on *where* one writes as well. Kisselgoff and Dunning at the NY Times have very different duties than someone might at a weekly or a quarterly. I think a writer of daily copy really is going to have to report with breadth, rather than depth.


Welcome again!



(for disclosure's sake, I choreograph for my own company, and have written on occasion for both Dance Now and Ballet Review)

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Guest Paul W

Well Ismene, thanks for the perspective from a critic herself! Do I sense this thread might get more exciting! smile.gif

My reading of reviews is often to actually get a sense of whether I would like to attend a performance or not. If I don't know what a show or ballet is about, reading the review might get me interested or dis-interested. For works well known to me I would not be looking for this "information aspect" in a review. But, I agree with you, conveying simple information about a production is not what the review should be about, that's too simplistic.


You wrote:

"My job is to convey my enthusiasm and hope for what I saw, and my satisfaction or not at the fulfilment of my expectations. I.e., did I have a good time? That simple question covers the quality of skills, of idea/story, of atmosphere (visual and aural), of individual artistry, of, maybe, historical significance of the production in a company's current position."


That is encouraging, because I would like to have critics describe these elements of that simple question with as much detail as the reviewer has space available. But it doesn't seem to be a "simple" question to me. My critique of a critic would involve forming a judgement about whether the review gave me satisfying answers to these aspects of the performance. So I'm pleased that your answer lists some of the criteria I would hope a critic uses (something I had asked earlier). And I would have expected, as you indicate, that the critic's review would sometimes project the "yes" answer and sometimes the "no" answer for this question of whether she/he had a "good time" at the show, ie whether her/his expectations were met.


You go on to say:

"... but it must also answer another - the real question: Would or could the reader have a good time at a dance show? And the answer to THAT question must always be Yes."


This is where I think it gets fuzzy for me. I would think this question is unanswerable, since it depends on the reader's likes, dislikes, mood, reason for attending the show etc. I don't think this question can be addressed by the critic, but I agree, the reader will formulate an opinion of the show based on the answer to the first question, and will have his/her answer. It won't always be "yes" I wouldn't think.

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Welcome, Ismene. I shared your feelings at first about critics on the internet, and then thought, what the hell, it should be for everybody. There are several critics here, and there are also quite a few people who aren't critics but who are very knowledgeable and have been watching ballet for years. I'm quite happy with the mix.


I thought you raised several very interesting points, but I want to start a new thread because this one has gotten long. I did want to clear up one thing, about "pairs" and "singles," because I didn't understand your description.


Here, most critics, at least those who write for the major papers or magazines, are given "a pair," unless tickets are really "tight," in which case one might get "a single."


"A pair" means there are two tickets in the envelope, one for the critic and one for his or her invited guest. "A single" means that there is one ticket in the envelope, for the critic.


Another reason for critics getting "a pair" besides the tradtion that the theater is a social occasion and people used to come in couples is a practical one, at least for daily writers, namely, getting back to the paper. If you're on a very tight deadline, it's in the theater's interest to get you to the paper as quickly as possible, and whoever has the second ticket, spouse or not, often has a transportation function -- getting the car, or driving the critic to the paper. I've heard that British critics phone in from the phone box right after curtain; I've only had to do that about a half-dozen times and I hated it. The Post's deadlines are 11:00 p.m. (almost impossibe), and then 12:30 a.m., which is a tight squeeze when the curtain falls at 10:45.


This may be a whiny, weasly "don't take away my privilege" reason for getting a second ticket, but it's the reality in my case and several others I know.





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I'm just posting this to start a new thread. I'll have more to say later.


Anyone/everyone else, please feel free to jump in.



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I wanted to comment on a couple of points Isemene made.


First, I agree wholeheartedly with your point that critics can't be impartial -- and I think a critic's value is often his/her very impartiality, especially if it is openly expressed and based on something substantial. As Leigh says (BAD paraphrase to come), it's our knowledge and opportunity to see a lot of different types of dance that gives us what value we have. But I do think we can be objective, in that our view is an outside one, a view from in front of the footlights. This is the old "Do I tell them that the ballerina sprained her ankle two minutes before the performance?" problem. (Most say no, unless the company has announced it. We want to know such information, though, so we don't make a mean comment about the ballerina's fat left ankle, and we might let the audience know that Miss Hoppledy Hop was not at her best last night.)


I do differ on the freebies/socializing aspect, though. I think we think we can be objective, but the whole point of socializing (from Their point of view) is that we get to know each other as people and, once you've looked someone in the eye, it's darned hard to say that his ballets, his choice of dancers, his very view of art, is a carbunkle on the soul of humanity. Worse, when we hear a rumor that so-and-so is quitting because the director slugged her in class, we don't investigate. Instead, we think, "Not Sir Tim. Why he's invited me into his home and his wife makes such great hamburgers. He could never do something so mean." It's not that we want that next free lunch that shuts us up. It's that we have "bought" their public image so thoroughly that we've been corrupted. We are no longer objective. We match what we hear/read against our image of the person, and are quite certain that someone who sends out such lovely Christmas cards must have a good reason to mount a full season of Gerald Arpino revivals.


Yes, we do go to a party, write a thank you note, and come home and laugh at the hostess behind her back, but we don't usually write it up in the local newspaper. (Unless you're Sally Quinn in the Washington Post, who has made quite a career of doing just that.)


The junkets problem also includes the fact that often the mere coverage of some far away event is already disturbing the balance of nature. "Who would have thought that the desolate Appalachina Ozarks would shelter a first-rate international classical company?" screams a headline in a glossy dance magazine. Who indeed. Reading that, one might think that Critic actually stumbled on this wonderful little jewel box of a company while on his summer Hike the Trail holiday, never dreaming that the company had been pestering him for months with press releases and invitations for an all-expense paid Week in the Ozarks for a festival of Ozarkian dance. (With apologies to any Ozarkian classicists who may read this.)


I think that "did I have a good time?" is a fair test, realizing, of course, that a critic's idea of a good time is often different from that of a normal person. I have great sympathy for the person who staggers starry-eyed out of a ballet, having genuinely experienced something wondrous, only to read in the paper the next day that so-and-so was No Nijinsky, that the decor was tacky, that the production was not "authentic," that there was not enough mime, or too much mime. That has nothing to do with most people's experience.


And yet, and yet....


Sometimes people may be having a wonderful time at a show, and Critic is dusting off the old tranquilizer dart gun. We are both right. It is wonderful, and it is a Crime against Art.


That is far from the "are free tickets unethical" question that started this thread. Sorry.



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The Houston Chronicle once started letting one of their Assistant Editors review small modern concerts. She was knowledgeable about dance, but not always. . .er. . .charitable.


I started introducing her to dancers we'd run into in the lobby during intermission, and she started to view them as real, live, humans; the personal comments vanished from her reviews.

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Guest samba38

Last month I went to a joyful birthday party for one of my dearest friends who happens to be the Miami dance critic who introduced me and my entire family to Ballet. Edward Villella -- who was once so peeved at this gal he refused to speak to her for two years -- made a wonderful toast at the party. He reminded us all that there would never have been a Miami City Ballet if this critic had not sternly, lovingly, comprehensively covered dance in Miami. "I'm too arogant to try to start a company in a place where there was no one intelligent to notice," he said. (And no one argued with him on that!) A great critic is essential to building great audiences. She/he teaches readers how to recognize the good, the bad and the ugly and -- best of all -- how to form their own opinion so they could freely disagree. And yes, I sat in many free seats beside this critic. Integrity can be compromised by palsy-walsy relationships but if that critic had no integrity, the employer and the readers would soon learn that anyway.

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