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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Wow, I can agree with everybody tonight!


Salzberg, I didn't mean that a critic shouldn't realize that the people she writes about are people, but that there should be a balance. I think your lobby introductions were probably a good thing. Too many critics (encouraged by their editors) like to write something witty. A man who was writing for the old Washington Star when I first got into ballet wrote something that taught me not to be clever. He wrote, of a man dancing in Spectre de la Rose: "he looked like a rose and dansed like a pansy." I decided it would be just fine if I didn't show how "clever" I was at someone's expense. (That said, no matter what you write, the dancer will think it's a bad review. Except for Olivier, of course, who's much too intelligent for that! smile.gif Olivier)


My own personal rule is never write anything that would make it impossible for you to ride up in an elevator with the person the next day; in essence, don't write what you couldn't say to someone's face.


Samba, I agree that critics have a role in educating an audience; I know that sounds preachy, but I mean it in a good way. It means respecting the intelligence of the audience and not telling them that their brand new company is the equal of POB, or the Kirov, etc. And I think dancers know (and artistic directors should know) when they have not given the performance they wanted to give and have no respect for a critic who writes that they do.


I'm not sure that it's always evidence to readers when a critic has been "bought," though (and I don't mean to accuse anyone of taking bribes). I don't think most readers read criticism as closely as we'd like to think they do. At least from reading this group and other message boards, it's more like, "Well, Smedley Smurf certainly agreed with me and said the company had never looked better."




[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited April 12, 1999).]

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The inestimable Alexandra said: "Salzberg, I didn't mean that a critic shouldn't realize that the people she writes about are people, but that there should be a balance."


Oh, I know you didn't; you just sort of got me thinking on tangential lines.


She also said: "Too many critics (encouraged by their editors) like to write something witty."


Dorothy Parker once condemned a Katherine Hepburn performance with, "She ran the gamut of emotions from 'A' to 'B'."


Jeff Salzberg

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I worry less about the impartiality of a critic who may be provided comp tickets by a company but still provides a fair assessment of the performance in question then I do about a critic who's assessment of a performance is based solely on a comparison of some other company's past performance...or even for that matter a comparison of some other performer's performance.


To the best of my knowledge, the papers here pay for the tickets for their critics; but admittedly we are not dealing with nightly events...more likely weekly or bi-weekly at best during busy times.

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Barb, very interesting answer. As a critic, I'm constantly comparing. If I see a new production of "Giselle," I'm constantly (almost subconsciously) comparing what I'm seeing to "snapshots" in my mind of past performances. To me, it's of crucial importance whether Ms. "New World's Greatest Giselle" is like Fracci, or Makarova, or something else -- or is, in fact, not a World's Greatest at all, etc.


For you, it seems it wouldn't matter -- if I'm reading you right.


So could I ask, what would you want from a review of a ballet with a past (Of course, the review of a premiere would be of the thing in itself, primarily, although possibly with "looks like" references to other works)? Would you want someone to review a new production of "Giselle" or a new cast as though no other production or dancers had preceded it? (I'm genuinely curious; I don't mean this as a "challenge.")



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It's more to say that- why is it needed? First of all, A) who determines who the best ever, be all and end all Giselle production was, and B) who was the best ever, only one who counts, all others are compared to it, portrayal of Giselle? I would expect that everyone may have slightly different ideas as to who holds those titles. If you think Betsy Bloomer was the best ever Giselle, but the night I saw her she was drunk, or Big Ballet Company has the best production but when I saw it, the dancers were on strike and students filled in, I would probably have a different opinion. (And I realize that both examples are unlikely and over-emphasized to make the point.)


But now here is a review comparing Grande Ballet Company's new version to Big Ballet Company's version, and quite frankly, there will be no enlightening info for me as to Grande Ballet's version, since it will be compared to THE Big Ballet version. And Patti Plie's interpretation is only compared to Betsy Bloomer, and it doesn't hold up. Now, for me, why would I go see someone who was worse then the drunken and belching mad scene that I saw? I would rather know that Patti Plie did or did not ring true for the reviewer, that her extension was lovely, or her feet not so pretty, or the corp was energized but maybe had a few more canons going then originally choreographed, or they were sleeping.


Now, I readily agree that a critic can only make such pronouncements if they have seen a great deal of ballet to even begin todescribe these things. But I think the point is to review the performance at hand, and not the glories or failures of other times or cities.



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Thanks, Barb. I totally agree with your summary, quoted below:


"Now, I readily agree that a critic can only make such pronouncements if they have seen a great deal of ballet to even begin todescribe these things. But I think the point is to review the performance at hand, and not the glories or failures of other times or cities."


I do think the critic should review the performance at hand and not write about someone they're not seeing, but my bias -- and it is definitely a bias -- is to see/review every performance within a context, not just the thing in itself. Problem is, Betsy Bloomer may look just great if you've never seen -- Ulanova, Fracci, etc. (And I hasten to add that I think critics should understand what level of company they're watching. I often wish companies were organized the way college sports were, by size/money: Class A, B, C, etc. Then you could write "Great performance!" of a "Class C" company, and not have Mr. and Mrs. First Time TicketBuyer thinking they were going to get Le Grand Ballet Sublime (my over-the-top name for the world's greatest ballet company, whatever that is).


What if no one in Betsy's audience (including Betsy and her coach/director) have seen a great "Giselle?" The critic tries to explain what separates this performance -- be it heaviness in the dancing or heartlessness in the acting -- from a great one.


I also agree that if you think the greatest Giselle is Makarova and I think it's Platel -- or Fonteyn, a very different Giselle, we'll be talking at cross-purposes. But if you know that I'm comparing Betsy B to Fonteyn and she wasn't your ideal at all, then you'll at least have an idea of where my mind is -- and whether you agree with it.


I guess I also should say that I can't imagine writing, "Little Miss Betsy Bloomer is certainly no Ulanova, but she sure was sprightly in the first act pas de deux," either. It's not fair to compare that way (I think). No one is expecting Ulanova. (But if she IS like Ulanova, or whatever, probably no one minds if the reviewer writes, "Not since Ulanova have we seen such a convincing mad scene," or whatever.


I'm not sure if we're in agreement, or disagreeing. Is that still too comparative for you? (If anyone responds, please start another thread, maybe Critics/Comps/Objectivity #3.)





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Barb and Alexandra brought up a point that I take into consideration when reading a critic -- where that critic is coming from, or their preferences. For instance, if Critic A prefers dramatic ballet, then I take that into account in a review of an abstract ballet. I think this point was brought up in a Tobi Tobias review of Eiffman. She said that that type of ballet wasn't her cup of tea but that the audience, which did appreciate that form, was very moved by the performance. I think that was very fair of her. She allowed the reader to know where she was coming from. She could have just ripped it apart.


I'd also like to add something about objectivity. Because I've been thinking whether getting free tickets would alter a critics review of a ballet. Journalists have codes of ethics, just like other professions. It's up to each writer to govern themselves. If anything, I'm more careful when writing about people I admire or like.


Also, I don't like the idea of papers only covering events for which they pay. Let's say I'm Rich Critic and I can afford to go to everything. Then there is Poor Critic, who can only cover a few things. Or a large paper vs. a smaller paper. That would only allow for one econimic viewpoint on a certain event (in this case a ballet). I don't think we'd be better off.



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Dale brings up a good point. If a paper only covers what it can afford to pay for, your coverage could be limited. Good point.



Now here's one...actual case history: A newspaper from another town calls, requesting video tape of a company (a company soon to be performing in this other city), because they are not familiar with the organization, and want video and information about the work, prior to attending the performance. PR person duly returns call, and sends the requested information. Company arrives in this un-named city, and the morning OF the performance (this is a one night stand type deal) sees to their wondering eyes a REVIEW of the performance to occur that evening; and a bad review, I might add. Now anyone who read this review and still managed to attend the performance, would have seen immediately that the pieces reviewed didn't exactly match the program that evening.


A true story.

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Ouch, Barb! That's appalling -- and I believe it happened. Unfortunately, newspapers can dub anyone a "critic." In the Large Metropolitan Area where I reside, a Major Metropolitan Daily, which shall remain nameless, started using writers whose experience was in writing rock music reviews. Not all of them, shall we say, worked out. An editor reportedly suggested getting "one of those guys that does plays for us." Dance gets no respect -- especially, in this case, the local modern dance companies. They think ballet needs some sort of expertise because the steps have French names, but dance in general -- anybody can review it. So think what it must be like in smaller cities.


I hope in the case that you cited, the company involved raised Hell.


There have also been cases when a critic leaves a performance early and trusts that Boris Boriosov and our old friend Betsy Bloomer really did star in Finale. (I've done this; I've seen Finale 9 times. The big news that night was the premiere. There's a deadline. If I make it back to the paper by 10:00, I can get the copy in by 10:45 and it will actually get in the edition that everybody sees.) But what you can't do is write that "Boriosov and Bloomer, the two most boring dancers on the face of the planet, gave us, once again, their slack, insipid, and altogether stupifying "Finale."" Because what happens if Boris stubbed his toe, and two other dancers substituted? And danced magnificently? Someone may notice. (Actually, this happened in a West Coast city, big paper, a few years ago. The company complained; the critic was fired. And should have been.)


Now I've got an ethics question for all of you. What do you think of a ballet company -- an established, though not Huge and Great ballet company -- whose director complains to editors when they don't get a good review and suggests that this critic not be used, or that critic should be used? Fair play? Or over the line. Should the editor hang up the phone, or listen?



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A critic in a large Texas city which shall remain nameless (about 180 miles from Dallas, on Interstate 10, between New Orleans and San Antonio; has a major ballet company) once reviewed a ballet that wasn't even performed. . .and was *not* fired. Really.


In the case of the editor who is called by an artistic director who's demanding that a certain critic not be used, that editor should hang up the phone. . .and *not* gently.


[This message has been edited by salzberg (edited April 18, 1999).]

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I would hope it would take an artistic director more then one bad review to make such a call. If it was just one bad review, and no other reasons, then hang the phone up.; the guy/gal must be nutso anyway. But if the artistic director is concerned because the work isn't really being reviewed...just trashed, or compared, poorly, to other companies, or there is some other matter going on, I would hope the editor would listen, and then deal with it, or not as he/she saw fit. I do think that some critics are a little too full of themselves. Just as I think some critics have made it their mission to educate and comment. As everywhere, it takes all sorts make the world go round and keep it interesting.

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Guest Leigh Witchel

I think a circumstance where the editor needs to listen is when the director alleges a conflict of interest. I recall a situation where a company was reviewed in the only paper in town by the manager of the rival dance school, who expressed with some regret how much he "wanted to like this performance" and then proceeded to trash it.


Reading this makes me recall how different the situation is in smaller cities and towns, where maybe there is one (or no) actual dance reviewer. Were I writing in a smaller city, as opposed to New York, I admit that I would probably deliberately "lower my standards" in print so as not to torpedo struggling arts groups. I'm not saying I would that what was inept was brilliant, but I'd probably give an awful lot more points to an organization for merely existing and presenting performances than I would here.


Is there anyone on the board who is in the situation of writing about dance in a smaller city (Sorry, DC doesn't count!) How do you cope with the balance between reportage and trying to support and encourage the existence of art in your community?

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To Barb -- I think anyone who gets a review that they feel is really unfair has every right to complain (problem is, of course, defining unfair. Some artists apparently feel that anything short of a total rave is unfair. In my experience, especially with choreographers, many artists genuinely feel that if you understood them, you'd recognize their greatness. Ergo, if you don't recognize their greatness, it's becauase you don't understand them). The situation I was thinking of was one where a director would call an editor and basically say he/she didn't like the review, more postive coverage was needed, please don't send that person again, and I'm sure you'll be able to find someone more suited. If I were the editor, I'd listen; if I thought there were any justification for the complaint, I'd talk to the critic -- I'm presuming I'd only send a critic whose judgment and ethics I respected. But I wouldn't give in to bullying. I agree; I'd hang up. Not sure they're nuts, just used to getting their way.


Leigh, DC is actually a very small dance town with a strange situation as far as critics go. The Post considers itself a national paper, and therefore gives very little regional coverage -- regional, in the sense of Local Boy Makes Good. In a smaller city, a kid going off to a competition or a company making its first overseas tour is Big News. At the Post, it's no big deal (even when they had an arts editor who actually liked dance). The smaller companies here put enormous pressure on critics to cover them, letting them know that a grant application is in the works, etc. and obviously expect boosterism. What kills my humanitarian instincts is the use to which such reviews are put. What is a well-intentioned, "Not bad for a first show" review becomes WASHINGTON POST HAILS DANCER X AS THE MOST PROMISING YOUNG CHOREOGRAPHER IN THE WORLD. My rule is tell the truth, be kind, let the audience have some idea of whether they'd like the performance, and keep an eye out for the really truly most promising young choreographer (or dancer) in the world.



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Guest Nanatchka

Instead of criteria, might I offer some questions I ask about a performance? Sometimes I might answer one in a review, sometimes all of them: What was done? Was it done well? Was it worth doing? What does it remind me of? How does it connect and to what? With a master choreographer's new piece: How does this piece fit into the sceheme of the total work? As for the critic, I like Victoria Leigh's method for silencing a potentially bothersome airplane seat mate: "I am a dance critic." It does tend to shut down a room, a dinner table, you name it. I wonder what you all think the role of the critic is.... (Some of you answer this in an adjacent thread, I have since found.)I think the role of the critic, to quote the wonderful late art critic John Candaday, "is to clarify, intensify, and enlarge the pleasure people take in seeing art." And, of course, to take the occasional revenge on Bad Art.


[This message has been edited by Nanatchka (edited April 19, 1999).]

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Welcome Nanatchka! I use the questions approach, too, not necessarily a check list, but before I write, I have to be able to answer the question WHY was the performance -- transcendental, terrible, mediocre, almost there but not quite, etc. Until I can answer that/those questions, I can't write.


A small correction. I'm not sure Victoria would like to be accused of being a dance critic. The comment to fight off airplane chatter was mine, and I always say "ballet" because I've found that that's the word a lot of people can't deal with (I understand "opera," with a particularly bright smile, will accomplish the same thing). When I've said "dance critic," they think I mean I write about ballroom dancing -- I have no idea why -- and it doesn't seem to deter them a bit.



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