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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Guest Sonja

I know this leads us a bit far from where you started, Alexandra, but your last comment reminds me of Germany's most famous soccer team, Bayern München - there is the official website, some fan websites - plus an "anti-Bayern website"... Let's hope ballet won't polarize that much (as I think much stuff on the "anti" sites is really not funny and certainly not fair!

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I agree, Sonja. It's certainly possible that that could happen in dance. One of the many bad things about the net is the dark side of its good -- that everyone has equal access. A partisan of one artist (whether it's a relative, friend, or whatever) could well put up a site that attacks someone else, could make the rounds of the message boards spreading rumors, and could sound very credible. The web doesn't really make everyone equal. Someone who can write well has an enormous advantage and can often seem more knowledgeable than they really are. And for someone who enjoys attacking people, the net is a huge playground.


We had one very nasty incident here early on that was a bit frightening. It was late Saturday night, and luckily, both Leigh and I were on at nearly the same time and caught it. I could delete the post and block the person before he did more harm. But someone came on and just started attacking dancers, using extremely foul language. He started small, as it were, just calling somebody a "bitch" and each post got nastier, until he put up threads with the dancer's name and every gripe he had about that person. It seemed like a dancer or former dancer (I hope a drunken one smile.gif ) who came on and wanted to vent. On the sites that aren't moderated, this kind of behavior could be quite upsetting to the victims.


The internet is often touted as the way for "truth" to get out -- and often that can be true. But it also give a license to anyone with a grudge, and it can be difficult to sort out someone with a legitimate grievance from someone who just wants to settle a score.

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Guest atm711

Ed Waffle---I saw the Met performance of Nabucco last night--and my only sour note are the designs of the sets by John Napier. It's a wonder the artists didn't break their necks trying to manipulate all those steps. It's too bad Napier didn't immerse himself in Asyrian art for his inspiration. The Sets were much too high. I was sitting in the back of the orchestra under the box-seat overhang and there were at least 15 rows of expensive seats that could not see the top of the set.


As to Guleghina--both critics had a valid point:


Guleghina was both visually and vocally gorgeous---and even to my un-trained operatic ear, she did "crack" at some point--but it certainly didn't lessen her performance for me.


The critic who criticized "Va, Pensiero" was probably half asleep---what a thrilling, sublime performance!--and Levine repeated it.


I must get a "ballet" reference in here---while listening to the overture I couldn't help thinking--"What a wonderful substitute this music would be for Giselle"

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Guest Jack Reed

I'll take Verdi over Adam any day, atm711, although Adam's music doesn't spoil "Giselle" for me.


But to get back to the topic, fair to whom, or what? I agree with some of the longer posts that pettiness and bias are out, that anything that happens on stage is fair game, and most of all that explanation and detail, supporting observations, are necessary: Just as in science or engineering, where we think that measurements presented without giving us some idea of how they were made are pretty meaningless, so a critic who claims to have taken the measure of a performance owes me some explanation of how they arrived at what they say. Without that, the criticism is unfair to me, the reader. With that, not only is bias and pettiness likely to be exposed if present, but the criticism has meaning as though we were sitting in the critic's seat, looking out of the critic's head through their eyes, thinking with their mind. For me, the best critics are transparent in this way (Anita Finkel's term for Arlene Croce), and looking at the dance through the lenses of their writing helps to train us to be our own critic, responding more completely to what we see, even when it's not one of the ballets we've read about.

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  • 1 month later...

Rachel Howard had suggested on another thread (in Links, when she commented on some of my comments on a review she'd written in the San Francisco Examiner) that it might be interesting to discuss trends in criticism, especially among younger critics. She wrote:

"Your comment about the Springer reference suggests a worried overall view of young dance critics. I'd love to hear more about what you see as the "trends" (both positive and negative) among young dance critics. It would help me and others to be more conscientious about our work, and at the very least I think it would make for an intriguing discussion."


To start off, I think, first of all, in this country, there's a shortage of younger critics who write about ballet. I've run across several people in their early 30s who have been very good writers (I'd read articles about modern dance performances that they'd written) who did not want to write about ballet -- "Everything has been said," "How can you write after Croce, Acocella, et al.?" -- which is not a good situation. Others aren't drawn to it because ballet is not particularly exciting right now. Both are a problem.


In London, there was a purge of older critics -- several very good older critics -- because a "younger voice" was needed. Someone I know was told she could stay, but she'd have to change the way she wrote reviews. They wanted reviews that were part feature, part review, and a bit of gossip. (She didn't stay.) There's no question that editors seem to be going along with this "tabloidization" of newspapers.


One trend I've seen among the few younger critics I read regularly is that they seem to have bought in to the New is Best idea of the 1960s completely. Balanchine is great because he revolutionized ballet; Tudor is great because he turned the classical vocabulary upside down. To me, this has not only become a very outmoded cliche, but is a misunderstanding not only of those two artists, but of the nature of ballet and what is important within that aesthetic.


On the plus side, among many not only young, but middle-aged critics, I see a definite reaction against the cronyism that marked an older generation, those who were very powerful during the glamor days of the Ballet Boom. Some perhaps overreact, avoiding any contact with dancers or choreographers, fearful of perceived conflict of interest, but, while balance is perhaps ideal, I think this is positive. When I read about "perhaps the best young choreographer of our generation," I'd like to think it's a choreographer the writer saw and was struck dumb by, not someone who takes him out to dinner regularly and tells him how good a choreographer he is.


I think there is a search for younger critics among editors currently, and I think it's needed. Not to replace the old per se (although there are instances...) but because there should be a balance and a range of views. I think another problem that's looming is that, regardless of age, people who've come to ballet in the past decade or so don't have very good measuring sticks in their experience, and that shows. It's not their fault, but if one has never seen a five-star ballerina, it can't help but affect one's thinking and writing. I've read several pieces by young writers in that situation who either (quite understandably) underrate classical ballet completely, or, conversely, try to make great ballerinas out of lesser talents. They have all these great words and phrases and they want to use them too :)

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Guest Drew

I don't read that much ballet criticism so it's hard to comment, but I'm jumping in because one thing Alexandra wrote surprized me very much -- that anyone would say they are uninterested in writing about ballet because 'everything has been said.' For a major art form (even for an important 'type' within a larger art form -- dance) ballet has attracted comparatively little great writing. And the critics whose names are usually given out as great are decidedly quirky even eccentric both as observers and writers. That's not a knock on those writers, but if someone new is knowledgeable and passionate about ballet, there's plenty left to say...The other issues raised seemed somewhat more plausible to me...


As a reader, I do make a big distinction between dance writing in newspapers and dance writing in weekly/monthly general interest magazines and another somewhat smaller distinction between the latter and specialized dance publications. The attempt to make the writing livelier for a newspaper audience when transferred to, say, the New Yorker or The New Republic or the Nation or National Review (I'm trying to be politically ecumenical) sometimes just makes it seem as if the critic in question scarcely takes the art seriously him or herself. I am also pretty skeptical about critical writing that sounds like fan gushing or, for that matter, internet chat. One example: I read what I considered was justified praise for Stepanenko's Shades Scene in Bayadere in a (highly thought of) general interest journal. The critic made the point that one hardly ever saw a ballerina who could handle every one of the ballet's challenges, but then went off into some excursus about this "girl" dancing "like a miracle" -- that was not (in my opinion) poetic or evocative, but just plain condescending and even undermined the excellent point that had just been made. Stepanenko is not a "girl" she's a senior ballerina (in her thirties surely) with a major ballet company, and her dancing isn't a miracle -- she's an extremely well-trained, well-coached, and accomplished ballet dancer. I myself have been known to gush here at ballet alert! but I'm not a professional critic writing for publication in a prestigious magazine. One doesn't have to be puritanical -- genuine wit is fine -- but ballet fans must often lament the fact that somehow their favorite art form isn't taken as seriously as, say, symphonic music or dramatic literature; well, part of a critic's job should be to show people that it is. The same critic writing about a particularly good season Wendy Whelan was having (several seasons back) speculated that a new boyfriend might be making the difference. I later saw, elsewhere that Whelan herself commented publically on her personal life that season, but the critic didn't cite Whelan, but just threw the remark out there (wink! wink!); well, if the top critics don't take ballet dancing seriously as a craft and an art, who will? It's not a Herbert Ross movie in which love affairs and miracles are the real points of interest...and in relatively serious journals/magazines I don't think that's a productive way to develop a ballet audience. (I would cut a lot more slack to newspaper writers who have huge editorial limitations and a much more amorphous audience to face.)


P.S. I thought it was quite gracious of Rachel Howard to respond to the comments she saw posted here...


[ 05-08-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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Drew, I agree on all counts.


I argued quite a bit with the two young writers who were afraid that "everything has been said." I think the real reason was that they admired other writers and didn't think their own writing measured up -- in itself, a good sign, oddly, as lack of confidence in one's talent is sometimes, perversely, an indication of great talent.


Commenting on the state of a dancer's emotional health, or love life, in a review is out of bounds, in my book.

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Guest cargill

I too read the Wendy Whelan comment, and thought it was extraneous, but I think the publication is trying to snazz itself up--other articles in it seem to be trying for work in four letter words.


About Jerry Springer, it was certainly an evocative comment, but didn't really convey the royally privaledged atmosphere Gamzatti should have. I have seen some Gamzattis that looked like they thought they were on Jerry Springer, and it wasn't pretty!


Anyone writing about an art form needs to know a great deal about its history, and for something like dance, where the history really only exists in live performances (though videos and old reviews do help), I think it is very hard for someone who hasn't been watching for years and years to make definitive statements. I do think it is hard to write intelligently about Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty if you haven't seen a good production, and since none seem to exist, especially of Swan Lake, it makes things difficult! If I can get personal here, when I write I try simply to give my opinions and the reasons behind them, not a thumbs up or thumbs down. I have very much enjoyed reading reviews by intelligent writers whose actual opinion of a work I disagreed with. And on the other hand, even if a writer who seems to have no depth agrees with me, I don't really enjoy reading that person.


But gossip is for the intermission, not for publication.

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  • 3 months later...

Ed Waffle posted this on Links, but I'll put it here in the hopes that some will read it and discuss. I know Martin Bernheimer is regarded by some as a very harsh critic. I've never met him, but I read him for years and always thought him a very brave one--and with good eyes.


Here's his take on criticism. I found his discussion of how Critic A and Critic B can see something totally different, yet their reviews are still valid; while Critic C...well.....


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Guest Leigh Witchel

What I found interesting about that article is that Bernheimer didn't mention what I think the most important function of an arts writer is; giving people a path into the work. To me, it matters less that I tell you whether that the Swan Lake I saw was good or bad; if you saw it as well, you'll have your own opinion, if you didn't see it, then it's just my word you're trusting. But what I can tell you is a method at looking at Swan Lake and maybe give the reader some things to look for that will make the ballet more rewarding for them when they finally do see it.


What do others think? Do you value a critic most as a sort of Consumer's Report so you know where to spend your ticket money? Or do you prefer an essayist to a reviewer?

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Guest aliciamosier

A path into the work is for me the most important thing a critic can give. I'm always interested to read how a certain ballerina interpreted a role (and whether a certain writer thinks she's worth going to see), but I'm more interested to know how that interpretation fits into the work as a whole -- what in the ballet it illuminates. In that regard, essayists are probably more useful (for me) than reviewers, because essayists can bring to their writing more history, more extended reflections on principles of style and relations between music and choreography and so on. Reading dance criticism (as opposed to reviews), you don't have to depend so much on the particular writer's taste; you can absorb (and agree or take issue with) a whole framework of interpretation. What I want is to be given a wiser set of eyes, a more intelligent way of perceiving things, so that when I go to see a ballet I can respond not just to the particularities of this performance but to the whole work, with all its historical, dramatic, and stylistic resonances.


But of course, there are very few dance critics who have the chops (not to speak of the column inches) to offer that sort of education.

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Guest Leigh Witchel

If there is anything the Internet can offer to dance writing, it's the space and time to do more than give the cast list and your opinion. I hope writers can use this to their advantage when they can afford to!

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I certainly think there is a place for essays and a more detailed analysis, but Bernheimer is writing of newspaper criticism, and I don't think the place for essays is there. There isn't the space for it, but I think it's not appropriate for a newspaper. More and more, I think the newspaper review is basically journalism -- report on what you saw, capture the atmosphere, and yes (though I know this is controversial) make some kind of comparison so that not only the current readers, but future readers (reviews as archive) can have an idea of the level of the performance.

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Guest aliciamosier

Novice's question: Alexandra, could you say a little more about why it's controversial to make comparisons in a newspaper review?


[ 08-18-2001: Message edited by: Alla ]

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