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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Thank you so much for taking the time to make those links, Estelle -- and apologies to all that I haven't been around much; I'll be tied up for the next two weeks but should be back full force after Labor Day.


Alla, several people have raised the comparison issue in the past, and there's a feeling among some that it's unfair, that critics should just write about the dancer before them. I can understand this view, but as a critic, I need the comparison tool. If someone tells me he's just seen the next Very Greatest Dancer in the Whole World, I want to know who is this dancer like? (Not that any two great dancers are alike, but someone who's "like" Baryshnikov will be someone very unlike someone who's "like" Dowell, for example.) I also think if I'm reviewing someone who dances a role that was created by someone else, or that has had several definitive interpreters, it's fair game to compare them. There can be lots of perfectly valid ways of doing a role, and I think that should be recognized, but there are times when someone really isn't up to the standard that has been established.


Someone else will be able to do justice to the "comparing isn't fair" side, I'm sure.

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Guest aliciamosier

Essentially, I agree with your position. Of course the main thing is to look at this particular dancer's interpretation. But any good criticism requires points of reference. When you're talking about a role that has had many interpreters, and one or two who have been "definitive," it seems only right that that history should be taken into account when analyzing a particular interpretation. People still refer to Olivier's Hamlet when discussing Hamlets of today, and so they should. When an actor or dancer or singer takes on a role, he puts himself in the line of those who have formerly done it, and I don't see a problem with using that standard in one's criticism.


As for comparing dancers themselves (rather than the interpretation of a role), that's obviously more dangerous. There may be a risk of not paying full attention to this dancer's characteristics, of letting a comparison do the work of description. But on the whole I think it helps more than it hurts. I am always interested to hear that some dancer is "after the fashion of" another dancer. It helps me to distinguish better what I'm looking at. There are very few dancers who can't be usefully described in terms of dancers who have gone before -- there's a good reason we call those few "incomparable"!

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All good points, I think. But it was very educational for me to read how many people either misunderstand, or object to, critics comparing one dancer to another. I think when it's done, we have to be careful to make the reason for it as obvious as possible, and not say, as if everyone knows what we mean, "He doesn't measure up to Baryshnikov, who created the role." (Of course, doing that in eight inches is not easy, but that's another story.)

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  • 3 months later...
Guest Leigh Witchel

A potentially incendiary topic for the holiday season!


In the links today there is an article by Roslyn Sulcas on William Forsythe. Sulcas has written on other topics, but she's made Forsythe her specialty as a fierce advocate of his work.


There have been times when a critic and a choreographer have been linked, Denby and Balanchine; Croce in his later career, but Croce was also one of the first to write on Morris and Armitage (Joan Acocella later took a similar interest in Morris). There are times it could be argued that a critic's persistent interest made someone's career.


When you read a critic who takes an obviously passionate interest in a specific choreographers work, what do you think? Have you sensed a deeper understanding from the viewing experience? Do they ever seem myopic? Did there ever seem to be a conflict of interest? Does it just depend on whether you agree with them or not? wink.gif

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This is an interesting question and I hope others will respond -- especially READERS, not just the writers.


And it's a knotty question. In the best of all possible worlds, I'd like the specialist, insider view (whether I agree with the writer or not) because someone who's watched rehearsals as well as performances, talked to the dancers, had the opportunity to ask the choreographer questions, etc. should be able to provide a richer insight into the choreographer's work.


[Devil's Advocate would say, doesn't matter. All that matters is what you see on stage.] Well, yes, again, in theory. But it takes time to see things. Daily critics faced with a premiere are writing a review that's basically a pop quiz. It's not the deepest take on a new work. Finding the balance between "Ah! Now, after seeing it for the fourth time, I understand what he's doing" and "Well, it's really not that bad, I guess" is one of the trickiest things in ballet watching.


Is the insider writer liable to be caught in a conflict of interest? Almost inevitably. What happens when the Favored One makes a klunker? What does bother me when I read someone write a piece that I consider a shill is that they never say, "I'm interested in Maestro X. Nobody's ever heard of him, but I think there's something in his work. I gave up my entire summer vacation to hang out in his studio and watch the rehearsals for his new ballet, and this is why I've trudged all the way to Dry Gulch to see the premiere of New Ballet 17 and write about it for The Big City Gazette." They don't say that. They say, "Miracle in Dry Gulch!!!" as if Maestro X had a big, wondrous magnet that pulled all art lovers to him.


I think that with not-yet-established-choreographers, Truth will out. There are a lot of people who have been named, prematurely, "perhaps the best young choreographer of our day" and yet have not been able to create a body of work, or works 7 through 55 don't live up to the promise of the first six. (Or maybe they do, but that's a different story.)


When someone writes about an artist who's already established, that's a different thing. Sometimes it's just bandwagon jumping, sometimes it's something deeper (like Croce and Balanchine). I'll always be interested in reading Joan Acocella on Mark Morris, because she knows his work far better than I do and she sees, and she'll see something interesting, so I'm glad that knowledgeable, committed voice is there.


For the general reader, even the interested reader, though, they may never realize the connection. How many people picked up the Times and thought, "Oh, [good/damn-and-blast] there's Rosalyn Sulcas again on Forsythe!" I think most people will accept it on its face -- a piece in the New York Times on Forsythe.

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There's a distinguished history of critics advocating the work of artists they believe in. I don't see how you can avoid it, if you are writing for a long period of time about a subject in which you're immersed.


I'm afraid a lot does depend, for me anyway, on whether or not I agree with the critic, or can at least see where he's coming from. I can, however, respect a critic's views and read them with profit even if I don't agree, if I agree elsewhere.



It seems to me that much also depends on how powerful the critic is, and how big is his forum? Obviously the daily cultural critics at the New York Times wield a bigger stick than some others. If they take a line on someone or something and hold it, that's going to be very influential, for good and ill. (I could cite some examples from ballet, but don't want to start a food fight.)


Conflicts of interest can certainly arise. It would have been obviously unacceptable, for example, if the late Kenneth Tynan had continued writing drama criticism when he went to work for Olivier as National Theatre dramaturge. (And there was a clear connection between that appointment and Tynan's passionate appreciation of Olivier's acting. I do not mean to suggest that he was angling for a job, I should note.)

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Guest Kevin Ng

Slightly off topic here. I read a short report in the arts/features section of today's "South China Morning Post" (not carried online though) about a British theatre critic being sued for libel. I quote -


"Actor David Soul has won a libel case against a journalist who called a play the actor was in the worst he had ever seen - without having seen it.


The actor and singer....was awarded US$250,000 over a scathing review by showbusiness writer Matthew Wright of the British newspaper The Mirror...."


I wonder what repercussions this legal case will have.

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Yes, Kevin, I'd read about that case -- but it was a brief, factual blurb without much background. One hears something like this every now and then. There was a case of it in San Francisco about 15 years ago -- the critic claimed he was very ill and couldn't go. (Not enough of an excuse, in my book. Not to write anything, much less a pan.)


Does anyone know the details?

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Guest Nanatchka
Originally posted by dirac:

[QB]There's a distinguished history of critics advocating the work of artists they believe in. I don't see how you can avoid it, if you are writing for a long period of time about a subject in which you're immersed.


(Sigh.) I think I resemble this remark....and also the original question posted by Leigh. I have long been immersed in Merce Cunningham's work, and I have done all the things Alexandra wrote about (see rehearsals, talk to dancers, etc.). In my opinion, this makes me fascinating-- at least to myself. The entire experience has been richly rewarding--the intellectual adventure of my lifetime, and I am deeply grateful for it. As a reader, I don't think it is a bad thing if a few critics write from within the context of a given choreographer's work . There are plenty of generalists out there.It helps if the choreographer is, like Merce, a truly grand artist--seeming obsessed is one thing, appearing delusional is another matter.

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I am a reporter and editor on my schools newpaper, and I usually do the theatre reviews, which includes the ballet. I was wondering if anyone had any tips on how to do this, what others like and dont like about more professional reviews(like in newspapers etc.) and any other general tidbits of information. Thanks!


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Hi, Jhora. Writing reviews can be fun -- at least, until people read them and complain to you about them


When I started writing reviews, a senior critic (the man who hired me) gave me two pieces of advice I've never forgotten. The first was to write from the gut. Meaning, if the news angle that evening is a new work by Choreographer X, but the thing you can't stop thinking about is how absolutely wonderful Dancer Y looked in one of the other works, that's your story. Of course, you have to mention the new ballet, but the excitement you feel about the dancer will come out in your writing, so that should be your "angle."


The second thing is, write as though the dancer's mother is looking over your shoulder. That doesn't mean you have to be dishonest -- if someone doesn't do a good job, say so. But anything can be said politely, or in a way that doesn't hurt. Sometimes there's a temptation to be funny, or sassy, for the sake of the writing, and it's good to remember that these are real, living, breathing people with feelings. (Probably not as much a problem for someone who is also a dancer, although some of the harshest critics I know are dancers.)


And finally, something I've read elsewhere from several people and I think is good advice: write what you see. It's that simple. Don't try to impress anybody, don't try to agree or disagree with your friends. You may be the only person in the room who likes something and everybody else is saying, "So what was that???" Or (more likely) you may be the only person in the theater who is disappointed and thinks a dancer is sloppy, while everyone else is standing on their seats and jumping up and down and cheering. I take my motto from Davy Crockett, "Be sure you're right, and then go ahead." Meaning, write what you see, write what you think.


Have fun -- keep us informed of your adventures


(We have several writers who post here, including those who write for DanceView and Ballet Alert!, and we always jump in first on these questions -- I hope readers will answer as well. Here's your chance to train someone right


[ January 12, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Guest Nanatchka

So as not to prove Alexandra wrong, here is a writer jumping in. A review is an opinion, but it is also an historical record of an event. You will want to include the following:






Some questions you can ask yourself to gracefully incorporate these questions and your opinions in a logical sequence are:

What was done?

Was it done well?

Was it worth doing?


I too have covered both dance and theater, and they are more alike than different. Things to keep in mind: Known works, as for instance "Hamlet," or "Nutcracker," require less explanation (though not no explanation) than new work (new ballet, new play). Non narrative work is harder to write about than narrative work (where a story line carries you along), but is challenging and interesting. Try thinking of yourself as a translator--you are translating the language of dance into English.


Since you are writing for a school newspaper and perhaps are writing about people you know, you are in a harder position than critics working on big city newspapers where they don't cross paths with their subjects on a daily basis. I suggest that, if possible, and your location and publication permit, you cover one or two professional events in addition to school events. Or perhaps you are already doing that? That is what the theater critic does on one of our school newspapers here. He has a lot of fun!


Finally, although you are writing about what you see, what you know matters, too. The more background you have in the subject you are covering, the more confident you will feel and sound. Knowledge may not change your instinctive and intuitive responses, but it will put them into an intelligent context.


Maybe you can post one of your reviews here someday. Good luck!

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Guest cargill

I agree with everything, but just wanted to add that when I started writing, I tried to keep in mind the kind of reviews I like to read and tried to think about what I liked about them. The main thing I felt about reviewers I liked was that they explained and tried to justify their opinions. Even if I didn't agree with them, I could learn a lot. Reveiws are journalism, too, so they have to be interesting and well written. Style is important, but style without content is just embarassing. The best advise I can think of it to read a lot of critics and think about what you like and don't like about their writing.

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