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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know


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Guest Calliope

I was a reading a review of Melissa Barak's new piece and Clives Barnes says of the ballet "She should have been tougher and ended ambiguously. She took a wrong turn at the end, perhaps..."

 

And perhaps this is more of a statement than a question, but my first thought was, it's her piece, so she ended how she wanted to.

 

I realize that's it's inevitable that choreographers/dancers be compared to their predecessors and perhaps that's where the comments come from, but are critics now than they were say in Balanchine and Ashton's time?

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I think that's a good point -- critics usually try to stay away from blatant advice giving. But I suppose it's irresistible. I'm sure someone wrote "Petipa should think again! Obviously Siegfried has learned his lesson and they should be allowed to live happily ever after!"

 

Having just read a good chunk of American and British (not to mention Danish) criticism of the past 50 years, I think there is more viciousnous now. (I don't mean to say that I think Barnes' piece is vicious.) And more overtly political criticism. A reviewer may really not mind this new ballet that much, but saying so might give Maestro A a boost and Maestro B, my friend, or the person I support, won't like it, or will look bad in comparison, etc.

 

I've read several New York reviews from the 1950s that are virulently anti-Ashton and there's a distinct undertone, to me, that it's because they perceived him as a threat. (Strange to think now, but Illuminations and Picnic at Tintagel were big hits at NYCB and that, and the acquisition of a Tudor repertory, was not liked by some.) They didn't suggest how he should choreograph, though, just that he should go away. One I remember -- B.H. Haggin -- dismisses the entire oeuvre as mere baubles and says that the one thing Ashton can't do to save his life is make a pas de deux. (!!!!)

 

John Martin did give Balanchine a lot of advice, but it was mostly "go back to Europe where you belong and take those frothy little ballets with you." He later became appreciative of Balanchine's choreography and had the decency to say so. There was a lot of anti-Balanchine sentiment in the 1950s and '60s from the modern dance wing of the dance world that, as in the Ashton case, seems, to me, to be created wholly out of resentment -- he got the crowds, he got the money, our native art form is unappreciated, it's not fair. The criticism of Balanchine was that "all his ballets look alike" meaning they were put into the "divertissement" slot and few people looked further to see the differences. Our atm is an exception

 

I'd like to spin off of Callipe's question and ask what people think about advice giving. If a critic thinks a new work is good, but this or that is wrong with it, should s/he say so? Where is the line? Is saying "the work needs a pas de deux" okay? Or "Either make a literal work or an abstract work, but pick one?" How could that be phrased so it's useful to both reader and, perhaps, choreographer?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, Kenneth Tynan once said that a critic is someone who knows the way but can't drive the car. Giving back-seat directions sort of comes with the territory. I don't see anything wrong with comments on structure -- a recent example that occurs to me is Tobi Tobias pointing out in an otherwise admiring review that in Martins' "Morgen" there were too many consecutive pas de deux. (Advice along the lines of "Go back to Russia" is plainly counterproductive, as they say nowadays.)

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Guest atm711

Alexandra, thanks for exempting me f rom that 50's and 60's crowd. It wasn't just the modern dance world that opposed him--it was also the 'Ballet Theatre' crowd of the time--it was always--:"But they only dance from the waist down". I never could forgive John Martin---the only thing he admired in ballet was Alicia Markova's 'Giselle'. (Nothing wrong with that, but the poor man missed so much--at least we had Denby, and to a lesser

extent, Terry.)

 

To further appreciate what ballet had to go through then, there is a wonderful cartoon parody (by Alex Gard) depicting Walter Terry with a copy of 'Ted Shawn' jutting out of his pocket, and John Martin with a copy of "My Life by Isadora Duncan".

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Guest Calliope

With the ongoing crisis over at New York Magazine, in mind,

with critics, is there a difference to those that write for newspapers and those that write for magazines/periodicals?

 

I guess the obvious is the magazine doesn't write reviews on a daily basis, but with regards to criticism, is it a different approach, etc...?

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Guest cargill

I think there definitely is a different approach, partly based on space and time. Newspaper critics have to sum up things quickly, for a very general audience, which probably doesn't know technical terms or historical details. When writers have more time and space (not that Tobi had much space!) they can go into more detail and explain their thinking a bit more. Magazines usually have more niche audiences that newspapers, so when people like Mindy Aloff wrote for the New Republic (sigh!), even though she wasn't writing for a dance audience, she was generally writing for a well-read one. I think there is a need for both types of writing, the more the better!

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Calliope -

 

It's fascinating what the differences are. I've so far written specifically for dance journals with more space and experienced readers. I'm working on my first more general-interest assignment on ballet and my word limit is 600 words. It is really interesting to see the change in tone (A lot more declarative, for energy) and the editing needed to get as much as you can in the word limit. In some ways, it's more work (per word, at least) than a lengthy article!

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Guest Nanatchka

More than you want to know: What changes most in writing from one publication to another is tone. You've got to adjust the tone to the reader, and of course to the subject. With general interest periodicals, and with newspapers(or with a publication where the editor thinks the reader is a dimwit), you have to identify everything. (Like this: Jasper Johns, the noted painter who long served as the company's artisitc director, said about the new work...) Length determines almost every aspect of an article, and I don't care at all what the length is;I just want to know it ahead of time. (I'd rather start over then radically adjust a piece once it is written.) Adapting to a word length is like adapting to a poetic form, loosely speaking: Writing a short piece is like packing a backpack for a trip to the moon. Longer pieces are an ocean voyage on the Queen Mary.(Very few pieces really need to be long.)Finally: All of a writers pieces are more alike than different, no matter where they are published, if the writer has a voice.

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I'd love to hear from readers what they EXPECT from a newspaper piece and a magazine piece.

 

Calliope, I think most critics write where they're given the opportunity to write. It's a buyer's market, as they say. Although some people might find that they're temperamentally, or otherwise, unsuited to daily reviewing, generally, you'll write where someone lets you.

 

My very first published piece of anything was a 250 word review in the Washington Post (which I later learned they didn't like because I was wishy-washy. I thought the piece was awful, but I was afraid to say it, so I fudged.) There are sub-worlds in daily reviewing, too. The opening night review in a major paper, even today, is quite long -- 20 inches (about 800 words, or a bit over three pages of double space typing) while subsequent performance reviews (when there are any) can be as short as 250 or 300 words. It is impossible to say anything substantive in such a space. Just naming the company, the director, the works, and a few dancers will take up half your space. My heart sinks when something is presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society -- that's a line and a half right there.

 

Newspaper writing has to be more black and white, more general, which is why it often reads like a compendium of cliches. "She was charming, he gave her deluxe support." With 300 words, one tries desperately to write in a shorthand that the audience may understand.

 

 

 

Writing for a magazine can have restrictions, too, though. Some have no restrictions. I wrote a piece for Ballet Review once that had 30,000 words. They laughed, but they ran it. I reviewed the Bournonville Celebration -- a week's worth of performances -- in 2000 words for Dance Magazine two years ago. I had to describe/evaluate the 6 productions PLUS explain who Bournonville was and why anyone should care PLUS give a capsule view of what had happened to the company in the preceding decade PLUS explain the plots of a half-dozen ballets many readers would never have heard of PLUS describe/identify more than two dozen dancers of whom readers had never heard. I think that was the hardest piece I ever wrote.

 

A final word, related to tone. I think everyone evolves his or her own ethic. Mine is that when writing in the Post, which is read by hundreds of thousands of people, I tend to be more lenient than when writing in a specialty publication. I don't think an audience cares about picky little details. They want the big picture. For about ten years, when the Post still did cast change reviews, I had the weekend wrap up beat, which meant writing about four or five performances in a very small amount of space. Since I couldn't cover everything, I wrote about the leads, and for supporting dancers, I just wrote about the dancers I thought had done well. (Another bifurcation in daily reviewing: the opening night review covers production, state of the company, dancers, sets, costumes, conductor. Subsquent reviews have to make sense to someone who only saw that performance, but there's no room to write about anything but the dancers. Part of my ethic also is not to contradict the opening night reviewer. I think The Post should speak about dance with one voice.)

 

Generally speaking, writing for a daily is 500 times harder than writing for a magazine (despite my one example to the contrary above). On new choreography, you feel like you're taking a pop quiz. How can you possibly take the measure of a new work, especially an experimental one, after one viewing? In the 1980s, I generally was given 12-15 inches (about 500 to 650 words then) and I wrote those reviews in 45 minutes -- I had no choice. The subway stops at midnight. I smoked then, and I'd smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in that 45 minutes. Which is to say it's a bit stressful.

 

You also get instant feedback the next time you go to the theater; people come up to you and tell you whether they agreed or disagreed. In the community dance world, you have to face the people you just panned. I was surprised at how personally people took reviews -- personally in the sense that the assumption is that what is written reflects what the reviewer thinks about the choreographer/performer as a PERSON not as an artist. "She hates me" if you write a negative review. Worse, if you write a positive one, the person may follow you around for life, assuming you will write features about them and adore everything they do because you are now "a friend."

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