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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Bashing critics

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Guest Rachel Howard

Speaking of Barne's history and "critics bashing critics," "The Vanishing Point," a collection of Marcia B. Siegel's reviews from the late 70s/early 80s launches a voracious attack upon him. I bought a copy second hand and, since I wasn't writing in those boomtime years, am just beginning to unravel what the heck it was all about. Suffice to say, the message that Barnes had an incredible amount of power as the chief NY Times critic has come across loud and clear.

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You're right, Rachel :) The 1960s and '70s were very contentious in the NY dance world -- lots of animosity to both Barnes and Walter Terry, who were seen by some to be out of touch with new work -- and a resentment of power. There's indication of this, too, in Arlene Croce's early work that's reprinted in "After Images."

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They certainly did. Croce expressed discontent with Haggin's critical vocabulary and his taste in ballerinas, and Haggin responded in kind. I recall in particular that Haggin disagreed with Croce's comments about Suzanne Farrell's dancing in her last seasons before her break with Balanchine. Croce thought her mannered, exaggerated, and generally off form during this period; Haggin disagreed emphatically and went so far as to check this out with Farrell. (According to Haggin, Farrell said firmly, "I don't know what she's talking about.")



As Alexandra notes, this kind of thing appeared mostly in Croce's early collection, Afterimages. I wonder if using other critics as a punching bag is characteristic mainly of critics who are just starting to stake out their positions. Pauline Kael's first collection, I Lost It At the Movies, is full of the same kind of thing.

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Originally posted by dirac

I wonder if using other critics as a punching bag is characteristic mainly of critics who are just starting to stake out their positions.  Pauline Kael's first collection, I Lost It At the Movies, is full of the same kind of thing.



I can't think of many examples -- perhaps others can -- but one of the prime motivations for writing about dance is that you can't stand what other people are writing :)

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OK. My issue arrived yesterday. While I stand by what I wrote on theory and background, in practice, I can't defend that article. To say more would be critic-bashing, so I won't, except that in theory, while it might be kosher, even desirable, for a senior critic to "police" his/her discipline, when you publicly wish that basically someone's career be destroyed -- that, to me, crosses the line.

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I fina;;y read it yesterday too. I didn't think it was that bad really. He brings up the point of having all your ducks in a row before you very decidedly state an opinion which I think ALL critics (including Mr. Barnes) should strive harder to do. I wonder how Ms. Homans feels about it?

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Guest Calliope

If I were Homans, if nothing else, at least I know that I got under someone's skin, which was part of the point of her article. And Barnes' critique probably drew more attention to the article itself.

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True, probably not one of it's intended purposes. However, both pieces spurred discussion which makes the BOTH successful in a way.

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Guest Rachel Howard

Not to veer away from the Homans issues at hand, but I've just received a new book that shows the tradition of critics bashing fellow critics is alive and well. Wesleyan University Press has just released a collected writings by Ann Daly titled "Critical Gestures." Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit I hadn't heard of Ms. Daly before, but I'm finding the first section of this book fantastic "catch up" reading on the history of NY dance criticism in the last half decade. I don't agree with Daly on a lot of things, but she states her positions so clearly that it's fun to argue back.


Anyway, the choice moments of "critic bashing":

She loves trouncing Arlene Croce's "infamous temper tantrum about Bill T. Jones" etc. "'Discussing the Undiscussable' was Croce's way of taking her marbles and going home, because artists had dared to move from the 1950s to the 1990s without requesting her permission." She also says, "the bad news is, [dance critics] will also be known as the folks who gave the world 'victim art'." I say it's not such a bad thing to be known for, but then I'm something of a Croce worshipper.


And Daly notes that Jill Johnston, then institutionalized, once shot back at Clive Barnes, writing: "I also stake out a claim to be an artist, a writer, if that's what I'm doing when I go to the typewriter and decide that I liked something well enough to say what I think it's all about."

Hmmm . . . Siegel, Johnston, Homans--I'd say Barnes is well-practiced at jostling with other critics and embraces it as an occupational duty. I have yet to read the column, and so can't toss in my two cents.

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Well, I finally was able to read Barnes' piece, and I don't think it's over the line. It's different in nature from the other kinds of critical jousting we've been discussing here, because Barnes is saying that Homans does not have the background or critical skills to proffer serious analysis of the situation at City Ballet and, even more to the point, that her observations don't warrant a big spread in The New York Times. He is saying, albeit with some harshness, that she's out of her depth and her editors should know better. The remark about dance history taking little note of this matter is probably accurate but an unnecessary rhetorical flourish.

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I actually thought his pokes at the New York Times were the most interesting part of that article. In a way I agree with him, that a well respected news organization should be more careful who they allow to spout in their paper. On the other hand, it was interesting journalism to print a dissenting view, whther their was anything to back it up or not.

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I suspect that if the Homans piece had appeared almost anywhere else Barnes would not be getting quite so hot under the collar, because the paper has so much more clout than virtually any other outlet for dance criticism in this country (as his own career illustrates vividly). That's why he focuses more on the editors than on Homans, in a way -- it's not that she wrote a dubious article, but that the dubious article appeared with the imprimatur of the Times.



I agree that dissenting views should always be welcome. It's too bad that the article wasn't all it might have been, because there is a case to be made, whether one agrees with it or not.

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Guest Michael

I suspect that Barnes may be carrying water for City Ballet on this one.


The Directorate there is famous for being sensitive to the point of defensiveness about criticism. The Times has provided a great deal of critical "cover" for the company over the years and the Homans' piece could well have "drawn" psychic "blood" there, particularly when more minor criticisms appear to have drawn a defensive reaction over the years. It does not overstate the case to say that Barnes has responded to criticism of City Ballet in the past, particularly when the criticism was prominent and the company needed a prominent rebuttle (as in the Croce incident discussed above). Does this mean I think NYCB actually suggested that he provide a rebuttle to Homans? I think it is at least plausible.


And in any event I found his reference to a critic needing to be "unbiased" quite humerous.

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  • 3 months later...
Guest Calliope

In the March 2003 issue of Dance Magazine (is it me or are the articles dwindling?)

There's a Letter to the Editor in response to Barnes' op-ed along with Barnes' response to it.


(and Alexandra, please edit this if it's copyright violation)



"Re: Clive Barnes' article.... the 'brilliant and knowledgeable" critic Kisselgoff has been writing public-retlations releases instead of reviews (NYCB) for some time. Many other critics (Croce) and many, many dance lovers can no longer bear to watch the awfulness of Peter Martin's work.


there has been a great "falling off" at NYCB and ayone with eyes can see it"

Dr. Emily Fragos

NY University NYC


Barnes response:

"Fine. Ms Fragos disputes the quality of Ms. K's eyesight and my own. Eyesight like beauty is in the sight of the beholder. I, for example, cannot see how she "knows many, many dance lovers cannot bear to watch" as she is presumably of their number and therefore can hardly register either their presence or non-presence. But even though we must agree to differ, I have no problem with Ms. Frago's opinions, for these are merely expressed as a letter to the editor, not wrapped up in the obfuscating panoply of a supposedly authoritative article in the NY Times"




I was suprised to see a response. Especially after reading his last sentence.

I say "brava" to Dr. Fragos, I stand to be counted as one of the "many, many"

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