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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: J. Homans in New York Review

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I think someone writing a review is just presenting a personal opinion, and it's not necessary (it actually runs against the rules of the genre) to write "I hated it, but the audience loved it, and so did Critic X, Y and Z, although Critic A and B agree with me about this choreographer's work." But historical commentary is different, I think. The reader has to be able to trust that the writer understands the big picture, and is not just grabbing a fact here and a fact there; it has to be digested. And yes, I think they do have to take into account other's views, in the sense that if you're an opinion that's out of line with accepted thinking, you should indicate that. (I don't mean that this is the case in this instance; just making a general comment.)


An example. In 1986, I had a student who wrote a paper that said, "Erik Bruhn is the finest James dancing today." And went on to say why. Well, Bruhn had stopped dancing the role in 1972 and, in 1986, wasn't dancing anything because he was dead. The student kept saying, "What's one little word? Okay! I made a mistake, but it's just one little word!" Well, to me, it's a big deal. Say Bruhn was the finest James of his day, or generation, or in the history of time, or whatever you want to say, and back it up (not, as he did, with copying what a reviewer wrote and forgetting to put in the quotation marks, but that's another problem). But check the date on the book you're copying from before you copy from it.


And that's what I mean by digesting facts and having a context in which to put them. And if he were writing a paper on Great Jameses, I'd want him to have read more than one book, and not base his opinion on one video, and consider that the first James was Bournonville. Not in an 8-inch newspaper review. But in an 8000 word commentary, context helps.

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Guest Leigh Witchel
Originally posted by Ray

 So what Homans doesn't do, to my satisfaction, is take seriously arguments, claims, or opinions that counter her own.  But, to be provocative, does a critic like Joan Acocella--or even saint Croce--do any better?


Or for that matter, Lincoln Kirstein, although I think his affiliations were taken into account by readers.


I'm not sure entirely when that Olympian tone became standard in dance criticism. Croce certainly had it, and she was a good enough writer that one often forgot one when disagreed with her basic premises. Re-reading her compendiums recently was a very surprising experience for me. I still liked them as much as always, but for the first time, I found myself disagreeing with a surprising amount of basic impressions.


To bring this back to the general, when you read a critic, what sort of voice or tone is most convincing to you? Someone with a more energetic viewpoint, even if the viewpoint is narrower - or someone who examines all sides of the issue, even if that makes their writing less energetic? (Before you answer that question, I'd ask you to look at what you really read, not at what you think you ought to like!)

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Gautier, too :) Ballet history textbooks present his opinion as Truth. How many of us learned that there was a day, suddenly, when all neoclassical ballets disappeared and the repertory was completely Romantic ballet? I believed that.


The facts don't bear it out. Read the rep; there's a mix for quite awhile. It was a gradual replacement. Read the other critics -- not as entertaining as Gautier, not as poetic. But with decidedly other opinions. And, strangeyl, reviewing things like "Alfred le Grand" which supposedly had died.


Is Gautier lying? No, just using a big, sweeping metaphor. He was, in one way, right -- neoclassical ballet was dead. It just hadn't died yet. It was still on institutional life support. Romanticism did sweep in and catch -- well, not everyone, but all the people in Gautier's ccrcle, or who wanted to be in that circle.


When someone is writing a commentary on the period, though, s/he has a responsibility to take these factors into account, and not just babble them, and reproduce the errors.


I think people with strong opinions will always sound Olympian -- and probably be surprised that their writing is taken that way. They're just expressing an opinion. It's the imitators who TRY to sound Olympian, but it's not from the heart, or the brain, that are bothersome, and there are some like that.

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Guest Calliope

This reminds me of a class I took on American history and the professor made us write a paper on the Civil War and what caused it. You could part the papers along the Mason Dixon line.


But, back to the historical commentary. Wasn't at some point, that essentially someone's review (or a few people's)


And to answer your question Leigh, I don't know which voice is most convincing for me. I think I like all of them, it helps me figure out my own opinion :)

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Calliope, a few years ago the European Union decided they needed a history of Europe and got together a panel of historians from each country and assigned different periods to different people. There was this little Napoleon problem. The French wrote about the great Napoleon; the British were in pained disagreement; the Spaniards protested violently. And then they all started laughing and, for the first time, really confronted national differences in history -- I heard a panel discussion about the panel discussions, and it was very instructive :)


I remember being bothered, at first, by Croce's Olympian tone, until I read a lot of other critics and realized that her thundering was well-grounded. I often disagreed with her, and she often made me angry -- because I thought a particular statement was too sweeping, say -- but I always read her, and I always learned something.

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Guest cargill

You can't deny that Croce had seen what she was writing about (when she was writing about NYCB, that is--she isn't sound on Bournonville, I don't think.) And again, she was writing reviews that were clearly her opinion. Homans is often pontificating on history to a lay audience that probably doesn't know a lot of the details. The ballet audience is talking about her, yes, but I don't think the general reader is. And it seems to me that anyone reading her isn't about to rush down and buy a ticket--I don't see any passion for the art there, just a vaguely snide attempt to come off as knowing. In fact, if that were the only thing I had read about ballet, I would be quite put off, I think, since it seems so arcane--what if I didn't see any horizontal and vertical divisions (not that I do anyway). I expect I would come away feeling like I just didn't get it.

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I'm surprised to see the two of you talking about Croce's Olympian tone, Leigh and Alexandra. While it's true that she sounds omniscient when writing about ballets or history or companies — and the best writers will always sound Olympian because they express themselves so well — one of the things that first attracted me to Croce's writing was that her response to performances was always personal. That is, I never forgot that this was one person's reaction to what she saw. Her writing was more conversational in tone than that of her colleagues; she would say things like, "Ms. Watts, in a red unitard sheared off at the top, looked like a thermometer," or "ABT has rolled out its dum-dum version of La Fille Mal Gardée" (not the Ashton version, the one before). One of the things I learned from her, in fact, was to trust my own reactions to ballets and performances. And how to combine that with the knowledge I gained from reading and experience in watching ballet.

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Ari, I think my reaction was because the first writers I read consistently were John Percival and Peter Williams of the old (dearly beloved, deeply missed) Dance and Dancers, and they were so gentle. I distinctly remember a review by Percival in which it was obvious he didn't particularly like the ballet and found it flawed -- Neumeier's "Don Juan" -- but made it sound so interesting that I got on a train and made my first trip to New York as an adult to see it. (He was right. :) ) And Williams could write a review, and did, where he panned Lynn Seymour at a gala in three out of three dances, but you never got the feeling he was out to get her. It was a very balanced, polite -- authoritative, no question about that -- but you could get up from the table feeling that if you disagreed with them you might still go to Heaven.

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Go figure :)


The examples you took, Ari, are exactly what I felt was "olympian" about Croce. Yes, it was very personal, but she hurled stuff with such force (and style) that I always felt her intention was not to get you to see it for yourself, but for you to see it her way (and maybe as Alexandra implies, this wasn't her intent at all, it's just her opinions are so strongly formed). Not that this is a particularly bad thing, I still feel that it was reading Croce that taught me how to watch a dance.

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Guest Calliope

I agree with you cargill, but if none of the other writers are writing ...


I think most lay people read the "daily" reviews and that's where the "education" comes from. That's why I think Tobias' release was such a blow, she at least provided a more consistent basis to get criticism. Which makes Homans all the more dangerous. In some ways it will be interesting to see what Homans has to write about in a few years, or will she have tackled all the controversy by then.

It's easier to knock an artform in this time period. It seems ballet is more business and competitive (between companies) than an artform.

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Guest Manhattnik

Speaking of "Olympian," I'll never forget reading Croce's description of Adam Luders' ascent to the height of NYCB's Parnassus, and wondering which New York State Theater she'd been visiting, because I clearly must've been taking a wrong turn at the fountain.


I loved Croce's passion and her way with words, but I sometimes felt she was stating her opinions rather ferociously, and not always showing me the underpinnings or reasoning she used to reach them. I also always felt as if there were a metaphorical ruler waiting to rap me on the knuckles if i didn't get it.


I find myself gravitating to critics who give you their opinions couched in their observations and descriptions, where often it's a subtle but telling choice of words or a particularly evocative bit of imagery, in the mode of a Denby or a Jowitt. Denby's no less brilliant than Croce for his quieter and cozier tone; he's certainly more accessible and less intimidating, as befits, I suppose, a daily critic.

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