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The Critics: Should a company have a voice


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There's a story circulating in critical circles of a critic (not a dance critic) who was recently detailed to another task at his/her paper because the local company (not a dance company) expressed dissatisfaction with his/her reviews. I've read the critic and never found anything out of line or ignorant in those reviews, nor thought them particular harsh, but I don't know the other side.

 

But it's an interesting question. How much say should a company have? (By "company," this could be the board, the artistic director, the head of a theater, etc.)

 

Some case studies.

 

Case A. A very respected choreographer, generally recognized as a major choreographer and genius, has been working in a city for 15 years now, and there's a new critic at the local paper who thinks everything he does is twaddle and 50 years behind the times and wants the ballet company he directs to join the Judson Church movement. The powers that be at that company take the editor out to lunch, and the critic is replaced by someone more sympathetic to the Very Respected Choroegrapher.

 

A good thing?

 

Case B. A treasured modern dance company is taken over by someone who is not a dancer and stages the dances in a way that dancers and other experts feel is absolutely ungodly. The critic at the local paper writes about this at every opportunity, calling it a major crisis. The powers that be take the editor out to lunch and the critic is replaced by someone more sympathetic to the New Director Who Is Not a Dancer.

 

Not a good thing.

 

Case C. There is one ballet company and one newspaper in a midsized city. The critic genuinely detests everything the artistic director does. He is a critic of some standing, he's had a good and fair record on previous directors, he has no ax to grind -- this isn't personal. He doesn't even want the new AD out. He just writes what he thinks and sees, and every single program gets a negative review. After five years of this, the powers that be.....

 

Good or bad?

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Guest Calliope

No, no, no. There should be no say from the company.

If you look at today's reviews of NYCB, Clive Barnes in the NY Post basically trashed it, Kisselgoff in the Times loved it.

It makes me wonder sometimes if they've seen the same performance, but it also makes me skeptical sometimes because certain critics never pan a performance/company.

 

For a company to have any influence, the thought just makes me bristle. They might as well just have a staff member review the performances. That's why I value the criticism pieces (in the New Yorker) because it's an overview of the season (usually).

 

For a company to have a say though, it wouldn't be criticsim, it would be marketing. Now I know that's a hot topic and everyone likes to speculate whether or not critics are in the back pockets of directors, but it's a flawed system that doesn't need any more influences. Otherwise we'd never have an objective opinion, which is what I try to think of critics as.

 

Case A & B, not good.

Case C, that's kind of a tough one, if the AD has been critically acclaimed elsewhere in print... well, I don't know, I've seen reviews in small markets that are basically "she looked fabulous in a short skirt, and the way their arms moved was like butter..."

so it depends on the market and if the critic is actually "qualified".

It could be that the critical acclaim came from small markets too, I'm sure middle of nowhere appreciates any ballet they get and write fabulous reviews, but since they rarely ever see anything.

 

Goodness Alexandra, what a loaded question! :rolleyes:

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It is a loaded question, but, if I could gingerly use real life examples.

 

When Balanchine began working in New York, the NYTimes critic, John Martin, who was a staunch advocate of modern dance, looked at Balanchine as a relic of Europe's past at the beginning. He saw all of Balanchine's ballets as one ballet -- a divertissement. Only the costumes, music and steps changed. That is one way of looking at them, certainly, and Martin was not a dolt. But there is another way of looking at them and finding infinite varieties in that "one ballet." Eventually, Martin did.

 

But what if he hadn't? Could Balanchine have survived if he had never been reviewed? If every review had been "Balanchine gave us that ballet of his again"? If every NYCB review had been four inches long and buried in the back?

 

On the other hand, suppose the AD in the small, one company, one paper town is Mr. Mediocre. He's not the Devil, but he's not a god, either. Or worse, suppose the company had been in very good shape -- a San Francisco Ballet, or Miami or PNB, for example -- and the new director throws out everything they've got in repertory and does all of his own ballets and the local critic, with all due respect, thinks they're absolute garbage. He can make a good case for this, to make it more complicated. He can show, by video evidence, that Ballet A is a reworking of Tudor's X; Ballet B is a Nacho Duato piece done backwards. Ballet C is Balanchine's Y danced three beats off the music and off-pointe, so you don't notice this at first glance, and Ballets D through R -- he's yet young -- are on the "See Spot run, see Spot jump, Jump Spot, Jump!" level. Etc.

 

So Mr. Critic is going to stick to his guns. He'll keep an open mind. He's waiting for Mr. AD to do something good, but he ain't buying what they're selling. The board, a collection of wonderful people who love ballet even though only half of them have ever seen it, think the new AD is a wonderful young man, or woman, and believes that the critic is Mr. Meany. He's also not good for business.

 

I realize that no situation is this black and white. But there are stories of this or that company director placing a gentle call to an editor and saying, you really have to speak to so and so.

 

A more blatant example from my own experience was one local DC modern dancer who was convinced that none of the critics understood her. This was when there were five people writing for the Post, and every time she would call and ask that whoever it was who had reviewed her last not be sent, because s/he "doesn't understand my work" -- in the sense of "cannot comprehend my work." All five reviewed her -- the four stringers not knowing of the complaints -- and all five said pretty much the same thing.

 

Is the variable in the equation here power? The AD in the one company/paper town may have power. Maybe the chairman of the board is the wife of the publisher of the paper. The poor little modern dancer has no power, and it's possible that all five critics did misunderstand her. (I write that for the sake of argument :rolleyes: I wrote an -- unpublished! -- limerick about this one once: "I've danced at the White House, I've danced at the zoo; I married a writer, what more could I do?.... I know in my heart that I'm greater than Martha but it's been three whole years and there's STILL no MacArthur....I'll dance on the rooftops, I'll dance in the rain. I'm ***** and I want my fame!")

 

I think the answer is that it's the luck of the draw, and we'd like to believe that it all works out in the end, but there are these little bumps along the highway of perfection.

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In answer to the initial question, examples aside: A company which has a financial interest in the success or failure of a given choreographer/dancer commits the ethical equivalent of attempting to suborn a jury when they contact a critic's editor about bringing a change to the writings in the paper/magazine. The editor, if s/he knuckles under to pressure from this direction, is in equally hot water ethically, for conflict of interest. That's absolutist, but there it is.

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Just an aside: Anna Kisselgoff did NOT love "Thou Swell." It seemed to me that she and Clive Barnes were basically of the same opinion, although AK is allowed many times more space than poor Clive.

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I don't know what "should" has to do with it here. What power does a ballet company have over a newspaper? What could possibly happen when the powers that be take a critic out to lunch that results in that critic being replaced?

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Real life situation: When I danced in American Festival Ballet, the company was reviewed in the town's only paper by someone on the staff of the competing ballet school. In smaller towns, often there's either no one "qualified" (using that term only in the sense of having some sort of training, and accepting the fact that someone without that training could in fact write a decent review) or people who might be in a position to write have a conflict of interest. It's not an easy call, as Alexandra says. The reviewer may think the AD is a sham. But what if they're the only person thinking that in a one paper town? Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're not, but they're still the only opinion in print.

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Agreed that there "should" not be any influence. Sadly, I guess there is...and I think Leigh's point about the lack of critics in a smaller venue make it all the worse. :P

 

I like to read different review of the same performances. It seems to me that the problems arises when there is only one critic in print.

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I'm all for having as many views as possible. I've always believed this in theory, but since writing a biography, I am a Pluralist Evangelist :P During the 1960s, there would be five and six reviews in each city -- and not just London and New York, but Chicago, San Francisco. Seattle, Detroit, Houston, Rochester, Boston would have two or three reviews. With that much to choose from, you can weed out the people who don't really know very much (one of my favorites was the fellow who wrote that the La Ventana pas de trois was nice, but it certainly wasn't very taxing, not realizing that the Danish dancers strove to completely mask effort) but those with axes to grind. If you read Claudia Cassidy in Chicago, you'd think there were no other Danish dancers besides Kronstam, which, while it was nice to have those quotes, did not give an accurate picture.

 

I don't think that the company should be able to tell a paper who to send, or who to fire, either, but I think the responsibility is on the paper to say no. I think the paper should be fair. There have been instances where a reviewer has a personal stake in something, and if that's pointed out and it's true, then an editor can take appropriate action. (There was a case I haerd about from an editor (NOT at the Post!) about 15 years ago of someone volunteering to write a feature on her boyfriend's company, without stating that, of course. Bad enough, although benign. But between the assignment and the writing the relationship ended unhappily and the result was an article that ...well, they didn't print it, because the editor could sense that there was a rather nasty undertone and suspected that the article was unfair.)

 

I think editors generally try to be fair, especially newspaper editors. I know there have been times when I've been asked to review a company, and I've said, "Couldn't X do it, because I've reviewed them the last two times, and I've been quite harsh." And the editor is always very grateful to hear that. They generally try not to send the same person three times in a row; one of the reason to have "stringers" is so that companies don't get the same writer year after year.

 

As an editor, if a company called me and said, "I understand you've sent Critic Y to review us. Do you know that he used to be a dancer with me when I directed Company X and I fired him and our relationship has not been pleasant?" I would certainly talk to the critic and if I felt at all uneasy about the situation -- realizing that there are some people who could handle this situation fairly and that time can heal wounds -- I'd change the assignment. (And I would expect the critic to say, "I'd love to review it. I respect Y, but you should know that he fired me and we didn't speak for years.") Conversely, I don't want to publish articles written by a friend of the dancer or choreographer, and when DanceView was Washington DanceView this came up several times. Someone would write offering to do a feature and I'd check around and find that the relationship was too close (in one case, the choreographer's husband!). Once, I didn't learn until after the Extremely Favorable Review was published that the writer was reviewing his/her own mother!

 

All this to say that a company is welcome to express its concerns about fairness, but the editor has the right to say, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but I don't agree with you that George Bernard Shaw is a hack writer who knows nothing about music, and I'm going to keep him on staff." :)

 

But that's the editor's point of view.

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To those of you who are neither editors nor company directors, please feel free to playl "What if?" with this.

 

IF YOU WERE A COMPANY DIRECTOR and you got negative reviews after every program in a year (because no one has ever complained that a writer "didn't understand me" after getting "Is the world's greatest choreographer at work in River City?" reviews) how would you handle it?

 

IF YOU WERE THE EDITOR OF A NEWSPAPER and got a complaint from Local Maestro saying, "Your critic seems to confuse me with a punching bag. Tell him to lay off" how would you handle it?

 

IF YOU WERE A CRITIC who was told by your editor that a dance company had complained about the coverage, what would you say?

 

Pick one, or, for extra credit, tackle all three :P

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While I agree with you, Alexandra, about the way things should be, not all editors seem to care about such matters. In the 1970s, the dance critic for London's Daily Telegraph was the husband of Royal Ballet ballerina Lesley Collier. While he did not, I believe, review her performances, he certainly did review the company's. (Most of the reviews I remember were fawning.) Right now, Bob Gottlieb is reviewing dance for the New York Observer and unleashing tremendous, repeated invective against Peter Martins, despite the well-known fact that the two of them worked together at NYCB and parted acrimoniously. In this case, I wouldn't blame the company for asking the Observer to replace Gottlieb, although I don't think the paper should bow to any company's demands. I'm just surprised that there hasn't been more protest from other, non-NYCB connected, people. Or maybe there has and we just don't know of it.

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Guest Leigh Witchel

In fairness to Gottlieb, I do think he has been open about the position from which he is writing about NYCB. I may be misremembering, but I think in at least a few articles he has mentioned his association with the company. This is just a hunch, but I get the feeling that rather than the Observer being unaware of his controversial tone, that's exactly what they want.

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Those are two interesting cases. "Mr. Collier" also wrote a book about Sibley and Dowell, and had to write about Sibley in many roles that Lesley Collier also danced -- and wasn't shy about writing that Sibley was unforgettable, untouchable, unique, etc. in role after role -- so it is possible to bifurcate.

 

To play Devil's Advocate on the Gottlieb-NYCB Board case, what if the acrimonious parting was because Gottlieb generally disagreed with Martins' policies? Does he then have to remain silent for life? If that were the case, I would see it as a very different situation from one in which someone had been fired and is bitter and wants to "get" the person who fired him.

 

Not playing Devil's Advocate, I'd add that in a perfect world, critics shouldn't marry people they will have to review -- or whose peers or rivals they will have to review -- and anyone who writes should remember that there has to be at least the appearance of lack of conflicts of interest. It's better not to leave yourself open to a charge of, "well, she just wrote that because I fired her/dumped her/got the job he wanted".

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Originally posted by Alexandra

To play Devil's Advocate on the Gottlieb-NYCB Board case, what if the acrimonious parting was because Gottlieb generally disagreed with Martins' policies?  Does he then have to remain silent for life?  If that were the case, I would see it as a very different situation from one in which someone had been fired and is bitter and wants to "get" the person who fired him.

Gottlieb did have major disagreements with Martins over policies; I didn't mean to imply that it was all a clash of personalities. And he continues to differ with Martins over certain substantive matters. But his writing on NYCB has a highly emotional, bitingly personal quality that stems from his personal involvement. He is certainly entitled to blast Martins in print, but not, I think, as a critic. Readers have a right to expect a certain objectivity — or attempt at objectivity — in a professional critic who writes regularly for a newspaper. (With a magazine, it's different. Because those reviews come out some time after the performance or season under review, they function less as "consumer guides" and don't have the effect of endless repetition.)
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