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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Should a company have a voice

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Guest Nanatchka
Originally posted by Ari

Gottlieb did[/iBut 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


First of all, the Oberver is a weekly--and Mr. Gottlieb does not write every week. Thus his participation is more that of a magazine critic, since you yourself make that distinction. (I myself don't,)


Second, I would like to gently disagree with what readers have a right to expect. As a reader, I expect a passionate advocate with a highly reasoned through point of view. I also expect an excellent writer. Bob Gottlieb fits the bill on both counts, and I subscribe to the Observer to read him. (He's just so intelligent, and such an amusing writer, and on a been there, seen that, basis, he's pretty much without peer in the regularly writing American press.) (I suppose if we are exposing conflicts of interest, I should mention that about 45 years ago, my brother in law dated Mr. Gottlieb's wife. I believe they were in junior high.)

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I think, as is often the case, we're operating under different definitions of "political criticism."


If I'm reading correctly, Ari is concerned about someone who has a very strong opinion expressed in passionate, or less than objective, articles AND who has a personal history with the object of that criticism that could make one wonder if the reaction was more personal than professional.


There are others who feel that anyone with a clear and strongly expressed opinion and who expresses these opinions from a specific position -- i.e., abstract ballets are the highest expression of the art form and three-act ballets are inherently bad; or Director X is not doing a good job in general -- is political.


Nan and I are operating under a different definition, which is that someone expressing a strong opinion who's open about that opinion -- I hate abstract ballet, I've been railing against it for years, I think the only hope for the future is a return to the Tudor aesthetc, to take a hypothetical example -- and whom everyone knows worked closely with Tudor, can't be accused of being political because s/he's open about the affiliation and point of view.


I think any of these defintions is perfectly defensible, personally, and would be interested in reading other comments.


The political criticism I can't stand is what I consider the sneaky kind, the kind that happens in real politics, where I want to "get" my opponent and so will bring up the fact that his wife was arrested for shoplifting when she was 16, or that he belonged to a segregated golf club in the 1950s -- even though since 1958 he's been on the front line of the civil rights movement, or whatever. I think one should fight fair and fight openly, and not use criticism to even personal scores.

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The New York Observer's columnists and critics are the reasons for reading it. It's not a daily newspaper. There's nothing sneaky about Gottlieb, he's been consistently upfront about his past affiliation with NYCB. That affiliation doesn't disqualify him from having provocative, often brilliant, opinions on ballet and dance. I find him a pleasure to read. The first thing I do when I get my weekly copy of the Observer is check to see if he's in it. I used to do the same with The New Yorker and Arlene Croce. Come to think of it, wasn't the rift between Gottlieb and NYCB initiated by Peter Martins' objections to Croce's criticisms?

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Guest Calliope

Does a critic have an obligation to have to say something nice for every time s/he says something not nice?


I like Gottlieb, he at least gives a reason he doesn't like something, and there's no sugarcoating.


I think it would be foolish for a critic to think s/he could get an AD removed, any more than an AD should feel empowered to be able to remove a critic.


Much like we tell dancers not to pay too much attention to the press, and many out and out don't read reviews, should the same be asked of AD's?

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i agree with alexandra and calliope and mel - the idealists.


there is too much already posted here for me to know where to begin to comment...


but i have had this situation happen to me, as a reviewer.


an independent artist phoned my editor to ask that i NOT be sent to review his work, because he didn't like what i'd already written about some performing friends of his. he seemed to be thinking that i *obviously* didn't have a clue and didn't like what i was seeing - and COULDN'T like that style of work.


my editor stood up for me, pointed out what she thought were my strengths, and refused to change writers.


i wrote a very favourable review, (not knowing any of this).


then she told me that he had rung.


i was incensed: how dare he ring up my employer and suggest that i not be given work?! that would be like me ringing the director of the arts funding board and saying HE shouldn't be given any more money (i.e. HIS employer/HIS work).


next time i saw him, i challenged him on this, and we argued it out - as politely and rationally as possible (at this stage he still didn't know i had written a favourable review, because the magazine takes a while to come out).


i felt i had won his respect, by articulating who i am, what i stand for, my values/principles and my point of view about his action (yes - all that, in 25 words or less!) ;) next time i saw him - at an al fresco/picnic performance - i offered him a glass of wine... and we have been on respectful friendly terms ever since.


happy endings DO happen. :)

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It's not as if Gottlieb and Martins came to a parting of the ways, and then suddenly Gottlieb began spewing nonstop venom for the next decade or so. Gottlieb wrote a long and temperate piece for Vanity Fair about the history of NYCB a few years back, for example, that concluded on a cautiously positive note, praising recent performances and new dancers that he liked. I don't agree that Gottlieb's writing on NYCB at present is too emotional – no more emotional than Croce's before she ceased regular publication. After all, they are writing about an institution that provided them with some of the supreme aesthetic experiences of a lifetime. They may be right or wrong about the possibility of irreversible decline, but I wouldn't expect them to be "objective" about it. Also, Gottlieb has been more than upfront about his past with NYCB. He hasn't just mentioned it once in passing – he offers reminders at regular intervals. The Observer is a small, scrappy weekly and I'm sure the editors have no problem with Gottlieb's tone. Gottlieb's views are well known and I kind of doubt the company would bother to complain.



Back to the topic. You can't make many generalities about this. There are too many potential case examples with their own special circumstances. But I agree with the absolutists who say the company has no voice in such matters and should try to exert none, not directly in any case. You can write a letter to the editor and complain. It's a free country. But almost anything else is out of bounds. (And in a paper with any integrity, would result in the opposite of the desired effect.)

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Far be it from me to require that every critic in every review say Something Nice, but when you have a reviewer who continuously attacks or praises someone without changing the tone at all, or at least giving specific reasons for the opinions, it really cheapens it. After a while, you stop trusting that critic, in the sense that there is no way to tell if s/he actually was pleased or disgusted or is merely reiterating their own personal bias. Nothing is wrong with a biased, or especially a passionate critic; I would just rather they be a bit clearer on where their biases are, if for no other reason that it makes it easier to pick out any facts from the slant.


And no, directors, boards and the like have no business, or should have no business, controlling what gets said or not said in a paper or periodical.

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Guest katharine kanter

I would strongly advise anyone who might be planning, somewhere in their little brain, to write something POLEMICAL, to make sure they have a day job, elsewhere.


The reason that 99.9% of the people who write about classical dance, earn Less than Zero Income from it (yes, it's negative income folks), is precisely because virtually everyone in a position of power, is so frightfully sensitive about everything these days.


That is also why most of us are on a Pay as You Go system, "par la force des choses"... Beats gettin' fired, don't it ?


Were I the editor of a major newspaper, the sole criterion for hiring someone would be competence. And, can they write ?


Yes, and could one not - O daring thought ! - allow people space to develop an idea ? Try explaining any concept worth explaining, in eleven words.


Or getting an audience all fired up about the ballet, when the editor allows the subject one-sixteenth of a page in a daily newspaper, perhaps once a fortnight...

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  • 2 months later...
Guest Ed Waffle

A few notes:


We have seen this type of conflict come up often in the pages of the New York Review of Books and occasionally The New York Times Book Review. Professor A, a recognized authority on (for example) the attitude of the German bourgeoisie toward the rise on National Socialism, is given a group of books to include in an essay review. One of the books is written by a young scholar, Lecturer B who has studied with the eminent Professor C.


Professor A has hated Professor C for years, ever since Professor C wrote that horrible review of.....


All of this will be known in the profession, but many will seem shocked when Professor A spends half of his review savaging the work of Lecturer B. Without, of course, mentioning his decades long feud with Lecturer B's academic sponsor.



Regarding the medium sized city problem--Detroit is a medium sized city, at least culturally. We get our ballet from touring companies who generally are here for only four or five performances, but opera is provided by a resident company.


The critics who write the reviews (there are two, one for each paper) are often but not always the people who write the feature article on the weekend before the company comes to town, an article that is usually on the front page of the Feature or Weekend section of the paper. It is accompanied by photographs, usually supplied by the ballet company. It has interviews with the Artistic Director and at least one star dancer. There may be a side bar about something cute, quirky or otherwise amusing.


It essentially is a huge unpaid ad for the ballet company--the type of thing that publishers, who try to act like pillars of the community, generally do. Especially if it doesn't come off their bottom line.


When the review comes out, generally after the four or five show "season" is half over, it is much too late to hurt the gate--or help it much, either.

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