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Should Critics Receive "Comp" Tickets?


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#1 Natalia

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 11:23 AM

I've often wondered how critics of the dance (or any other art, for that matter) can maintain complete objectivity and review a performance fairly when the dance troupe or sponsoring theater/organization provides the critic on a regular basis with choice-location complimentary tickets and other freebies, such as free gala dinners and the like.

As an "informal" and occasional dance critic on the alt.arts.ballet newsgroup & Kirov Academy web site, I pay for my own dance tickets and travel to/from places where a performance is taking place. [Yes, I even pay for my Kirov Academy recital tickets at $25 each, for myself and my husband.] Consequently, as I write, I feel very "free" in my conscience that I am telling-it-like-it-is, exactly as I see it, warts and all. I can say that ballerina-X is overweight or that the ballet company's choreographer-artistic director stinks, if that is the case. Quite simply, by paying for my tickets, I feel that I don't owe the dance troupe or sponsoring organization any favors.

Only once in my "occasional dance critic career" have I accepted a comp ticket & invitations to parties. This happened only because I registered as a critic with that particular organization so that I could have access to the facilities of the press room and be sent a press kit. A representative of the organization asked "Don't you also want comp tickets?" so who was I to say "no"? I accepted. THEN they asked me "Do you want a set of comp tickets for your husband (or companion)." That's where I drew the line--Why on earth would a non-working/non-critic companion be entitled to comp tickets? I also declined a dinner invitation for the press.

So, again, my question is: Do you think that it is appropriate for dance critics to accept comp tickets (& other "freebies") to performances that they will be reviewing? Is it possible for a critic to maintain impartiality in such cases? I am genuinely interested in reading your responses. Thank you, in advance. - Jeannie Szoradi

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 06:43 PM

Just like any other audience members, I've met few reviewers who were impartial, but it's certainly not the tickets that makes them so.

I think one must consider the position of a professional reviewer versus those of us (myself included) who review on occasion.

It's a reviewer's job to have a broadbased knowledge of what s/he sees, to provide reportage and coverage of events they might not see were it their own choice, to actively seek out new artists and performances. It's not just to write about what they would like to see or inflames their curiosity. I have immense respect for the reviewers in dance who have to turn in daily copy and wouldn't trade places with them for the universe.

Professional reviewers get complimentary tickets, because they are working. It's not a busman's holiday for the majority of them. I've used my press credentials to see new work, but nowadays, especially for major companies and events in NYC right now, if you're not an editor - or you're not on assignment, you don't get tickets.

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited 03-23-99).]

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 08:26 PM

I can understand Jeannie's concern, but I basically agree with Leigh's response.

The presenting organizations give out press tickets so they can get coverage. It's like sports, or conventions. The RNC and the DNC give out press credentials to all those reporters at the national conventions, too. Book reviewers are sent free copies of books with the expectation that they'll write a review. Of course, the hope is that it will be a good review, but they don't expect the book back if it's a bad one. If the critic has not solicited the free copy, he/she is not obligated to review it. (I just received three technique-y type of books from a publisher, even though I had told him explicitly that DanceView only reviewed books "you can actually read," as I put it. I'm not going to have them reviewed.)

I was a stringer for the Washington Post for 15 years, and I would guess that at least 50 percent of the performances I covered I would not have attended had I not been asked to write a review. The practical result of having newspapers or magazines pay would be that very few things would be covered.

The pairs is just custom and usage, I suppose, dating from the "good old days" when all critics were men, most had wives, and society functioned more in couples -- military wives, doctors' wives, professor's wives, critics' wives.

I can honestly say that the fact that the tickets were "free" has never influenced me. I never felt obligated to write a good review because I was given a ticket. I've also never been cold shouldered or "punished" in any way by a presenter because of a negative review I've written. That's considered unprofessional behavior. (And I wrote a lot of negative reviews.) I have been questioned by a performer or choreographer, but that's something you just have to live with.

Sometimes I've wished DanceView could afford to buy the tickets, but only because then I could go to all the performances that I need, or think I need, to see. (Because of cast changes, comping dance performances is much more expensive than comping plays, and, as Leigh noted, with the number of critics wanting tickets, presenters have to ration.) When they can, presenters often give tickets to critics who aren't reviewing a particular performance because they know that we need to see as much as possible. (It's nearly impossible to review the second and third casts of something when you haven't seen the first cast.)

I do think that what can influence a critic is getting to know the artists, socializing with artists. It's one thing to write a "Gosh, this is the worst thing I've ever seen" review, and quite another to write it and go to lunch with Maestro the morning after. At some papers (too few) the features writers, the ones who get the free lunch, are different from the critics, and I think this is wise. It is often impossible especially in smaller cities. The pressures on a critic in a one-newspaper, one-company small city must be excruciating. I've been lucky that Washington has no resident company (with apologies to the Washingotn Ballet, which is a very small troupe that doesn't have as great a presence here as the Kennedy Center imports). We don't have to worry about running into the artists we write about in the grocery store.

I hope some people who aren't critics will answer this question. I'd be very interested to know the general perception.

Alexandra

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 24, 1999).]

#4 Paul W

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 08:50 PM

OK Alexandra, I'm definitely not a critic. I've been trying to understand exactly what guidelines critics follow (if any) in writing a review. It's not obvious. I think "professional" critics should receive free tickets to as many performances as they can get, delivered to them by their employers, not by anyone in the production companies (I know, the companies just give the employers the tickets, but I think it is important to maintain as little direct contact with official production staff as possible when writing critically about a performance).
But what I think may be even more important is to have an independant volunteer group of ballet lovers like yourselves (those who are not professional critics) rate the performance of critics, by reviewing the critics so to speak after witnessing the same performances. And make these ratings known. I can hear all the gasps. Oh well, I am an engineer (of sorts) after all. And a stickler for consistency in evaluation. Just a thought.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 10:25 PM

Paul, I don't think there's any way that the critic can avoid contact with the company or the performing arts venue. That's why those organizations have press liaisons. There's just too much on-the-spot information that needs to be known, especially cast changes, dancer identifications, notes on music, etc. The Post had a same night deadline; had to write a review in under an hour.

I don't think there's any way to evaluate critics. We're all biased. We all think we're trying to be fair. What I do try to do as a critic is to let my biases show. You'll know, reading one of my reviews, that I'm going to not take kindly to an updated Giselle where Myrtha is a biker's moll. And you'll be able to read that review with that knowledge.

I think people evaluate what critics write all the time, but it's usually (in my experience, from letters), "You must have attended a different performance than my wife and I last Wednesday night." Well, short of a tear in the space/time continuum, it's unlikely. We saw the same things. We just saw them differently.

Paul, if you'd like to get together a bunch of "volunteer ballet lovers" to publish a Review of the Critics, I wish you well, and I'll read it, but I can tell you from experience that you won't make any money on it!

Alexandra

#6 Dale

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 06:58 AM

Comp tickets and other freebees often comes up in my job in sports. My professor at Columbia told us not to take anything, don't eat in the media room, and don't take any of the little gifts (even those under $50 which is generally considered the water mark for accepting gifts). Unfortunately, I've never covered any of the big "pay day" events, like the Super Bowl Posted Image , that give out lots and lots of stuff. And now most of the press rooms in sports charge for food -- $5 at Madison Square Garden, $7 at Shea Stadium. I think the food is just a matter of convience, so a writer can interview the team before the game, eat, then watch the game.

Well, a co-worker once pointed out that if I could be bought off with a $35 sweatshirt or $45 canvas bag, then I'm a sorry excuse as a journalist. In addition, the seats are often worse than you can buy.

However, over the last few months I've noticed the arts are very different. Tobi Tobias wrote in her review of NYCB Fall opening night that when she tried to get an invitation to the 50th Reunion dinner, she was told only "Anna" and "Clive" were invited. Well, anybody who reads the New York Times or New York Post know that Kisselgoff and Barnes generally write positive reviews of the company. For these one could surmise that in "exchange" they received better access than other writers (especially those who are more negative such as Tobias). The question is, which way serves the readers more. Does that access allow the readers to learn more about the company? It could. Although I have to admit that deprevation could be the mother of invention as it was for Tobias, who wrote a very interesting article about the anniversary without going to the dinner.

#7 Paul W

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 07:38 AM

Clearly its important for critics to have access to timely information about a perfomance, for deadlines. As Dale implies, a major purpose of a critic's work is to serve readers by conveying information about performances. If access to information is limited to select few, chosen by the producers, a pattern of boosting can emerge. I agree, there's no way to have any sort of uniform opinion on an art form, and I guess individual readers of a critic's columns soon understand, as you suggest Alexandra, where that particular critic is coming from. Access should be freely and uniformly available though, or the producers can use subtle exclusion to shut out possibly more "critical" opinions.

#8 Kevin Ng

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 11:07 AM

Dale, I always find it strange that in New York which is after all the leading financial centre in the world, there are so few quality daily newspapers - only NY Times, and Wall Street Journal of which Robert Greskovic is the distinguished dance critic. (I don't think NY Post being a tabloid counts as a quality newspaper.) And I understand that Wall Street Journal does not publish as many dance reviews as NY Times, nor does it publish the reviews timely 1 or 2 days after a performance.

In Hong Kong, where I am a resident, there are also 2 English daily newspapers which publish reviews regularly. (I myself write for the Hong Kong Standard.) But in London, it is far better - 4 quality daily newspapers besides the Financial Times.

[This message has been edited by Kevin Ng (edited March 25, 1999).]

#9 Natalia

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 01:17 PM

I agree with Kevin. Nonetheless, New York has a couple of high-quality magazines with high-quality critics, too, e.g., Joan Acocella in NEW YORKER & Tobi Tobias in NEW YORK. Also..is THE VILLAGE VOICE considered a "legit" newspaper or a tabloid? Deborah Jowitt is still its dance critic (I think). - Jeannie

#10 Kevin Ng

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 07:07 PM

Jeannie, I am well aware of these 3 weekly magazines that you mentioned. I greatly respect these 3 distinguished writers too. Arlene Croce's writings in the New Yorker in the past were like a bible to me! I only mentioned about the daily newspapers in response to the last paragraph in Dale's message.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 10:00 PM

Now, now. The New York Post has a distinguished critic as well.

Kevin, this has happened in most major cities in the United States. It's part of this whole globalization-downsizing-efficiency movement. In the 1960s, I think New York had six or seven daily newspapers. But, then it was about news; now it's about advertsing.

Which brings me back to Our Topic.

The real pressure on critics is through their editors and it's from advertisers. This I know from personal experience, because DanceView, when it was Washington DanceView, took ads. My absolute favorite was a young man who called, on behalf of his company and said, "We'd like to purchase a cover and we think that would tie in nicely with a review of our fall program." Most of the others were more subtle, but the message was the same. It got to the point that if they subscribed they expected you to review them and hinted for features. So we don't take advertising now. But I'm poor enough to be able to afford to do that.

Alexandra

#12 Estelle

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Posted 25 March 1999 - 10:19 AM

I agree with what Alexandra and Leigh said
about the fact that receiving complimentary tickets is normal for professional reviewers, since it's their job.

But it shouldn't prevent them to paying attention to the price of tickets (or to the problem of less comfortable seats). For example, it always has strucked me that most
French dance and opera critics always have criticized the Opera Bastille very much, because of its aesthetic, its acoustic, etc.
but none of them seemed to notice that, unlike the Opera Garnier, it has one *big* advantage: one can see the stage from all the seats, even from the cheapest ones (which is not the case in Garnier), and the prices generally are lower. I don't have sadistic fantasies about critics, but sometimes I think that seeing performance from the fourth
floor boxes, second rank, would be an instructive experience for some of them...

#13 Natalia

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Posted 25 March 1999 - 10:55 AM

Thanks for the feedback (so far). Sounds like most people agree that the critic him/herself should continue to receive the comps. Let's take this two steps further:

How about a critic receiving another set of tickets for his/her spouse (or accompanying friend)? Alexandra already gave an answer for this...but I don't recall any others.

and...

How about a critic being given all-expense paid trips? Yes...I witnessed this when I was living in Russia. Without naming names--and, again, I am not referring to any "regulars" on this Board--I attended a Nijinska Seminar in St. Petersburg which coincided with the maly-Mussorgsky Theater's premiere of the first Russian setting of Nijinska's LES NOCES. I saw a number of Western-based critics in attendance. An employee of a local museum--which co-sponsored the seminar--pointed out to me 3 individuals who were invited free-of-charge to be in attendance & to subsequently write favorable articles in their magazines or newspapers. [I later searched out the writings &, indeed, they were laudatory even though the performance, in my opinion, did not warrant the gushing.] TRUE, they worked by writing articles, when they returned home, so the trip WAS work-related. They also toured the palaces & went to a gala dinner after the performance that was "unecessary" from a professional point-of-view. Is this sort of "freebie" correct?

Also-I agree with Dale about the ethical questions in sports. In the US Government contracting world (my world), the cut-off amount for gifts/favors/meals is $25, soon to be lowered to $15, by the way. It is best do keep it at "zero." When I go to USAID & have coffee with my contracting officer, I make sure that I buy my own cup of coffee...I excuse myself & stand in another line for coffee.

More opinions, please.

- Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 25, 1999).]

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 25, 1999).]

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 26 March 1999 - 07:57 PM

Estelle's point about where critics sit is an excellent one. That's what I'd miss most. Forget the "free" ticket, it's the aisle seat and unobstructed view!

Estelle, in DC, at least, the ticket price isn't printed on "comp" (complimentary) tickets, so we don't know, unless we remember to check an ad. I think critics should be aware, though. My impression that if the tickets are VERY expensive, that usually gets noticed.

But where you sit really does matter a great deal. For the first ten years I did daily reviewing, the Post had assigned seats (M2 and 4, which is about seven rows back in the Ken Cen, on the right). I had been going to the ballet for 12 years before I realized that ballets looked totally different from the left. Stupid, yes, but what did I know? (Many 19th century ballets seem to have been choreographed to "read" better from the left. In some European theaters, that's where the Royal box was.) If I see several performances of a company during a season when covering for a magazine, I try to sit different places -- though never the fourth tier, I admit, although I like watching from the first or second tier, because you can see the patterns, something you miss from close up. It must be ridiculous to someone whose world exists in the fourth tier to keep reading, "Oh, the exquisite stylistic detail, the glance that passed between them when she noticed the ring," etc. But if that's what you see, and that's integral to the ballet and the dancers performed well, then it must be mentioned.

Once John Percival (then of the London Times) watched several performances of the Royal's Swan Lake from tickets he purchased because there were no press nights for that ballet that season. His point (rightly, I think) was that if you were showing the ballet to the public and charging them money, then it should be reviewed, and if he wasn't invited, then he was going to go anyway. It was a great piece. He "exposed" several areas of Covent Garden where your view was blocked by a pillar, or the sightlines were horrible. I think it's a good idea to do that every once in awhile.

Jeannie, often only the daily critics get the pair these days, and often we give the extra ticket to a dancer or young critic, if that helps.

I absolutely agree with you on junkets. It's wrong. There are instances of a company covering a critic's travel expenses when the company travels to another city so he/she can write a piece about it. Sometimes, when there's a conference (cleverly scheduled to coincide with a new ballet that a company may want lots of coverage for) the company invites a critic to appear on a panel and then can pay the expenses if their newspaper won't. That's considered "ethical," while many newspapers will not allow their people to accept air fare and hotels, considering them gifts.

I think it's quite usual for European companies to invite foreign critics to see special programs; don't know about the reverse. The logic is, "We want you to come, we realize you can't blow $3,000.00 to see this. That's okay. We'll pay."

If I read a piece that touts a new ballet or new "great" choreographer, or whatever, especially if it's in a big, influential paper, I think I'd like to know that the free ticket was wrapped in an all-expense paid trip to Paris, or Milan, or whatever.

Alexandra

#15 ismeneb

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Posted 10 April 1999 - 07:01 AM

Hello all. Interesting discussion about critics. I've demurred about getting involved because I am one (Daily Telegraph, London), and in the past we've lived in our ivory towers of paper, our privacy and perhaps fear of challenge violated only by the occasional reader's letter, which does not always raise such worthwhile issues as you all raise here. The Internet has changed my view. As a critic I think I can't ignore it and its potential for mass challenge to my competence any longer. So donning my carapace of thick skin, I will enter here, because I am surprised at the variance between my perception of my job and that of some of you.
Jeannie was concerned at being offered a "set" of comp tickets for her husband/companion as well as for herself. If she meant a "pair" I am absolutely amazed. It never happens in my experience. If she meant a "single", ie. to accompany herself, then that is normal practice, and as Alexandra pointed it, no doubt is done from politeness. As it happens, I decline a second ticket for about three quarters of the shows I see, and I know two critics here who usually go as a pair anyway, without taking a partner each.
Secondly, Jeannie's point about freebies again, I think, finds her needlessly excited. Certainly I have benefited on many an occasion from a paid trip abroad, expenses generally split with my employer; but a preview feature is not a review. It implies no advance assessment of the artistic value of what is to come (apart from the fact that we only accept preview trips for things we consider have genuine artistic newsworthiness - the article has to compete, once written, with, say, a feature about Radiohead or Ewan McGregor, so it had better justify itself). It explains what the artists want to say, where they come from, and how perhaps their context may affect them.
I deliberately refuse to assess any rehearsal or preview performance in a feature as far as I am able, because after all I want to keep my opinion ready for the review the following week (or I'll only be paid for one piece, won't I?). It is quite easy to remember that this is not a social invitation. (Besides, since when did we spend a weekend with new people and always return saying nice things about them? In the car home, do we not comment on their domestic taste, their personalities, their cooking, their conversation..? We write a kind thank you letter, but a public preview piece in a newspaper is not the same thing.)
In the last post to this topic, Alexandra described a "junket" practice by newspapers of such cynicism that I don't recognise it, but then I realise that America's geography and touring circuit creates very different demands from what we have in Britain. British newspapers are not so enamoured of dance that they will agree to critics going on trips to preview "new" choreographers and "new" ballets that they would not normally justify with the space, uninvited. I refuse the majority of invitations abroad that I receive, before I even put them to the arts editor. (It may be worth bearing in mind that for most dance critics only one person's opinion of their work matters. Their boss's.)
Leigh, Paul and others appear to want a critic to provide "impartial" "reportage" and "information" - to pluck out a few words that raised my eyebrows. Not a soul in the world is impartial, and personally I think simply giving the readers information about a performance (which many of the readers were at anyway) is dull and pointless. Anyone could do that. My job is to convey my enthusiasm and hope for what I saw, and my satisfaction or not at the fulfilment of my expectations. I.e., did I have a good time? That simple question covers the quality of skills, of idea/story, of atmosphere (visual and aural), of individual artistry, of, maybe, historical significance of the production in a company's current position. The answer to that simple question may be yes or no, I had/had not a good time, but it must also answer another - the real question: Would or could the reader have a good time at a dance show? And the answer to THAT question must always be Yes.
My chief crime would be to be so tedious or incoherent in my writing that readers thought dance was a bore. At the end of my review I want them to know that watching dance could enhance their life.

Ismene Brown


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