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Critics and choreographers


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 December 2001 - 12:12 PM

A potentially incendiary topic for the holiday season!

In the links today there is an article by Roslyn Sulcas on William Forsythe. Sulcas has written on other topics, but she's made Forsythe her specialty as a fierce advocate of his work.

There have been times when a critic and a choreographer have been linked, Denby and Balanchine; Croce in his later career, but Croce was also one of the first to write on Morris and Armitage (Joan Acocella later took a similar interest in Morris). There are times it could be argued that a critic's persistent interest made someone's career.

When you read a critic who takes an obviously passionate interest in a specific choreographers work, what do you think? Have you sensed a deeper understanding from the viewing experience? Do they ever seem myopic? Did there ever seem to be a conflict of interest? Does it just depend on whether you agree with them or not? wink.gif

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 09 December 2001 - 06:54 PM

This is an interesting question and I hope others will respond -- especially READERS, not just the writers.

And it's a knotty question. In the best of all possible worlds, I'd like the specialist, insider view (whether I agree with the writer or not) because someone who's watched rehearsals as well as performances, talked to the dancers, had the opportunity to ask the choreographer questions, etc. should be able to provide a richer insight into the choreographer's work.

[Devil's Advocate would say, doesn't matter. All that matters is what you see on stage.] Well, yes, again, in theory. But it takes time to see things. Daily critics faced with a premiere are writing a review that's basically a pop quiz. It's not the deepest take on a new work. Finding the balance between "Ah! Now, after seeing it for the fourth time, I understand what he's doing" and "Well, it's really not that bad, I guess" is one of the trickiest things in ballet watching.

Is the insider writer liable to be caught in a conflict of interest? Almost inevitably. What happens when the Favored One makes a klunker? What does bother me when I read someone write a piece that I consider a shill is that they never say, "I'm interested in Maestro X. Nobody's ever heard of him, but I think there's something in his work. I gave up my entire summer vacation to hang out in his studio and watch the rehearsals for his new ballet, and this is why I've trudged all the way to Dry Gulch to see the premiere of New Ballet 17 and write about it for The Big City Gazette." They don't say that. They say, "Miracle in Dry Gulch!!!" as if Maestro X had a big, wondrous magnet that pulled all art lovers to him.

I think that with not-yet-established-choreographers, Truth will out. There are a lot of people who have been named, prematurely, "perhaps the best young choreographer of our day" and yet have not been able to create a body of work, or works 7 through 55 don't live up to the promise of the first six. (Or maybe they do, but that's a different story.)

When someone writes about an artist who's already established, that's a different thing. Sometimes it's just bandwagon jumping, sometimes it's something deeper (like Croce and Balanchine). I'll always be interested in reading Joan Acocella on Mark Morris, because she knows his work far better than I do and she sees, and she'll see something interesting, so I'm glad that knowledgeable, committed voice is there.

For the general reader, even the interested reader, though, they may never realize the connection. How many people picked up the Times and thought, "Oh, [good/damn-and-blast] there's Rosalyn Sulcas again on Forsythe!" I think most people will accept it on its face -- a piece in the New York Times on Forsythe.

#3 dirac

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Posted 11 December 2001 - 09:46 PM

There's a distinguished history of critics advocating the work of artists they believe in. I don't see how you can avoid it, if you are writing for a long period of time about a subject in which you're immersed.

I'm afraid a lot does depend, for me anyway, on whether or not I agree with the critic, or can at least see where he's coming from. I can, however, respect a critic's views and read them with profit even if I don't agree, if I agree elsewhere.


It seems to me that much also depends on how powerful the critic is, and how big is his forum? Obviously the daily cultural critics at the New York Times wield a bigger stick than some others. If they take a line on someone or something and hold it, that's going to be very influential, for good and ill. (I could cite some examples from ballet, but don't want to start a food fight.)

Conflicts of interest can certainly arise. It would have been obviously unacceptable, for example, if the late Kenneth Tynan had continued writing drama criticism when he went to work for Olivier as National Theatre dramaturge. (And there was a clear connection between that appointment and Tynan's passionate appreciation of Olivier's acting. I do not mean to suggest that he was angling for a job, I should note.)

#4 Kevin Ng

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Posted 13 December 2001 - 01:57 AM

Slightly off topic here. I read a short report in the arts/features section of today's "South China Morning Post" (not carried online though) about a British theatre critic being sued for libel. I quote -

"Actor David Soul has won a libel case against a journalist who called a play the actor was in the worst he had ever seen - without having seen it.

The actor and singer....was awarded US$250,000 over a scathing review by showbusiness writer Matthew Wright of the British newspaper The Mirror...."

I wonder what repercussions this legal case will have.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 13 December 2001 - 09:58 AM

Yes, Kevin, I'd read about that case -- but it was a brief, factual blurb without much background. One hears something like this every now and then. There was a case of it in San Francisco about 15 years ago -- the critic claimed he was very ill and couldn't go. (Not enough of an excuse, in my book. Not to write anything, much less a pan.)

Does anyone know the details?

#6 Nanatchka

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Posted 16 December 2001 - 01:05 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by dirac:
[QB]There's a distinguished history of critics advocating the work of artists they believe in. I don't see how you can avoid it, if you are writing for a long period of time about a subject in which you're immersed.

(Sigh.) I think I resemble this remark....and also the original question posted by Leigh. I have long been immersed in Merce Cunningham's work, and I have done all the things Alexandra wrote about (see rehearsals, talk to dancers, etc.). In my opinion, this makes me fascinating-- at least to myself. The entire experience has been richly rewarding--the intellectual adventure of my lifetime, and I am deeply grateful for it. As a reader, I don't think it is a bad thing if a few critics write from within the context of a given choreographer's work . There are plenty of generalists out there.It helps if the choreographer is, like Merce, a truly grand artist--seeming obsessed is one thing, appearing delusional is another matter.


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