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Alexandra

Critics!

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Ed Waffle posted this on Links, but I'll put it here in the hopes that some will read it and discuss. I know Martin Bernheimer is regarded by some as a very harsh critic. I've never met him, but I read him for years and always thought him a very brave one--and with good eyes.

Here's his take on criticism. I found his discussion of how Critic A and Critic B can see something totally different, yet their reviews are still valid; while Critic C...well.....

http://www.andante.com/magazine/article.cfm?id=13951

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What I found interesting about that article is that Bernheimer didn't mention what I think the most important function of an arts writer is; giving people a path into the work. To me, it matters less that I tell you whether that the Swan Lake I saw was good or bad; if you saw it as well, you'll have your own opinion, if you didn't see it, then it's just my word you're trusting. But what I can tell you is a method at looking at Swan Lake and maybe give the reader some things to look for that will make the ballet more rewarding for them when they finally do see it.

What do others think? Do you value a critic most as a sort of Consumer's Report so you know where to spend your ticket money? Or do you prefer an essayist to a reviewer?

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A path into the work is for me the most important thing a critic can give. I'm always interested to read how a certain ballerina interpreted a role (and whether a certain writer thinks she's worth going to see), but I'm more interested to know how that interpretation fits into the work as a whole -- what in the ballet it illuminates. In that regard, essayists are probably more useful (for me) than reviewers, because essayists can bring to their writing more history, more extended reflections on principles of style and relations between music and choreography and so on. Reading dance criticism (as opposed to reviews), you don't have to depend so much on the particular writer's taste; you can absorb (and agree or take issue with) a whole framework of interpretation. What I want is to be given a wiser set of eyes, a more intelligent way of perceiving things, so that when I go to see a ballet I can respond not just to the particularities of this performance but to the whole work, with all its historical, dramatic, and stylistic resonances.

But of course, there are very few dance critics who have the chops (not to speak of the column inches) to offer that sort of education. ;)

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If there is anything the Internet can offer to dance writing, it's the space and time to do more than give the cast list and your opinion. I hope writers can use this to their advantage when they can afford to!

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I certainly think there is a place for essays and a more detailed analysis, but Bernheimer is writing of newspaper criticism, and I don't think the place for essays is there. There isn't the space for it, but I think it's not appropriate for a newspaper. More and more, I think the newspaper review is basically journalism -- report on what you saw, capture the atmosphere, and yes (though I know this is controversial) make some kind of comparison so that not only the current readers, but future readers (reviews as archive) can have an idea of the level of the performance.

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Novice's question: Alexandra, could you say a little more about why it's controversial to make comparisons in a newspaper review?

[ 08-18-2001: Message edited by: Alla ]

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Thank you so much for taking the time to make those links, Estelle -- and apologies to all that I haven't been around much; I'll be tied up for the next two weeks but should be back full force after Labor Day.

Alla, several people have raised the comparison issue in the past, and there's a feeling among some that it's unfair, that critics should just write about the dancer before them. I can understand this view, but as a critic, I need the comparison tool. If someone tells me he's just seen the next Very Greatest Dancer in the Whole World, I want to know who is this dancer like? (Not that any two great dancers are alike, but someone who's "like" Baryshnikov will be someone very unlike someone who's "like" Dowell, for example.) I also think if I'm reviewing someone who dances a role that was created by someone else, or that has had several definitive interpreters, it's fair game to compare them. There can be lots of perfectly valid ways of doing a role, and I think that should be recognized, but there are times when someone really isn't up to the standard that has been established.

Someone else will be able to do justice to the "comparing isn't fair" side, I'm sure.

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Estelle, those links were great (sorry for the delay in responding!). And thanks, Alexandra, for such a helpful explanation.

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Alla, what do you think of critics comparing dancers?

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Essentially, I agree with your position. Of course the main thing is to look at this particular dancer's interpretation. But any good criticism requires points of reference. When you're talking about a role that has had many interpreters, and one or two who have been "definitive," it seems only right that that history should be taken into account when analyzing a particular interpretation. People still refer to Olivier's Hamlet when discussing Hamlets of today, and so they should. When an actor or dancer or singer takes on a role, he puts himself in the line of those who have formerly done it, and I don't see a problem with using that standard in one's criticism.

As for comparing dancers themselves (rather than the interpretation of a role), that's obviously more dangerous. There may be a risk of not paying full attention to this dancer's characteristics, of letting a comparison do the work of description. But on the whole I think it helps more than it hurts. I am always interested to hear that some dancer is "after the fashion of" another dancer. It helps me to distinguish better what I'm looking at. There are very few dancers who can't be usefully described in terms of dancers who have gone before -- there's a good reason we call those few "incomparable"!

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All good points, I think. But it was very educational for me to read how many people either misunderstand, or object to, critics comparing one dancer to another. I think when it's done, we have to be careful to make the reason for it as obvious as possible, and not say, as if everyone knows what we mean, "He doesn't measure up to Baryshnikov, who created the role." (Of course, doing that in eight inches is not easy, but that's another story.)

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