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Alexandra

What is "unfair" criticism?

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I've been reading a lot of dance reviews lately as part of my research, and some of them seem to me extremely unfair. I've had the benefit of hearing the dancers' side of the story, as well as other critics' views of the critics in question, and some may not be as unfair as they seem, and some may be more.

With that not-very-helpful introduction, I'll pose my question, since I'm sure each of us has a different definition of "unfair review." What is unfair criticism in a dance review?

[When we have "critic" questions, usually the first four people to answer are writers. While their views are, of course, welcome, I hope we will get a wide range of responses -- dancers, choreographers, dancegoers, teachers, please join in. In any sense of the term -- what's off limits, what should be taken into account that isn't, what constitutes a conflict of interest, etc.]

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Great topic!

As a dancer, I always felt statements that I was bad or good in a role without explanation or comparison were unfair. I wanted to learn from a critic and often enjoyed the different perspectives on my dancing. I never minded comparisons to other dancers, especially if it was in detail.

One pet peeve is a review that describes what went on without critical (good or bad)comment on the art presented. This to me is unfair to the art and the public.

Th final unfairness is the lack of space for reviews and consistent critics. It is nice to read critics over time and develop a sense of their respective tastes.

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I think that when a dancer is compared to another dancer, that's unfair.

I also don't like when a ballet is just panned because of "lack of rehearsal", I always get the feeling the dancers are being blamed for that.

And even when they use nice words, like "womanly" any comments on weight are not kind.

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A big pet peeve for me has been critics that seem to go after dancers or choreographers with either the intent to "make" or "break" their careers based solely on their own personal taste or even at times personal relationships. This action I find immoral and a disgrace to their profession but I've seen it happen.

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I think it is inappropriate when critics make comments on a dancer's looks i.e.: dancer x is too thin, dancer y is too fat.

This may happen more in the theatre than in dance but I think it is unfair when critics believe that the work was intentionally bad. I may not have liked Feld's piece for NYCB but I don't think he tried to do a bad piece of work. There's many a slip between cup and lip as they say.

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I think it's unfair when critics post their very personal opinions and tastes as definite statements, such as "dancer X is completely miscast in that role" or "cannot do it". I don't think this will help anyone.

Personally I believe there are VERY few "obvious" miscasts (if there are any) - I have noted that there is always someone in the audience who likes him or her.

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I hate to say it, but anything that happens in front of the footlights really is fair game. Stating opinions without reasons is bad form, but "unfair?" It's just bad expository writing. As for dancers' physiques, while I've come to agree that discussing such matters should be handled with a certain degree of sensitivity (I personally think now that I went over the top with some comments I made here ages ago about a wonderful Kirov dancer who never should've been cast as Aurora), I don't agree that subject is "unfair," or "off-limits."

Of course, I recently slammed a poster here for a "review" which I found very unfair, so perhaps in the real world I'm not so sanguine in my defense of the First Amendment when it comes to criticism.

I think maybe a better term for discussion is "appropriateness."

Is it appropriate to review a small local company by the same standards as a bigger national or regional company? I'd say no (and I did so, quite vehemently, awhile back).

Is it appropriate to comment on a dancer's physique? Yes, if it's relevant.

Does niceness count when commenting? I think so, though I've sometimes crossed this line myself.

Is it appropriate to bring things from outside of the performance into the review? It depends. If I were reviewing the opening night of the newly denuded Boston Ballet, I'd have a lot to say about things that happened outside of the footlights. Would it be appropriate to add a comment about a choreographer's marital difficulties to a review of a premiere? Probably not, but I can imagine circumstances where it might be.

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Of course, much of this strikes at the very ability of anyone to say anything, except positive things, about a performance.

If you shoudn't say that the casting was poor; if you shouldn't comment on the dancers appearance or physical characteristics; if you shouldn't comment on whether a piece looks unrehearsed or sloppy -- what is there left to comment on?

Or is the prevailing sense that nothing negative, nothing critical should be said? But, then, is the nonetheless o.k. to say positive things, such as that the casting was good; that the dancers appearances were beautiful; that the piece was tightly presented and well rehearsed? I doubt anyone would object to that. So it's really critical comments on these subjects that are being declared off limits.

In particular, the question of whether you can comment on dancers' appearances (weight, posture or anything else) is a very difficult one. It can be argued that nothing, absolutely nothing, is more central to a ballet performance, or to a dancer's merit, than their appearance. It's the base upon which all else builds. We usually disguise it by calling it something like "line" or giving it some other neutral code name. You simply cannot declare this completely off limits and preserve the ability honestly to judge what is being presented on stage.

Even if you disagree that "nothing is more important than this" (and I may have put it too extremely), certainly it's very relevant. It's not something that simply doesn't matter.

What dancers look like, though, is highly sensitive because it depends, not on what a dancer can change, but on their God-given characteristics. And we have learned from social intercourse that it's unkind and cruel to comment negatively on such things. But how can you really analyze ballet without touching on it? The problem here seems more to be one of finding the limits of civilized discourse. Maybe what you could say in privacy to a friend you sit next to should not be published or posted on the web.

I don't have the answer. But I think some comment on weight or style must be allowed.

The second part, how they move, seems fairer game.

This is a really interesting topic and I hope more people post. I'm catching a plane and will look again Sunday night.

One other thought - unfair criticism is untruthful criticism, criticism motivated by bias, malice or other secondary gain, and/or criticism that can't be objectively defended. One is obligated not just to give conclusions, but the supporting observations, so that the reader can herself or himself analyze what you've seen and why you are saying what you are.

But if that too is falsified or biased? No way out of this labyrinth.

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On talking about a dancer's physical characteristics:

I'm careful about this because I was a dancer, and I know how much it can damage someone if done badly or just baldly. I don't think it renders it off limits, though.

Certain words are just more painful than others: Fat, blocky, chunky, stocky. . . In some cases one man's meat is another's poison and your "Fat" is someone else's "Lush" or "Sexy" and your "Stocky" is someone else's "athletic". If there's a body issue I willl take some time trying to figure out the most neutral way to say it. The big exception in print was when I thought a dancer was way too thin, and it was because she had dieted too much. I made sure of my facts (that she wasn't someone who was just naturally very thin) and said "She's painfully thin at present"

It's also a little easier for me because I'm not intent that a female dancer be either very thin or without curves to do certain roles. I also don't believe that a dancer's actual physicality has nearly as much to do with how they look in a role as the physicality they project. I could anatomize someone like Darci Kistler, who grew up in a family of boys with wrestler brothers, but to me on stage, she is the most delicate of creatures even if she is not small-framed. Delicacy, or force, is in the interpretation more than the body. That being said, I think for people who approach dance from a visual rather than a theatrical background, shape and weight matter more deeply.

As a writer, what I try not to do is anything ad hominem. "X danced badly" is within limits (although I would probably phrase it "X did not dance the role well.") but I'd not easily write "X is a bad dancer."

Oddly enough, I think that "X was miscast" is a kind statement rather than an unfair one, because it places the blame outside the dancer. Is it worse to be considered inappropriate for a role, or to be considered appropriate and still to have been dissatisfactory? Also, I think there's an assumption that "miscast" involves the taste of the writer.

------------------

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Mr Leigh Witchel, I agree with you on most points. Sorry, but I feel I have to come back on one of my "favourite" topics, that is if someone is "miscast". I may not have expressed myself clearly - and I am not neutral as critics here in Munich have recently greatly upset me (maybe more than the dancer concerned...).

Here in Munich we have some critics who like some dancers and can't stand others. Well, this is already widely known and should not affect me - but sorry, it still does. So those people tend to damn whatever X does, stating he or she is "miscast" in a role as they would prefer to see Y. In that case I consider it unfair (and, in a way, unprofessional).

As for dancers bodies, I totally agree as I have been worried about some painfully thin looking dancers... (And, despite of I was never going to be a professional dancer, I remember how much it hurt when some people called me too stubby...)

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I think there may be a misunderstanding of how critics use the word "miscast." It doesn't (or shouldn't) mean "I don't like." It means that Arnold Schwartzenegger (sp?) is miscast as Peter Pan, or Vanna White as Lady Macbeth. They're wrong for the role.

Sometimes a critic may not "like" a dancer in a role for a reason that goes way beyond persoanl preference. One director of the Royal Danish Ballet often cast his wife, a very interesting performer who was excellent in modern and character parts, in classical roles. Whether you liked her or not, she was miscast in those roles. If she was so miscast every night, the critic might write that every night. It doesn't mean he doesn't like her -- he might write a rave of her in a modern role -- but that she had no business being in a tutu.

That said, I think, as the ballet world crumbles, therre are more and more critics who are writing without the background to make many of the statements they make, including miscasting -- and they may be using it as "I don't like." Sometimes, novice critics will use terms they've read other critics use without really understanding what they mean. (Unfortunately, some "novice" critics remain unenlightened for long careers; they keep repeating what they think they've learned.) I've read people who say, "She is unsuited to the role" merely because their personal taste is for very skinny dancers, say, and anyone who doesn't look like a bag of bones is "unsuited" to the role. (Or the reverse.)

But there are real physical reasons for saying someone is miscast -- this role needs a very flexible body, that one needs a turner, or a jumper. It might be momentarily interesting to have a Giselle who looked as though she'd just come from a nightclub in L.A., but she wouldn't be Giselle. And one of the reasons critics scream about "miscasting" is because if that nightclubber -- perhaps the most popular dancer in the company -- is cast as Giselle long enough, the next time a Makarova or Kirkland comes along, people will write/think, "simply unsuited to the role: not nearly sophisticated enough and far, far too innocent to convince us as a peasant girl who goes slumming after strange boys."

I don't know a way around this. Like mbjerk's very good point about wanting a critic to explain what s/he means not just say "he danced well" or, more likely, using one adjective that the critic desperately hopes will communicate several sentences, it's nearly impossible to do in a newspaper review because of space limiations. (I don't mean that to be "poor critics," but just that if you only have 300 words and there are ten dancers who should be mentioned, it's very hard. I had much more than 300 words to do Washington Ballet's "Peter Pan," but because it was a premiere, I had to deal with the whole ballet. Dancers got a paragraph, and each dancer got about three very general, probably not at all useful, words.

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This may be off topic, but as a dancer who was often miscast I want to convey some ideas.

First, most dancers know they are miscast in a role. An artist will try to make it work or at least give a different perspective on the role, one that incorporates the artist's gifts. The street walker Giselle might find some ways to bring out her inner child and justaposition it against her street smart veneer.

Second, as a dancer I often asked to try roles I was not suited for as a way to grow. Or directors will cast to grow dancers. One example for me was Gremio in Cranko's Shrew. Usually a shorter dancer, my 6'4" was not seen as ideal. Another was taking on Baryshnikov's role in Configurations. Here I felt extremely miscast, but the choreographer would have none of it so the audience had to endure me in it. I learned a great deal and apologize to those who had to watch. Some felt I was miscast in classical roles yet I had moderate success in these performances (certainly on the acting and partnering sides).

Choreographers may also cast in a different light. We as viewers may not understand why, and feel those dancers not right for a role.

Now are critics supposed to understand all internal workings in a company. NO! They should point to miscastings as they see it. All we can ask is an open mind and in my experience the great majority of critics had one.

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I think the whole "miscasting" question deserves a thread of its own, and so I'm going to copy all of these posts over to another thread in News, Views and Issues.

http://www.balletalert.com/ubb/Forum5/HTML/000499.html

More on what you think of as unfair criticism?

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 09, 2001).]

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I think it's unfair of critics to fight their own wars over the bodies of dancers or choreographers.

I don't know if this situation could arise in dance, but the only unfair review I know of personally was of a book. It was one of my professors in undergraduate school -- her first book, and we were all very excited. Then there was a very nasty review. I can't remember the publication, but I remember very strongly that it had been written by someone whom she had beaten out for the job. I'd offer that as an example of conflict of interest far worse than being taken to dinner by a choreographer and then giving him a good review.

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Kip, I'd say that sort of war is being fought in our own city over Martins' work at NYCB. Critics are polarized into two camps on it, and at this point the reviews reflect the opinion of his regime rather than the work onstage. I do think that conflict also bled into people's reviews of the Farrell company as well.

------------------

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Agree on the "fighting wars over dancers' bodies" smile.gif

On the situation kip mentioned (a professor's book being attacked in a review by someone with an ax to grind) that's certainly unfair -- one might say despicable -- and Drew can tell us, I'm sure, how often it happens. I can remember seeing letters to the editor in the Times Book Review and other places occasionally with similar situations -- one was that the reviewer had previously been unfavorably reviewed by the now-victim author and there seemed to be battles fought beyond the book at hand. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't happen, because the editor who assigns the book should know the background. Of course, anyone in a situation that even has a whiff of conflict should disclose it at the time of assignment.

I don't think this does much damage, though. It might to a first-time novelist without a track record, but in the academic world, I would hope that the work could stand on its own. Also, that world is so small, anyone who mattered who read the review would probably know the situation and smell a rat. In such cases, the author's colleagues may well come to his defense.

I've been in a similar situation several times. People whose articles I haven't printed, one person who was kicked off this site. In all cases, the attacks were so obviously personal they were perceived as such.

As far as dancers and choreographers are concerned, I think the same thing does happen if the person has somehow slighted the critic. I think this is also despicable, and it's less obvious to people reading the review. They'd have no way of knowing that the critic was, say, snubbed at a party.

One final example -- one of the blatantly unfair things I came across -- was a critic who had wanted to make a film of the Royal Danish Ballet from out takes of another film that had been successful (Dancing Bournonivlle) and the artistic director said no, he'd chosen the footage very carefully and what was left wasn't as good, and he wouldn't do that to the dancers (there was a lot of film of class and rehearsals.) The critic seems not to have taken the refusal well, shall we say. He had been commissioned to write a company history for that season's program book and did so, completely ignoring the artistic director (Kronstam) who had been the company's dominant dancer for two decades. He simply didn't exist. This is the worst example I've ever seen, but I can't believe it's an isolated one.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 10, 2001).]

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Speaking of criticism and reviews-—below are excerpts of two reviews of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Verdi’s “Nabucco”. Both reviewers are very experienced and knowledgeable opera goers. The reviews were posted to an opera mailing list within 90 minutes of each other after seeing and hearing the same performance. Reactions to opera often seem much more visceral than to ballet—performances perceived as poor are a personal affront to the audience.

It also shows the range of discourse that is considered fair comment or acceptable terms of reference on another moderated list. I applaud our moderator here on Ballet Talk for not allowing personal attacks and simple vituperation regarding artists on this list.

Singers, managers and others directly involved with opera read this list, although only a few post (at least under their own names).

In each case the first excerpt, marked *** is from what you might consider a positive review, while the second, marked !!! would be thought as quite the opposite.

***One of the best Verdi performances I have seen in years. Guleghina, not one of my favorite, was very impressive in this fiendishly difficult role but also infuriating in that she could do much better than her already impressive best. Her soft singing, especially at the end, was gorgeous.

For what it is worth, she also looked stunning in her Coronation scene gown and robe. Likewise, she wore her rags stunningly in the last scene.***

!!!She was a disgrace from the beginning until the end. She cracked badly on the high C (just before the jump down two octaves) and was consistently flat throughout the whole performance. There also in no bottom there at all. She also cannot float a high note pianissimo if her life depended on it.!!!

***Sam Ramey was just like his Attila in Chicago. He shows his age slightly at the beginning but soon warms up and belies his almost forty years on the stage. A truly memorable performance from a great artist.***

!!!Ramey whom I admire tremendously should think about calling it a night soon. His voice has gotten smaller in size and there is a pronounced wobble.!!!

***Levine was engaged, his his orchestra was on, and his chorus sounded better than they have in years***

!!!Levine conducted like he was half asleep or on drugs or both. Never have I heard the chorus sound as dull and uninsprired than for "Va pensiero".!!!

------------------

"Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out,

and glory in the sword which wears away the scabbard:

CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS

Writing of Pauline Viardot

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Great examples, Ed. They may be fun to read but no, I don't want vituperative attacks on dancers on the board.

These really aren't fair or unfair criticism though, in the sense that I meant, because they're not published. At least at this point, internet or email list reviews don't have the effect of printed reviews.

Fairness and unfairness on the internet is a whole 'nother story. The ethic seems to be that anything goes. I have a friend who's a football fan, especially a fan of Doug Flutie. There's a whole web site -- Doug Flutie, World's Greatest Quarterback. And its counterpart. I forget the title, but to the effect of World's Absolutely Most Horrible Quarterback. Neither site aims for objectivity or fairness!

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I know this leads us a bit far from where you started, Alexandra, but your last comment reminds me of Germany's most famous soccer team, Bayern München - there is the official website, some fan websites - plus an "anti-Bayern website"... Let's hope ballet won't polarize that much (as I think much stuff on the "anti" sites is really not funny and certainly not fair!

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I agree, Sonja. It's certainly possible that that could happen in dance. One of the many bad things about the net is the dark side of its good -- that everyone has equal access. A partisan of one artist (whether it's a relative, friend, or whatever) could well put up a site that attacks someone else, could make the rounds of the message boards spreading rumors, and could sound very credible. The web doesn't really make everyone equal. Someone who can write well has an enormous advantage and can often seem more knowledgeable than they really are. And for someone who enjoys attacking people, the net is a huge playground.

We had one very nasty incident here early on that was a bit frightening. It was late Saturday night, and luckily, both Leigh and I were on at nearly the same time and caught it. I could delete the post and block the person before he did more harm. But someone came on and just started attacking dancers, using extremely foul language. He started small, as it were, just calling somebody a "bitch" and each post got nastier, until he put up threads with the dancer's name and every gripe he had about that person. It seemed like a dancer or former dancer (I hope a drunken one smile.gif ) who came on and wanted to vent. On the sites that aren't moderated, this kind of behavior could be quite upsetting to the victims.

The internet is often touted as the way for "truth" to get out -- and often that can be true. But it also give a license to anyone with a grudge, and it can be difficult to sort out someone with a legitimate grievance from someone who just wants to settle a score.

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Ed Waffle---I saw the Met performance of Nabucco last night--and my only sour note are the designs of the sets by John Napier. It's a wonder the artists didn't break their necks trying to manipulate all those steps. It's too bad Napier didn't immerse himself in Asyrian art for his inspiration. The Sets were much too high. I was sitting in the back of the orchestra under the box-seat overhang and there were at least 15 rows of expensive seats that could not see the top of the set.

As to Guleghina--both critics had a valid point:

Guleghina was both visually and vocally gorgeous---and even to my un-trained operatic ear, she did "crack" at some point--but it certainly didn't lessen her performance for me.

The critic who criticized "Va, Pensiero" was probably half asleep---what a thrilling, sublime performance!--and Levine repeated it.

I must get a "ballet" reference in here---while listening to the overture I couldn't help thinking--"What a wonderful substitute this music would be for Giselle"

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I'll take Verdi over Adam any day, atm711, although Adam's music doesn't spoil "Giselle" for me.

But to get back to the topic, fair to whom, or what? I agree with some of the longer posts that pettiness and bias are out, that anything that happens on stage is fair game, and most of all that explanation and detail, supporting observations, are necessary: Just as in science or engineering, where we think that measurements presented without giving us some idea of how they were made are pretty meaningless, so a critic who claims to have taken the measure of a performance owes me some explanation of how they arrived at what they say. Without that, the criticism is unfair to me, the reader. With that, not only is bias and pettiness likely to be exposed if present, but the criticism has meaning as though we were sitting in the critic's seat, looking out of the critic's head through their eyes, thinking with their mind. For me, the best critics are transparent in this way (Anita Finkel's term for Arlene Croce), and looking at the dance through the lenses of their writing helps to train us to be our own critic, responding more completely to what we see, even when it's not one of the ballets we've read about.

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