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What is "unfair" criticism?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 08 March 2001 - 11:55 AM

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.]

#2 mbjerk

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Posted 08 March 2001 - 01:08 PM

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.

#3 Diana L

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Posted 08 March 2001 - 05:56 PM

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.

#4 Alina

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Posted 08 March 2001 - 05:57 PM

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.

#5 liebs

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Posted 08 March 2001 - 06:17 PM

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.

#6 Sonja

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 02:47 AM

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.

#7 Manhattnik

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 09:53 AM

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.

#8 Michael

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 10:01 AM

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.

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 11:51 AM

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.



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#10 Sonja

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 12:05 PM

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...)

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 12:54 PM

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.

#12 mbjerk

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 01:45 PM

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.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 09 March 2001 - 02:36 PM

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.
[url="http://"http://www.balletalert.com/ubb/Forum5/HTML/000499.html"]http://www.balletalert.com/ubb/Forum5/HTML/000499.html[/url]


More on what you think of as unfair criticism?

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

#14 Guest_kip_*

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Posted 10 March 2001 - 02:41 AM

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.

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 March 2001 - 10:06 AM

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.

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