dirac

Alastair Macaulay @ NY Times

216 posts in this topic

Yes, a head critic is entitled to opinions and preferences, but I find it very disingenuous for him to display them in such a backhanded way. There is no question that referring to Nichols as "this greatest ballerina of the past 20 years" on the same weekend that Ferri retired was a backhanded slap at Ferri - but it's also an insult to Susan Jaffe, Nina Ananishvislli, Wendy Whalen and a host of other ballerinas. If he truly thinks that Nichols is in a class above all others then he should have told us so overtly - and told us why. And if he had any sense of decorum he would have found a more appropriate time to make this pronouncement. Slipping in that comment at the end of his review was malicious and divisive - and told me more about his personality than I really want to know.

The same goes for his comment about V. Part in the review of Romeo & Juliet. We all understand that he doesn't like Part - that's clear, and that's understandable. She has her fans and her detractors, and for good reason. Let him criticize her technical deficiencies as he sees them, her style, whatever - but to criticize her performance of a mime role - that's just being mean. I could understand if he felt that her personality wasn't forceful enough to put the role across, or if he felt that she was overacting but she pretty much plays the role the same way that everyone has every time I've seen ABT do this ballet.

nysusan, what you read as jabs, I read as appropriate and timely expressions of opinion. I like critics to be frank as possible. Yes it would have been nice if McCauley had told us why he ranks Nichols above her contemporaries, but he only has so much space. And I can't think of a better time to rank her than now as she's retiring. He's only been writing for the Times for a couple of months, after all.

As for criticizing Part in her mime role -- and I love Part and liked her in that role in D.C. -- perhaps he singled her out precisely because she is such a controversial dancer. Again, that's what I want from a critic.

Share this post


Link to post

Re: writing about Kyra Nichols. Mary Cargill, in Danceviewtimes, evokes specific images. THIS (in my book) is a marvellous tribute.:

The final scene in "Vienna Waltzes" seems tailor made for farewell performances, with its solitary figure dancing in the haunted ballroom, but Nichols again turned it into what seemed to be her own story, dancing with her invisible partners not with regret or sorrow, but with happy memories of a completed life. This contentment seemed to be her last gift to her audience. I suspect that many, like me, were remembering specific, wonderful performances, which illuminated the roles with her unique glow; Nichols in "Diamonds," turning so slowly with such perfect musicality that mere technique didn’t seem to matter; or the hushed prayer of "Mozartiana;" the moments in "Chaconne" which seemed like overhearing a conversation on Parnassus; the glorious jumps in "Square Dance;" the radiant generosity of her Lilac Fairy, banishing darkness; and especially the doomed woman in "Liebeslieder," dancing beyond the grave. Remember and be glad, she seemed to be saying in that final dance.

Thanks, dirac, for the LINK: http://www.danceviewtimes.com/2007/Summer/01/nycb19.html

Share this post


Link to post
As for criticizing Part in her mime role -- and I love Part and liked her in that role in D.C. -- perhaps he singled her out precisely because she is such a controversial dancer. Again, that's what I want from a critic.

If he had mentioned her controversial nature as a dancer, if he had said something *about* her in this role, I would probably agree with you (even though I like her!)

But just calling her "dull" doesn't tell much of anything except that mr Macaulay doesn't like her.

In the context of the role, what does it mean? Does he mean she was restrained? Didn't emote sufficiently? Wasn't sufficiently hysterical at the death of Tybalt?

What I want from a critic is someone who will explain what he is basing these aesthetic judgements on.

Often Mr Macaulay does just that, and I appreciate it. In the case of Part (both reviews) he has not...and they tell me nothing except that he finds her uninteresting as a dancer, without addressing why.

I have to say his reviews, and his pattern of his reviewing (number of NYCB vs ABT performances reviewed by him personally have given me the impression that he is not terribly interested in ABT.

Share this post


Link to post
Often Mr Macaulay does just that, and I appreciate it. In the case of Part (both reviews) he has not...and they tell me nothing except that he finds her uninteresting as a dancer, without addressing why.

I noticed that, too. He tosses 'dull' and 'boring' in her direction with a careless shrug.

Share this post


Link to post
If he had mentioned her controversial nature as a dancer, if he had said something *about* her in this role, I would probably agree with you (even though I like her!)

But just calling her "dull" doesn't tell much of anything except that mr Macaulay doesn't like her.

What I want from a critic is someone who will explain what he is basing these aesthetic judgements on.

Absolutely! One should explain one's opinions and do so in a clear and graceful way. Macauley should be trying to enlighten his reading audience rather than get off personal barbs at the dancers. Snide, sarcastic remarks (see those on Georgina Parkinson and Irina Dvorovenko today) or harsh judgments without qualifiers (like "dull" for Veronika) are personal attacks and show a deep disrespect for artists who are certainly doing the best to honor their craft and give their all to the audience. The remarks make the reviewer seem bitter, arrogant and too jaded and too biased to do his job well.

Share this post


Link to post

To return to the use of "great" and "greatest": I rather liked Robert Gottlieb's recent use of these terms in his comments on the Nichols retirement. He puts it in an appropriate context and gives it a sense of proportion.

Nichols was, with Kistler and Maria Calegari, the last of Balanchine’s anointed ballerinas. She’s certainly been one of the company’s greatest dancers—the most stable, the least showy. And she’s had a great career—a separate matter from being a great dancer. Like Patricia McBride before her, she just went on developing, undeterred by trauma, extended absence, the wrong kind of temperament. For both of them, everything simply went right. And in the moments of crisis, they both came through—McBride assuming responsibility for the company during the half-decade of Farrell’s break with Balanchine, Nichols during the dark years after Balanchine’s death.

Thanks, dirac, for the Link -- http://www.observer.com/2007/ashley-bouder...-waves-farewell It's on page 2.

Share this post


Link to post
If he had mentioned her controversial nature as a dancer, if he had said something *about* her in this role, I would probably agree with you (even though I like her!)

But just calling her "dull" doesn't tell much of anything except that mr Macaulay doesn't like her.

What I want from a critic is someone who will explain what he is basing these aesthetic judgements on.

Absolutely! One should explain one's opinions and do so in a clear and graceful way. Macauley should be trying to enlighten his reading audience rather than get off personal barbs at the dancers. Snide, sarcastic remarks (see those on Georgina Parkinson and Irina Dvorovenko today) or harsh judgments without qualifiers (like "dull" for Veronika) are personal attacks and show a deep disrespect for artists who are certainly doing the best to honor their craft and give their all to the audience. The remarks make the reviewer seem bitter, arrogant and too jaded and too biased to do his job well.

Ideally a critic would explain every value judgment, but then ideally the Times would let MacCauley write as often as he wanted at whatever length he wanted. I understand your feelings without, at least as of yet, sharing your judgment of his motives. Given how dearly he obviously loves this art form -- another difference with Rockwell in my opinion -- I think it's possible and even probable that over time he'll explain more of his judgments, as he briefly did, in my opinion, in regards to Parkinson and Dvorenko (“Don’t look at him,” for example). One could argue that too much of what he said was subjective. But, again in my opinion, the frequent differences in opinions on this board among experienced balletomanes illustrate how large of a role subjectivity, or at least objectivity insufficiently articulated, plays in our judgments. To assume that his opinions stem from bitterness and the like might be -- one more time: in my opinion -- as unfair to him as he's accused of being to those dancers.

Share this post


Link to post

I think whoever above suggested that Macaulay is trying to impress the paper or its readers with his knowledge is probably right on target. He's under pressure to be perceived as the authority of authorities and to deliver reviews to The Times that are definitive and come as close to divine judgment as possible.

I attended the Monday night Swan Lake which Macaulay reviewed and I thought much of what he said was nonsense. [Okay, I'll admit to liking this McKenzie production and all Swan Lake productions I've ever seen or trounced around in -- except for one. So, maybe my tastes are not particularly discriminating, but I sure get a lot of enjoyment out of Swan Lake, and it gets a lot of my money every year.] A few examples of Macaulay's stumblings:

I kept remembering how Margot Fonteyn in 1990 coached young dancers to understand the pell-mell urgency with which Odette communicates; Monday’s Odette, Irina Dvorovenko, went through the gestures (omitting several) with painstaking, world-enough-and-time steadiness.

Why didn't Macaulay identify the specific gestures which he wants us to notice he noticed weren't there, and why didn't he offer an explanation of why he thought the dancer was wrong not to include them and how the exclusion adversely affected the performance?

At the start of the great lakeside adagio, as Prince Siegfried (Maxim Beloserkovsky) bent low to unfold and raise her from her folded-over “swan” position on the floor, I could hear Alicia Markova’s voice (in a 1980 television master class) saying, “Don’t look at him,” precisely at the moment Irina Dvorovenko looked searchingly into his eyes

Puuleeeze. Again, the implication is that the dancer violated some holy tenant of Alice Marks' that to this very day haunts Macaulay 's memory. As the kids used to say, 'gag me with a spoon, Mom.' If Macaulay wants to take issue with an artistic choice, he should explain what the bloody issue is.

Mr. Beloserkovsky is likewise a handsome man with plenty of technique, but his constant concern with bright smiles and striking poses makes him become merely pretty. Not much better is Georgina Parkinson’s snobbish, flamboyant, arch Queen Mother. (She seems to be saying to her son, “But dahling, if you don’t marry one of these dreary girls, all these frightful yobs will think you’re gay.”

Beloserkovsky danced very well Monday night. His turning had an authority that we have not always seen in the past, and his jumps were effortless and gorgeous in shape. His presentation and dramatic effort were rich and his partnering miraculous. He didn't over-smile, except where every Siggy does when he is sitting atop the boys' shoulders at the end of the Maypole dance. His posing looked, well, unapologetically Russian, and not British. Is there a problem? Georgina was, of course, wonderful as the Queen Mother. Every gesture, every raised eyebrow -- a lesson in how it should be done. Macaulay's last comment ("But dahling . . . .") is little more than a lame effort to compete with Ann Coulture.

The two-Rothbarts device only becomes more silly

Why does he think it is silly in the first place? Why silly? Swamp Thing has never offended me. I can't say that I like it any more or less than productions without a swamp thing, and I enjoy seeing what the likes of Isaac Stappas and others can do with the character.

On Monday the best dancing came from David Hallberg

The best? And the point of saying that was -- what? Hallberg was good, of course, but his character was pulled way back from his first time out as Von Rothbart across from Acosta and Herrera. Of course his sissonnes were beautiful. Everyone who dances that role has great big beautiful sissonnes. But to intentionally imply that everyone else's performances were less than Hallberg's was 1) not useful, 2) not true, and 3) not a good way to build respect by the readership. He could have simply said that he enjoyed Hallberg's performance the most and why.

Lastly, Irina gave a complete performance of both Odette and Odile. Everything was working for her Monday night. Exceptional arabesque balances, secure turns, clear dynamics, no bobbles. Okay, once in a while as Odette (but not more than that), she perhaps over-phoneticized with her phace, but her overall performance was very good and the audience enjoyed it immensely.

Share this post


Link to post
...in my opinion, the frequent differences in opinions on this board among experienced balletomanes illustrate how large of a role subjectivity, or at least objectivity insufficiently articulated, plays in our judgments.

IMO, in caps, the phrase of the day. Cool, kfw.

[caps added by me for emphasis]

Share this post


Link to post

I posted this on the Romeo and Juliet ABT thread, but since the topic of Macaulay's treatment of Ferri came up here, as well,....

For everybody who thought Ferri was treated unfairly by The Times, there is now a 3:27 minute highlight clip in the Arts section of her final performance (including flower-giving and curtain call)!

Share this post


Link to post
There is no question that referring to Nichols as "this greatest ballerina of the past 20 years" on the same weekend that Ferri retired was a backhanded slap at Ferri - but it's also an insult to Susan Jaffe, Nina Ananishvislli, Wendy Whalen and a host of other ballerinas. If he truly thinks that Nichols is in a class above all others then he should have told us so overtly - and told us why.
But just calling her "dull" doesn't tell much of anything except that mr Macaulay doesn't like her.

In the context of the role, what does it mean? Does he mean she was restrained? Didn't emote sufficiently? Wasn't sufficiently hysterical at the death of Tybalt?

Macauley should be trying to enlighten his reading audience rather than get off personal barbs at the dancers. Snide, sarcastic remarks (see those on Georgina Parkinson and Irina Dvorovenko today) or harsh judgments without qualifiers (like "dull" for Veronika) are personal attacks and show a deep disrespect for artists who are certainly doing the best to honor their craft and give their all to the audience.

Based on his writing so far, and from his earlier criticism in The New Yorker, I'm fairly certain Macaulay has the ability to go into great detail about these judgements.

Be careful what you wish for.

Share this post


Link to post

Thanks for the heads up about the video clip! There was a great deal of video there... much more than just the flowers. I'm sure there was also video taken of the Nichols farewell, as someone toting a Sachtler tripod practically bumped into me leaving the theater... I suppose it could have been backstage footage, but I doubt it... whether the rest of us would have access to it, though, is another story. Maybe it will be at the NYPL Dance Division.

Footnote: I just can't get used to "dead" people with fully pointed feet.

Share this post


Link to post
Thanks for the heads up about the video clip! There was a great deal of video there... much more than just the flowers. I'm sure there was also video taken of the Nichols farewell, as someone toting a Sachtler tripod practically bumped into me leaving the theater... I suppose it could have been backstage footage, but I doubt it...

I saw a video camera and tripod set up in back of the theater. Can't remember where exactly, but I think in back of the orchestra or First Ring.

Share this post


Link to post

I think we should distinguish between 2 very different things:

(1) the fact that there is subjectivity in reviewing, which is both inevitable and probably quite a good thing; and

(2) the responsibility of the reviewer to support his subjectivity with as much detail, and historical perspective, as he/she has space for.

I happen to love most of Macaulay's ballet writing, and actually introduced his name (very positively) in a long-ago thread discussing who possible candidates for the Times post. He's erudite, has tons of close viewing experience, and seems to possess a phenomenal visual memory.

I'd hate to see him give in -- for whatever reasons -- to the blah-blah ex cathedra judgmentalism and short-hand labellling that seems to infect so many arts critics -- in all the arts -- when they find themselves occupying influential critical platforms.

As for Ferri-versus-Nichols: there will always be a certain emotional thrill in fighting to support one's favorite artist (and, possibly even more important, the style which they represent). The concerns raised here about this particular comparison (did Macaulay "diss" F by over-praising N?) made me think about Perrot's famous "Pas de Quatre" in the 1840s. Historians tend to write about this event as some sort of marvelous fusion of the 4 "greatest" ballerinas of the age -- Grisi, Grahan, Taglioni, Cerrito -- each with her own style and stage personality, and all in the same ballet. But can't you imagine all the arguments in the lobby, the competing claques during curtain calls, and the disagreements as to who was "best" or "greatest" in whatever critical writing existed at the time?

Such passions have been around at least as long as Sophocles and Euripides. They're fun. They do no harm. But serious critical writers should probably try to avoid giving them anything to feed on. Leave that to the hacks.

Share this post


Link to post
Footnote: I just can't get used to "dead" people with fully pointed feet.

Well, technically speaking, the Willis are dead--and their feet are pointed (or are supposed to be!).

Share this post


Link to post

apart from all the above, i have to admit to being really surprised at the way he chose to criticize georgina parkinson; i suppose you can always say it's opinion, but i always thought her character portrayals were well done and very appropriate.

Share this post


Link to post
apart from all the above, i have to admit to being really surprised at the way he chose to criticize georgina parkinson

Especially since she was with the Royal! :blushing:

After all, she should know about these important bits of Royal Ballet Swan Lake wisdom and passed them on to the current dancers at ABT!

Share this post


Link to post
apart from all the above, i have to admit to being really surprised at the way he chose to criticize georgina parkinson

Especially since she was with the Royal! :blushing:

After all, she should know about these important bits of Royal Ballet Swan Lake wisdom and passed them on to the current dancers at ABT!

Yes, but like Ferri, she decided to come to ABT! He seems to have his knife (and pen) sharpened for any dancers who left the RB and prefer other, non Brit companies.

Share this post


Link to post

I've tried to stay out of this one, but it's becoming disturbing to me and I have to put in a word. Some of these comments are so petty that they're out of character for this board. The idea that a serious critic would have a grudge against a dancer who left one company for another is highly unlikely.

I'd echo much of what Bart said above, and add that "Critical objectivity" is a term of art. It does NOT mean that a critic doesn't have personal biases - that's "taste." It means that in writing serious criticism one executes "judgment" -- that one writes in an objective rather than personal way, which is to "pull back," look at the object on view in long shot, as it were, and place the performance within a context. That's writing with critical objectivity. Subjective, or personal, writing is, "I went last night and I just loved Soandso as the Prince." Nothing wrong with the latter, except when it's in a newspaper :blushing:

In Macauley's case, I'd also say that I doubt he's trying to impress people or show off what he knows, but that he (perhaps wrongly) assumes that he's writing to peers -- to people who are knowledgeable and sophisticated, who share his love of ballet, and understand at least something of its history and current aesthetic issues. This goes against the grain of current newspaper writing -- many papers want snazzy breezy pieces that, they fondly believe, everyone who picks up the paper will read. I was very happy that the Times chose a critic instead. That's what serious critics, like Macauley, or Robert Greskovic, or Joan Acocella, or Tobi Tobias, among others, do. (He writes for the same audience I assumed was out there, and why I started this forum -- so that likeminded souls could have serious discussions of ballet.)

We've had discussions about space before -- you can't put everything in a review. It's not possible. No matter how much space you have, the history of "Giselle," say, and every dancer who's danced the role just won't fit :)

I think it's time to post again the links to Joan Acocella's pieces on criticism. I'll come back and add them.

What's Good About Bad Reviews

What critics do

Share this post


Link to post

no, i do understand that, alexandra. and if that's the way he feels about her portrayals, he's certainly allowed, though it does surprise me because i feel she's really good at them. but i don't think that he or any other serious critic would hold it against a dancer for going from one place to another, that's not where i felt his criticism was coming from. just wanted to be clear!

Share this post


Link to post
I've tried to stay out of this one, but it's becoming disturbing to me and I have to put in a word. Some of these comments are so petty that they're out of character for this board.

I'd echo much of what Bart said above, and add that "Critical objectivity" is a term of art. It does NOT mean that a critic doesn't have personal biases - that's "taste." It means that in writing serious criticism one executes "judgment" -- that one writes in an objective rather than personal way, which is to "pull back," look at the object on view in long shot, as it were, and place the performance within a context.

I don't believe anyone is objecting to Macauley's opinions, biases or personal "taste". I think the problem has been the snide tone to many of his recent reviews or his panning someone harshly, without giving any reason why. I also believe the discussion going on here about MacAuley's writing is a legitimate one and it is being conducted civilly.

I don't think anyone airing a grievance in this forum believes critics shouldn't have (or express) opinions or bias. However, there is a world of difference between a neutrally-toned critical comment - such as the one Roslyn Sulcas makes today about Mathilde Froustey - and belittling a dancer. For example, yesterday's personal remarks about Irina's face, which Macauley states while dancing, is "marred by her forever negotiating different angles of her chin", steps over the line into personal attack. The snidely toned criticism of Georgina Parkinson is equally mean and written in a way that I believe many (especially the dancer, herself) would find offensive.

Critics should have opinions but they should be written in a way that is civil and constructive; there is no reason to attack or humiliate the artists who try their best to give us (their audience) pleasure. And there is no reason to censor what has been a civil and legitimate discussion on this board about what seems to be a disturbingly mean tone to Macauley's recent reviews.

Share this post


Link to post

Thanks, Alexandra, for those links to those two 1992 Acocella articles. I hadn't seen them before. I've printed them out and put them in my file of dance writing to revisit and to think about.

A quality shared by the finest reviewers, is that they DO think about what they are doing and what their obligations are to both readers and to the art. They reflect on the implications of their words and don't just respond to what they see. Acocella's work over the years definitely shows this. So does Macauley's, despite what might be perceived as a few recent lapses.

I love Acocella's defense of what even a negative review can become in the hands of a master in love with the art:

At their best, negative reviews can tell us what good art is and reassure us that it exists--that we had it before and we'll have it again. Indeed, paradoxically, they do this almost more feelingly than good reviews, for they are on surer, Platonic ground, speaking about good art in the abstract rather than in the more confusing particular. George Bernard Shaw, whose fierce words were quoted at the opening of this essay, wrote many good bad reviews of this kind in the course of his career as a music critic. Emboldened by a thorough knowledge and a fiery love of his subject, Shaw can tell you, in the course of condemning a singer or conductor to eternal torment, exactly how Handel should be played or how Don Giovanni should be sung. He tells you with joy, vividness, and precision. You can hear the trumpets; you can hear the tremolo in the strings; you can hear the voices come in--the sopranos, the altos. He practically sings it for you. The luckless musicians whose concert Shaw attended may fall, but Handel rises resplendent. Shaw gives him to you again. This is why W. H. Auden called Shaw "probably the best music critic who ever lived."

Share this post


Link to post

Amour, I disagree. Many of the comments in this discussion have been catty and snide, and not consistent with the history or culture of this forum. Several participants are more recent members, which is one of the reasons I stepped in. This isn't what we do here. The many anti-British comments especially have made me wince. We have many British readers and I don't know what they must be thinking -- but I do understand why they don't often post here.

Critics are supposed to write strongly. Namby pamby feel-good comments aren't good criticism. I see nothing wrong with writing about the way a dancer uses his or her face or feet. It's a specific comment, not an insult. Saying someone is plug ugly or has bugs for brains is quite different. That WOULD be an attack. [editing to add: Not saying that I agree or disagree with the comment, just that what Macauley wrote wouldn't raise an editor's eyebrow.]

In the best of all possible worlds, we'd have a number of critics writing from a strong knowledge base, and writing opinionated criticism. (As they do in London! We're poor by comparison, not for lack of talent, but for lack of outlets.) And then if there are critics whom one simply cannot stand, one doesn't read them.

Bart, this is it, exactly. It should be the standard for critics.

A quality shared by the finest reviewers, is that they DO think about what they are doing and what their obligations are to both readers and to the art. They reflect on the implications of their words and don't just respond to what they see.

Editing again to add that we've gotten away from the Wolcott article. Dale made a comment about 20 comments ago that no one seems to have noticed: "And it brings up how journalistic ethics plays into blogs. If that was in a newspaper or magazine, it might be required for Wolcott to say that he is married to dance critic who holds differing views from Macaulay. Maybe in a blog it is expected the readers to know more about Wolcott's life and therefore he doesn't need the disclaimer." Should Wolcott have mentioned this? Does not doing so raise a question of motivation? Or doesn't it matter?

Edited by Alexandra

Share this post


Link to post

Does anyone else think the Times would be delighted with Wolcott's response?

I'm wearing rose colored glasses, but I keep thinking a passionate argument about ballet, however vituperative, will bring positive attention. (Do you think we could get them to fight a duel?)

Let's address some of Wolcott's points. Do people find Macaulay's writing overly emotional?

Also, what about Dale's point about Wolcott and his remaining silent on his wife's position vis-a-vis the profession? Can you make that kind of attack and leave that information out?

Share this post


Link to post

Leigh, that I feel is a good point. I love that Wolcott writes about ballet in his blog. And if it were just that, no disclaimer would be needed, although he does mention his wife's work in his blog. But in that entry regarding Macaulay he didn't. And your first comment, that Macaulay does not "like" Wolcott's (and Jacobs'?) favorite dancer is also needed to put the blog post in context. There's more at work here than just Wolcott feeling Macaulay was too emotional, especially when he admits to practically having an orgasm when Part dances.

But then again, are blogs supposed to be "fair and balanced"?

Share this post


Link to post