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Alastair Macaulay: progress report-- hows he doing? or not doing? in NYC and in the US generally.


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#1 bart

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 04:24 PM

On the New York City Ballet thread on Week #1, Krystin raises an interesting critical comment about Macaulay\'s ballet criticism.

I think if I was in NYCB I would never read his reviews...even when he's complimenting dancers he finds a way to insult them in the same or next sentence.


DeCoster responds:

I understand your reaction to his seemingly harsh criticisms. It is natural to feel defensive about dancers we love. I think he can point out strange details (like Danny Ulbrict having small feet. Duh. He's really small.) and at times be a bit harsh. However, I do think that he is seriously invested in the future of ballet as an art form. He wants to see these companies flourish. He wants to see dancers grow, tackle challenges, and improve their artistry. He seems to review more performances and companies than critics of the past, and I am enlightened by his comparisons and the historical context he often provides.

I have enjoyed Macaulay's writing since his British days, and certainly love his commitment to a larger vision of what ballet can/out-to be in the United States. But I have to admit that some of the things he's saying nowadays strike me as being rather peculiar. I don't mean that he's unfairly critical or that he evaluates some dancers and companies by stricter standards than others. I am referring to his use of language which makes, to me at least, no sense, and which I don't recall from his British writing or even his earlier reviews here in the States.

For example, here are some of his comments from the review of NYCB's opening night. (I'm leaving out the names of the dancers, because the strangeness seems to transcend Macaulay's inevitable preferences for some dancers' work over that of others.)

As for those principals: [Mr. X] showed partnering problems in "Tschaikovsky"; and though his jumps have speed and elevation, they also look glib and short on texture. [ .... ]

[Mr. Y] is ... some kind of star. His jumps in "Symphony" have people gasping; he makes the ballet more serious by his virtues of focus and concentration. Still, despite his very considerable technique, his good showmanship and his terrific timing, he's physically and stylistically eccentric. It ought not to matter that his feet are unusually small they don't stop him from leaping high or turning smartly but they give a tone to his movement that's slick rather than handsome.


At one time, I came away from his reviews feeling that I had, somehow, actually "seen" the performance -- or the aspect of the performance he was talking about. This is no longer the case -- or at least not very often. For example, he seems particularly obsessed with labelling aspects of a performance with a single defining label: for example, "slick" versus "genuine" -- or having "energy" versus slackness. I no longer feel that there is a larger, consistent aesthetic point of view. Or that it has been lost. All too often I simply cannot visualize or even understand what he is talking about.

So -- is it time for a progress report on Mr. Macauley's approqach to writing about ballet?

#2 Classic_Ballet

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 08:31 AM

there is a review of Osipova's performance in the NY times (Mr. Macaulay)
www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/arts/dance/15abt.html?_r=1&ref=dance

This time he decided to ignore V. Part (I guess since he probably found no reasons to destroy her, ignoring was then option number 2). I so so tired of this guy's aversion for V. Part and his adoration for some other dancers.
We are all entitle to have our own opinions, but no matter what his glorified dancers do, he will always write beautiful things about them, and no matter how magnificent the ones on the opposite group perform, he will always destroy them (or in the best scenario, ignore them). Is pretty pathetic.

Is there is something to be admired from a critic is fairness, for the good and the bad.

#3 macnellie

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 10:45 AM

there is a review of Osipova's performance in the NY times (Mr. Macaulay)
www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/arts/dance/15abt.html?_r=1&ref=dance

This time he decided to ignore V. Part (I guess since he probably found no reasons to destroy her, ignoring was then option number 2). I so so tired of this guy's aversion for V. Part and his adoration for some other dancers.
We are all entitle to have our own opinions, but no matter what his glorified dancers do, he will always write beautiful things about them, and no matter how magnificent the ones on the opposite group perform, he will always destroy them (or in the best scenario, ignore them). Is pretty pathetic.

Is there is something to be admired from a critic is fairness, for the good and the bad.


I've just finished Judith Makrell's biography of Lydia Lopokova. The Bloomsbury group's tart and disdainful treatment of her reminds me of Macaulay's reviews of V.Part-perhaps she(Part) has too much life and light for Macaulay to stand. He certainly brings Bloomsbury-inner-circle-wit to his reviews. ..but inner-circle nevertheless

#4 zerbinetta

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 12:28 PM

This time he decided to ignore V. Part (I guess since he probably found no reasons to destroy her, ignoring was then option number 2). I so so tired of this guy's aversion for V. Part


I observed Macaulay applauding for Part on Saturday night.

#5 kfw

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 12:53 PM

Part is one of my very favorite dancers, but Macaulay isn't the only major critic to say she has serious faults. Robert Gottlieb has written of her "studied ballerina-ness and slack footwork." The subtitle of this thread asks how well Macaulay is doing, and to my mind the best way to measure that is to look at the quality of his descriptions. In regards to Part, he is quite clear about what he doesn't care for. When he writes of "her customary marmoreal grandeur," I take it he's not being complimentary, but I can recognize why he'd perceive her this way. But here and elsewhere he isn't only critical. Although he writes that her Odette was "sentimental" and her Odile vampish and "all one note," he also says "her Odette [is] full of yearning backbends, [...] awash with feeling; her Odile glamorously exultant." That's fair-minded to me: I don't like her, but I'll give her what I see as her due . . .

Moderator's request: Please, if anyone wants to dispute any of these descriptions in detail as opposed to discussing the quality of Macaulay's work, consider doing so on the Veronika Part: divided opinions? thread. I'm just offering examples here of what I see as fairmindedness. Classic_Ballet, thank you for reviving this thread.

#6 atm711

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 12:56 PM

I do like Macauley's reviews---he does love the art and most of the time I do respect what he has to say--even when I rarely do not agree.---but---it is apparent that he has a bias against V Part. Not mentioning her in the Osipova Giselle review is rather mean-spirited. I looked up his review on Ananiashvilli's Giselle and he devoted a full paragraph to Murphy's Myrtha. Some day I hope he will see the light. :lol:

#7 bart

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 01:09 PM

To dislike (or underestimate) a single dancer is significant. But if that's all Macaulay has done, it doesn't amount to much considering his position at the Times. My own impression is that Macaulay has accomplished a number of rather significant things, even if I don't agree with everything he writes. For example:

1) He seems to have wrested from his editors more space -- and a bigger travel budget -- than other recent reviewers, including his predecessor.
2) He seems to have a strong, more or less coherent set of personal tastes -- all of it based in a love of ballet and a desire to see it develop at the highest level.
3) He almost always gives us concrete examples -- well-described -- from each performance, to help us "see" what he is talking about. This is soften done by means of that old and well-tsted method, "compare and contrast."

Any other examples, pro or con?

#8 Dale

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 01:16 PM

Macaulay has a very personal style in the tradition of the British critics from the 20th century. He explains sometimes unabashedly how effected he is by a performance. I like the turn the Ballet coverage the Times has taken. He's very knowledgeable about ballet (a fault we had with the previous holder of chief dance critic at the NY Times - Rockwell) and he's not afraid to take the institutions to task (IMO, Barnes and Kisselgoff had gotten a little too cozy with NYCB in the later portions of their reigns at the Post and Times, respectively). I applaud AM for traveling and not only giving the due of our national companies (see his reviews of San Francisco Ballet, Farrell Ballet, Boston, Seattle etc...), but also going abroad to give us a glimpse of ballet around the world. His review/essay on up-and-coming dancers and cast changes at NYCB is the type of piece he's done that I look forward to:

http://www.nytimes.c...anges.html?_r=1

#9 aurora

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 03:27 PM

This time he decided to ignore V. Part (I guess since he probably found no reasons to destroy her, ignoring was then option number 2). I so so tired of this guy's aversion for V. Part


I observed Macaulay applauding for Part on Saturday night.


That is nice, but not really the point. She doesn't know this, nor do his readers. What they know is what he writes about her, which is at best lukewarm, and even when he says something positive (paraphrased slightly) "VP danced better than I've ever seen her" he follows it with a jab "but she was still a bore."

To make this not only about Veronika Part, it should be said there are several other dancers he responds similarly to--including Wendy Whelan.

He has very strong and clear opinions about dancers. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a critic. It may in fact be a necessary one, or at least one that is impossible to avoid. But it makes him a bit of a "bore" for me--I can guess what he will say about almost any dancer without bothering to read the review: David Hallberg (who for the record, I too like very much)-- effusive gushing; Cory Sterns--the same; etc etc.

I also find some of his criticisms, like those pointed out by Bart in the opening post in this thread, truly bizarre. Small feet make someone's dance quality "slick rather than handsome"? what is one to make of this? I have been known to have quibbles about body types for various roles, but this just strikes me as criticism for the sake of it...

#10 Barbara

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 03:53 AM

Another word about his review of Sat evening Giselle: My impression was that in this article he had so much to say about Osipova and Hallberg that there simply wasn't room to mention other notable dancing. Too bad he couldn't write a second review about others in the cast especially Part but also the glorious dancing of Leann Underwood and maybe a word or two about the peasant pas and Hilarion.

#11 EAW

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 05:14 AM

Another word about his review of Sat evening Giselle: My impression was that in this article he had so much to say about Osipova and Hallberg that there simply wasn't room to mention other notable dancing. Too bad he couldn't write a second review about others in the cast especially Part but also the glorious dancing of Leann Underwood and maybe a word or two about the peasant pas and Hilarion.



Barbara, your impression is correct. Alastair (who, as I have "disclosed" in other posts, is a friend) told me that he wished he had more space for this review. I'm not sure that even with a higher word count he would have made the Veronika Part fan-atics happy, but I think he would have at least mentioned her.

#12 Dale

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 06:36 AM

I got the impression as well, that since he had already reviewed the production, this was more about Osipova and Hallberg. Does anybody have an opinion on his writing? I thought it's interesting that he's written about six production of Jewels (NYCB, SF Ballet, Royal, Miami, Boston and PNB) and had something new and thoughtful to say in each review (the same can't be said of the photo department - in four reviews they used pictures of Rubies).

http://www.nytimes.c...amp;oref=slogin

http://www.nytimes.c...9jewe.html?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.c...n...1&ref=dance

http://www.nytimes.c...cific.html?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.c...amp;oref=slogin

http://www.nytimes.c...amp;oref=slogin

#13 Jack Reed

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 06:55 AM

I'll just chime in with bart for a moment (I think), in my own way. Macaulay's value for me is that he exposes how he gets to his conclusions from what he sees and in line with what experience has taught him to value, in contrast to some -- I think of Kisselgoff, as one example, although I never really paid much attention to her writing after a few years after her promotion on Barnes's departure from the Times -- who seek just to assert, often on the basis of making an impression of authority.

Critics like Macaulay who reveal their process do something for their readers IMO by giving us more that a consumer guide or a confirmation of what we feel already but something to emulate while in our seats, so we get more out of what we see, even if it's something the critic hasn't written about. It's been pleasant training in critical appreciation for me. Isn't this value part of why we still refer to some of the critics of the past? Denby and Croce come to mind as examples.

I feel for the fans who feel the dancers they love are slighted, but I'm reminded of a saying which may have a bit of truth in it here, "Love is blind". It's a different kind of appreciation.

#14 dirac

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 09:05 AM

1) He seems to have wrested from his editors more space -- and a bigger travel budget -- than other recent reviewers, including his predecessor.


Rockwell reported from out of town regularly, as I recall.

No complaints here. Macaulay is a fine critic, the Times continues to afford him and the other dance critics space and travel even in this difficult economic time and if anything he's improved since joining the paper.

#15 rg

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 12:47 PM

w/ regard to NYTimes expenditure, the paper only picks up the tab for the travels of its first-string and /or staff critics.
the only one that fits this bill in the dance dept. is Alastair Macaulay.
any dance reviews from abroad written by non-staff writers, that is with by-line other than Macaulay's, are filed by the writers on their own budgets and travels, that is, without NYT travel funds behind them.


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