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Alastair Macaulay: progress report

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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?

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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.com/2009/06/13/arts/dan...anges.html?_r=1

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.com/2008/01/04/arts/dan...amp;oref=slogin

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/arts/dan...9jewe.html?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/arts/dan...1&ref=dance

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/arts/dan...cific.html?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/10/arts/dan...amp;oref=slogin

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/arts/dan...amp;oref=slogin

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

Rockwell did travel much more often than his colleagues, but I think AM gets around even more than JR did. I know he's been here in Seattle more often than any of his predecessors.

And speaking as a dance critic, I can pretty much guarantee that there is never enough space to discuss everything you'd like to in a review!

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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.

Thanks for the information, rg.

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Macaulay has certainly been giving the impression of travelling a great deal.

More important to me, his reviews from around the U.S. make an impact. When you read them in one sitting -- as is possible thanks to the enlightening collection of links posted by Dale :) -- these reviews suggest that he has a real and rather important agenda. It's not just "I saw this in Miami and that in Seattle." It's: "how do the reps of these companies compare with one another? the dancers? the way they do Balanchine?"

Ballet and ballet audiences in the U.S. are so decentralized most of the time. It's fascinating and encouraging to watch Macaulay piece together a larger -- one might even say "national" -- picture.

P.S. Thanks, Dale, for those Links to the various company stagings of Jewels. May of us read each article as it appeared. A "Collected Jewels," however, is quite different in impact. And very valuable.

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Many BTers may not be aware that Macaulay's recent end-of-decade roundup sparked a lot of animosity in the world of contemporary dance (in AM's anachronistic phrase, "downtown dance"). Here's a recent blog posting by Eva Yaa Asantewaa that exemplifies the fracas.

My personal sense is that more blame needs to be put at the feet of the NY Times than Macaulay himself--he's just a single critic with singular interests, and sounds worst when he's asked to travel outside of his comfort zone.

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Many BTers may not be aware that Macaulay's recent end-of-decade roundup sparked a lot of animosity in the world of contemporary dance (in AM's anachronistic phrase, "downtown dance"). Here's a recent blog posting by Eva Yaa Asantewaa that exemplifies the fracas.

My personal sense is that more blame needs to be put at the feet of the NY Times than Macaulay himself--he's just a single critic with singular interests, and sounds worst when he's asked to travel outside of his comfort zone.

The NY Times has three other dance critics who do cover contemporary dance with diligence and respect: Gia Kourlas, Claudia La Rocco, and Roslyn Sulcas.

Here's one of the paragraphs in Macauley's piece that triggered the outcry:

Dance critics like to look for hope in the best modern or postmodern choreography being shown in downtown Manhattan. I've seen good material there too and among young modern-dance choreographers elsewhere, and yet — amid a field too large for anyone to keep complete track of it — I sense that too little of late has amounted to anything historic. Instead I think it's worth drawing attention to the continuing and growing vitality of older forms: African dance, Indian dance, flamenco, tango and tap. (Recent festivals of Arab and Muslim art and dance in Brooklyn and Washington have made me wish we saw more from there.)

The field may indeed be "too large for anyone to keep complete track of," but the NY Times has four people in position who could collectively watch, report, and assess - and three of them already do. Macauley might have found a graceful way to delegate the "downtown" decade wrap-up to them. (They might not be any more impressed with it than he is, of course.) One could argue that the senior dance critic of the paper of record should be in a position to provide an informed assessment of dance in all its variety, but if something is genuinely "too large for anyone to keep complete track of" then there should be no shame in calling in reinforcements.

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Oh, dear:

We ought to thank Macaulay for producing a document that—like the solemn wisdom of Pat Robertson and the learned policy pronouncements of Sarah Palin—gives us a vivid idea of who he is.

Take that, Alastair. Asantewaa may have a point about that particular article - some of Macaulay's dismissals seem a trifle airy - but then she goes overboard. It's pretty silly to say that the NYT doesn't care about dance, especially in a time when all newspapers are cutting back and few of them have one dance critic, let alone four. I'm also suspicious of someone who takes lines such as "Dance is the art with no history" and "When a step has happened, it leaves no trace" and presents them as something meant literally when in context it is perfectly clear what Macaulay means.

One could argue that the senior dance critic of the paper of record should be in a position to provide an informed assessment of dance in all its variety, but if something is genuinely "too large for anyone to keep complete track of" then there should be no shame in calling in reinforcements.

Every critic has his areas of strength and weakness. No shame in that, especially when your beat is New York. But if Macaulay really does think the field of contemporary dance is too large for him to keep up, then I agree he shouldn't have written the end-of-the-decade piece - or any season wrap-ups, for that matter.

(Off topic -- I'm still puzzling over what "psychic counselor specializing in Tarot as a transformative modality" means. Is that like an ordinary Tarot card reading? Is something else involved? I'm genuinely curious.)

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Many BTers may not be aware that Macaulay's recent end-of-decade roundup sparked a lot of animosity in the world of contemporary dance (in AM's anachronistic phrase, "downtown dance"). Here's a recent blog posting by Eva Yaa Asantewaa that exemplifies the fracas.

My personal sense is that more blame needs to be put at the feet of the NY Times than Macaulay himself--he's just a single critic with singular interests, and sounds worst when he's asked to travel outside of his comfort zone.

What exactly do you mean by his "comfort zone"?

In London over what seems to be the last thirty years, I have seen Mr Macaulay frequently attending at what goes for; cutting edge modern dance works, musicals, straight theatre, neo-ethnic dance companies, academic classical ballets, neo-classical ballet et al and attending the same productione more than once.

As a lover of various dance forms, I do not always agree with his opinions but I find them generally readable and balanced. I personally admire Miss Part. If he criticises her, that is his right and I will not take it as a personal affront to my taste, because he is doing what he gets paid for, offering an opinion.

To see his reviews as being in someway damaging to dancers and companies is to me somewhat mythically sentimental. It is my experience that minority art forms successfully attract minority audiences over long periods of time and what he has to say about, "... downtown Manhattan..." I would paraphrase for downtown Islington in London where the Sadlers Wells Theatre promotes younger modern dance companies that have nothing to say to me.

The NYT employs him to inform the public on the basis of his wide knowledge and his status. For me, he is both descriptive and appraisive in his writing and I am always interested to read his reviews from a distance, because he does what he is meant to do, that is, to keep me as a reader informed and over time, I know when to take him at face value and when not.

In an age when media marketing and the cult of the celebrity fashions taste, I think it is refreshing to have a voice that opines in an independent informed manner.

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Well, having read the original Macaulay piece and then the rebuttal, I would summarize the "controversy" as follows:

(1) Macaulay attends modern/postmodern/contemporary on an irregular basis.

(2) When he does attend, he mostly attends performances w/ works by the heavy-duty moderns/postmoderns/contemporaries -- Cunningham, Morris, Taylor, etc.

(3) Points 1 and 2 should preclude him from rendering an opinion on the state of modern/postmodern/contemporary dance.

It's always possible that Macaulay does attend "downtown dance" performances more regularly than is believed and chooses not to write about them. However, based on his published reviews (and I've been reading him faithfully since he started), I don't think Point 1 is entirely unfair. Short of tallying each and every review, I would say that he writes much more about the ballet than he does about the modern/postmodern/contemporary dance and that, within the latter genre, he writes much more about the established modern dance than about current trends in the field. So, taking that into account, he was probably pushing things by rendering the opinion he did.

BUT, I don't think it's true that, somehow, the NY Times is doing a disservice to the "downtown dance". As others have mentioned, Kourlas, La Rocco and Sulcas do a lot of reporting/reviewing as far as this dance is concerned. And, based on their published reviews, I don't get the sense that what Macaulay wrote is literally untrue. The sense I get from the Kourlas/La Rocco/Sulcas troika is that there's not a lot of major, new significance going on with this kind of dance.

We ought to thank Macaulay for producing a document that—like the solemn wisdom of Pat Robertson and the learned policy pronouncements of Sarah Palin—gives us a vivid idea of who he is.

Take that, Alastair. Asantewaa may have a point about that particular article - some of Macaulay's dismissals seem a trifle airy - but then she goes overboard.

Agreed. She's just pandering to the supposed biases of her readers with that quote.

I'm also suspicious of someone who takes lines such as "Dance is the art with no history" and "When a step has happened, it leaves no trace" and presents them as something meant literally when in context it is perfectly clear what Macaulay means.

Also agreed. All he was saying is a variation on what Mindy Aloff said years ago: "Dances doesn't have theoretical realities. They only have performance realities."

I was more put off by one of the responses to the rebuttal:

"[A] critic's responsibility should be to try to better the art and enlighten choregraphers . . ."

Wrong, wrong, WRONG! The critic's job is to tell the audience what happened and give an evaluation. As Arlene Croce astutely noted, a review is a conversation between the reviewer and the reader. It's not a conversation between the reviewer and the choreographer or between the reviewer and a dancer. (That being said, I do think that Croce -- at times -- acted like a wannabe artistic director in print; her late-period City Ballet reviews being a case in point.)

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"... I would say that he writes much more about the ballet than he does about the modern/postmodern/contemporary dance and that, within the latter genre, he writes much more about the established modern dance than about current trends in the field. So, taking that into account, he was probably pushing things by rendering the opinion he did."

Thank you for your well reasoned comments.

Historically speaking critics have always had to review dance forms which were unfamiliar territory. I think few critics are terrified by the new and whether they admire or express disdain, their opinion is what they get paid for, coupled with the literary ability to exhibit some expertise in expressing their views.

As to," pushing things," I sometimes want to read critics who are bold and edgy in their comments even if I do not agree with them, because, they expand a livelier discussion about performances and the stature of performances which would have otherwise remained obscure to the majority of the NYT readership.. In the case of Mr Macaulay’s somewhat off the cuff remark, he has succeeded in stirring the pot and raised his own profile further whether he meant to or not.

It is far too easy to attack minority interest “downtown” dance works perpetuated by minority interested parties, when such works have a narrow social appeal which perhaps, is why the NYT feels it doesn’t have to cater for them. After all it isn't their duty to review works simply because they take place.

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The exchange between miliosr and leonid made me think. It seems to me that Macaulay, who writes a good amount about non-ballet dance and seems to appreciate it greatly, is the most ballet-centered reviewer the Times has possibly ever had. He knows more about ballet and he is not afraid to take space to write in terms that make complete sense only to a knowledgeable ballet audience.

Macaulay is not afraid to describe things using rather specialized ballet language. For example: this paragraphy in his review of American Ballet Theater's production of Ashton's Ballet Offering." (NYTimes, 1/28/2010):

The first ballerina ends a step by tipping her head sideways and flexing her wrists; the second enters backward from the wings, smiling over her shoulder at us; the fifth folds over on the floor to end her solo like the Dying Swan but then, on the very final beat, sits up brightly; the sixth no sooner comes to rest at the end of a double pirouette than she reverses position and arrives facing along another diagonal. These absurdities actually aren’t absurd here; the ballet’s spirit is so sweetly engaging, so brilliantly laden with intricacy for every part of the body, that it becomes manna.

Someone with a lot of ballet experience -- in class or in theater seats -- can SEE this very clearly while reading. Similarly, someone with a knowledge of ballet history will know what Macaulay means when he speaks, elsewhere in the review, of the "Margot Fonteyn role" or the role "made for Svetlana Beriosova." I have no idea what the average ballet goer would make of it -- or whether they would even read it. :)

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