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Writing negatively about individual dancers-- how far should dance critics go?


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#1 bart

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Posted 25 March 2010 - 02:08 PM

On a thread about Critiquing the Critics," Innopac has posted linked to a Dance Magazine article containing a passage that deserves a thread of its own. The critic in question is Alistair Macaulay of the NY Times, who has been criticized on Ballet Talk by some for being overly critical of certain individual dancers. John Rockwell, Macaulay's predecessor, is mentioned as well.

Why Do They Say What They Say?

Here's what the article says:

“Generally I follow the rule that performers are ill-advised to read about themselves,” says Macaulay. He once wrote a scalding theater review of the actor Stephen Fry that stunned Fry so much that he literally fled the country. “They read reviews at their own peril. I am aware that they frequently do so more intently than anyone else. I am also aware that they are seldom going to read them right. All some of them will ever see is what it says about themselves . . . In my job, I think my best service to dance readers is to speak honestly about what I think and not to put in gentlemanly caveats, such as ‘If this may be said without hurting her feelings,’ as I remember certain British critics writing when I was young.”

For some critics, the issue of dancers’ bodies and looks can feel radioactive, while others consider it fair game. “If you are a performer onstage, putting yourself in the public eye, then it is a legitimate area of comment,” says John Rockwell, who wrote a controversial New York Times piece titled “Today, It’s Dance 10, Looks 3.” The article compared the “hothouse flowers” of Balanchine’s day to some of the current New York City Ballet principal dancers, whom he described as “spectacular dancers without being spectacular beauties.”

But Macaulay claims that he doesn’t place body slamming high on his list of critical talking points. “I learned from Lynn Seymour,” he says, “that a great dancer can transcend what is not considered the ideal body type.”

How far can or should dance critics go in the way of writing negative criticism of individual dancers? And what about "body slamming"?
Do you agree with Macaulay? With Rockwell? Macaulay sounds quite persuasive to me. I wonder, however, whether I myself would actually go very far in that critical direction if I were a published critic. Generally, I like to distinguish between the performance -- which IS fair game -- and the dancer/person. But that's a hard distinction to maintain when you are following a company or a "season."

#2 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 March 2010 - 02:38 PM

Do you agree with Macaulay? It sounds quite persuasive to me. I wonder, however, whether I would actually go very far in that kind of criticism if I were a published writer.


Yes, I agree with him, and think we should be allowed to talk how awful he looked too, though. Somebody did it here once, and got in some trouble. Actually, I don't care that much, critics are going to write what they can get away with.

I liked Rockwell's remark about the 'hothouse flowers in Balanchine's day'. The absence of that means NYCB has lost much of what was its special character. How can you leave things like that out when it's very obvious we're not looking at the same company any more.

And if they don't think the 'beauty part' is that important, then they don't have to pay attention to 'spectacular dancers without being spectacular beauties' line. I think that was appropriate myself, even if you can look at it either way, it is all right to say it. Dancers have long been expected to be beaitiful, and now a lot of them do look quite plain, as do actors.

But Macaulay probably knows not to read this, since sometimes people have described his own appearance at the theater (I've never seen him, and don't care what he looks like, but I dislike other kinds of grand statements he makes, because he, like the rest of us, doesn't know as much as he thinks he does, very often. I mean, as when they want to make the big 'historical statements'. Those are boring. Probably my claiming that POB is the greatest company in the world is equally stupid, though. He probably doesn't care about making a fool of himself any more than I do; I think that's how you learn. In movies, John Simon has been much more brutal about actors' looks for decades than Macaualay ever is.)

#3 Paul Parish

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Posted 26 March 2010 - 12:16 PM

Edwin Denby, who was himself never personally unkind to a dancer -- well, he DID say that Lifar had had the great misfortune to gain weight all over his body except frm the knee down -- which truly WAS a great misfortune, since what Lifar had giong for him was mainly his 17 inch waist and his bendiness, Balanchine thoguht him the only man who was plastically as interesting as a woman -- Denby once wrote that dancers shouldn't read criticism. it was bad for them, like smoking.

A dancer's body is his instrument. If a pianist played an instrument with a faulty action, or an ugly sound, it would be important to mention that problem -- whether or not the pianist managed to overcome it and make the concert interesting anyway.

In ballet, like in any form of theater, what you see is what you get. The way a dancer looks is the most immediate part of the medium.

Sometimes a dancer is transfigured by the act of dancing. This was notably true of Baryshnikov, who had a short stubby body and was not particularly prepossessing -- until he moved. And the transfiguration was awe-inspiring.

Some dancers, like Suzanne Farrell, are beautiful before they do anything. Runway-model beautiful. Others are transfigured by their musicality and grace (Farrell also had those virtues -- AND, I have to give her credit for this, she was willing -- as in Movements for Piano and Orchestra -- to let herself be 'ugly," if it allowed her to do the freaky movement with the right phrasing.

All of this is fair to comment upon. If you DON'T, you're leaving out one of the most important things that the people who were not there would have to know.

If they send an ugly girl out to dance Juliet, she's gonna have to be a hell of a dancer -- and if she succeeds, THAT is a triumph.

#4 leonid17

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Posted 27 March 2010 - 02:47 PM

How often is it really the fault of the dancer?

If any negativity is deserved, most of its force should principally be aimed at the company director for casting the dancer.

This can then be followed by an analysis of why and where the dancer failed to meet the expected technical and interpretative demands of the role.

Added 29.3.10:

“If you are a performer onstage, putting yourself in the public eye, then it is a legitimate area of comment,” says John Rockwell..."

Rockwell is right and wrong. The problem for me, is there is as point when leading dancers have little choice in the roles they perform and most want to dance roles as it is their
raison d'etre, I can only reiterate my above first sentence.

How often do critics emphatically say that a certain dancer should not have been cast in a particular role?

#5 bart

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Posted 29 March 2010 - 12:08 PM

How often do critics emphatically say that a certain dancer should not have been cast in a particular role?

I've seen this, but not all that often. Sometimes a phrase like "X is miscast as .... " seems really intended as a a criticism of the dancer, no matter who or what was responsible for the decision. It's the dancer who gets the black mark as though they somehow didn't rise to the occasion.

My ambivalence about negative criticism of individual dancers -- and especially their bodies -- is aimed more at writers who seem intent on dismissing the dancer, rather than those who try to understand what happened.

Paul's point is very helpful in this regard:

A dancer's body is his instrument. If a pianist played an instrument with a faulty action, or an ugly sound, it would be important to mention that problem -- whether or not the pianist managed to overcome it and make the concert interesting anyway.

As examples of a dancer overcoming a less than perfect body, recently I read a review which mentioned David Hallberg's short torso, but to make a positive point about his long legs and elegant line. Veronika Part's big shoulders were also mentioned (though perhaps the word wasn't "big"). Again, defect (if such it is) was not stressed. Most important I think, the dancer himself/herself was not consigned to the dust bin.

#6 dirac

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Posted 29 March 2010 - 01:40 PM

If they send an ugly girl out to dance Juliet, she's gonna have to be a hell of a dancer -- and if she succeeds, THAT is a triumph.


Much depends, of course, on what you mean by ugly. Dancers tend to be on the pretty side, so uggos trying to horn in on Juliet arenít a major issue in my experience, but even dancers, male and female, who are downright tright plain (I wonít name names for obvious reasons) can make themselves beautiful through theatrical skill and and wonderful dancing.

Sometimes a dancer is transfigured by the act of dancing.


Quite so.


#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 29 March 2010 - 01:49 PM

I'd just add that Baryshnikov, when I once saw him coming to rehearse at Juilliard in 1978 when he was with NYCB, was anything but unpreprosssing, and was, in fact, quite dazzling, despite being short. But it might be different in photos, 'short' yes, 'stubby', no. It seems I saw a good number of these dancers offstage in the late 70s, early 80s. but some were 'prepossessing', and some weren't. Agree that Farrell was naturally beautiful, and offstage as well, but so was Baryshnikov. Nureyev would rehearse at Juilliard too, and he might have seemed to have 'more presence' because he was often (if not always) the performer offstage and onstage: He seemed to 'hold court' even in the elevator, and this was amusing, but not always necessary, I thought.

For the most part, I agree with leonid, though.

#8 leonid17

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Posted 29 March 2010 - 02:12 PM

If they send an ugly girl out to dance Juliet, she's gonna have to be a hell of a dancer -- and if she succeeds, THAT is a triumph.


[size=3][font="Times New Roman"][font="Verdana"][size=2]Much depends, of course, on what you mean by ugly. Dancers tend to be on the pretty side, so uggos trying to horn in on Juliet arenít a major issue in my experience, but even dancers, male and female, who are downright tright plain (I wonít name names for obvious reasons) can make themselves beautiful through theatrical skill and and wonderful dancing.[/size][/font]

[font="Verdana"][size=2]

[font="Verdana"][size=2]Sometimes a dancer is transfigured by the act of dancing. [/size][/font]


Quite so.[/size][/font][/font][/size]


Absolutely agree.

#9 kfw

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Posted 30 December 2010 - 06:46 PM

Rather than start a new thread entitled "Writing negatively about choreographers - how far should dance critics go," I'll slip this in here: I was gobsmacked to read Robert Johnson in the N.J. Star Ledger saying that

Ratmansky is an idiot to turn this celestial ballerina role into an occasion for bathos and comedy.

.
Idiot? Are insults now acceptable criticism? I've read few of Johnson's reviews previously. Has he been known to pop off like this? I think it's unfortunate and unprofessional.

#10 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 30 December 2010 - 08:16 PM

The exact situation happens with actors, just as Patrick stated. Howard Stern recently had to face a huge wave of criticism-(not that he cared..he never does, BTW)-after making remarks about Oscar nominated Gabourey Sidibe's weight in his radio show. I honestly don't get it. The girl's weight-(just as, let's say, Lara Flynn Boyle's)-is out there and exposed for everyone to see, and if praising and embracing and admiring words are allowed, why is that the other side can't voice theirs...?
We are certainly getting VERY afraid of the so called "politically correctness" term, and race and weight are right there on the top of the list, but believe me...having to hear only one, "official" side at the end goes beyond boring...it gets VERY dangerous. I know it by experience.

#11 Paul Parish

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 12:18 AM

I may not agree with myself tomorrow morning, but right now I feel it's necessary to say, as a "published critic" myself, that the audience is always being asked to forgive something that is less than ideal, and we'll go along, up to a point. But if the dancer looks wrong for the part, for WHATEVER reason, that dancer is going to have an uphill fight.

Let's turn this away from the feminine mystique for a moment, just for the sake of the argument.

Who of us can imagine Vladimir Malakhov making a success as Spartacus? Yes he's a beautiful dancer, with a fantastic technique, a poetic soul -- but HE LOOKS WRONG FOR THE PART. Nothing about the way his body looks or functions suggests the grit and stamina and heroic strength that are pre-requisites. Carlos Acosta is equipped for that role -- it does not matter that he is -- shall we say African American? His skin-color and racial features in no way disqualify him for the role, given the OTHER qualities he brings to the part.

Baryshnikov famously had to fight to get the role of Albrecht, but the poetic sensitivity and profound gifts he has and always had as an actor made the case, and even in relatively hide-bound Leningrad he made a huge success in the role.

Danilova once said that it took her several performances after a lay-off to regain her stage-presence; and we see it all the time with performers, that when they return from vacation they look out of shape and unfocussed. It would be best for a critic to skip opening night and wait till the previews were over -- but the ballet companies don't have previews, and opening night is NEWSWORTHY. DO they still have it? Is the company headed for the cellar this year? BASEBALL players have to put up with honest criticism -- and baseball players also benefit from an audience that is not so sentimental and is willing to analyze what they saw. [I have no problem with Robert johnosn's saying what he thinks about a choreographer. Frankly, I'm grateful that he cares enough to put it bluntly.]

The term "emploi" is used in ballet to define the "kind" of dancer who belongs in what kind of role. No less an artist than Carlo Blasis made it a cardinal point, that a strong, bandy-legged dancer might have great success in character roles but should NEVER be given a role in the "noble" emploi; by contrast, an astute director would never cast Audrey Hepburn as the Wicked Witch of the West, nor Margaret Hamilton as Holly Golightly -- there'd be NO CHANCE of popular success. This is not just obvious -- it is THE LAW. Kirstie Alley will never play Juliet, except maybe off-off Broadway, in a Charles Ludlum-style production.

Speaking of Margaret Hamilton, I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned that David Hallberg has the same profile that she does. He is a noble dancer of the first water, and we all forgive him his nose and his chin -- but who of us has failed to notice this flaw? It doesn't incapacitate him, since he is able -- like Lynn Seymour (whom Macaulay mentioned) by the power of his imagination to project an image so idealized, and with such power, that we only see the aspects of his performance that matters. The clips Hookham has posted on YouTube of his Albrecht with the Bolshoi are transcendently noble and beautiful, in their musicality, style, and deployment of the technique. Beautiful, beyond anything I've myself ever seen in this role, whether live or on screen. If I were writing about him for any of the papers I write for, I would criticize nothing and praise everything.... for his odd face does not matter enough to detract from the glorious rhythmic design he's created in this portrayal.

What matters is what he makes you see.

If with a dancer what you can't help seeing is how much worse they danced than last year, you have to say so -- as gently as possible, unless there's something about the performance that is flat-out offensive. In my case, I can sometimes simply bite my tongue and say nothing -- that is to say, not review the performance at all. No artist likes to be ignored, and you can sometimes express your displeasure by saying nothing. Your editor may let you do that -- but not often. You DO have to say what you think.

#12 JMcN

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 02:19 AM

I think it's all to easy for critics to be critical in rude and negative ways. When things, including individual dancers, are not good then surely there can be a positive way to point out the issues. Speaking to a dancer some years ago she told a friend and I that the first time she saw her name in a review the comment about her was "X should have been strangled at birth". How offensive and hurtful is that and it surely cannot be a critique.

#13 bart

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 05:32 AM

What matters is what he makes you see.

Absolutely.

There's a converse, I suppose: performers who, for whatever reason, can not (or ever) make you see what the role seems to demand.

Both can and should be discussed by critics, though I tend to prefer erring on the side of more neutral, descriptive criticism rather than on the use of strong negative adjectives.

And ... what about kfw's question as relates to criticism of a choreographer? (Eg. Ratmansky = "idiot".) I get the point of the review. I dont' know why "idiot" seems to me to be more genteel, more subtle, and therefore more acceptable than "cretin" in French, or "jerk," or "ass," or "insensitive boor." But it does. II suspect that Johnson was reaching for something be believed to be less strong than he really wanted to say.

#14 kfw

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 06:09 AM

[I dont' know why "idiot" seems to me to be more genteel, more subtle, and therefore more acceptable than "[i]cretin[/i]" in French, or "jerk," or "ass," or "insensitive boor." But it does. II suspect that Johnson was reaching for something be believed to be less strong than he really wanted to say.

I read "idiot" as "stupid jerk." Others may read it differently, but it's a strong insult in any case. I cannot imagine why the writer or his editor would find it reasonable or acceptable to go ad hominem because of an artistic choice. He could have focused on the choice, even calling it a dumb choice if he felt the need to vent. But to attack Ratmansky personally?

#15 bart

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 08:32 AM

kfw, I see your point. Many readers, probably most, would read this as you did. Possibly I was thinking about the element of absurdity that "idiot" can convey in English, as in the 1930s movie "Idiot's Delight." Or its affectionate use in statements like: "You're such an idiot. I love you."

But what I forgot is that context counts. A review that tosses around terms like "appalling," "tortured," and styupefyingly bland and unmusical," has -- one can safely say -- taken off the gloves.

Your post led me to think about the original sentence ...

Ratmansky is an idiot to turn this celestial ballerina role into an occasion for bathos and comedy

,,, as compared with a possible alternative ...

Ratmansky made an idiotic choice when he turned this celestial ballerina role into an occasion for bathos and comedy.

But I can't figure out whether the second option is better or not. :unsure:

P.S. Thank goodness that Johnson did not suggest that Ratmansky had been eating too many Sugar Plums. That -- as poor Alastair Macaulay discovered -- might have become a national scandal. :wink:


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