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


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#16 Mel Johnson

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 09:25 AM

But that last example is what occasions some bad criticism. A critic may write, "X seems to be carrying too much weight for this role right now", "Y is out-of-shape in this appearance" and get some flak for feedback, but Macaulay, it seemed, was casting about for a bon mot, crossed a serious line, and made himself into a mauvais sujet. See, nothing sounds worse than a joke that goes wrong!

#17 papeetepatrick

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 10:09 AM

The thing about 'idiot' and even 'idiotic choice' is, again, as Ray pointed out in the discussion of Macaulay's talk about Ringer and Angle, it's more something that should be cleaned out by the time it goes print and worldwide. That's a perfect example of BLOGTALK, in which people scream 'idiot', with the usual prosaic expletives, all the time. I see what bart means about context, and surely there can be affectionate use of 'idiot' (I'd have no friends at all if we both didn't call each other 'idiot' all the time!), but I definitely agree with kfw that a serious review should not say 'Ratmansky is an idiot'. Period. And we don't even say that here, do we? And this is closer to a blog than a professional review, I'd think, although fortunately we're forced to adhere to standards of decency which I am grateful for despite my own tendencies.

Anyway, most of the points on the NJ 'idiot talk' have been covered, I just wanted to add that this is an utterly pure example of the blogtalk practices, and that there's another issue: It's probably going to become more prevalent, not less. But I fully sympathize with kfw's lament here. The review sounds immediately just CHEAP because of this.

#18 SandyMcKean

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 10:37 AM

I definitely agree with kfw that a serious review should not say 'Ratmansky is an idiot'. Period.

Doesn't it depend on what the reviewer is trying to say?

Dictionary.com defines "idiot" as: "an utterly foolish or senseless person"

What would be the problem if a reviewer actually wanted to say that so-and-so is an utterly foolish person. Seems to me that would be perfectly fine. OTOH, perhaps the reviewer might have wanted to say that so-and-so did an utterly foolish act; in which case, I would think a better choice of words would be that so-and-so did an idiotic thing (as has been suggested above). Seems to me that we all could use a bit of slack when it comes to sometimes not saying exactly what we mean......especially in a case like this since it is so common colloquially to say so-and-so is an idiot when what one really means that the person did something foolish, rather than meaning to imply that so-and-so is consistently and frequently an idiot.

None the less, it does seem to me too that some copy editor should have been more careful to at least ascertain what the reviewer actually meant. (OTOH, we are all familar with situations where deadlines cause certain steps to be omitted or to be given short shrift.)

#19 kfw

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 11:02 AM

What would be the problem if a reviewer actually wanted to say that so-and-so is an utterly foolish person.

For starters, anyone who judges someone else a foolish person for one bad artistic judgment lacks the sense to be given a public forum.

Seems to me that we all could use a bit of slack when it comes to sometimes not saying exactly what we mean......especially in a case like this since it is so common colloquially to say so-and-so is an idiot when what one really means that the person did something foolish, rather than meaning to imply that so-and-so is consistently and frequently an idiot.

I have to disagree. Johnson gets paid to say what he means, and to say it exactly. He doesn't get paid to speak off the cuff. papeetepatrick is exactly right to liken the comment to blog writing, and Lord knows, blogs on the whole haven't exactly raised to tone of public discourse.

#20 Drew

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 11:02 AM

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:


{I am editing this post to add that Sandy Mckean posted just as I finished typing this and says something similar, but I will go ahead and post anyway...}

I think the second is better critical manners, but also better critical reporting (Johnson can only draw an inference about Ratmansky as a person and it's hardly a convincing one since a brilliant person can be a lousy choreographer, and, in any case, he's not reviewing the man but his ballet.)

But actually, when I reread the Johnson quote in this thread I found my (additional) problem with "idiot" is that I don't find it that illuminating. "Stupid jerk" actually seems more precisely to express what Johnson is getting at.

I guess I'm still glad he did not say "stupid jerk," but oddly enough I'm not kidding: since a jerk tends to be inconsiderate of people's feelings--at the least through sheer awkwardness (think of the word literally: "to jerk" something) and stupidity connotes dullness in response to something--it's related to the word "stupor"--and I think Johnson is berating Ratmansky for what he feels is a lack of response to the music and an awkward denigration of the ballerina image Johnson hears in the music's grandeur and emotion.

Etymologically "idiot" is related to privacy (or private meanings): that is, it suggests that someone is ignorant of anything outside of his/her own ideas. Johnson may have meant that--but I suspect he meant something closer to unresponsive etc.

Even without the etymologies that's how I hear those different words, but yes--I am decidedly a pedant (which more or less makes me an idiot in exactly the sense described above).

I also want to give all critics a bit of a break. They are writing to deadline and they have the complex task of writing for many audiences at once--and goodness knows what their editors are demanding from them. (Editors may want "blog-like" writing-ugh.) Of course, critics have to know that in this day and age, the blogs and message boards are waiting for THEM and I guess turnabout may be considered fair play!

For myself, I am very curious to see Ratmansky's take on Nutcracker and I tend to think that no choreography has ever been entirely up to Tchaikovsky's music for the adagio of the pas de deux....and if I were to draw a personal inference from the Ratmansky ballets I have seen it would be that he's a very intriguing person indeed--but I will stick with 'he makes intriguing ballets.'

#21 Paul Parish

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 12:00 PM

"Idiot" used idiomatically like this means "the guy offended me."

#22 SandyMcKean

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 12:30 PM

What would be the problem if a reviewer actually wanted to say that so-and-so is an utterly foolish person.

For starters, anyone who judges someone else a foolish person for one bad artistic judgment lacks the sense to be given a public forum.


You must not have read my entire post since the criterion of "one bad artistic judgment" is exactly the point I was making.

#23 kfw

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:03 PM

You must not have read my entire post since the criterion of "one bad artistic judgment" is exactly the point I was making.

What you wrote is that

perhaps the reviewer might have wanted to say that

(emphasis mine).

In any case, I'm sorry to misunderstand you and I'm glad we agree.

#24 Quiggin

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:13 PM

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."


I agree with Bart - the first thing I thought of was "I was such an idiot [to do such and such]" - you sometimes overhear people saying that on the street or in cafes and it has a certain charm to it. It was something Johnson just as well could have said about himself. But the second part of the sentence about turning the part into bathos and comedy is more important than the first - and perhaps should be the subject of controversy. We sometimes get so sensitized to the little transgressions that the real things get a pass.

#25 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:17 PM

Carlos Acosta is equipped for that role -- it does not matter that he is -- shall we say African American?


In Cuba he is a mulato-(racially mixed people of Spanish/African descendants),a TOTALLY respectful term , BTW...(I'm never sure how to call the English equivalent here...it always seems to sound very controversial... :dunno: )

#26 papeetepatrick

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:27 PM

Seems to me that we all could use a bit of slack when it comes to sometimes not saying exactly what we mean......especially in a case like this since it is so common colloquially to say so-and-so is an idiot when what one really means that the person did something foolish, rather than meaning to imply that so-and-so is consistently and frequently an idiot.


Sandy, that's the whole point, a review like this should not be colloquial. I remember Joan Didion writing in a NYReviewof Books article on the Unabomber Manifesto, when she describes him as writing in 'the colloquial voice, that most desolate of lakes'. That's one of the best lines I ever read (and idiosyncratically witty), but then the lady has been known to do a few of them. I'm bringing it up, though, because I don't think I fully understood her quite baroque phrase until now. Colloquial is blogtalk (mostly, although you do find some careful blogposts too, that don't get sleazy. But I think it's worse when it goes in professional journals).

Just as an aside, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on 'stupid jerk', Drew. I guess I'm glad he didn't say that too, although this sort of thing is so easy to skirt, and it shows a sort of out-of-control tendency that is becoming pretty common.

#27 Drew

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:41 PM

We sometimes get so sensitized to the little transgressions that the real things get a pass.


I actually thought the shocking part of the Johnson review was the claim that Koch, as the donor, had dictated the choice of Ratmansky as choreographer for this Nutcracker. Moreover, he made the point as if Ratmanksy would not have been Mckenzie's choice, and an obvious one, anyway--something I found especially odd. Ratmansky is ABT's in-house choreographer and artistic adviser etc.

I already asked about this on the ABT discussion thread: has it ever been established, as a fact, in the public record that KOCH picked/insisted on the choice of choreographer? (I'm not shocked at a big donor making a private suggestion--which might well carry a bit of implicit pressure with it--but Johnson implies a kind of official 'demand.')

It was very unclear to me that Johnson had any evidence for this claim at all...and, on the other hand, if true, it seems to me to call for more serious comment and investigation than Johnson offers.

However, this really is far afield from the topic of writing negatively about individual dancers (or choreographers) in a personal vein...

#28 kfw

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:45 PM

Somewhat :off topic: Incidentally, since we're discussing criticism, I see that the NY Times blog Paper Cuts has now posted seven separate articles on "why criticsm matters": Critics on Criticism.

#29 dirac

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 01:54 PM

I guess I'm still glad he did not say "stupid jerk," but oddly enough I'm not kidding: since a jerk tends to be inconsiderate of people's feelings--at the least through sheer awkwardness (think of the word literally: "to jerk" something) and stupidity connotes dullness in response to something--it's related to the word "stupor"--and I think Johnson is berating Ratmansky for what he feels is a lack of response to the music and an awkward denigration of the ballerina image Johnson hears in the music's grandeur and emotion.


I agree on all counts, Drew. And not pedantic at all, BTW.

I don't have any problem with calling a particularly foolish artistic choice idiotic but to state baldly in a review that "X is an idiot to do Z" is not only rude but as you also noted above, the reader has to parse it because it doesn't mean anything on its own. (In general, colloquialism can add liveliness and spice to a critic's writing.)

But the second part of the sentence about turning the part into bathos and comedy is more important than the first - and perhaps should be the subject of controversy. We sometimes get so sensitized to the little transgressions that the real things get a pass.


Also true, Quiggin.

I'd be curious to know more about the Koch business, too. It doesn't seem likely on the face of it - Ratmansky was the obvious choice to make a new Nutcracker for ABT.

#30 papeetepatrick

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 02:12 PM

[(In general, colloquialism can add liveliness and spice to a critic's writing.)


While we're still okay on 'pedantic or not', I'd just say that I think colloquialism is better as the 'surprise witticism', but it cannot be the general style, and shouldn't draw too much attention to itself. That may be what you meant by 'in general', this is just to refine my own thoughts on the matter. I just think some writing has to be more formal than other kinds, or we've really lost standards of real merit (there are some who, of course, actually believe that merit shouldn't any longer be the issue in any number of circumstances, from not awarding meritorious students any more than the others to the sky's the limit, but this is generally limited to hard Marxists, as in some of the controversies over the recent tuition hikes in the UK. I haven't the time of day for such things.) If you mean 'colloquialisms' like Pauline Kael was always using, yes, they worked there, but it's just very important to know when not to use the colloquial voice, if only because it it's too easy (which using the colloquial voice is), it probably should be scrutinized before use, with leeway given only for deadlines, etc., not for 'space', since that simply didn't have to be used, and that's obvious.

The more I think about it the more I think the use of 'idiot' by this reviewer is downright appalling. It's enough to start wanting to throw out a few slurs regarding provincialism, or write letters to the editor, etc. The Macaulay things we disagree on are less clear-cut even if we hold strong positions about them; use of 'idiot' in the 'pure form' this guy did it is inexcusable, and I think he deserves, in fact, a severe reprimand, if not firing. He's not at Macaulay's level to 'deserve a break' yet, at least without a real reprimand (and even Macaulay has had to be answerable to criticisms recently, whether or not you take his side.)


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