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Macaulay on All-American Ballerinas

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[Admin note: this thread originally was started by pherank in the San Francisco Ballet forum to note Macaulay's inclusion of SFB's San Francisco Ballet's Vanessa Zahorian and Sarah Van Patten in his article All American Goddesses. It soon morphed into a discussion of Macaulay's article, which has been moved here. All references to where the discussion should take place have been removed]

I've actually been following the backlash to this article, as Jock Soto shared some anger over this on his facebook page (which is public, for anyone wishing to see).

"Dear Alastair Macaulay, if you are going to write about great ballerinas, can you do so without insulting them? Also if you knew what these ballerinas do to become themselves then why don't you put on a pair of Pointe shoes for the next twenty years. It's time for the NY Times to fire you. Have a nice day."

and

"P.s. Mr. Macaulay. There is no such thing as a part time ballerina. But then again I thought you knew that!"

While I do believe the ballerinas he highlighted are worthy of their praise (thrilled to see Ballet Arizona and Jillian Barrell get some recognition) he certainly did leave out other deserving dancers, and definitely made some confusing points. There are pros and cons within all editorials though, I suppose.

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Oh yes, Macaulay stuck his neck out on this one, but I kind of feel like it is timely. I do wish he had made this an in-depth piece, and really explored the topic, but it reads like a typical Sunday dance column critique rushed to make the deadline.

Soto asking for Macauley's head is just dumb - and how many times have we heard that regarding a critic? (especially New York critics). This is just my opnion of course, but I find Macaulay says a lot of true things, he just says them in a less than delicate manner. Newspapers love controversy, so Macaulay will stay.

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I concur - dancers have their role and so do critics. While I don't always agree with the critics, I do appreciate their opinions, and efforts to write about them that interests the readers. And yes, a longer, New Yorker / The Atlantic style piece on this subject is necessary to at least begin to cover the topic.

There are 312 million Americans in this country, over 50% of them are women. It makes sense that out of that population, we can - and do - produce wonderful ballerinas.

More importantly - who would be on your list (I'm asking the BalletAlert Universe)? I know it's difficult to see all of the companies, but who else needs a name check?

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Admin note: to discuss who would be on your list, please see this thread:

http://balletalert.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic/37483-who-would-be-on-your-all-american-ballerinas-list/#entry323426

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I suspect that what enraged Soto was that Macaulay singled out four NYCB ballerinas/Principals (whatever you prefer) as not really ballerinas (because not ballerinas all the time) while he did NOT name names in any other cases of leading woman dancers he considered less than genuine ballerinas, just those four. He didn't take a knock at Kent (by name) to praise Murphy, but he did take a knock at Whelan, Bouder etc. to praise Peck, Mearns, etc. Likewise he didn't take a knock at other SF Ballerinas or Miami City Ballet Ballerinas, etc. to praise the ones he praised.

When he took that knock, he also did so by arguing that these dancers were not ballerinas in all of their roles--leaving me at least rather to wonder if he had really seen all the non New York ballerinas he mentions in anywhere near as many roles as he has seen these NYCB ballerinas...because, although he travels around, it still seems unlikely given the realities of geography and, indeed, given the limits of some of those company's repertory per season.

He finds the younger generation at NYCB more exciting than the older. That's an opinion I can respect and, in all honesty, partly share. But the same point could have been made without listing the older generation. Why do so? Well, perhaps because NYCB is arguably the most important company in the U.S.--though many on this thread may disagree I do think it's probably Macaulay's own opinion. (And this--or something close to it--might also be the reason, condescending as it may seem, not to bother knocking ballerinas/principals at other companies about whom he has reservations: 'who considers them ballerinas anyway?' is the implication....) Or perhaps because he knows many of his readers will be wondering why he doesn't mention those dancers in particular, so he would just as soon name names...and give his article a stronger dollop of controversy to boot.

Still, whatever the reasons, given the specificity with which he singles out NYCB ballerinas to criticize in an article whose focus is really elsewhere I can understand why Soto or others might be upset.

I personally wasn't particularly angry, but I did feel he was being unfair. I don't think he is much worried about that and I do think critics have to write to garner debate and discussion and I suppose he has done that. I could wish he had found a different way to do so. (Surely the "American" angle might have been sufficient to lead to lively debate...and could have been developed more by contrasting American with non-American ballerinas. He wildly praises Mearns' Odette-Odile at every opportunity as he does again here: does he think it would play in Moscow or St. Petersburg? That in itself could make for a pretty controversial article.)

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Whether or not a dancer is a ballerina is subjective and Macaulay is entitled to his opinion. I object to his comparison of dancing on point to binding of women's feet.

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Jayne:

And yes, a longer, New Yorker / The Atlantic style piece on this subject is necessary to at least begin to cover the topic.

But the New Yorker no longer seems to devote long articles to dance ...

Macaulay seems be keeping dance, at least that of Lincoln Center, in the cultural forefront at the New York Times, (see today's Sleeping Beauty summary review on the front page online) and I'd bet if he were let go per Soto, the next critic would not be able to do so or at least to that degree. The San Francisco Chronicle now seems to have Allan Ulrich on some sort of part-time basis, and only has him review San Francisco Ballet when it would be too embarrassing not to.

I thought the article was good, and Drew's comment that Sara Mearns, Odette/Odile might not go over in Russia interesting, and that American dancers and Americaness, which seems neutral to us here, might have a different character value in Europe – like the American girl in Massine/Satie's Parade or Jean Seberg in Breathless. I used to find Tina LeBlanc who was so wonderful in Balanchine too American in San Francisco Ballet's Swan Lake. Maybe that's what Macaulay was taking into account with his comment about Balanchine dancers not being accepted as real ballerinas.


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I thought the article was good, and Drew's comment that Sara Mearns, Odette/Odile might not go over in Russia interesting, and that American dancers and Americaness, which seems neutral to us here, might have a different character value in Europe – like the American girl in Massine/Satie's Parade or Jean Seberg in Breathless. I used to find Tina LeBlanc who was so wonderful in Balanchine too American in San Francisco Ballet's Swan Lake. Maybe that's what Macaulay was taking into account with his comment about Balanchine dancers not being accepted as real ballerinas.

Certainly the definition of a 'prima ballerina', or a prima ballerina assoluta varies not only with the culture (and we should include regional culture in that), but from person to person.

The term "American Ballerina", as used by Macaulay, is rather a misnomer. With regards to SFB, Lorena Feijoo is a great American ballerina who was born in the Americas. It just happens that she was born in the Cuban "Americas".

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I suspect that what enraged Soto was that Macaulay singled out four NYCB ballerinas/Principals (whatever you prefer) as not really ballerinas (because not ballerinas all the time) while he did NOT name names in any other cases of leading woman dancers he considered less than genuine ballerinas, just those four. He didn't take a knock at Kent (by name) to praise Murphy, but he did take a knock at Whelan, Bouder etc. to praise Peck, Mearns, etc. Likewise he didn't take a knock at other SF Ballerinas or Miami City Ballet Ballerinas, etc. to praise the ones he praised.

When he took that knock, he also did so by arguing that these dancers were not ballerinas in all of their roles--leaving me at least rather to wonder if he had really seen all the non New York ballerinas he mentions in anywhere near as many roles as he has seen these NYCB ballerinas...because, although he travels around, it still seems unlikely given the realities of geography and, indeed, given the limits of some of those company's repertory per season.

He finds the younger generation at NYCB more exciting than the older. That's an opinion I can respect and, in all honesty, partly share. But the same point could have been made without listing the older generation. Why do so? Well, perhaps because NYCB is arguably the most important company in the U.S.--though many on this thread may disagree I do think it's probably Macaulay's own opinion. (And this--or something close to it--might also be the reason, condescending as it may seem, not to bother knocking ballerinas/principals at other companies about whom he has reservations: 'who considers them ballerinas anyway?' is the implication....) Or perhaps because he knows many of his readers will be wondering why he doesn't mention those dancers in particular, so he would just as soon name names...and give his article a stronger dollop of controversy to boot.

Still, whatever the reasons, given the specificity with which he singles out NYCB ballerinas to criticize in an article whose focus is really elsewhere I can understand why Soto or others might be upset.

I personally wasn't particularly angry, but I did feel he was being unfair. I don't think he is much worried about that and I do think critics have to write to garner debate and discussion and I suppose he has done that. I could wish he had found a different way to do so. (Surely the "American" angle might have been sufficient to lead to lively debate...and could have been developed more by contrasting American with non-American ballerinas. He wildly praises Mearns' Odette-Odile at every opportunity as he does again here: does he think it would play in Moscow or St. Petersburg? That in itself could make for a pretty controversial article.)

I think as a general principle it's all right for a critic to say that Dancer X is not for him a true ballerina, although I agree with your questioning of the way Macaulay did it here. It seemed to me the article, while a good one, lost its way a bit. Major themes were raised - the eclipse of the ballerina by the male dancer in contemporary ballet, for example - without much in the way follow-through while Macaulay took a few of his usual hobbyhorses out for a gallop. Nice to see Zahorian and Van Patten get a shout-out.

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As Quiggin mentions, Macaulay and the Times do seem to be devoting a lot of space (including photos, web slideshows, etc.) to ballet, which is a plus. He's able to develop his thoughts at length, unlike just about every other newspaper reviewer. Having lots of space is a luxury. But it can also be a disadvantage if the writer is tempted to drop in things that may not always be relevant to his topic or serious enough to be worth mentioning. With the article in question, however, such criticisms are relevant, imo, since we are talking about an overview of a week of many different casts. I always appreciate the chance to read about a number of casts for a series of performances I cannot see, whether Macaulay is doing the writing or one of our excellent Ballet Alert members.

Drew makes an interesting point about Macaulay's NYCB reportage which has definitely shown a willingness to say rather negative things about some NYCB dancers, almost as a way of reinforcing his preference for those other dancers he admires. He does the same with choreographers. The article we are discussing is not the first time that he has singled out a number of female principals for negative attention. I remember another review from about a month ago in which he praised some NYCB principal women and skewered others. I can't find the reference right now, but I recall that article only because his preferences AND disllikes in dancing are rather similar to mine.

I suspect that Macaulay has in idealized image in his head of what makes a "ballerina" and that this is quite different from the way that others may use the term. I don't have references in front of me, but he often writes about the "ballerina's" ability to hold the attention of the audience -- even while remaining still -- and about an element of total commitment to the role and/or choreography -- and in a wide range of choreographies. He uses the word "interesting" a lot. I suspect that a dancer who interests Macaulay in a range of roles is one he looks at more closely and works hard to appreciate. (Thus his criticism of Whelen, who he sees as great in some things, not so special in others. He has mentioned Bouder in this category, as well). Macaulay has also referred on a number of occasions to the "arc" of a performance (most recently in reference to Gillian Murphy in ABT's recent "Sleeping Beauty"), and he frequently associates ability with the artistic "intelligence" of the dancer he likes.

The space Macaulay has allows him to focus on detail. He often comments on beautiful finishes, as in Alban Lendorf's "luscious depth and fluency of [... ] plie on landing" during a solo in a recent ABT "Sleepling Beauty." Macaulay has the eye to notice these things, the experience to value them, and the time and space to remind us that they are important. But if these gorgeous moments are not part of a larger "arc" of sustained, linked, intelligent dancing, he will mention that too. That's quite valid, I think, but others may not feel the same.

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...while Macaulay took a few of his usual hobbyhorses out for a gallop.

Ha! Very nicely put, Dirac.

As Quiggin mentions, Macaulay and the Times do seem to be devoting a lot of space (including photos, web slideshows, etc.) to ballet, which is a plus. He's able to develop his thoughts at length, unlike just about every other newspaper reviewer. Having lots of space is a luxury. But it can also be a disadvantage if the writer is tempted to drop in things that may not always be relevant to his topic or serious enough to be worth mentioning. With the article in question, however, such criticisms are relevant, imo, since we are talking about an overview of a week of many different casts. I always appreciate the chance to read about a number of casts for a series of performances I cannot see, whether Macaulay is doing the writing or one of our excellent Ballet Alert members.

Drew makes an interesting point about Macaulay's NYCB reportage which has definitely shown a willingness to say rather negative things about some NYCB dancers, almost as a way of reinforcing his preference for those other dancers he admires. He does the same with choreographers. The article we are discussing is not the first time that he has singled out a number of female principals for negative attention. I remember another review from about a month ago in which he praised some NYCB principal women and skewered others. I can't find the reference right now, but I recall that article only because his preferences AND disllikes in dancing are rather similar to mine.

I suspect that Macaulay has in idealized image in his head of what makes a "ballerina" and that this is quite different from the way that others may use the term. I don't have references in front of me, but he often writes about the "ballerina's" ability to hold the attention of the audience -- even while remaining still -- and about an element of total commitment to the role and/or choreography -- and in a wide range of choreographies. He uses the word "interesting" a lot. I suspect that a dancer who interests Macaulay in a range of roles is one he looks at more closely and works hard to appreciate. (Thus his criticism of Whelen, who he sees as great in some things, not so special in others. He has mentioned Bouder in this category, as well). Macaulay has also referred on a number of occasions to the "arc" of a performance (most recently in reference to Gillian Murphy in ABT's recent "Sleeping Beauty"), and he frequently associates ability with the artistic "intelligence" of the dancer he likes.

The space Macaulay has allows him to focus on detail. He often comments on beautiful finishes, as in Alban Lendorf's "luscious depth and fluency of [... ] plie on landing" during a solo in a recent ABT "Sleepling Beauty." Macaulay has the eye to notice these things, the experience to value them, and the time and space to remind us that they are important. But if these gorgeous moments are not part of a larger "arc" of sustained, linked, intelligent dancing, he will mention that too. That's quite valid, I think, but others may not feel the same.

And you too, Bart - very well put. And I think an accurate analysis of Macaulay's approach/thinking. "I remember another review from about a month ago in which he praised some NYCB principal women and skewered others..." Perhaps it was this one?

Mr. Martins’s policies are at their most perplexing in the way the company dances Balanchine. It’s baffling that several dancers — Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, Ask La Cour, Abi Stafford and Jonathan Stafford — were made principals. Useful executants, they’re not remotely authoritative. They neither own their own space nor light up the space beyond themselves. (I would add the generally bland Ana Sophia Scheller to that list but for the élan she brought to the “Embraceable You” role of “Who Cares?” on Friday.)

In this season’s best performances, four highly individual ballerinas — Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Teresa Reichlen — kept extending their range, reaching new peaks of musicality, stage artistry and individual style. Among the company’s men, Robert Fairchild has become one of the most lovable and impressive dancers in America. Among the company’s other men, the young Chase Finlay — a principal since February — is evidently still learning, but his blend of seriousness, bloom, nobility and amplitude make him continually eye-catching.

But is there a single woman beneath principal rank who could light up Balanchine’s most exalted roles? These roles depict elusive, independent, challenging and inspiring women. Yet for the women in the City Ballet of Mr. Martins, few hurdles are harder than the task of shaking off girlishness. He allows a handful of them to grow into true artists, but elsewhere he gives us a company in which many dancers inhabit a state of perpetually arrested development. After 30 years it seems unlikely that Mr. Martins wants it otherwise.

That piece stood out for me, so I copied out that section.

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Drew makes an interesting point about Macaulay's NYCB reportage which has definitely shown a willingness to say rather negative things about some NYCB dancers, almost as a way of reinforcing his preference for those other dancers he admires. He does the same with choreographers. The article we are discussing is not the first time that he has singled out a number of female principals for negative attention.

No, it's not, and of course a good critic has to have very high standards and feel free to be critical when he feels they aren't being met. Theoretically,dancers who read reviews can even benefit from criticism, even if it's just to dismiss it and feel more free to be who they already are on stage. But there are perhaps more tactful ways to say that a dancer is less accomplished in some ballets than in others than to call her a "part-time ballerina."

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kfw, there are indeed "more tactful ways to say that a dancer is less accomplished in some ballets than in others than to call her a "part-time ballerina." Sometimes Macaulay's phrases do indeed aim at the clever/memorable at the expense of other considerations. Could that be due to pressing deadlines? Or impatience with performers (and chroeographers) who are less than the ideal, especially when these artists seem not to be growing? Note the comment about about Chase Finley "still learning" in the quotation box below. Watching someone who is "learning (stretching, experimenting, willing to take chances but able to reverse course when the results are unfortunate) can be even more exciting as watching someone who has at all down pat. That is what I think he is referring to when he uses the phrase "highly individual" in such a positive manner.

Regard the other Macaulay piece I referred to above, phrank wrote:

Perhaps it was this one?

Quote

Mr. Martins’s policies are at their most perplexing in the way the company dances Balanchine. It’s baffling that several dancers — Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, Ask La Cour, Abi Stafford and Jonathan Stafford — were made principals. Useful executants, they’re not remotely authoritative. They neither own their own space nor light up the space beyond themselves. (I would add the generally bland Ana Sophia Scheller to that list but for the élan she brought to the “Embraceable You” role of “Who Cares?” on Friday.)

In this season’s best performances, four highly individual ballerinas — Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Teresa Reichlen — kept extending their range, reaching new peaks of musicality, stage artistry and individual style. Among the company’s men, Robert Fairchild has become one of the most lovable and impressive dancers in America. Among the company’s other men, the young Chase Finlay — a principal since February — is evidently still learning, but his blend of seriousness, bloom, nobility and amplitude make him continually eye-catching.

But is there a single woman beneath principal rank who could light up Balanchine’s most exalted roles? These roles depict elusive, independent, challenging and inspiring women. Yet for the women in the City Ballet of Mr. Martins, few hurdles are harder than the task of shaking off girlishness. He allows a handful of them to grow into true artists, but elsewhere he gives us a company in which many dancers inhabit a state of perpetually arrested development. After 30 years it seems unlikely that Mr. Martins wants it otherwise.

That piece stood out for me, so I copied out that section.

Yes, that was that piece. smile.png I had the clipping on my desk for quite a while, hoping for the chance to post something about it. But time passed, and so ... mysteriously ... did the clipping. Maybe just as well, since I remember seeing only 4 of the dancers he referred to, one of them quite dull (though technically proficient) in one of the greatest Balanchine ballerina roles.

Note the negative phrases: "useful executants," "not remotely authoritative," "neither own their own space nor light up the space beyond themselves," "bland." If you reverse these ideas -- turning them into their opposites -- you get a fairly good idea, of what Macaulay thinks a "real ballerina" ought to be. I can't say that I disagree.

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If you reverse these ideas -- turning them into their opposites -- you get a fairly good idea, of what Macaulay thinks a "real ballerina" ought to be. I can't say that I disagree.

And that's why I bother to read his critiques: he has good ideas - he just needs to avoid being quite so 'personal'. No one dances to offend the critics/public, so why should Macaulay write as if he IS being offended?

Soto missed his chance to challenge Macaulay:

Are you able to write a column that doesn't simply crush one dancer's spirits while inflating the ego of your more preferred dancer?

A dance critic is, for better or worse, in the education business, and not just a part of the entertainment industry. Criticism is not primarily entertainment. It's easy enough to show that people read these columns for information, to learn more, and not only to get a good laugh.

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The term "American Ballerina", as used by Macaulay, is rather a misnomer. With regards to SFB, Lorena Feijoo is a great American ballerina who was born in the Americas. It just happens that she was born in the Cuban "Americas".

Well, not to split hairs too much, but in the English language we make a differentiation between terms, so it is not a misnomer, but rather how the term is defined in the English language (though quite differently in Spanish):

"American" - someone with a US Passport,

"Latin American" - from a Spanish or Portuguese nation

"Canadian" - someone with a Great White North passport

I've heard objections to the terminology when I've been in Latin America, but honestly no one alive came up with the term - it was settled in 1776 when Benny Franklin, Tommy J and their buddies decided to call their new 13 state countrymen "Americans". Ask a Canadian if he/she is American, and I think the response will be quite negative (figuratively and emotionally).

In Spanish, someone with a US passport is called a United States-er. Or, to translate literally: States-United-er. "estadounidense"

Similarly, most born on the Isle of Britain do not identify themselves to be Europeans. They consider themselves to be English, Welsh, Scots or in the nearby counties - Northern Irish. Similarly, Egyptians don't usually consider themselves "Africans". But prefer the term "North Africans", or just "Egyptians". (Mostly because Egypt has been occupied by so many forces from Mesopotania, Macedonia, Rome, Ottoman, etc - so the place is just a giant mix of humanity).

To get back to Mr Macauley's point, he is referring to the US-born ballerina style of dancing - that sense of freedom on stage that is unique. Maybe our friend studying in Russia will pursue a post-doc to expand on the topic?

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....there are indeed "more tactful ways to say that a dancer is less accomplished in some ballets than in others than to call her a "part-time ballerina." Sometimes Macaulay's phrases do indeed aim at the clever/memorable at the expense of other considerations.

I can't say I see anything especially harsh about "part-time ballerina." (I recall when Margaret Tracey retired and Robert Gottlieb wrote, or snapped, in connection with Tracey's announced intention to take up teaching, "Teach what?")

And that's why I bother to read his critiques: he has good ideas - he just needs to avoid being quite so 'personal'. No one dances to offend the critics/public, so why should Macaulay write as if he IS being offended?

I guess it depends on the circumstances, pherank. Sometimes a critic is indeed offended by what's being presented to him for evaluation and I think he (or she) is not going out of bounds to say so. Criticism of dancing is by its nature intensely personal - the dancers are sometimes literally naked before us. C. S. Lewis is to the point here: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic and dyslogistic adjectives — they should diagnose (not merely blame) and distinguish (not merely praise.)" I do think Macaulay has tried to do that, even if perhaps he didn't do it so well in this latest piece. And often as a daily newspaper critic he's functioning under time and space constraints.

There are other approaches (such as that of dance criticism's Angel of Mercy, Deborah Jowitt). But I'm not sure I'd want everyone to write like Jowitt.

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To get back to Mr Macauley's point, he is referring to the US-born ballerina style of dancing - that sense of freedom on stage that is unique. Maybe our friend studying in Russia will pursue a post-doc to expand on the topic?

Yes, I realize that, but my point was that to many Latin Americans the term "US" is not synonymous with "American". It's been voiced enough times in the Latin community that the people of the US of A essentially usurped the term "American". The Americas are one loooooooong stretch of land.

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Perhaps this has been covered, but the "glass half empty" attitude in the statement, "part time ballerinas" is what bothered me. I believe critics can be critical, but should alway keep in mind that they are writing about human beings who care about their work. Why couldn't he have written it as a positive - These woman prove themselves to be ballerinas in some of their roles - or something like that.

An artist who achieves greatness (IMO) should not be glibly written off because everything he or she does doesn't reach that pinnacle of greatness.

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The thing I find troubling about Macaulay is his apparent need to be mean and to personally attack his subjects. That is not dance criticism. He has an obvious wealth of knowledge about dance and music and often times I enjoy his reviews immensely. But when he decides to make fun of someone by going with a joke (when he said Jenifer Ringer had eaten "one Sugarplum too many" following a Nutcracker performance a year or so ago), he not only belittles the dancer but cheapens ballet and even himself. He once said at the end of an ABT review "why doesn't ABT take ballet as seriously as I do?" So Mr. Macaulay, if you take ballet so seriously, then why do you go for the cheap shots, that any fool with pen/paper or computer can type out? A few years ago he wrote that Ethan Steifel resembled a "Hitler youth" and was therefore not believable in his performance (I believe the ballet was Don Q). No intellectual thought went into making that statement. That was an attention grabber. Certainly not a comment from someone who takes the art of ballet seriously.

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I feel Alastair Macauley has been slowly driven over the edge by the inconsistent quality of the performances at NYCB and ABT. To me, the clearest indication of this was his review of Jewels a few years ago where he interrupted himself halfway through (like in Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?”) to say he couldn’t go on scrounging for positive things to say. I feel sympathetic to him because I am in the same boat. If the familiar repertory were presented in a uniformly good or uniformly bad way it would be easier to know how to take it. The inconsistent reinforcement is the same thing those poor lab rats were subjected to when food pellets were given to them in an unpredictable pattern when they pressed a button.



To me it seems unremarkable to opine that there is one group of dancers whose performances you always enjoy, another group who you sometimes enjoy and a third group you don’t enjoy at all. As someone above said, I don't always agree with his placement of every dancer, but I don’t think he is far off either. I do think it is a mistake to say that Ashley Bouder, who joined the company in 2000, is in a more mature group of dancers than Teresa Reichlen, who joined in 2001. Surely they are almost the same age? In a way I feel he has come late to the fair and is more emotionally invested in the dancers whose debuts in important roles he witnessed himself. In any case, since NYCB (and ABT for all I know) is a company of auto-didacts whose artistic development occurs almost in a vacuum, I feel the important comparison is not between different dancers but the imaginary comparison between dancers as they are now and as they might be if only they had been given coaching, the right roles to dance and moral support throughout their careers.


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angelica, on 09 Jul 2013 - 3:59 PM, on the Who Would Be On Your All-American Ballerinas List? on said:

I would propose that although Alastair Macaulay may be a full-time dance critic, he is merely a part-time ballet critic. A full-time ballet critic ought to be able to draw audiences in by his/her insights into those aspects of a production or a ballerina that deepen one's appreciation of the art, broaden one's understanding, and move one up to a higher level of experience when attending a ballet performance, not drive them away with a plethora of negative reviews. A full-time ballet critic would not waste his words on ad hominum criticisms of a particular dancer or on crafting sentences that sound erudite but have only some vague or no meaning at all (see Kathleen O'Connell's post above).
I think a lot of ballet criticism could be disparaged that way. I say could be, not that it should be. What, for example - to pick a passage from the same review that bart noted and that I like as well - does it really mean to say that a dancer has the power to "own their own space and light up the space beyond themselves." And can we prove that one dancer has that power and not another? Not every metaphor will work for every reader, but that one works for me. And for me " "she matches music with movement, she shows how the immense scale of ballet can turn musicality into a vastly three-dimensional form" is a nice way of saying, to reference Balanchine, that we see the music when she dances.
Of course you're correct that a good dance critic ought to be able to do all those things you say, but Macaulay's writings does them for me in part through his quibbles and complaints, even when they're unkindly phrased (I'm not defending his unkindness). We can learn from critics by considering why we disagree with them.

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I think the unhappiness with Mr Macauley is merely a symptom of the real problem: the dearth of excellent critical writing about ballet in NYC. The city is the great center of dance in the New World and attracts international companies that consider it a great honor to perform there. Mr Macauley's commentary would not stand out so much, if other papers, magazines and online versions put forth the same effort that Mr Macauley does in his reviews.

What I love most about the London critics is their diversity of opinions. Boston Ballet's reviews are an excellent example. Of the 6 plotless works shown, each critic had a different favorite, and different least-favorite.

If we had the same diversity in the NYC critics, we'd just shrug at Macauley's opinion and classify him as a curmudgeon outlier.

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What could be meant by the phrase, "part-time" ballerina, especially in connection with NYCB dancers? Does the author suggest it means someone who only has star power at times? Or does it mean one who dances in classical ballerina-type roles only at times? Or does it mean one who shares a job with others?

A ballerina could have good and off days, but is still a ballerina. For example, Veronika Part is not a part-time ballerina, even if she has trouble with pirouettes. Ashley Bouder does not lose her stars every time she falls.

Articles like this provoke for certain purposes, such as to advance an agenda or stir controversy, or even to fill space, but they also diminish credibility and can be self-defeating. The loss of credibility, in turn, hurts the goals that the writer seeks to advance. Seemingly, the author seeks to promote someone, but believes he must do so at the expense of another, which is untrue and unnecessary. Often, statements have no relationship to the truth. Any observer of the same scene can readily discredit the reporter. Many comparisons exist without validity, solely as devices to promote an alternative. For example, one does not have to criticize Ashley Bouder to praise Tiler Peck. Sometimes mean and untruthful things are said, suggesting even maliciousness, pettiness, or vendettas (or a bad mood and the absence of an editor).

The New York Times critic is not the only one guilty of this. For example, a recent article summarizing the ABT season described Roberto Bolle as appearling solely like a circus strongman carrying a ballerina from one point to another. I believe Roberto Bolle can communicate more than many of the acrobats spinning and jumping who do nothing to advance a plot or convey emotion, such as the nuanced movement of his pinky in "Onegin", the careful shift of his gaze in "Sylvia" or "Romeo", the revelation of his inner warmth through the appearance of a soft smile in "Romeo", or the pained lift of his leg into arabesque in "Manon", But, for some reason, the writer of that article believed that to promote David Hallberg or Marcello Gomez (or other personal favorites), he had to disregard these qualities in Mr. Bolle and criticize him instead, which was unnecessary. One may, of course, criticize anyone for a valid purpose, but the criticism lacked necessity or validity in this context. Can't one like X without shooting down Y?

The topic in the New York Times itself seems odd. Many complain about "home grown" artists not receiving adequate opportunities, roles, or promotions, such as at ABT, but the "home grown" artists often are not American or from the United States. One may hope for opportunities to see a local company favorite, but the local, long-term dancers often do not come from America.

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As I said (at least) once before, Macualey, who often misses the point of what he is seeing, AND is full of bad feelings, is simply not credible and he cannot be taken seriously as an observer of ballet. As Jayne says below, just shrug and ignore. Recently re-reading some of Edwin Denby's reviews of NYCB peformances reminded me of the true role of a critic.

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As I said (at least) once before, Macualey, who often misses the point of what he is seeing, AND is full of bad feelings, is simply not credible and he cannot be taken seriously as an observer of ballet. As Jayne says below, just shrug and ignore. Recently re-reading some of Edwin Denby's reviews of NYCB peformances reminded me of the true role of a critic.

Amen - I would add Croce.

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Edwin Denby is a problematic gold standard of a critic. He was first of all a poet, a writer and then a critic. You would have to look to Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, or John Ashbery, who were poets and wrote art criticism, as an equivalent.

Arlene Croce wrote for high-minded weekly or monthly periodicals like Ballet Review, Film Culture and the New Yorker under William Shawn (she left in 1994 after Robert Gottlieb left and Tina Brown took over).

Alastair Macaulay should really be compared to journalists who write quickly and lightly under deadline pressure, such his predecessor at the New York Times, John Martin, who sometimes couldn't review the whole program if it went on too late into the night. And Martin could be snippy – and genuinely witty – about performances and bodily formats of dancers. The whole business of newspaper reviewing of cultural events is probably pretty much on borrowed time, so Macaulay is perhaps last critic they'll hire other than stringers. I hardly see any classical music coverage at the Times these days, but perhaps I don't look in the right places. And they used to review everything.

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