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Macaulay on All-American Ballerinas


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#1 glissade_jete

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 06:37 PM

[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.



#2 pherank

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 06:53 PM

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.



#3 Jayne

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 07:55 PM

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?

 

 

--------

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

 

http://balletalert.i...st/#entry323426



#4 Drew

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 08:32 PM

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.)



#5 mussel

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 08:38 PM

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. 



#6 Quiggin

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Posted 07 July 2013 - 10:47 PM

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.

 
 



#7 pherank

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 10:04 AM

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".



#8 dirac

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 10:31 AM

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.



#9 bart

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 11:01 AM

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.



#10 pherank

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 11:46 AM

...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.



#11 kfw

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 12:06 PM

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." 



#12 bart

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 12:58 PM

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.



#13 pherank

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 01:33 PM

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.



#14 Jayne

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 02:03 PM

 

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?



#15 dirac

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Posted 08 July 2013 - 02:38 PM

....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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