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Estelle

Reading reviews of one's own work

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There have already been some discussions on this site about critics and reviews, but it was about the ballet viewer's point of view.

I was wondering about the point of view of the people who are actually implied in performances (dancers, choreographers, ballet masters, costume designers, lighting designers, etc.) I've often read interviews of artists (mostly actors or singers) who said they never read reviews about their own work, or that said very negative things about critics in general, and I was wondering about how general such an attitude was. So, for the people on this board who have had the opportunity to have reviews written about their own work: do you pay some attention to such reviews? Is it important for you? Have you ever read some reviews which made you feel very happy or proud, or on the other side depressed or angry ? Did it influence your other works ? Do you feel that the reviewers sometimes neglect some aspects of ballet performances ? (I remember that Jeff Salzberg complained about the lack of attention to lighting design...)

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Originally posted by Estelle:

(I remember that Jeff Salzberg complained about the lack of attention to lighting design...)

Me? Complain? Never!

Whenever I am serving as Stage Manager, one of my jobs is usually to find out which dancers (or actors) do or do not want to know when critics are in the house and which performers want to see reviews before the end of the run.

As a designer, I always want to know who's there and I always want to read the reviews right away, but my situation is different from that of the dancers; my work is already done and its quality is unlikely to be affected by my reaction to a critic's comments, as opposed to the dancers, who do not need to be onstage thinking "the Times critic didn't like me in this section".

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Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Lighting Designer

portfolio: www.suncoast.quik.com/salzberg

email: salzberg@suncoast.quik.com

[This message has been edited by salzberg (edited October 23, 2000).]

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I admit I read my reviews. You take them with a grain of salt. I used to see if the reviewer "got" what I was trying to convey to the audience. And a big role, well that was a major event, when it wasn't covered, that was a little hard to take. While no dancers really base themselves on their critiques, sometimes that outside review was an opinion of someone who wasn't in the studio throughout the process.

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Calliope,

The success of the work should not depend on the studio process and it cannot depend on the audience's knowledge of that process. A work of art should, always, be able to rest on its own merits. Perhaps the development and studio process are interesting and may be appropriate for a critic or writer to cover in a preview article, but on stage on the day of the performance, the audience must rely on the work itself, not on the intent, thoughts or process of the art maker and artists.

[This message has been edited by ltraiger1 (edited October 23, 2000).]

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ltraiger, that's a topic all its own (and an interesting one, I think)! I'm going to copy it over and start a new thread, I think. I don't want to discourage dancers/choreographers etc. from speaking out on this one.

Calliope, good to see you again. I hope you've noticed that we've added a forum "Dancer to Dancer" in Special Groups.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 23, 2000).]

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I think you're both right.

As an artist, the success of the work does in fact reside in the process, because once it's handed off to the audience, they can do what they choose with it.

As a viewer, you takes what you sees and there's usually no way to rely on outside information, nor should you.

I've found that many reviews are enlightening simply to find out the point of view of someone who has no vested interest in your work and only gets to look at it once.

In 1994, I got reviews of my concert which were diametrically opposed, one said the second work on the program was brilliant and the fourth work was devoid of any intellectual content whatsoever. The other review said the second piece was dull and the fourth piece was the only piece with any real interest. Stuff like that really helps you to understand that what you're reading are opinions in print. I try and be as circumspect about the laudatory ones as the negative ones and remember that I know whether I did a good job or not.

In 1995, the auditor from the National Endowment of Arts said that there was one work on the program that seemed to have significantly more effort put into it than the others. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but when I heard it, I realized it was a fair assessment.

In 1998 a NYSCA auditor who came to a really problematic opening night of mine (the dancers got the costumes five minutes before curtain, there was an issue with the slipperiness of the fabric that caused them to blow almost all their partnered lifts, there were other technical problems we hadn't been able to iron out and it affected their performances; I felt like committing ritual suicide by the end of the night, but things were fixed by the end of the run.) She reported that the dancers didn't look up to the level of the choreography and that the works looks repetitious. I thought her assessment was unfortunate to me, but fair. She was right the choreography was repetitious, I thought it was as well, but I had replaced one dancer's spot twice and had simply run out of time to edit. But that's what she saw, there was no way for her to know the reasons for the defaults and her judgment was reasonable based upon the viewing. I was sorry she hadn't come later in the run, but I didn't take it to heart, nor try to solve the problem as she saw it (low level of dancers) but as I saw it (reliability of dancers, rehearsal scheduling and process)

It's interesting to be on both sides of this fence, and it does affect how one writes, still I can guess some of the reasons for problems in a piece (for instance, I'll always say something looked underrehearsed to me if that's what it looked like, my own experience has taught me the signs) but the guess isn't always right.

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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I think Leigh hit it on the head. What I was implying was not whether or not the piece is a success, but whether or not (in some instances) the coaching worked.

In a lot of ways you're helpless when it comes to the audience. You can nudge them and hopefully in the right direction, but many outside factors influence a ballet. I once had a woman come up to me after a performance of "Stars and Stripes" and she didn't like it b/c she was from Germany. She found the "pomp and circumstance" too much. I thought it funny b/c Mr. B wasn't American either. But we can't control what an audience goes into the performance with but hopefully we can disparage some of their feelings and get them to enjoy the performance. Not necessarily understand it either, it took me years of doing "Agon" before I "got it"

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Originally posted by Calliope:

But we can't control what an audience goes into the performance with

When I was teaching college, I told my students that "the essence of theatre is one person performing and one person watching". It doesn't truly become art until both are participating.

This means, of course, that each dance becomes a different work each night, because each night brings a new audience.

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Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Lighting Designer

portfolio: www.suncoast.quik.com/salzberg

email: salzberg@suncoast.quik.com

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Leigh wrote: "Stuff like that really helps you to understand that what you're reading are opinions in print." I have to take exception to that smile.gif I used to read posts on alt.arts.ballet that said, basically, "critics are just people who have the power to write what they think, but as soon as I read two reviews that said different things, I caught on that they don't know anything more than anybody else and they're just writing opinions." Well, as a critic, naturally I disagree smile.gif

Not to say there aren't bad critics, stupid critics, critics who are misinformed, critics who don't know anything but are given the chance to write something and do, and probably critics who are the earthly manifestation of evil smile.gif However, the discipline of criticism requires that you do NOT write an opinion, and this doesn't contradict the fact that out of ten reviews, there may be five, seven, even ten different points of view.

When I watch a performance of anything now, I know when I'm watching with my "critic" mindset or my "opinion" mindset. I have to really work to turn off the critic switch and just watch something without judging it or trying to figure out what it is they're doing, or whether the reality matches the intention, or is it structurally sound, dramatically clear, etc.

An opinion is a casual observation -- it can be strongly held, it can be off-the-cuff -- but it is merely an expression of taste. In this sense, we all have opinions and they're all equally valid. Criticism is different. It's applyling a set of standards and judgments and reaching a conclusion -- biased and individual, yes, but far more complex than an expression of opinion.

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Alexandra,

What keeps a criticism from becoming an opinion? Who sets the standards that the critics judge by? Maybe this should be a different topic. But I'm curious. If you go by dictionary definition an opinion is a "belief stronger than an impression" which makes it more than a "casual observation"

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I have to think that "impression," "opinion" and "criticism" are all points on a certain continuum -- there's no ready line of demarcation between them, although it seems one could say that a criticism is an opinion with footnotes.

Calliope, critics set their own standards. There's no governing body, and many have very differing approaches to their work. While there's certainly a body of "accumulated wisdom" as to what should be in a review or analysis, what it really boils down to is a critic is someone who's convinced an editor he or she is indeed one.

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Calliope, I'm using the terms in the way they're used in aesthetics (or at least were when I studied aesthetics smile.gif ), that opinion is an expression of taste and criticism is an expression of judgment -- a conclusion based on the writer's own aesthetic standards. No one person or body sets the standards that critics judge by, but the community itself works to set one -- in the same way this or that choreographer becomes thought of as a central figure, and thus "the standard."

Manhattnik, I do not think it is merely a matter of convincing (hoodwinking, cajoling, etc) an editor into thinking one is a critic. There are certainly instances of that, but responsible newspapers and magazines go much further, like checking with other critics as well as reading a considerable number of clips and probing the writer's background and qualifications.

Some magazines (including mine) have a critic write several features first to determine how much background they actually have. Holes in knowledge or blind spots show up very quickly. Many of us think we know a great deal, but are really only knowledgeable about one or two companies, or one particular style. There could be other problems. Several years ago, I had one person who was very eager to write and had an enormous amount of knowledge, but was so vituperative that, as one of my other writers said, "it would be wrong to unleash her on dancers." So every publication has different criteria. (And sometimes it's just a matter of matching sensibilities with a particular publication; there can be incompatibilities.)

There are checks in the process as well. I know of instances locally where a critic has been given assignments without (IMO) a thorough background check -- it's amazing how often people have clips that make it seem as though they can write, and it's only when you get their unedited copy that you realize how much editing had gone into making those clips publishable. Aside from quality of writing, there have been people whose ignorance has been exposed in a review, OR there have been many complaints, letters, etc that cannot be traced to friends and relatives of the subject of the review, OR several other critics who also attended the performance will go to the editor and say, no, this is more than a difference of opinion, the person doesn't know enough to write about X.

When I started -- I had never been published before I wrote for the Post -- I was in a criticism class with Alan Kriegsman, then the Post's dance critic, who was looking for two stringers. (I took the class because I thought I could learn from him how to analyze performances, not in any hopes or desires of being a critic.) I wrote about 20 reviews of very different performances during the semester and he asked me at the end of it if I would be interested in writing for the Post. For the first two years, he was very careful about where he sent me, and I could tell there were times when I got "promoted" -- to do a premiere, or an unfamiliar company, etc. And I had the privilege of having many "tutorials" by Kriegsman and another Post critic -- they were extremely generous with their knowledge and answered incessant questions. So although there isn't a degree in criticism comparable to one in musicology, there certainly is training.

I like Manhattnik's "criticism is an opinion with footnotes." I think that's a major part of it. But I also think it's a matter of mindset. I've "discovered" about a dozen critics, and I've known they were critics from reading their letters or, in several cases simply from conversation, that they had a critical mindset.

None of this is meant to say that there aren't incompetent, or dubious, critics, and there are often times when I wonder how that person ever got into print. But then, I have analogous thoughts about artistic directors smile.gif

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 24, 2000).]

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That's for that Alexandra. I never realized critics went through training. Although I think some of them have gone through boot camp!

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My apologies, Alexandra. I didn't mean for "opinion" to connote untrained, but the possibility of multiple conclusions, just as the Supreme Court renders opinions, and dissensions, even among scholars of the law. Many of their rulings are by no means unanimous and are often overturned in the future. They aren't fact. They are an interpretation, as is opinion or criticism.

As Alexandra mentioned, it's possible for very good writers to come up with diametrically opposed conclusions. It's not that they are "just" opinions; or that criticism is a sham. It's simply that the final judge of an artist's accomplishments really ought to be the artist him or herself.

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited October 24, 2000).]

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Leigh, I think legal opinions are a good analogy to criticism (not that I mean to put myself at the level of the Supreme Court smile.gif ).

I agree. A piece of criticism is certainly not a fact, and there are differences in perception among even experienced writers. I was trying to ward off the perception, which I have seen often on the internet, that because two reviewers have reached different conclusions, ergo, one or both has no more weight than any opinion one might overhear coming out of the theater. (And I hasten to say that I have heard many intelligent comments made by people coming out of a theater smile.gif )

Calliope, I think every critic's background is probably a bit different, but I can't think of a critic who hasn't gone through at least an informal tutoring program. Part of it is just having the chance to talk about ballet with people who love it as much as you do and who know more than you do (which, of course, at the beginning is just about everybody). I would spend hours with my mentors saying, "Is there anyone dancing today who's like Nora Kaye? Tanaquil LeClerq? Andre Eglevsky? Svetlana Beriosova?" Or "Why is that Swan Lake so different from the one that was here last week? I've read in X Y and Z that the black swan pas de deux should be placed after the character dances but this one places it before. Why?" I think it's a bit like getting to be three years old again and asking why the grass is green, but being old enough to remember the answers smile.gif

Jeff (with a side note to Basheva). On editors, I've had a few who needed a bit of training themselves, since they'd never seen a ballet performance. I have two wishes. That I find an editor whose only connotation for the word "Art" is NOT that it is a man's first name, and who doesn't think of "culture" as something that grows in yogurt.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 24, 2000).]

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Alexandra (and other professional dance critics on the board): do you think dance criticism in magazines/newspapers suffers more than other arts -- classical music, theater, painting -- from editorial skepticism about dance as a serious art or dance writing as true "criticism". . .? I confess this is a suspicion of mine, but I don't really know the journalism "scene." I do often feel as if I am reading errors or finding lapses in dance criticism in magazines (and newspapers) that I can't help but feel might have been caught if it were not "just" dance writing. It's not so much that I think editors know more about other art forms as that at least they seem to grasp that there IS such a thing as expertise. Do you think dance is treated as a poor relation, or is this my own projection? (I do , after all, have more opinions about dance than other arts . . .)

P.S. I typed this and then realized it was off topic -- I'll post anyway. Certainly, it would be interesting to hear from artists being reviewed on this issue as well.

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited October 25, 2000).]

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Originally posted by Drew:

Alexandra (and other professional dance critics on the board):  do you think dance criticism in magazines/newspapers suffers more than other arts -- classical music, theater, painting -- from editorial skepticism about dance as a serious art or dance writing as true "criticism". . .?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!!!!! In every way. It's very dependent on the editor, though. When I started at the Post, the Style editor didn't care at all about dance, but he cared very much that Kriegsman was the first dance critic to win a Pulitzer -- THAT gave them pause. And for about ten years we lived in Pulitzer afterglow. The next editor did care about dance, and her successor actually liked it and attended performances. During that period, I was often given 20 inches, and nearly always 15 -- unheard of these days (think 40 words to an inch).

After that editor left, probably merely coincidentally, her successors didn't seem to be dance people -- or arts people. Style cares about politics and pop culture now. If, tomorrow, by accident, an editor was appointed who knew something about dance, it would change.

It infuriates me -- and I've used this on various Post editors -- that this would not be tolerated in sports or business. They would not hire a sports editor who didn't know what a home run, or a hat trick was. Or who could let "Babe Ruth was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game" get by. They wouldn't dream of it. Nor would they make a sportswriter write: "The man hit the ball with the stick, then dropped it and began to run around in a diamond pattern, being sure he touched each of the little pillows he found on his way back to where he started."

The era of Bob Gottlieb and his kind -- educated, cultured individuals who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, all of the arts is, if not over, sleeping.

The only way to fix this is to try to educate the next generation to respect the arts -- then convince them to get a job at a newspaper smile.gif

Drew, I've noticed it a carelessness in magazines, too. Any writer will make mistakes -- a mistake doesn't mean they're stupid, or don't know something. A few years ago one very able critic made a couple of gaffes in print -- saying someone was making a debut in a role who had danced it numerous times, that kind of thing. The person was under a great deal of stress at the time. It shouldn't have happened. But that's why four people read a piece before it gets to layout.

Now, for a publication that respects dance, for whom, it might be said, dance is its sole raison d'etre, try DanceView smile.gif

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Alexandra

Site Administrator

Editor, Ballet Alert! (a newsletter) and DanceView (a quarterly review of dance).

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Alexandra: if I hadn't been laughing while I read your response, I would have found it depressing -- though not surprising.(By the by, I rushed back from ABT tonight to learn the fate of the Mets and, what do you know, the men were hitting the ball with a stick. . .)

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Drew, the sad thing is, the editors always laugh at my baseball example, too. They think it's cute.

One thing I forgot to mention is the influence on The Numbers. When I began writing in 1979, the big ballet companies would do three different programs in a week, often with cast changes, and we'd review all of them. Sometimes two or three performances would be lumped in one review -- I had the Weekend Wrapup beat for years. Local modern dancers were infuriated by this, saying that their concerts only got one very short review on opening night (the point about covering cast changes never registered). The Post's reasoning was simply that 2200 people were at the ballet performances, and maybe 25-30 at Dance Place -- 100 is sell out for them.

I don't think this is just the Post -- I think it's everywhere. Now, The Numbers rule. Not many people read dance stories. Therefore, why should we publish dance stories when everybody will read a story about Survivor? Another idea that's gone is the notion that the newspaper has a responsibility to watch for what is new, or important that's not yet in the public eye. I've argued this one, too. How many people say Martha Graham's early concerts at the Y? What if John Martin hadn't gone to every single one of them and written? This argument might have won the day 30 years ago. Even if the editor hated Martha Graham he would have recognized her importance. Today, who would care?

It is extremely depressing.

So, please CLICK ON ALL OF THOSE LINKS EVEN IF YOU DON'T CARE ABOUT THE SPECIFIC REVIEW!!!!! They count internet clicks. If you ever see a little note at the bottom of a review "for more information about Peter Martins, click here" CLICK IT. They don't care a fig about telling you something about Peter Martins. They want to know if you're out there. Please be out there smile.gif

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Alexandra, I did not realize that about the links and the clicks being counted! Thanks for telling us that, as maybe if we all do it we might be able to make a little tiny bit of difference in the willingness of the editors to provide space for dance!

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To return for a moment to the original line of this thread, about reading reviews of your own performances; Jean Kerr, the playwright and wife of critic Walter once wrote that she knew a colleague who pasted pans from every critic he could find to the bathroom mirror, so that he had to look at them every morning while shaving. "After awhile," she wrote, " 'Witless and tasteless' had about as much emotional comprehensibility as 'twenty-three skiddoo!' "

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Thanks, Mel -- both for steering the thread back on course and for that story. It sounds like a very good tactic smile.gif

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I took a particularly well-written and pithy but excoriating quote from review and used it as my signature file for quite a while. It made it so I could laugh about it. Happily, the reviewer came back several years later and was a good deal more positive!

------------------

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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