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Ray

J. Homans in New York Review of Books

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Calliope, a few years ago the European Union decided they needed a history of Europe and got together a panel of historians from each country and assigned different periods to different people. There was this little Napoleon problem. The French wrote about the great Napoleon; the British were in pained disagreement; the Spaniards protested violently. And then they all started laughing and, for the first time, really confronted national differences in history -- I heard a panel discussion about the panel discussions, and it was very instructive :)

I remember being bothered, at first, by Croce's Olympian tone, until I read a lot of other critics and realized that her thundering was well-grounded. I often disagreed with her, and she often made me angry -- because I thought a particular statement was too sweeping, say -- but I always read her, and I always learned something.

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You can't deny that Croce had seen what she was writing about (when she was writing about NYCB, that is--she isn't sound on Bournonville, I don't think.) And again, she was writing reviews that were clearly her opinion. Homans is often pontificating on history to a lay audience that probably doesn't know a lot of the details. The ballet audience is talking about her, yes, but I don't think the general reader is. And it seems to me that anyone reading her isn't about to rush down and buy a ticket--I don't see any passion for the art there, just a vaguely snide attempt to come off as knowing. In fact, if that were the only thing I had read about ballet, I would be quite put off, I think, since it seems so arcane--what if I didn't see any horizontal and vertical divisions (not that I do anyway). I expect I would come away feeling like I just didn't get it.

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I'm surprised to see the two of you talking about Croce's Olympian tone, Leigh and Alexandra. While it's true that she sounds omniscient when writing about ballets or history or companies — and the best writers will always sound Olympian because they express themselves so well — one of the things that first attracted me to Croce's writing was that her response to performances was always personal. That is, I never forgot that this was one person's reaction to what she saw. Her writing was more conversational in tone than that of her colleagues; she would say things like, "Ms. Watts, in a red unitard sheared off at the top, looked like a thermometer," or "ABT has rolled out its dum-dum version of La Fille Mal Gardée" (not the Ashton version, the one before). One of the things I learned from her, in fact, was to trust my own reactions to ballets and performances. And how to combine that with the knowledge I gained from reading and experience in watching ballet.

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Ari, I think my reaction was because the first writers I read consistently were John Percival and Peter Williams of the old (dearly beloved, deeply missed) Dance and Dancers, and they were so gentle. I distinctly remember a review by Percival in which it was obvious he didn't particularly like the ballet and found it flawed -- Neumeier's "Don Juan" -- but made it sound so interesting that I got on a train and made my first trip to New York as an adult to see it. (He was right. :) ) And Williams could write a review, and did, where he panned Lynn Seymour at a gala in three out of three dances, but you never got the feeling he was out to get her. It was a very balanced, polite -- authoritative, no question about that -- but you could get up from the table feeling that if you disagreed with them you might still go to Heaven.

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Go figure :)

The examples you took, Ari, are exactly what I felt was "olympian" about Croce. Yes, it was very personal, but she hurled stuff with such force (and style) that I always felt her intention was not to get you to see it for yourself, but for you to see it her way (and maybe as Alexandra implies, this wasn't her intent at all, it's just her opinions are so strongly formed). Not that this is a particularly bad thing, I still feel that it was reading Croce that taught me how to watch a dance.

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I agree with you cargill, but if none of the other writers are writing ...

I think most lay people read the "daily" reviews and that's where the "education" comes from. That's why I think Tobias' release was such a blow, she at least provided a more consistent basis to get criticism. Which makes Homans all the more dangerous. In some ways it will be interesting to see what Homans has to write about in a few years, or will she have tackled all the controversy by then.

It's easier to knock an artform in this time period. It seems ballet is more business and competitive (between companies) than an artform.

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Speaking of "Olympian," I'll never forget reading Croce's description of Adam Luders' ascent to the height of NYCB's Parnassus, and wondering which New York State Theater she'd been visiting, because I clearly must've been taking a wrong turn at the fountain.

I loved Croce's passion and her way with words, but I sometimes felt she was stating her opinions rather ferociously, and not always showing me the underpinnings or reasoning she used to reach them. I also always felt as if there were a metaphorical ruler waiting to rap me on the knuckles if i didn't get it.

I find myself gravitating to critics who give you their opinions couched in their observations and descriptions, where often it's a subtle but telling choice of words or a particularly evocative bit of imagery, in the mode of a Denby or a Jowitt. Denby's no less brilliant than Croce for his quieter and cozier tone; he's certainly more accessible and less intimidating, as befits, I suppose, a daily critic.

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I'm grateful to Ray for his appellation "Saint" to Croce. Or, as they say it in Firenze, Santa Croce. ;)

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