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Trends in criticism

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Rachel Howard had suggested on another thread (in Links, when she commented on some of my comments on a review she'd written in the San Francisco Examiner) that it might be interesting to discuss trends in criticism, especially among younger critics. She wrote:

"Your comment about the Springer reference suggests a worried overall view of young dance critics. I'd love to hear more about what you see as the "trends" (both positive and negative) among young dance critics. It would help me and others to be more conscientious about our work, and at the very least I think it would make for an intriguing discussion."

To start off, I think, first of all, in this country, there's a shortage of younger critics who write about ballet. I've run across several people in their early 30s who have been very good writers (I'd read articles about modern dance performances that they'd written) who did not want to write about ballet -- "Everything has been said," "How can you write after Croce, Acocella, et al.?" -- which is not a good situation. Others aren't drawn to it because ballet is not particularly exciting right now. Both are a problem.

In London, there was a purge of older critics -- several very good older critics -- because a "younger voice" was needed. Someone I know was told she could stay, but she'd have to change the way she wrote reviews. They wanted reviews that were part feature, part review, and a bit of gossip. (She didn't stay.) There's no question that editors seem to be going along with this "tabloidization" of newspapers.

One trend I've seen among the few younger critics I read regularly is that they seem to have bought in to the New is Best idea of the 1960s completely. Balanchine is great because he revolutionized ballet; Tudor is great because he turned the classical vocabulary upside down. To me, this has not only become a very outmoded cliche, but is a misunderstanding not only of those two artists, but of the nature of ballet and what is important within that aesthetic.

On the plus side, among many not only young, but middle-aged critics, I see a definite reaction against the cronyism that marked an older generation, those who were very powerful during the glamor days of the Ballet Boom. Some perhaps overreact, avoiding any contact with dancers or choreographers, fearful of perceived conflict of interest, but, while balance is perhaps ideal, I think this is positive. When I read about "perhaps the best young choreographer of our generation," I'd like to think it's a choreographer the writer saw and was struck dumb by, not someone who takes him out to dinner regularly and tells him how good a choreographer he is.

I think there is a search for younger critics among editors currently, and I think it's needed. Not to replace the old per se (although there are instances...) but because there should be a balance and a range of views. I think another problem that's looming is that, regardless of age, people who've come to ballet in the past decade or so don't have very good measuring sticks in their experience, and that shows. It's not their fault, but if one has never seen a five-star ballerina, it can't help but affect one's thinking and writing. I've read several pieces by young writers in that situation who either (quite understandably) underrate classical ballet completely, or, conversely, try to make great ballerinas out of lesser talents. They have all these great words and phrases and they want to use them too :)

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I don't read that much ballet criticism so it's hard to comment, but I'm jumping in because one thing Alexandra wrote surprized me very much -- that anyone would say they are uninterested in writing about ballet because 'everything has been said.' For a major art form (even for an important 'type' within a larger art form -- dance) ballet has attracted comparatively little great writing. And the critics whose names are usually given out as great are decidedly quirky even eccentric both as observers and writers. That's not a knock on those writers, but if someone new is knowledgeable and passionate about ballet, there's plenty left to say...The other issues raised seemed somewhat more plausible to me...

As a reader, I do make a big distinction between dance writing in newspapers and dance writing in weekly/monthly general interest magazines and another somewhat smaller distinction between the latter and specialized dance publications. The attempt to make the writing livelier for a newspaper audience when transferred to, say, the New Yorker or The New Republic or the Nation or National Review (I'm trying to be politically ecumenical) sometimes just makes it seem as if the critic in question scarcely takes the art seriously him or herself. I am also pretty skeptical about critical writing that sounds like fan gushing or, for that matter, internet chat. One example: I read what I considered was justified praise for Stepanenko's Shades Scene in Bayadere in a (highly thought of) general interest journal. The critic made the point that one hardly ever saw a ballerina who could handle every one of the ballet's challenges, but then went off into some excursus about this "girl" dancing "like a miracle" -- that was not (in my opinion) poetic or evocative, but just plain condescending and even undermined the excellent point that had just been made. Stepanenko is not a "girl" she's a senior ballerina (in her thirties surely) with a major ballet company, and her dancing isn't a miracle -- she's an extremely well-trained, well-coached, and accomplished ballet dancer. I myself have been known to gush here at ballet alert! but I'm not a professional critic writing for publication in a prestigious magazine. One doesn't have to be puritanical -- genuine wit is fine -- but ballet fans must often lament the fact that somehow their favorite art form isn't taken as seriously as, say, symphonic music or dramatic literature; well, part of a critic's job should be to show people that it is. The same critic writing about a particularly good season Wendy Whelan was having (several seasons back) speculated that a new boyfriend might be making the difference. I later saw, elsewhere that Whelan herself commented publically on her personal life that season, but the critic didn't cite Whelan, but just threw the remark out there (wink! wink!); well, if the top critics don't take ballet dancing seriously as a craft and an art, who will? It's not a Herbert Ross movie in which love affairs and miracles are the real points of interest...and in relatively serious journals/magazines I don't think that's a productive way to develop a ballet audience. (I would cut a lot more slack to newspaper writers who have huge editorial limitations and a much more amorphous audience to face.)

P.S. I thought it was quite gracious of Rachel Howard to respond to the comments she saw posted here...

[ 05-08-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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Drew, I agree on all counts.

I argued quite a bit with the two young writers who were afraid that "everything has been said." I think the real reason was that they admired other writers and didn't think their own writing measured up -- in itself, a good sign, oddly, as lack of confidence in one's talent is sometimes, perversely, an indication of great talent.

Commenting on the state of a dancer's emotional health, or love life, in a review is out of bounds, in my book.

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I too read the Wendy Whelan comment, and thought it was extraneous, but I think the publication is trying to snazz itself up--other articles in it seem to be trying for work in four letter words.

About Jerry Springer, it was certainly an evocative comment, but didn't really convey the royally privaledged atmosphere Gamzatti should have. I have seen some Gamzattis that looked like they thought they were on Jerry Springer, and it wasn't pretty!

Anyone writing about an art form needs to know a great deal about its history, and for something like dance, where the history really only exists in live performances (though videos and old reviews do help), I think it is very hard for someone who hasn't been watching for years and years to make definitive statements. I do think it is hard to write intelligently about Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty if you haven't seen a good production, and since none seem to exist, especially of Swan Lake, it makes things difficult! If I can get personal here, when I write I try simply to give my opinions and the reasons behind them, not a thumbs up or thumbs down. I have very much enjoyed reading reviews by intelligent writers whose actual opinion of a work I disagreed with. And on the other hand, even if a writer who seems to have no depth agrees with me, I don't really enjoy reading that person.

But gossip is for the intermission, not for publication.

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