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Overly Harsh Criticism?

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In her review of Suzanne Farrell Ballet's Kennedy Center Performance,

Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Lifts and Stumbles

critic Sarah Kaufman has some rather harsh criticism of Jared Redick, who went on as a replacement for an injured Peter Boal. I'm not suggesting that the dancer in question is beyond criticism due to the circumstances, but shouldn't there be some understanding of those circumstances and therefore a reasonable mitigation of that criticism?

Even if Mr. Redick had a week to get ready, that's precious little time to get up to performance speed in what is an extremely difficult role. Thanks to Mr. Redick's availability, the dance went on and Mr. Boal had time to heal.

Think I'll file this one in my "every act of kindness shall not go unpunished" file....


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It's a rough break for Redick, but I thought Kaufman's article was well within bounds. Even with extenuating circumstances, you judge what the audience paid the ticket price to see. This sounds harsh, but I say this as a producer, if I haven't made provisions for adequate substitution (and frankly, I usually haven't because who can afford to. . .) it's my risk. Not the audience's.

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I think it's easier for us who go to so many performances to put aside an emergency casting that wasn't quite perfect because we go so often. But then I try to look at it from the position of the person who paid top price, who is only going once this year. That person might not care about the extenuating circumstances. That's why there are understudies.

Oddly enough, I saw Redick in Mozartiana in October, but he was dancing the "gigue" section. Ethan Stiefel was doing the lead. I wonder if there was any thought to try to call in a "ringer" like Stiefel, who most likely will be performing the role at the Met. Or ask permission for Neal, Hubbe or Woetzel to come to Washington D.C.

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I don't think she was too hard on Redick. She wasn't calling him incompetent, merely noting that he wasn't up to the task, a formidable one.

I suppose it's possible for the reference to "masterful [sic]"coaching and "disparate" dancers might be taken the wrong way -- as if to say, "Gosh, she'd just be so great if she wasn't saddled with Those Dancers." :unsure:

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Good points; well taken. I suppose I tilt towards the POV of the performer a bit.

As a theatre director who's had his share of of scrambling desperately to fill in for sick or missing cast members, I sympathize (rightly or wrongly) with what Redick and company went through to present that performance. I would have cut him some slack. But you're right: people paid to see good work; if it ain't good, take your lumps!

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I'd agree with what's been written so far -- I didn't find Kaufman's comments overly harsh, and I think a company needs to have a properly prepared understudy, or pull the ballet.

Personally, I didn't find Redick's performance less than respectable, though. I liked him as a dancer and thought he deserved a chance at the role. It looks to me as though Farrell's method of staging is to get the outlines clear so that the curtain can go up, and work on the details, refine, at subsequent performances. Another director might rehearse the solos, say, until they dazzle, and most in the audience would overlook the fact that the rest of the ballet is a mess.

The whole performance, to me, felt loose, and I'd bet on it being tightened as the run went on. (In fact, it was, by last night.)

That's not to say that the opening night shouldn't be called as the critic saw it -- it's irrelevant to the opening night audience how the ballet may or may not be danced later.

One of the problems with newspapers only covering opening nights is that every company that plays here is going to be forever doomed to bad reviews. I think San Francisco Ballet is the only company in the past 5 years that had an opening night that was up to the company's own standards. Otherwise, it often seems as though the dancers have docked 15 minutes before show-time and there's an "Oh! THERE's the wings..." or "YOU'RE my partner tonight? Gosh!!!" feel to the performance.

Croce once wrote that Balanchine's ballets were never finished by opening night, a new work always took several performances to settle in. Critics seemed to take that into consideration -- fair, because he had a long track record of producing results eventually? Did the opening night audience accept that, and didn't care because they wanted to be there at the Birth?

I don't have any answers to this, but they're the questions critics wrestle with all the time, and for those who read reviews, they might be interesting to think about. I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

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I've been known to say often, "I never want to go to the opening night of anything." I know the economics of a performance; there's never enough money to get the time one needs in a theater to give a smooth performance. The dancers aren't used to the costumes. They probably got them yesterday; they may have gotten them ten minutes before a performance. (It happened to me one year. I was ready to commit ritual suicide wondering why one of my ballets looked like high school choreography. The dancers explained at intermission. They literally got the costumes right before curtain when they were finally done, put them on and went out. And the women's costumes had an underskirt and overskirt both made of a slick nylon and suddenly none of the lifts in the ballet worked. They tacked the costumes down overnight.) They aren't used to the lights - we spend an extra 20-30% to get the theater for another day so the dancers aren't doing dress rehearsal the afternoon of the performance. Sometimes there isn't the money or the time.

It ain't fair, but we assume the risk. Alas, my site review for a state arts agency was of course, the Night of the Slipping Costumes. What was the auditor supposed to say? S/he described what s/he saw and that was that. Like I said, as a rule I've never understood why people are so gung-ho on opening nights, but if we open the doors for viewing. . .

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Maybe it's time to bring back the "general rehearsal." You can call it a preview, or an open dress rehearsal. It's what's now called "opening night." Terminology is everything.....

Editing to add....Washington Ballet now has a preview night. Press night is the second performance. (Then you have the problem of....."Oh, you should have been here LAST night. They were so good!!!")

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I usually take negative comments with a a grain of salt; they're nothing but the critic's opinion and serve a valuable function.

One that really annoyed me, though, was a reviewer's comment in October, 2001, that a certain dancer's movement was "too ripe for the small stage;" the ballet, as the critic knew, had been meant for a much larger venue 3 weeks earlier in lower Manhattan, and you'd've been hard-pressed to find someone who didn't know why it couldn't be performed there. In that context, the comment was gratuitous.

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That is good advice. I always listen to bad reviews. They are usually very informative. It is good reviews that I find useless.

For a fledgling company like Suzanne Farrell Ballet, it is probably hard to have proper understudies for every major role. The company is not that big. Many of them are pick-up dancers. Their season is not that long. They have been touring for many weeks. Having understudies is something that may come as the company expands.

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Two years ago I went to the ROH to see the Royal Ballet do The Dream and Song of the Earth. These were two ballets I like very much and wanted to see so I "treated" myself to a top end ticket. (NB If you want to actually get a clear view of the stage at the ROH and see all the action you have no option but to "treat" yourself.)

Anyway it wasn't very good. Either of the ballets, both danced underpowered, miscast, sloppy etc etc. But I went away thinking oh well state of the art today etc etc etc.

Two weeks later I read an interview with Hubert Essakow who messed up Oberon big style when I saw him on the first night of the programme. In the interview he said that the opening night was the first time they had actually danced the ballet on the stage. Nevermind with lights, costume, orchestra. It was the first time they had actually danced it on the stage on which they were to perform.

I know the current state of affairs vis a vis budget, time, rehearsal time, money is not great BUT as far as I'm concerned if you are charging money for a product you have a moral duty to present it in as good a state as possible. To charge money to see dancers who are familiarising themselves with the production for the first time in situe is utterly wrong. It's reprehensible.

I wondered had I returned to the ROH box office with this interview and my ticket stub would I have been entitled to a refund?

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Simon: my condolences.

I might mention that several dancers have told me that getting used to the lights is a major hurdle, and more than one rehearsal is needed to adjust, especially for turns and downstage jettes.

One of the biggest disappointments of my theatre-going life was a West End production of Antony & Cleopatra with Vanessa Redgrave & Timothy Dalton. I only had one night in London and chose it over some other temptations because of my love of that play and admiration for Ms Redgrave. It was a wretched production, and the stars were "phoning it in". Seriously, they were practically rolling their eyes.

Your story puts me in mind of the extraordinary documentary made of the behind the scenes shenanigans, pressures and demands on the ROH. An impossible situation...but on it goes!

As Beckett wrote: "I can't go on, I'll go on."

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Simon, I sympathize and agree. This is another of the Big Changes. Dancers used to have several stage rehearsals, in costume, with orchestra. I think, in addition to the money (you have to spend money on something. It's either salaries to 5 education directors, or paying for rehearsals, to oversimplify :wink: )

I think one of the reasons for this is that there aren't complaints -- critics usually give the companies a pass, thinking, "There's no money and the poor kid hasn't had any rehearsal." But doesn't write that, of course. And the audience, especially the new audience, has no way of knowing and thinks everything is fine, well, maybe a little stiffness, or something is amiss. And if the critic does write about it, then they're being mean :) That's the first generation. Second generation writes/thinks: "Wow, that company is exciting. You never know what they're going to do next -- there's a real edge to the dancing. Not like those stuffy old European companies" (I write from an American perspective, of course.)

When I first saw the Royal in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, each cast had rehearsed as carefully as the cast of a play would, and each cast had a distinct approach to the ballet. I remember seeing back to back Merle Park and Nureyev (the struck down by fate approach; everyone cried at the balcony pas de deux, because you were thinking, "God, by this time tomorrow they'll be dead") and Seymour and Wall, who took the live it minute by minute and don't know you're going to die approach. You exalted at the balcony pas de deux and got sniffy in the bedroom one. (I know you don't like R&J, and it's not my favorite work either, but it once received very convincing performances.)

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I didn't think she was harsh -- she didn't DWELL on it, which WOULD have been cruel, and she didn't make it sound like he wsn't brave to try...

It's a famously difficult role -- If you read Bobby Maiorano's book about the making of Mozartiana, Ib Andersen himself had difficulty in places learning it -- there are lots of sections that are very tight -- a set of ronde de jambes a terre, if I remember right, like 3 outside and then 3 inside, can that be right? into preparation for pirouettes, looks SO ungrateful -- not ugly or anything, but so hard compared to the effect it makes....

I liked Redick a lot as a dancer when I saw him here -- I wish I HAD seen him in this. But Mozartiana calls for exceptional, angelic qualities. Peter Boal himself might not be above criticism in it any more.

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Jeffrey: I imagine their comments are of the "let's shoot the messenger" category?

As one dancer told me, she actually has to "choreograph her eye balls", meaning where to focus during certain steps in order to keep balance and judge distances (like where the edge of the stage is and other minor concerns)

My point is that this takes stage time. When they don't get enough of it, you have some shaky performances.

I am sure most dancers would choose to be beautifully illuminated in exchange for being momentarily blinded.

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Gosh yes. You lose a lot of security in the transition from studio to stage: four secure pirouettes in a studio become three, maybe two on a dark stage. The side booms can blind, the darkness pushes a dancer's placement back. I often try and program the opening ballet so that the dancers can "find" the stage. If we're doing a piece in soft slippers, it's another reason it would usually go first.

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I hate to sound like an old fogey (And indeed I am not, I have but entered into my 30th year and am fragrant, fresh and lusty to look at) BUT one thing I think is very much forgotten by theatre management today is that a ticket is a contract.

When one buys it one enters into a contract in good faith that the company will provide a product which is ready for the stage, and by that I mean the product has been tested with lights, costume, orchestra and is ready for consumption.

If one were to dine in an atrociously expensive restaurant and the bare ingredients were thrown onto a plate raw and a bill for a fully cooked meal served up at the end one would of course refuse to pay it. The excuse that the ingredients were top quality and expensive would of course not cut the mustard. Yet the excuse of the modern theatre management that costs are so high nowadays that a full rehearsal is not always possible is served up and expected to be swallowed.

I'm very sure Essakow was speaking out of turn, as he did that interview shortly before leaving the company, and so was speaking with a candour that the management at the Royal would not have normally allowed.

I'm fully prepared for cast changes due to injury etc, but then again not always. A while back I booked a ticket for Giselle with Guillem (£66 about $90) she injured herself and was replaced with a dancer I cannot stand, though I didn't find this out until the night. At certain prices one should be entitled to get what one pays for if one has paid a lot.

However, back to my original point. When the product is "uncooked" as it were, I feel very much that the management has reneged on its part of the contract.

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I'm going to sound even more like an old fogey: the contract on the ticket is that management can change the cast or program at will, and that one should be happy with what one gets. As annoying as it is to look forward to a performer or ballet only to get "stuck" with a substitution -- usually one's worst nightmare, especially if one is in a bad mood -- that's the fine print, and in ballet, where injuries aren't rare, it has to be part of the contingency. (And often part of my Plan B.)

I'm also more of the old NYCB watcher school: I don't expect clean lines, first performances to be fully cooked, or dancers to be quite ready for their roles. I like watching most dancers tackle roles in which they aren't quite comfortable and watching them grow into the part. (Not when they look miserable, though, which happens occasionally.) I even like casting against type, even when its not successful, and of casting younger dancers in major roles, instead of giving two performances to each of the three predictable principals.

In over 30 years -- apart from a pathetic local Nutcracker I saw as an eight-year-old -- I've only seen three performances in which a dancer was so badly cast that he didn't redeem himself at some part in the ballet, and two of these were the same dancer way beyond his prime. Luckily for the third the New York Times critic was much kinder than the two women who sat in front of me on the 65th Street crosstown bus.

That said, I understand why ballet company directors would be concerned about the couple-of-times-a-year ballet-goer who will not come back if a ballet opening isn't perfect, especially since the trend is away from subscriptions.

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are we talking about art or product?

You should have Robert Rauschenberg designing your decor -- My friend Ellen Cornfield told me about dancing in a piece of Merce Cunningham's where she had to do a double pirouette and land on this little rug so she could be pulled off-stage -- but the added complication was that Rauschenberg was doing the lights , too , and turning them on and off ad lib, and just before she finished the pirouette it went DARK -- "It was WILD!" she said, but I think it actually did work out .....

Now THAT's modern art....

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There may be a middle road between Simon's Old Fogeydom and Helene's smile.gif I think the ticket is a contract -- and while Helene is absolutely right that it says, right on the announcement, "Programs and Casting subject to change," there's still an assumption on the part of the ticket buyer that he's buying what the company is selling -- a Star performance, if it's that kind of company. Or a Night of Great Art, if it's that kind of company. Or Stars in Great Art if.....

So if a company that does everything it can to lure you into the theater to see it's 7 (count 'em!!) 7 medal winners, I damn well want a medal winner, and if Medal Winner #4, whom I'd especially wanted to see, broke something and was replaced by He Who Happened To Be There That Day, I'd be angry about it.

There's another kind of contract with the audience, though, the long-term kind, which the Royal and NYCB both used to have: ":We're both in this for the long haul. There will be good nights and bad nights. We're building a company; we think it will be a great one. Come to the matinees and you can see someone we think has quite a bit of potential. We know you'll understand that a 19-year-old is not going to give you the Giselle, or Agon, that a 30-year-old will, etc." BUT that 19-year-old was prepared: coached, costumed and rehearsed. I think with City Ballet, especially at the end of the season, there was a ghoulish excitement because there'd be injuries and people would be thrown on without enough preparation, but that, too, was part of the contract. NYCB was sold as experimental theater, and it delivered.

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At the Royal Ballet, although of course they have limited stage time - like any company sharing with an opera company - I think they make things worse by putting on far too many casts: six or seven in the big three-acters, with some of them getting only one performance. They can't possibly all get a stage rehearsal.

I saw one performance recently where a dancer in quite an important role looked as if he'd never even seen the ballet before, let alone had proper rehearsal time - and he wasn't a last minute replacement, either..

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The thing is Jane this was the double bill AND the first night cast too which hadn't been properly rehearsed.

Also on the point about multiple casts in relation to Hockey fan's points; I fully appreciate the ethos of NYCB that the choreography is the point of the evening. In the UK at the moment we're not so lucky as to have a ballet company with a hugely diverse rep (or rather a hugely diverse rep that's shown on a regular basis), at the Royal it's three acters, three acters, bit of Balanchine, oh yeah we have to chuck in one Ashton, a naff nod to post-modernism and then loads and loads of the same three acters.

So unlike NYCB with the RB for a regular ballet goer you base your decisions on cast, especially for the three act ballets, which is probably why, as Jane pointed out there are too many casts for these huge ballets, to ensure that the main ballerinas all get a look in and that their fans will ensure that the houses are full, or rather the cheaper seats are full. There aren't too many ballet lovers in the top price ranges (currently if you want to sit there you'll pay £66, $90 for a triple bill and anywhere from £76 - £88 a seat in the three act ballets.)

In relation to the Farrell critique I didn't think it was too harsh at all, and I would like to see far more scathing criticisms of some of the not-ready for public consumption performances that we regularly see in London. Since the fans aren't served with what they deserve perhaps the RB needs to be whipped into shape by the one force that can make or break the attendance rates - the critics.

Edited by Simon G
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At the cinemas the other night, my viewing of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was interupted by the bass coming through from the nightclub above. It was noticable only through the quiet moments in the movie.. or indeed when one song was particularly 'hi nrg' ...

A polite complaint to the ticket office and I got a number of comp tickets.

I'm trying that next time i see a disaster of a performance.

Ballet is exciting because it is human. There's this exciting possibility that the sublime could be touched.. or that the lead could fall on her backside. But a sloppily rehearsed performance is not an accident - its poor planning and poor management and from someone like the Royal (or a similarly reputed company who charge large amounts for tickets) there's no excuse. That said, if I'm paying 20 dollars to see a performance I'll expect something different than I would when paying $120.

Cast changing is often unavoidable. However when you rarely get a chance to see the ballet for regional or financial reasons and you save yourself up for one particular dancer... You have a right to be miffed. I put on dance parties and if our headliner doesn't show there is no other option than to offer refunds to those who want it. I find it audacious that anyone would be told to put up and shut up if they're cranky about cast changes... Who's the customer here??

Incidentally - I would agree that critics should simply call it as they see it. But then i'm not much of a molly coddler :D

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