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Robert Gottlieb - New York Observer dance critic

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I just came off the New York Observer homepage reading Robert Gottlieb's review of the recent performances at NYCB and once again was taken aback by the coldness of his review. As I'm sure we are all aware of the fact that there are many ballet critics who have serious problems with how the repertoire of Balanchine and Robbins is being cared for, or how it's not being cared for, I should say at NYCB. Critics like Lynn Garafola, Tobi Tobias and Joan Acocella have spoken with great insight and eloquence about their displeasure with the company. Even when I disagree with them I certainly was able to respect and understand their opinions.

The same can not be said for Robert Gottlieb. Don't get me wrong, many times I've read his reviews and find myself totally nodding my head with agreement with him. Some of his opinions about fixing the problems with NYCB I absolutely agree with like Gottlieb well known angry over Peter Martins' suppose ban on having former dancers come in to help coach roles they either created or became famous in to current dancers.

Its the tone of Gottlieb writing that bothers me. Unlike Garafola, Tobias or Acocella critiques, Gottlieb seems to have a one man war against Peter Martins and NYCB. There's a cruel nastiness to his writing that in my opinion is not only unnecessary but also distracting. Objective criticism is one thing, plain out and out viciousness is another.

That wouldn't be much of a problem for me if his reviews were in the abstract, focusing on the performance at hand. But he seem to take great pleasure on a more personal attack method. He seems to enjoy spotting a dancer's weakness and proceed to ripping them apart with a passion over it - poor, poor Yvonne Borre. Even when he likes a particular performance of a ballet or dancer he seems to be never able to give them full praise. "Tonight performance of such and such ballet was wonderful, but..." or "She danced well this afternoon, however...".

When that's done once in awhile that's fine and understandable, but when it's done constantly I begin to wonder if there's anything this company can do to get full praise from this man. To me, the way he writes it's almost as if it's pure torture for him going to the ballet. If that's the case why go? If you just read Gottlieb's reviews a reader may think, what's the point of going to NYCB - obviously the company is no longer among the greats.

He also seem to live too much in the past. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you are always judging the present with the standards of the past, I think you overlook some of the glory of today. When we look back on anything that has given us joy or pleasure, we tend to romanticize it, sometimes without us realizing it and I think that could be unfair. Choreographers like Balanchine & Robbins and dancers like Farrell, McBride, Verdy, etc. only comes along every few generations. To remember their uniqueness is something to cherish. But to expect that same uniqueness on other dancers in the present, sometimes ignoring that dancer's own special quality, and then becoming angry when they don't live up to your expectation is wrong and I believe Gottlieb sometimes does this in his reviews.

As for the ballets themselves, I even know they are not being performed the same way they must have been perform when Balanchine and Robbins was alive to oversee them. But that is to be expected. No one understands their ballets better then the people who created them. Even the most brilliant stager who was there when the ballet was created, will never fully be able to bring out all the brilliance the way the creator of the ballet could.

Do any of us truly believe Swan Lake is perform the exact way Petipa and Ivanov could stage it? Of course not! Just like no one can stage Les Sylphides like Mikhail Fokine could or Antony Tudor to Jardin aux lilas, Frederick Ashton to Symphonic Variations or Geroge Balanchine to Apollo or Jerome Robbins to Dances at a Gathering. Can the staging at NYCB be better? Of course, any and everything can be improve on. But to listen to Gottlieb you would think the ballets of Balanchine and Robbins are on their last legs thanks to Peter Martins and his stagers. And that's simply not true. I've seen performances in which Gottlieb rip apart that I find to have been perform beautifully, so well in fact I'm sure they could stand head and toe along with performances from the past.

I sometimes wonder if Gottlieb has a personal grudge against Peter Martins or something, his reviews seem to me too be that personal. One that aspect I could be completely wrong, but I do wonder. O.K I'm finish with my rambling thanks.

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I thiink he's getting older and dyspeptic. But I still read him, even though I may disagree with him.

At least he's never boring. I hate boring.

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Of course he has a grudge against Peter Martins; as Gottlieb himself described in his Vanity Fair piece Martins asked him to resign from the NYCB board.

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Every spring Gottlieb writes a column about the NYCB. Every spring, someone (or several someones) take umbrage :devil:

A few points, since GeorgeBfan asked if someone could explain. Here's a try.

1. The Observer isn't the NYTimes. It's a weekly with a certain tone, and Gottlieb's pieces are always consonant with that tone. (Why does this matter? Because writers understand their audience, and even adjust their tone to the paper for which they write If you read someone who writes for more than one publication, you'll usually note that the tone differs. I'm harsher when I write for DanceView (circulation under 1,000, all ardent, knowledgeable dance fans) than when I write for the Washington Post (circulation slighly more than 1,000, general readers who would be bored with how the second soloist's turnout was less than sufficient, or the long-term ramifications of acquiring this or that choreographer).

2. One could argue that Gottlieb is entitled. He's not only been watching ballet since the 1940s, but when he was president of Knopf, he edited some of the most beautiful, intelligent dance books that any house has ever published. One can certainly disagree with him, but he's not writing out of thin air. If New York has an intellectual establishment, he's been at the center of it for decades.

3. I know there will always be those who think that anyone who says "she's not bad, but she's not Patty," is either a) a Patty freak; or b ) blind; or c) wallowing in romantic nostalgia. History disproves this. There have been similar periods in ballet history -- low points, later seen as "the dead time" (as the Danes called one of theirs) or the time between the Romantic Ballet and the Ballet Russe, whatever. During the dead time there are grumbles from the old timers, who remembered what it was like when Taglioni, Grisi, Elssler, Bozzachi were the stars, and the others who hadn't been around then who were perfectly happy with .....what were their names? And then there comes a time when there IS another Taglioni, Grisi and Elssler, with names like Pavlova and Karsavina and Danilova. When you've seen something -- dancing, choreography -- at the very highest level, you can hold that in your eye as a measuring stick. It's not that you want duplication; you want something of the same level, and you know it when you see it, and you welcome it. (I loved Gottlieb's line about one performance that was so good, "it reminded you that there once was a New York City Ballet.")

4. On the "he's got a grudge against Peter Martins because Martins kicked him off the board." The latter may be a fact, but that doesn't mean that Gottlieb goes around saying, "I'm gonna get that guy", nor that when he writes about the company that that's his agenda. THAT isn't a fact; it's speculation.

All criticism is subjective, in one sense (it's one man's opinion); but good criticism, even over-the-top ranting criticism, is also objective. Meaning that one could absolutely detest someone personally (not saying that Gottlieb, nor anyone else, does) and recognize, and write, when they do something that one admires.

Not meaning to say that one can't be outraged, or puzzled, or amused, or whatever, by what he writes, just wanting to give some perspective from the writer/editor side.

And so, back to the debate. What points in the article did you disagree with, agree with, find outrageous, amusing, etc?

Edited by Alexandra

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Alexandra you made some excellent points. Here's my response

1. You're right, every publication does set their individual tone and I keep forgetting that. Of course the matter in which a newspaper or magazine writes, must enthrall the readers they wish to attract. As long as the writer is informative and knowledgeable he/she must or at least should reflect the tone of the newspaper or magazine they are writing for and more importantly what the readers have come to expect. And of course whenever possible, especially when covering any form of the performing arts, you should be entertaining. That's why I can understand Farrell Fan and Juliet comments about disagreeing with Gottlieb but still enjoy reading him reviews. Even I admit he's never boring, that's why I still read him!

2. I have never question Gottlieb's knowledge of ballet. It's very obvious this is a man who is deeply aware of the rich history of this beautiful art form. I'm glad you state this as an arguement, because I have to disagree with you on Gottlieb being entitled to the way he writes his reviews. I know this will go back to the tone a writer choose to write, but I still think there's no excuse for the cruel personal attrack that Gottlieb engage in when writing his reviews. When Gottlieb critique a dancer's performance is one thing. "She danced rather cautiously tonight...", "She did not capture the full beauty of the choreography..." That's a review of a dancer's performance. But when he says thing like, and I'm paraphasing, "That dancer is an embarrassment.." or "How she become a principal dancer I will never know...", I'm sorry but that's not a review of a performance but an unnecessary personal attrack on the dancer. I guess it's the teacher's training in me. We was taught there's two form of criticism - positive and negative. Positive criticism is to encourage and support. Negative criticism is to tear down and discourage. Now I know I'm taking a big leap from criticism with young children and criticism of professional dancers, but for me it still applies. I know it has a lot to do with wording, I mean two reviewers can see the same performance of a dancer, have the same negative reaction to it, but if one reviewer writes about it in a positive way and the other in a negative way, I certain the person that is the focus of the review would come away with more knowledge of what he or she should do too better themselves in their dancing from the positive criticism more so then from the negative criticism. In other words I believe you can get your point across more effectively with honey then you can with vinegar.

3. Having fond memories of dancers from the past is a wonderful thing and I do believe it shapes your love for the art form and how you look at dancers of today. I do that myself. I love Balanchine's "Davidsbunlertanze" (boy, try saying that name five times in a row), but my love of that ballet comes from the videotape of the original cast, save Kay Mazzo. I know, I know, you can't compare videotape performance to the richness of a live performance, but thats what I only have to go on. As much as I've enjoyed live performances of the ballet, none of them have capture the for me the beauty, the lyricism, the intellegence, the loneliness (no one will ever dance the Adam Luder part better then Luder himself!). But I'm not attracking those dancers who are performing the ballet today because they are not performing the ballet as exquisitely as the original cast in the way I believe Gottlieb is doing. As for romanticizing, yes I do believe we all romanticize the past, sometimes to the point we over romanticize what we remember. And I think that can be a disadvantage. By looking too much in the past you could overlook something wonderful in the present only because it's not capturing your memory of the past.

4. As for the grudge, you're right that is only speculation. But I do remember that feature story in Vanity Fair that Thelictum mention and it does make me wonder even more.

Alexandra, your right, all criticism is subjective. This is after all one person opinion. The very thing I dislike about Gottlieb's reviews could be the very thing another person loves. And the fact that Gottlieb can get such passionate response from his readers, proves he's obviously do something right.

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<<<To me, the way he writes it's almost as if it's pure torture for him going to the ballet. If that's the case why go?>>>

To bear witness. (That is my speculative answer, not Mr. Gottlieb's actual answer.)

<<<< the person that is the focus of the review would come away with more knowledge of what he or she should do too better themselves in their dancing from the positive criticism more so then from the negative criticism>>>

This is a misconception about the role of criticism, which is not the same thing as a director or dramaturg's notes, but made public. In other words, a review is not written as corrective advice, or if it is, in the hands of a good writer it is clearly cast that way. (For instance, "If only blank blank blank would blank blank blank, it would be wonderful. I can dream, can't I?") This doesn't mean that the critic might not actually have staged the work better--indeed, it is a grim moment in a mature career when you realize you could have set a work better than the stager, or helped the stager in significant ways. Nonetheless, criticism is written for the READER, who is construed to be a member of the audience, not for the PERFORMER. Reviews are letters to the world, not fan mail, and not stage directions.

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Yes, but as someone from both sides of the stage, I agree with Nanatchka on this one. A writer needs to identify with the audience, not with the performers - that's whose vantage point we've seen the performance from. You can't know what the performers know about their process or the conditions of the night (was it underrehearsed? Was there a slick spot on the stage? Did someone have a charley horse or break up with her boyfriend before she went out on stage?) We can make educated guesses, and I think it's a good thing to illuminate the process to the audience. But in the end, what we know is what it felt like to sit in the house and watch the performance.

Apropos Gottlieb, do a search on any thread involving him and look at the number of views it has. That may be as good a reason as any why the Observer runs his writing!

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As good a reason as any besides his Man of Letters pedigree. Gottlieb has actually come rather recently to writing dance criticism, though not to seeing dance. (He has seen an incredible lot.) He was busy heading Random House, and then editing The New Yorker, and also being the personal editor of a variety of distinguished writers, among them Katherine Graham, Paul Taylor, and Joe Heller. And guess who's editing Bill Clinton's new tome? Thus you might imagine that a publisher and his or her back of the book (that's reviews and the like) editor would be thrilled to have Bob Gottlieb as a writer--by the way,his criticism appears elsewhere, too, including as a book reviewer for the NYReview of Books and the New York Times. Whatever you think (I happen to think he is totally divine), his distinction is indisputable.

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Leigh I'm not talking about writing from the perspective of performers, but rather realizing that some performers DO read reviews, and some pay close attention and respond on stage. That doesn't mean we take the role of ballet coach, of course.

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Which brings up a related question: Do people think it's a good idea for performers to read reviews?

For the reasons I just mentioned, I would actually say, no, they shouldn't. There's something to be learned from constructive criticism, but that's not what a review is. It can be useful at a point when the person wants to see a range of opinions about his or her work, but before that, skip them.

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I think if a critic thinks like that, it's like an air traffic controller who starts to think of the little blips on the screen as "279 souls" and freezes. My rule has always been to write as though you could face the person if you met him or her, but never to think, "I wonder what he'll think of this?" "Did she read what I wrote about her?" I think the point being made is that the critic doesn't write for the performer, not that critics think performers don't read them.

All of this said, readers will always think that this or that comment is over the line (not only in Gottlieb's reviews, but others, I'm sure). I think the comments on this thread by writers are meant in the spirit of answering GeorgeB fan's original question, "can anyone explain him to me?" and not to discourage discussion.

Edited by Alexandra

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I find I'm not able to reach the old Gottlieb reviews via the links Ari mentioned. I keep getting bumped to the May 29 piece on Raymonda. Am I missing something obvious? I would like to go back and read some of his work.

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Boy, I have no ideal my message would create should a passionate debate! Not that I mind, I love it. I ask a question and all of you are giving me answers in your own opinion. But something tells me I need to make somethings more clearer.

As for Gottlieb's capability as a writer, I've never question that. As I said in my second message on the subject, it's very clear this man is astute in his knowledge of ballet. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is his matter of writing. I just don't believe it's necesary to be as acid tongue as he is in his reviews.

As for a reviewer being an educator to a dancer on how they should dance, maybe I should have been more clearer because I certainly did not mean to imply the role of critic as instructor on telling a dancer how they should be perform. But I do believe when a dancer reads a review of their dancing whether consciously or subconsciously, right or wrong they will think about it. And I do believe most dancers reads their reviews which is only natural - if you are doing something that others publicly criticque you're going to read it if for nothing else out of curiosity.

But after reading some of the messages that Ari point out to me in early messages, Thanks Ari, I can see I open a Pandora's Box that maybe been best to have remind close.

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He really is a Jekyll and Hyde character. He interviewed Barbara Horgan

at Wall to Wall in March. He was kind and respectful and really

encouraged her to talk about her experiences with the Company.

I think she is reticent about talking publically - and he really

drew her out and got her to talk about her past and her current

work with the Foundation. It was a charming interview and I was

surprised it was the same person who wields his poison pen.

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I find I'm not able to reach the old Gottlieb reviews via the links Ari mentioned. I keep getting bumped to the May 29 piece on Raymonda. Am I missing something obvious? I would like to go back and read some of his work.

Sometimes periodicals use the same URL for the latest review or column and move others to a different address. If you go to the Observer's home page (New York Observer) and do a search for "Gottlieb," you'll come up with links to his reviews going back to 1999.

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I've moved the last few posts by Herman Stevens and Alexandra into the thread Do you think dancers should read reviews? in Anything Goes, since that was the subject of the posts and I'd like to keep that discussion going. But Herman has something to say about Bob Gottlieb in his May 30 post, so take a look. :)

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Courtesy of ARTSJOURNAL.com, I read Robert Gottleib's Eifman review. He was so angry and offended. He's been going to NYCB since forever, is well-informed about the main characters (on and off-stage), and took this ballet as an ego-tripping insult. I didn't see the ballet but I gather from what I've read on the message boards that others felt the same way - sans having their own weekly dance columns.

As for the cell-phone "insult": The only time (once was enough) I saw Eifman's company, you bet there were cellphone converasations going on in Russian. When I was a NY Philharmonic subscriber, there were JUST AS MANY cellphone conversations going on in English. Phones went off when I saw JUMPERS over Memorial Day Weekend...isn't Tom Stoppard hard enough ? :wacko: Even worse than trying to enjoy a performance is at the end of the workday is when people carry on cellphone conversations about topics you wouldn't discuss w/your analyist or mother. The issue of "what" the Eifman crowd is has less to do w/cellphones - that's a problem all by itself - and more to do w/programming catering to that audience. Only this time instead of lousy ticket sales for last summer's Mariinsky Opera performances at the Met, the NYCB has a major critical disaster on its hands. Sometimes demographics aren't everything.

Many thanks to Alexandra for linking the background article on Robert Gottlieb. Editing Robert Caro's towering Johnson biographpy and Katherine Graham's candid, inspirational autobiography are impressive enough. And now he's got a million+ seller w/Bubba's lifestory :innocent: That he loves dance and writes about it with passion and conviction is enough for me. It's better than reading Anna Kisselgoff mixing metaphors about Peter Martins as a dancer and choreographer.

Maybe he wanted the same thing we all wanted from the Centennial Celebration - seeing the ballets we love danced with love. Some nights we got just that, and apparently at this Eifman thing, we didn't.

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For those curious about Robert Gottlieb, here's a long feature/interview piece about him from today's Globe and Mail (also posted on Links):

What a marvelous article---I hope this gives him (Gottlieb) a large dose of RESPECT :innocent:

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In that long, long article, that dealt with several of Gottlieb's "obsessions" (like jazz!) it didn't mention that while he was at Knopf, he edited what many consider the finest line of dance books ever published, certainly in this country. It just mentions, almost in passing, that he's a dance critic and that his favorite choreographer is Balanchine.

But I agree with the last few comments. One can always disagree with him, or anyone, but he does have legs to stand on!

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