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The critic and the home town company; take 39


Alexandra

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Tom Strini asks the question "Can high art survive by aiming low?" in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

http://www.jsonline.com/onwisconsin/arts/nov04/274260.asp

However obvious it might seem, let me state for the record that I very much want Michael Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet to succeed financially and artistically. My life will be far more pleasant if they do. And yes, I know how hard it is to keep a ballet going in a market this size. I have written any number of "ballet on the brink" financial stories over the years, and I would prefer not to have to write another one.

But I work for this newspaper and its readers, not for the Milwaukee Ballet. I would love to be able to say that "Hunchback" is brilliant and recommend it to everyone, but it is an affront to my aesthetic values. To say otherwise would be dishonest.

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Without seeing his actual review of "Hunchback" I don't really feel that we can speak about Strini's objections, but he does bring up a valid question -- what do you do when a work is bad? Is it "good for dance" to praise bad work, just because it's being produced (and therefore dancers are working)?

Strini says he feels his primary responsibility is to the paper and its readers -- this is a common point of view for journalists, and has a great deal of logic on its side. But what are some of the counterarguments, or alternative perspectives? What do most people think critics are for?

Tangentially, has anyone here seen the version of Giselle ("Giselle 1943") that he refers to in his article, and if so, what was it like?

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Obliging a critic to give only good reviews to the local ballet company can't be good in the long run, either for the dance company, the audience, or the critic's credibility. If readers find that Reviewer X keeps praising Pretentious Crap to high heaven, they simply won't trust his/her reviews anymore, and will come to see them as just a shill for the local dance company, and furthermore, will no longer be motivated to go to the ballet at all; after all, if that Pretentious Crap is "a brilliant work of art in the glorious tradition of George Balanchine," what does the TRULY bad stuff look like? :) Not that Milwaukee Ballet or the ballets mentioned in the article actually fit this description, it's just a general observation.

What do people think critics are for? Well, that depends what people you ask. As someone who would spend money on tickets, I would like them to critique performances--worth seeing or not?-- and give background on the history and context of those performances. Someone who MAKES money off of ticket sales, OTOH, might want a critic to provide a "review" that could serve, more or less, as a source from which to derive copy for later advertisements. ("Brilliant! A world-class company on the cutting edge of ballet!") And a "bad" review would have the exact opposite of the desired effect for that purpose. :rolleyes: Yes, I know that is cynical and simplistic, but again, I am not picking on Milwaukee Ballet; the same goes for all dance companies, and books and movies in general.

I just find it disturbing that dance critics might be required to produce good reviews out of obligation to the well-being of the local dance scene, and that a bad review shows a lack of loyalty to the company, choreographer, and dancers being discussed. Can you imagine if a political correspondent were to be considered unpatriotic for implying that the government's actions were less than intelligent? Well, actually...oh yeah, not supposed to talk about politics. Sorry. :shhh:

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"Can high art survive by aiming low?"

That question of Strini's has been addressed here on this board before. It's something I've experienced firsthand with my local ballet company. And I have an bad feeling it's something that will continue to dominate ballet lovers conversations in the future.

Actually I'm encouraged that a local critic has voiced his opinion in this manner and on this subject. It seems that with small to mid-size companies the local print media only published puff pieces. There is always a fluffy piece on The Nutcracker around Christmas time. Other productions even if they are dubious are given complimentary short blurbs, maybe a few pictures. That's how it is with the ballet company where I live. I think if a writer here had actually panned a recent production of Frankenstein that our ballet company had put on a few years ago, the public would have reacted in much the same way some of the citizens of Milwaukee did to Strini's piece. So I say "right on" to him and hope he gets to express his viewpoints in the future without having to worry about censorship.

As an aside, what are these choreographers thinking of when they make a ballet about such figures as Frankenstein and Quasimodo?

How on earth can you think of them as a dance figure in the classical sense? Yes, Giselle is a dancing corpse. But that is her fate, a dancing flying airy spirit who fights to overcomes bitterness and hate with forgiveness and eternal love. That is something that can be told in classical ballet terms. How on earth do you make a dead guy sewed together with different body parts, bolts in his neck and who only communicates by going "uuhhnnn!" into a dance figure? :)

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BalletNut, i enjoyed your observations, especially THIS comparison, which i will try to remember, for the next occasion when this point of view gets trotted out:

I just find it disturbing that dance critics might be required to produce good reviews out of obligation to the well-being of the local dance scene, and that a bad review shows a lack of loyalty to the company, choreographer, and dancers being discussed. Can you imagine if a political correspondent were to be considered unpatriotic for implying that the government's actions were less than intelligent?
- well said.
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Can you imagine if a political correspondent were to be considered unpatriotic for implying that the government's actions were less than intelligent? Well, actually...oh yeah, not supposed to talk about politics.  Sorry.  :shhh:

I'm not trying to be clever when I ask, in light of a tendency for the news media to strive for "balance," regardless of the gravity, absurdity, or destructiveness of any given action, has this not already happened? To an extent, I think the phenomenon is the same: in the mainstream, whether it be a political correspondent -- not a political commentator, the equivalent of a Robert Gottlieb --or an arts critic, the tendency to split the difference, ends up being like cutting the baby in half.
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I think there's enormous pressure to "be supportive." I've seen and heard a company press person come to a critic and say, "Mr. X is sure you would want to know that we're up for a make or break grant and this season means everything to us." I've had a company director say, as one example, "It would help us if you would write blah blah blah." And I know how I felt when I panned a small company and then read in the paper the following Monday that it had gone under. I have no idea if the two were causally related, but of course, like the small child who thinks that a citywide power blackout happened because he didn't eat his spinach, I felt guilty about it for months. (And this isn't counting the "friends of Maestro" who'll call and say, "I just thought you ought to know that Maestro has been in a deep, clinical depression since your review last Friday.")

Many board members and fans, too, identify very strongly with the company and wouldn't care if someone had Quasimodo do the Sugar Plum Fairy variation on skates. It's our company, it's Our Johnny dancing Quasimodo, and it's wonderful.

Of course, on this question I'm totally, utterly biased!

I thought Strini stated his "aesthetic values" quite clearly:

But I work for this newspaper and its readers, not for the Milwaukee Ballet. I would love to be able to say that "Hunchback" is brilliant and recommend it to everyone, but it is an affront to my aesthetic values. To say otherwise would be dishonest.

What are those values? For me, the highest ambition of concert dance is full engagement of the eye and mind with the body in motion, as it interacts with physics, time, geometry and the unfolding structure of the choreography and emotion. Characterization and the dancer's personality may or may not come into play. Emotion may be primary or secondary; laughter is just as valid a goal as weeping.

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Speaking (typing?) as a journalist here, I must add that I sometimes find myself having to gently remind story subjects that there's a difference between journalism and public relations. But, through no fault of their own, many of these subjects and readers don't see the difference, thanks to so many so-called journalists who have blurred the distinction between reporting and advocating. And in these readers' minds, a critical review is no different from a press release or a Fox News rant.

I deeply admire critics who can articulate negative opinions in a non-sensationalistic manner. It can be done constructively and help affect change that just might save a company. It can also educate the public.

On the flip side, though, I've seen situations where a public that just might be inclined to become ballet fans read a rave review, then go see a show that's an absolute mess, and come away thinking, "I guess it's just me because I don't get it," and then they never go back.

Honesty and objectivity are always the best policy, but that takes a well-educated critic, something that many markets in this country don't have. And that's a whole other topic for discussion!

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I still hope for honesty and objectivity. Honesty -- not meaning "I've told The Truth!" because I don't think there is a "truth," but in writing what you belileve, i.e., not saying that Maestro has come up with another winner when the work is awful, just so you can get invited to the inner circle parties and stay on the Christmas card list. And objectivity in the sense of separating one's taste from judgment -- and friendship, personal ties.

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