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Leigh Witchel

John Rockwell's article in the NYT

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Thanks to Mme. Hermine for the link - The Intimate, Unified Universe of Dance

The article is probably meant as a mild Sunday think piece, but there are things in it that don't bode well for balletomanes. I can't speak for Alexandra, but I think the ideas he expresses were the reason BalletAlert was founded - to counteract them.

It would be fine if Paris Opera Ballet was doing a new Trisha Brown work if they were also adding new ballet to their repertory. They're not. Their dancers aren't trained to dance modern dance and Trisha Brown isn't trained to choreograph for ballet-trained bodies.

He's not thinking institutionally. Everyone's getting a raw deal out of the cross-pollination because it's happening without discrimination. Ballet dancers are losing their core training and repertory, and having new repertory cut off at the branches. Modern choreographers are making short-lived novelties on dancers who aren't trained to their works. Its all short-run with few long run benefits unless the health and identities of both forms are tended to.

But that's my take. What's yours?

In all cases, I think this needs a response. You might want to consider a letter to Mr. Rockwell.

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Why did anyone expect that Mr. Rockwell, who has spent all his professional life as a music critic, was going to display a great deal of discrimination about dance? This to me is symptomatic of the Times's, and the mainstream media's, lack of interest in dance, dismissal of ballet as elitistic and precious, and. . .Oh I could go on forever. . .But we might as well be back in 1916, when Carl Van Vechten was assigned to review the Ballet Russes. . . .

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OK folks, what constructive action can we take? Individual letters would help, I think, but should there be a group action? I'm not suggesting protest, that's pointless. John Rockwell is just about to take the helm of the paper of record in one of the dance centers of the world, with two of the major ballet companies. Can we get him involved in a dialogue and see what might be the problem?

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I think it would be wonderful if people wrote letters to Mr. Rockwell, or the editors, or both about the piece. Whether you agree with it or disagree with it, it would be good to let them know that people care about dance and care about how the NY Times covers it.

And yes, Leigh is right -- this is why I originally founded the site and the Ballet Alert! newsletter. :wink:

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Why do I feel that the New York Times just handed over the top dance critic post, arguably, in the United States to someone who will not be an objective observer to all form of dance? I think atm711 is right - serious shades of John Martin. Scary! I also don't like the fact he could really believe that dance does not have an important richness in its 400 year history. No important richness! In that 400 year history, formal dance was given a style, vocabulary, a grammar in which emotions and feeling can be displayed through dance. For most of its history dance went through several important innovations that would have a profound and long-standing importance to several generations of artists to follow. From Taglioni going on point for the first time, the French Petipa's journey to Russia and creating Classical Ballet, to Fokine's decision that ballet should be an artistic unit combaring dance, music and design in a more realistic way, to Balanchine's neo-classical style and so on and so forth and the hundreds of ballets that were created because of them - several of them masterpieces. For him to think that ballet does not have a rich and extraoridinary history is in a word: crazy!!

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Alexandra, what's the most effective route of contact to John Rockwell in this case? Email or surface mail? Via the Times? Does one write to the editor or to him?

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I don't know how the Times works, I'm afraid. At the Post, you could just call Style and ask for Sarah Kaufman. I'd email, I think. He might read the snail mail, but does anyone anywhere answer it any more?

Writers usually are genuinely glad to get feedback on something they write, (especially if the letter is polite and well-reasoned) and I think it would be worth writing.

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And just call me "terpichorean hamster" - slaving away raising funds. OY!

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Rockwell's been pushing the idea that there's not any real value distinction to be made between "art" music (or "serious" music, "formal" music; select your term) and popular music for decades now. It's great that he has eclectic tastes and seems interested in going to lots of different kinds of dance (it certainly hasn't always been true of Times reviewers), but one should enjoy these things separately--the crossover stuff, oh the horror, the horror.

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Rockwell's been pushing the idea that there's not any real value distinction to be made between "art" music (or "serious" music, "formal" music; select your term) and popular music for decades now.

A viewpoint Rockwell shares with such marginal artists as Louis Armstrong and George Balanchine.

I'm not sure how I feel about his reference to dance's lack of a rich history when the comparison is to music, which was the context here. I'm not sure it's a relevant comparison, because the music we listen to derives from the period of ballet's birth. Of course we know that the first time a human hit two sticks (or hands, for that matter) to express a rhythmic pattern, someone nearby started moving spontaneously. :party-smiley-017:

In my own case, a much fuller and deeper immersion in loft- and small-theater dance is in store. It will be fascinating to find out how much vitality is out there. There will be determined veterans who ply their craft in annual recitals, and downy postgraduates searching, no doubt mostly in vain, for their own choreographic voice. But maybe there's more.
I don't know what this means. Either:a)Because I've tended as an amateur to spend time with more established companies, I'm not as hip to smaller, younger troupes as I'll have to be as a professional, so I'm embarking on Total Immersion; or b) I'm ignoring the establishment, because it's dull.

Meanwhile, we still have Dunning and Anderson, who both love ballet.

While the loft events are not where I choose to spend my time, I am not sure that increasing their coverage is a bad thing. I'm willing to suspend judgment for a while. Today's loft choreographer is tomorrow's titan.

Yeah, well, one can hope!

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Rockwell's been pushing the idea that there's not any real value distinction to be made between "art" music (or "serious" music, "formal" music; select your term) and popular music for decades now.

A viewpoint Rockwell shares with such marginal artists as Louis Armstrong and George Balanchine.

Oy :D Since this is one of the more argued-over points on this site, I think I can speak for Ballet Talk as a whole when I say there's a difference between being omnivorous in taste and being indiscriminate. Balanchine may have liked Westerns on TV, but he knew they were Westerns on TV, not Shakespeare.

Go ahead and love all art, from the court to the street. But when someone starts equating street art with classical art, they lose me. There are differences, and if they can't see them, they don't have eyes.

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This discussion is interesting, because I didn't take Rockwell's article as a sign of ballet coverage's demise. It will be interesting to see how things turn out as Rockwell steps in, but I think he was pointing to certain trends that are popping up - such as POB's increased performance of modern dance - without saying whether or not he necessarily loved the idea of them.

Towards the end of the article he says this:

Ballet will thrive, thrilling audiences with fresh young dancers and the 19th-century classics. The established modern companies, with or without their founders, will carry on. Companies of all kinds will visit us, and it would be nice to think that we will be properly perceptive yet open to what they have to tell us. As in music, dance traditions from all over the world will inspire us.

And one day, maybe emerging from some obscure new scene - bubbling under, as Billboard magazine likes to say -choreographers will emerge who will bring us new modern companies and grand new ballets. To me, it all seems pretty hopeful. We'll see how reality matches up with optimistic expectations.

Dance is changing, he says, but the established forms will continue to thrive. I'm not sure what he says about finding new choreography within the classical idiom, though. I just didn't really see the whole thing as the NY Times turning its back on ballet. Rockwell's job as chief dance critic will be to cover all of the different types of dance - and not just ballet - so I think this article was a way for him to give a general overview of the whole form.

Now, as for his comment about the 400-year tradition - I think he was saying that in comparison to the other art forms he was mentioning. Its true - dance doesn't have the same kind of ballyhooed tradition that classical music or opera do, and I think this is largely because music and opera can be written down and passed onward: dance can't do that so easily. So stuff that happened 300 years ago can't be looked back upon in the same way that a Beethoven score can. I didn't think it was a disparagement of dance's history.

That said, it wouldn't hurt to make sure the Times knows people are still interested in serious criticism about ballet as well.

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I am going to write a letter, and I'll send a link to this thread, so please keep the dialogue going.

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Go ahead and love all art, from the court to the street.  But when someone starts equating street art with classical art, they lose me.  There are differences, and if they can't see them, they don't have eyes.

Not claiming that I love all art, but I think the point is that each has validity in its own context.

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I think the point is that each has validity in its own context.

That's a point I'll wholeheatedly agree with. But that's not what his article says. He's arguing that context doesn't matter.

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I agree that we've interpreted Rockwell's general slant correctly, but I had a different take on the following section of his article:

It also helps that dance's past is relatively brief and less surely documented than that of other arts. Classical music suffers from the sheer weight of its accrued traditions. There is a giant backlog of plays and operas, so many that the principal source of novelty now seems to be insightful or silly reinterpretations.

The less-than-400-year history of formal dance offers no such richness, but no such millstone, either.

I think the distinction he's getting at is that in music, physical scores have been preserved, and traditions accumulate, because the text, often original, is the starting point. He also notes the "backlog" of plays and operas, which is important, because while works may be dismissed at any time based on changing taste, the scores are there to be discovered and re-discovered. This is unlike most dance where the vast majority of pieces (until recently) went unrecorded, and whether they were remembered beyond a press description was dependent on the memories of people who were directly involved in their creation.

A musician can look at an original score, and s/he doesn't need to have heard another intepretation to reproduce it, although knowledge of the period, style, and composer's intent does help, as can an instructional geneology that goes back to the original composer or performer. Dance depends on the oral tradition, even when there is notation, to a greater extent than all but folk music, and even there, the recorded tradition is longer, deeper, and more accurate, due to the technological limitations of filming dance.

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I was disturbed by the tenor of this article also. “Condescending” was the adjective that occurred to me, as well. I have nothing against good crossover works, emphasis on the good, but it’s important to make distinctions, be aware of them, and PRESERVE them. In addition, he’s putting up straw men and knocking them down – those “ballet fans who disdain modern dance as dated or amateurish,” for example. And although Rockwell doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s clear that he views those, such as himself, who Look Beyond Boundaries as superior to us blinkered tribalists. It's fine to note that ballet is a relatively young art; but one should try to avoid the appearance of patting the kid on the head.

I also found the theme of “dance is lucky to be poor,” however qualified, to be, again, condescending. Gee, maybe The New York Times Company should slash its critics’ salaries to the minimum so we can read their insights safe in the knowledge that they’re “doing it for love.” I’m also not sure that the unhappy fact that much of the work of great choreographers and dancers of the past is lost to us can be counted as an advantage of any kind.

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Should people wish to contact Mr. Rockwell, his email per the NY Times Culture desk is rockwell@nytimes.com . If you prefer written mail,

Rockwell, John

Dance Editor

The New York Times

229 West 43rd Street

New York, NY 10036

Bus: (212) 556-1234

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I'm not sure that letters written to Rockwell personally would come to the attention of the editors responsible for choosing the letters to publish in the newspaper. It might be a good idea to cc to the following addresses:

e-mail: letters@nytimes.com

fax: (212) 556-3622

snail:

Letters to the Editor

The New York Times

229 West 43rd Street

New York, NY 10036

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Yes definitely, but do read the Times' guidelines for letter publication if you're intending to do a letter to the editor. I'm writing a letter specifically for Mr. Rockwell and will cc the editors, but mostly to let them know it provoked a response, not for publication. Mine's way too long and not really excerptable. They want 150 words or less.

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I think the point is that each has validity in its own context.

That's a point I'll wholeheatedly agree with. But that's not what his article says. He's arguing that context doesn't matter.

Ah, the fruits of Deconstruction strike again. Only here it comes, while Deconstructionism itself is being Deconstructed everywhere else.

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I have to say I wouldn't mind a few Carl Van Vechtens. I liked his take on the pop culture/high culture divide. He saw everything, wrote some terrific stuff about the Lindy dancers and Harlem shows, Spanish dance, night club dance and ballet. And he could tell which was which! Isn't that one of the reasons we read writers on the arts? I can look at four painters and say they all look alike. I need someone who knows that art form to tell me, actually, no, they don't. Look, here the dividing lines between the color blocks are straight, there they are smudged. Look at the use of color, etc.

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There is a giant backlog of plays and operas, so many that the principal source of novelty now seems to be insightful or silly reinterpretations

Ahhh... if only ballet were too young to be subjected to silly reinterpretations...

I'd say Mr. Rockwell has not yet suffered enough.

I think he's just trying to be liked by everyone... though I am sorry that in his "unified universe", only one ballet choreographer gets mentioned... the rest are all crossover types. Of course cross-over and post-modern are almost synomynous. Hasn't anything taken over from post-modernism yet? When are we going to stop cross-pollinating and try distilling again?

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I have to agree with Alexandra, another van Vechten would NOT be a bad thing. He was honest, generous, grateful, modest, observant, excitable, and fascinated by the discoveries he made. I'm myself very much in his debt.

As I read him, Mr Rockwell is floundering -- he sounds like someone who's juggling other people's ideas, but trying with the best will in the world to indicate that he's hopeful and progressive and friendly towards his enterprise. It's not cool these days to say openly that you feel modest in the face of your great predecessors, but van Vechten and Martin are indeed great predecessors. Perhaps like Martin, he will have the opportunity to learn a great lesson in public; it can not have been easy for Martin to change his mind about Balanchine, but he did it -- and changing your mind is probably the most difficult thing for a person in such an exposed position, the cynosure of all eyes, the most observed of all observers, to do. We must not make that more difficult for him than it already is.

THe most disturbing thing he thinks, to my mind, is that dance's past is short; the history of classical dance may be short, but the past of dance goes back at least as far as the species and may precede the era of language, and indeed, we may wonder if we are the only animals that dance -- not just birds but also fish and especially seahorses have been thought by serious people to dance on special occasions (birds when courting, seahorses every morning).

It sounds to me that Mr. Rockwell understands that dance is going to be his teacher; it will be something he measures himself against, and not vice versa.

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