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Leigh Witchel

John Rockwell's article in the NYT

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This is excerpted from the letter I sent to Mr. Rockwell (a personal one, not speaking for this web site):

Dear Mr. Rockwell,

I enjoyed your piece in Sunday's paper very much. It's good news that the Times's new chief dance critic is going in with an optimistic attitude instead of its opposite.

I'm quite sanguine about the future of experimental dance, and very glad that the Times will be committed to cover it; I look forward to reading your articles. I'm afraid I'm less optimistic about ballet, and am writing to offer a different perspective on several issues you raised in your piece.

One of the things that concerns me about the trend to crossover dance as a repertory staple in ballet, and the idea that there are no distinctions among the genres worth making, is that the many ballets created between "Sleeping Beauty" and last week are being lost, tossed out to make room for works that own no style or vocabulary and are generally created for very small casts, leaving the majority of a company's dancers badly under utilized. This is a huge problem in Paris this season and is being decried at high pitch by French ballet fans. I heard more anger and frustration than excitement about the recent contemporary dance program. I'm told that many people left after the first intermission (and so, I think, never saw the Trisha Brown work) because when you pay $150 for a ticket to see a ballet, you generally want to see a ballet, in the same way that when you go to a tennis match, you expect to see tennis and not ice hockey. Why is it considered good for a ballet company not to dance ballet? Would we be as excited if New Loft Dance Group! put on a meticulous reconstruction of "Swan Lake?"

Repertory is certainly an issue. There hasn't been a first-rate classical ballet created in 25 years. Is this because there's no one interested in creating classical choreography? No. It is because classical choreographers are being actively discouraged to the point of being driven out of the field. I know young choreographers who have approached companies with the idea for a ballet that actually uses the language the company's dancers have been trained to dance, only to be told, "We hired you because we want something trendy." Where have the directors gotten this notion, unless it's from 40 years of reading critics who describe any new work based on the danse d'ecole as "just classroom steps" and stories that start with, "No tutus and toe shoes for Joey Brown! This dashing young rebel has smashed through the boundaries and turned classicism on its ear!" It's a new century. Isn't it time for classical ballet to stand on its feet again?

Ballet dancers are trained to dance ballet. They don't really do modern very well--they don't have the weight for it, among other things--and if they're fed a steady diet of contemporary dance their classical technique starts to tank. Which brings me to one last point. I think many Americans see the dance world through the prism of the modern dance structural model, which is ex-institutional; a constant process of revolution, of renewal and invention, is its very life blood. But ballet is an institutional art form, dependent on continuity of training and repertory, and the dancers and works that are in its care need tending. There must be novelty, of course, but not as a substitute for works using the classical language. Ninette de Valois' recipe was a simple one: a repertory should be equal parts the [19th century] classics, new classics, national works (perhaps an outdated notion, but crucial during the her time) and novelty. The repertories now have been reduced to "the classics" and novelties, and this is not a positive reduction. The "trendy" modern works created in the past quarter century have been not only negligible, but disposable; it's the "new classics" that we need now. Another 25 years without them and not only will the 20th century repertory be dead, but so will ballet.

I hope you do see a lot of exciting new work and make readers excited about seeing it too. I also hope you do not ignore ballet, nor dismiss its concerns.

Edited by Alexandra

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Bravo, Alexandra! I couldn't agree with the sentiments in your letter to John Rockwell more wholeheartedly. It's frightening to think of the death of ballet occuring in such short order if current trends continue, yet it is hard to be optimistic when so much new choreography for ballet companies is forgettable.

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And will somebody else please contact Rockwell at the Times, or quit carping? There are 51 posts to this thread right now, and nobody else has said that they've taken any active steps pro- or re-, and we're all just venting. You don't like it? Say so there. You agree? Say so there! I'm sorry, but this is getting a lot like beating a dead horse in an empty desert.

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[board Host beanie on]

This is a discussion board. You're all welcome to say anything germane about the Rockwell article. That's why the board exists and why we have discussions.

Mel is also right though, in that by all means, convey your thoughts constructively to Mr. Rockwell and the Times.

[board Host Beanie off]

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Anna Kisselgoff covered the piece at length a week ago, that could be why Rockwell covered it with only a mention. (Besides space limitations)

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I also strongly agree with Quiggin's remarks about the NYTimes's ambivalence regarding artists and intellectuals. (The Derrida obituary made me physically ill.)

Thanks, Drew and Quiggin, it’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one losing my breakfast that morning. I was stunned.....

I think it’s fine to kick the Times around when it’s needful, because the paper is important and powerful (and distinguished) enough to take it. I would add, however, that the NYT is not alone in its ambivalent take on pointyheaded intellectual types, especially those of the French variety. But when it’s the Times, it matters more.

Having your writers move around in-house is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It can be unhealthy for a critic, not all obviously, to stay in the same spot forever and write on one topic. This is not to say that you hand over desks without regard to areas of expertise, but people can write on a variety of subjects with good results.

I’ve liked those reviews of Rockwell’s that I’ve seen so far. It’s his overall take, as expressed in the Sunday piece, that had me scratching my head.

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"Well, where to begin?"

While Diaghilev was 'struggling to remain aucourant' he did not resort to Duncan, Loie Fuller or St. Denis---no, he stayed with choreographers trained in ballet technique.

You have characterized ballet lovers as striving to cut off any innovation, which is nonsense.---and I still think that Wagner is a second rate composer :wacko:

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Could Rockwell be more smug and defensive? Interesting that most of his defenses of his position come from examples in music. We are now beginning to see the full ramifications of what the Times has wrought, bringing in a man who has a Dance 101 understanding of the art form to be chief critic. It is going to be a bumpy ride. Even his musical examples are dilettantish. If Sutherland had been singing Berg, yes, she WOULD have lost her bel canto technique.

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More "Freedom of the Press For Those Who Own One."

It's an old polemical game to misstate someone's position, as a kind of straw dummy, before proceeding to knock it down.

Beware of "Bearding the Lion" when he owns the New York Times Art Pages.

On the other hand -- The crtiticisms on this Board appear to have drawn blood, if not ire, to have merited this explicit response. We on the Board must not be mere gadflies after all. You don't employ a Howitzer like this to swat at those.

MP

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I must have missed that chapter that criticized modern music for potentially ruining classical singing technique. Modern music did not affect Lisa Saffer's bel canto singing nor Jan deGaetani's. Nor did it spoil the sweet core of Anja Silja's, who sang a wonderful Emilia Marty in Barcelona just five years ago. Nor did Le Grand Macabre hurt ab fab Caroline Stein's gorgeous coloratura one bit. Where in the voice a part lies, breath support, and core technique are the major factors that determine whether a role can damage a voice, and modern music demands the use of classical technique as much as baroque music.

The opposite is true of ballet: in modern dance, core technique is underused -- ex: turnout and placement, the emphasis is on earthbound movement -- and classical technique deteriorates. Ashton's ballets were the were the technical antidote to MacMillan's, and when his ballets left the repertoire, ballet technique in England became poorer for it.

I agree that Rockwell's tone is smug. Here we are, a bunch of Victorian aunties fretting that our little six-year-old nephews are going to hurt themselves on their bicycles. Oh, and worse, we are sincere.

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Wagner's lush classical layered chords have little analogous kinship with "crossover ballet" as I understand the use of the phrase in this discussion. Comparison to the weak watered down pop-classical work of Lloyd-Webber would be more to the point...which elicits new cascades of shudders.

Congratulations to Alexandra & Leigh (and all who sent letters) for "belling the cat"!

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Wagner's lush classical layered chords have little analagous kinship with  "crossover ballet" as I understand the use of the phrase in this discussion.  Comparison to the weak watered down pop-classical work of Lloyd-Webber would be more to the point...which elicits new cascades of shudders.

Lloyd-Webber has been sued successfully for stealing melodies directly from classical music, which, in their watered down sentimental versions, is the only thing his musicals have in common with classical forms, let alone classic musicals. He is the perfect analogy for cross-over ballet.

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Alexandra and Leigh.....I salute you for charging straight at this one!( Keep your red capes intact - the bull is charging! ) I am not a New Yorker but I have always made a bee line to the NYTimes for their reviews on the Dance. Now I will not. He has not convinced me of either his love and passion for dance as a performing art nor his critical knowledge of its development. I find his hiring odd. What struck me the most was his true lack of enthusiasm and passion for dance in general. Atleast it does not show in his writing. He seemed more involved in debating his stance in the Sunday article. Your letters to him had a great effect and I find that terrific. As for his recent reviews - they seem more historical back log rather than expression of his experience in viewing these performances. I hope you stay on this one :wacko:

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Except for the extra "l" added to Leigh's name, I was quite pleased with John Rockwell's response. In a way, he put Dance View and Ballet Alert on the New York Times map. I've read the piece three times now and have yet to detect any smugness. On the other hand, each reading has made me agree more with his opinion that "these true believers often seem to be fretting about the wrong enemies."

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On the other hand  -- The crtiticisms on this Board appear to have drawn blood, if not ire, to have merited this explicit response.  We on the Board must not be mere gadflies after all.  You don't employ a Howitzer like this to swat at those. 

MP

You've hit the nail on the head, Michael. As the cliche goes, "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

There are more constructive, less "straw-dummy knocking" ways to respond to Leigh and Alexandra's letters in print, but Rockwell chose to address the matter in an abrasive, argumentative, and demeaning fashion. I suspect that if he were sincere and secure in his knowledge of the art form, he would have found other ways to respond than using thinly veiled insults and put-downs on people who do not agree with him. The weakness of this article speaks for itself when compared with the text of the actual letters.

That being said, I'm sure Rockwell is patting himself on the back for this one. Now everyone will know that he's the face of Progress, and all those dorks at Ballet Alert are the ones keeping ballet from achieving hipness. :wacko:

On the bright side, at least he knows how to spell Alexandra's name... :giveup:

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My two cents: Really, I think everyone should lighten up a bit. The fact that he decided to use the pages of the Times to respond to both this board and Alexandra and Leigh's letters demonstrated a high level of respect, in my opinion. (Yes, he could have spelled Leigh's name right, though.) He has given consideration to the sentiments expressed. I think it is a bit much to expect him to say "oh, I never considered that."

Rockwell's tenure will be judged by his reviews. I, for one, am quite interested in seeing how he does.

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Yes, Justafan, I agree. But I do think, all the same, that the response was a little Defensive. And needlessly Defensive.

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Rockwell writes:

"Well, where to begin? Presumably, by 'weight' Ms. Tomalonis means the earth-centered movement of some modern dancers, as opposed to the airiness of ballet. She has a point. But movement and bulk are related. The disconcertingly thin model for ballerinas is relatively new. Look at pictures of dancers in the 19th century, and even into the 20th. And so much for the oft-heard contention that ballet technique provides the best basis to undertake most any kind of dance."

I'm feeling rather stupid--I honestly can't make heads or tails of this. How does the last sentence follow from what he says before? And what does it have to do with point Alexandra was making?

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Regardless of the defensiveness and mischaracterization, I find it quite remarkable that Rockwell chose to respond publicly to private criticism. Whatever his reasons, by citing Ballet Alert he effectively invited readers a chance to read Leigh and Alexandra's actual arguments. Hooray at least for that!

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Oh dear. I found his tone extremely condescending, and many of his arguments flawed... How does one translate "mauvaise foi" in English ?

And as Anthony NYC, I really don't understand his argument about the weight of 19th century dancers.

And it would be sad indeed if the New York Times would go the same way as almost all French newspapers (whose dance critics are neither interested nor knowledgeable about ballet, and very rarely review it... But well, there's less and less ballet to be seen in France, anyway.) Mr Rockwell's tone really reminds me a bit too much of the usual style of such critics.

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In literal terms, "mauvaise foi" translates as "bad faith". I believe the connotation in English is the same as it is in French. It suggests that the speech referred to may have a hidden agenda or ulterior motive.

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For the record, this is the text of letter I sent:

Dear Mr. Rockwell:

I read your piece in  the Times of January 9 with interest, but also with

concern.

Quoting from your piece: "The less-than-400-year history of formal dance

offers no such richness, but no such millstone, either."  I think you are

describing the history of dance in terms of a 20th century model, primarily

that  of modern dance: choreographer driven.  When the choreographer is gone,

the  dance disappears.  But this is only one model, and a young one.  It

overlooks the entire institutional nature of classical ballet; and that's the

one that the greatest ballet choreographers of the 20th century sprang out of.

There would be no Balanchine nor for that matter Ashton without the Maryinsky  and the imperial institution that fostered it.

The hunt for novelty from  choreographer-driven repertory has been a painful

problem for ballet since the  death of both choreographers.  Topical and

novelty pieces including  crossover are an important part of ballet repertory;

they always have  been.  But they are novelties, not core repertory, and we

have not been  tending to that at all.  We're watering leaves and leaving the

roots to  shrivel. Ballet is looking to choreographers with no facility for

ballet vocabulary and they are producing short-lived repertory on dancers ill

suited for their work. It would be difficult name five crossover pieces made

since 1983 that will persist in repertory until 2033.

I applaud your determination to seek out dance at uncommon venues in New

York; there is great dance out there in unsuspected places.  Right now, some of

the most  energetic work is happening in the burlesque revival downtown.  It

saddens me that ballet doesn't have this energy today, but I would not blame

the  artists, I would blame (as you imply in your quote of Virgil Thomson) the

economic situation that allows one failure to sink a dance company.  The

burlesque artists are wonderful, and they can afford to take risks. They're

also often trained dancers from Oberlin, Juilliard and SUNY Purchase.  Many of

them know their ballet.  But that doesn't make  burlesque ballet, nor reporting

on burlesque the same as reporting on ballet.  And no, these wonderful artists

are not going to make "grand new ballets".  We need to tend to that vacuum, and

it should be done within the academy, not constantly outside the walls, wildly

hoping that someone who has never partnered a woman on pointe or put

on a pointe shoe will understand the  nature of that technique.

Your position as the chief dance critic of the paper of record gives you

enormous power both direct and indirect; I am sure this is something you

realize.  Many of us who love dance but see the differences among genres[,

and - sic, I made a grammatical error] find those distinctions as important and essential to maintaining the quality, health and continuity of the art as judicious and careful cross-pollination. Having omnivorous tastes does not mean one needs to be indiscriminate.

Wishing you success in your new position, I remain,

Very truly yours,

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com  Dance as Ever - www.danceasever.org

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"Love me or hate me, but when you write my name, spell it correctly!"

I find the worst distortion in Rockwell's squib is the "Take that"s. At the height of Diaghilev's trendiness, he revived The Sleeping Beauty. Through the 1920s, he took on Balanchine, who even then was doing neo-classicism, as well as experimental and avant-garde work. As for Christopher Wheeldon, Rockwell's compliment to him is great, but Wheeldon is just now in his "journeyman" phase, and while he has done some highly commendable things using the classical idiom, I think that he's a long way from where he WILL go, when he achieves mastery.

Rhetorically, Rockwell's article is good, but as logic and history, it is wanting.

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