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Alastair Macaulay article in the Sunday NYT


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sz originally posted these comments in the Links section:

Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times on American Ballet Theater:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/arts/dan...a.html?ref=arts

Seemed to be an article, yet again, to comment primarily about what doesn't work in the current ABT Sleeping Beauty.

Old news.... We all could have written about that, and we did, over a month ago.

Macaulay writes, "The ear-to-ear smiling that is traditional for this role..."

And then he bashes Sarah for smiling too much. I think a little could have been curbed, but Macaulay made it sound as if Sarah just stood there, endlessly smiling, while Herman did all the fabulous dancing. A very surfacey, very late in the season comment, for those wonderful debuts by Herman and Sarah.

And I find it very interesting that Macaulay didn't mention Julie Kent at all among the principals who danced or any of the other newly appointed soloists, besides Sarah, who danced their tails off this past season. Hmmmm...

A lazy review at best.... imo

Macaulay's "so-what" review should have covered both houses at Lincoln Center this spring, if he was to do a full recall. With very few exceptions, there were too many performances of poor programing and/or casting. Now a review beginning with the truth about the ballet scene at Lincoln Center, both houses, would have been a far more interesting observation.... What are these directors doing to our favorite ballet companies?!!!!

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Given the fact that he reviewed so few performances, you wonder how he could consider himself qualified to do a wrap up. I recall that he wrote a somewhat kindly review of the opening night of Giselle but I have some doubts as to whether he even attended the performance. He certainly was not sitting in the NYT's assigned seat that night. He writes like he wants out of his job or else into an employee assistance program.

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I'm looking forward to reading what ABT regulars think.

I've read all the threads on ABT's Met season, though have Sleeping Beauty this year. Macaulay's most positive comment is:

Its eight-week spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which ended on July 12, left several piercing images in the memory, almost all of individual dancers giving individual performances.
But .. and there's always a "but" ... :
But this season, like every Ballet Theater season I’ve ever watched since I first saw the company in 1977, bequeathed another, larger but much vaguer impression: whenever Ballet Theater starts to be artistically of major value, something makes it fall short.

Most Ballet Talk posts about the Met season have indeed focused on individual performances, many of which sound exceptional and memorable. Reading between the lines of all those threads, however, I've wondered about the larger context in which these dancers perform. Many posts on Ballet Talk -- and, similarly, reviews on DanceViewTimes, seem to have shared Macaulay's ambivalence.

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It's obviously according to what one is looking for how you perceive this article. I thought the long, mostly favourable account of ABT's SB in that matinee performance, esp. comparing it to RB's--which I've never heard anybody else do, although maybe they do; my impression is that RB's SB is close to sacred, including here at BT, and that the ABT one is something people put up with--was very interesting. Certainly very unpredictable and thought-provoking. That silly last sentence is the kind of thing he seems to like to do--just flippant crap, doesn't mean anything, maybe that's like 'Aren't I cute' or something a child would do. But, frankly, although I don't have the insider's knowledge to judge it in many important ways, this was often a very well-written piece, and the profiles of the male dancers and their less-impressive (in number) female counterparts is all right. I thought the way he contrasted a couple of Corella's performances was useful for someone like me who isn't usually worried if somebody is too dazzling. The Kirov things he wrote were more negative in some ways, or it seemed to me; but I'm sure I didn't read all of them. I don't see what the big deal is if he thinks somebody smiles too much. Almost everybody went on about Somova's 'vulgarity'. I mean---I don't like him (how would that be done with any of these critics?), but sometimes he's not bad at all.

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I read the review and found the tone smug and condescending typical of Brits... Is he a Brit?

The last line was so incredibly dismissive of all the wonderful artists at ABT, were I McKenzie I would ban him from the theater.

He's a educated and clever wordsmith, but he I am OK not reading his swill.

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Oh yeah, this caught my eye, and surprised me, because I had gotten this very sensation from one of the Kirov DVDs I watched sometime during the year--not sure if it was the Kolpakova or Lezhnina, but the Queen seemed to show so little gried of any kind, whether or not royal and pallid, that I thought maybe she already knew that it was just going to be a long time and decided to be matter-of-fact about something she couldn't reverse. So this sensation of the Queen's almost dismissive attitude about 'poor daughter's' curse is not only at ABT. Anybody notice this in various productions? I tried to not think about it from the Kirov because there wasn't anything else I didn't like, so I just chalked it up to my not knowing the conventions. But I did not think the Queen had any serious grief at all on one of these DVDs.

"Which makes it the more frustrating that large parts of this “Beauty” tapestry are threadbare. If there is a single moment that should pierce the heart in this story, it’s when Aurora, after pricking her finger and dancing in fatal delirium, falls down lifeless. But here the Queen makes her way with ladylike decorum to what she assumes is her daughter’s corpse; her subsequent display of pallid, polite royal grief is bland. In ways like this Ballet Theater’s “Beauty” keeps saying, “Oh, but you don’t believe this story, do you?”

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"The ear-to-ear smiling that is traditional for this role..."

And then he bashes Sarah for smiling too much. I think a little could have been curbed, but Macaulay made it sound as if Sarah just stood there, endlessly smiling, while Herman did all the fabulous dancing. A very surfacey, very late in the season comment, for those wonderful debuts by Herman and Sarah.

He wrote, "Sarah Lane can sometimes steal a show with the charming radiance of her dancing in brief solos, but her New York debut as Aurora, opposite Mr. Cornejo, was so unvaryingly sweet — her smile seemed painfully locked in place — that I want to wait to see how she’ll be now that all the ordeal of a Met debut is past." He's looking forward to the future Auroras from this "charmingly radian[t]" dancer under less nerve-wracking circumstances. Sounds to me less like damning with faint praise than its opposite.

I do expect the critics to have a greater tolerance than the consumers they're addressing for night after night of the same production. So when the pros start whining about too much of the same old stuff, it's time for management to consider its programming.

I haven't reread the preseason posts, but my guess is that there were more than a couple that pretty much summed up the season in much the way Macaulay did, even before Kevin's welcome speech at the opening night gala. Other than debuts and the new Tharp, the only unknowns were the cast changes. Oh, and for me, the stellar work of the corps in Giselle, the company's best staging.

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So when the pros start whining about too much of the same old stuff, it's time for management to consider its programming.

But you have to look at who the "pros" are and be careful not to lump a Macaulay in with someone like Clive Barnes. There are people who get paid to write and then there are the "pros". Macaulay is the former, and Barnes is the latter. Macaulay subscribes to the Judith Miller/Jayson Blair scripture that you write whatever you need to write in order to get attention. Insight and accuracy and level mind have nothing to do with the work at hand.

Macaulay went to and reviewed very few of the ABT performances this year and even managed to review one he may not have attended. On the other hand, Barnes didn't just come to the first performance of a production for his review; he kept coming back night after night to see different casts who he knew he would not be reviewing. This is a man who loves ballet. Macaulay doesn't love ballet. It's a job. Just look at him the next time you see him in a theatre. Body language and flushed red face tell it all. That Macaulay would say that ABT does not have major artistic value is little more than butt-inine, arrogant, ego-vomit from someone who is drunk on power, or whatever.

I have no ambivilence toward ABT's productions. We're lucky to have them. If people don't agree, don't go to them. It says something when people just keep going to productions they claim to hate and then can't wait to launch into a tirade about them.

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I'd still like to know something about the Sleeping Beauty things he brings up vis-a-vis ABT and Royal Ballet. Anybody surprised to hear what is the most positive report I've yet heard on the Burger King production? Did it surprise no one else to hear a performance of Royal Ballet called 'dispiriting' by comparison to the Burger King? Not that I don't trust certain BTers more on how awful it is even improved, but this did give me second thoughts. I think plenty of critics I know have gross body language(s) and many write as if they had red faces (one was appearing just last week, it seems), but I'm not sure that's always seriously affects the work. Christopher Hitchens always has a red face, but even though so furious half the time he almost seems as if to become violent, I'd still rather read him than a lot of the fools. I think I'm allergic to all professional critics--men and women alike.

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I'd still like to know something about the Sleeping Beauty things he brings up vis-a-vis ABT and Royal Ballet. Anybody surprised to hear what is the most positive report I've yet heard on the Burger King production?

I think "Burger King" production is no longer an apt description because they have replaced the Burger King costume.

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Very sweet of you, Carbro, to quote Alastair's comments in full. "Charming radiance" is how I would describe Sarah's dancing too, so thank you for reminding me of that.

I guess I got all emotional and upset because I didn't understand why Alastair would wait for over a month to bring up Sarah's Aurora debut whatsoever in this very ambivalent wrap-up review, if he was going to wait to see her in the role again before really commenting.

And yet two-thirds of his review was about the Sleeping Beauty production. He wrote about the production earlier this season in much detail. That's what I thought was lazy. Yes, it's much easier to find and write about faults than to tell readers what and why something was especially good... Surely, Alastair was invited to see many other ballets at ABT, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on most, if not all of them, and hear his views of the many dancers involved, not just principals. I think ambivalence happens when there isn't enough knowledge or word-count to go into more intimate, technical, artistic details. Yes, Herman jumps and lands nicely, quietly, but what else about his jumps are so amazing?! I wish Alastair had written more than just the obvious.

No, I don't think it was ABT's best season ever. Following the Kirov's visit was a huge challenge. If NYCB's season had been better overall, only a two-or-three week celebration of Jerry.... One had only to compare the programs the Kirov chose over the ones ABT/NYCB cast and marketed. The Kirov was diverse and exciting. (I only missed the Forsythe.) ABT's season was rather predictable as was most of NYCB's. Not their best. Still I can't imagine what purpose Alastair had in mind calling ABT's season a "so-what." Herman's debuts alone were extraordinary.

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Well, Haglund's was still talking about it recently, expressing gratitude and delight to the BTer who coined the phrase. I think there was still some Burger King left (and if not, then fine), but my point was not to describe the production disparagingly, but to find out something about why Macauley thought it seemed to work in many more ways than most have noted. But perhaps this is of little interest since most of the Macauley threads are about how best to point out how awful he is--which he may be in some ways, but some of the things he said in this article were just very good, and I hadn't heard them before.

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I have no ambivilence toward ABT's productions. We're lucky to have them. If people don't agree, don't go to them. It says something when people just keep going to productions they claim to hate and then can't wait to launch into a tirade about them.

This sounds a bit like some right-wing "America, love it or leave it" argument. It is possible to love ballet enough to want to see even unsuccessful productions or second-rate performances, because the potential for being moved by the art is always there. Expressing ones view, including disappointment, is no reason not to go. Besides, the New York Times is paying Alastair Macaulay to express his views. If his opinions upset you so much, don't read them.

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This is interesting, because reading Macaulay's ABT reviews this season I've actually thought that he's tuned down the vitriol a couple of notches, almost as if he's taken note of his reviewers.

I agree with some of his criticisms of ABT and disagree with others but while he couldn't resist taking a gratuitous swipe or 2 it seems to me that he's presented some balanced arguments this time, praising the good and pointing out the bad. Sarah Lane really did smile way too much in Beauty - but he's making more of it than I would have. On the other hand he did point out that he's looking forward to see how her interpretation develops. There's more balance and less outright bitchiness in this review than I recall from him previously, certainly less venom than he spewed at the Kirov earlier this year.

I really hate it when he gets bitchy, but I don't expect a professional reviewer to be a cheerleader either. ABT does some things very well, but there are lots of other things that they could improve upon and I agree with many of Macaulay's criticisms.

The only thing I disagree about completely is their choice of rep for the Met season. My only complaints over the past couple of seasons were with their novelties - like Cinderella & Merry Widow and the approach they take with their productions of the classics - their streamlining & dumbing down. I want to see the classics every single season. I'd prefer to see the classics done by a variety of companies - but unfortunately we don't have that opportunity in NY anymore - it's pretty much ABT or nothing (let's not even discuss NYCB's SL, SB or R+J). This is why some of us go see multiple performances of productions that are far inferior to world class productions of the same ballets - short of constant globetrotting they are our only option.

"As long as you don’t set your expectations too high, as long as you don’t ask ballet to be great or important or seriously beautiful, American Ballet Theater is remarkably efficient at delivering the goods"

I hate to say it, but this sums up my feelings about ABT pretty accurately over the past couple of years. There were some individual performances that were wonderful, but I've found most of their productions and many of their dancers to be very mediocre lately.

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My feeling about this season is that Kevin shot his fiscal load last year with the expensively disastrous "Sleeping Beauty" premiere and the costly retuning and refitting this year. So basically all there was money for was a short Tharp ballet with no scenery and basic costumes (Twyla don't come cheap though).

So basically everything else were retreads of old material we have seen before with much of the casting we have seen before. Nice way to catch up on some favorite dancers in some roles you missed them in but no real revelations with the exception of Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo's major new assumptions. I agree with Susan about the company depending on its star dancers to add interest in their season rather than ambitious repertory or daring experimentation. Kevin I think has borrowed all the full-length ballets he can (the Crankos, Ashton's Sylvia, Othello, the Merry Widow, etc.) from other companies. Not that I am complaining about this but eventually some novelties will have to be found. Since the company doesn't have a resident choreographer, this is a problem - basically they are a boutique importing other companies choreography. However, this really only applies to the Met season which frankly isn't suited to chamber ballets or experimentation. I don't know how he can look at the City Center season and dismiss that programming as lacking seriousness.

It is also quite obvious that Macauley only saw Veronika Part as the Lilac Fairy but skipped her Nikiya (reviewed by a second stringer) and her Odette/Odile. So he is dismissing her for "posiness" based on his reservations about one performance - which many here thought definitive. He is entitled to his opinion but he didn't see the full range of her work this season at ABT. On the other hand, he didn't bitchily dismiss her as "boring" which is what he has done in the past but acknowledged her ballerina potential. The "Merry Widow" revival was largely superbly performed though you can quibble about the quality of the piece. Bon-bons do have their place at the table as well as more substantial fare.

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So when the pros start whining about too much of the same old stuff, it's time for management to consider its programming.
But you have to look at who the "pros" are and be careful not to lump a Macaulay in with someone like Clive Barnes. There are people who get paid to write and then there are the "pros". Macaulay is the former, and Barnes is the latter.
I wasn't drawing that distinction. I was referring to those who get paid to sit in their seats with their eyes and ears -- and minds, I hope -- open. And I don't think it's possible to conclude that just because a review doesn't run under some critic's byline, even if we do not see them in their customary seat, that they missed a performance. The Met's a big place, and The Times is a finite publication. Of course, if they are spotted elsewhere during the performance, that's another story.
My feeling about this season is that Kevin shot his fiscal load last year with the expensively disastrous "Sleeping Beauty" premiere and the costly retuning and refitting this year. So basically all there was money for was a short Tharp ballet with no scenery and basic costumes (Twyla don't come cheap though).
I'd say you're probably right, except that ABT's pattern of programming for the Met season has become consistently . . . uh, consistent. If we're really lucky, we might get two mixed bills, but lately only one. Three to five full lengths from the 19th Century (one might be a "new production" -- perish the thought!), MacMillan's Romeo and/or Manon (rarely neither), and something frothy and not too strenuous for the corps (this year, Merry Widow). There's your ABT season at the Met!

Given such mechanical programming, if I may read into Macaulay's tag line, "Why does Ballet Theater seem to take ballet less seriously than I do?" I hear, "If you're going to offer such a conservative menu, you better make sure the productions stand up artistically."

I don't know how he can look at the City Center season and dismiss that programming as lacking seriousness.
He didn't. He was reviewing the Met season.
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It is also quite obvious that Macauley only saw Veronika Part as the Lilac Fairy but skipped her Nikiya (reviewed by a second stringer) and her Odette/Odile. So he is dismissing her for "posiness" based on his reservations about one performance - which many here thought definitive. He is entitled to his opinion but he didn't see the full range of her work this season at ABT. On the other hand, he didn't bitchily dismiss her as "boring" which is what he has done in the past but acknowledged her ballerina potential.

I have to say, I was impressed that he included her with the ABT ballerinas, when he specifically did *not* mention several principals and was downright hostile to several others (Paloma and Xiomara). I was also surprised he seemed more willing to be well disposed to her than in the past (I remember the boring comment as well).

Given his past treatment of her, his comment on her, caveat notwithstanding, was one of the few surprises of his summing up.

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But you have to look at who the "pros" are and be careful not to lump a Macaulay in with someone like Clive Barnes. There are people who get paid to write and then there are the "pros". Macaulay is the former, and Barnes is the latter.

...

Just look at him the next time you see him in a theatre. Body language and flushed red face tell it all.

That could be a description of Barnes' predecessor at the Times, Allen Hughes, who was a music critic who would clearly rather have been reviewing the Philharmonic (any Philharmonic) than any ballet.

But invective, whether coming from a critic, or a critic's critic, is a very weak form of discussion, and not a competent, relevant or material argument.

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Doesn't most of this come down to liking critics who say nice things about dancers, ballets and companies we like, and trashing those who ignore or write mean things about the dancers, ballets and companies dear to us? The fact that Macaulay didn't go see some performances by Part means nothing -- that's why the Times has more than one critic. He can base his view of her "posiness" on the performance he did see, plus the many others he saw her give at other times. Trying to "prove" his worth, or lack of it, as a critic instead of admitting that this is almost purely an emotional response to his writing doesn't seem worth the time.

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>>Doesn't most of this come down to liking critics who say nice things about dancers,

>>ballets and companies we like, and trashing those who ignore or write mean things

>>about the dancers, ballets and companies dear to us?

No. When I read a *paid* critic's review, I expect to read a substantial opinion, details and more details of what dancers are doing and how they are doing it along with opinions of the production as a whole. I'm not looking for someone to validate my own opinion.

Alastair has no problem discussing the pros and cons of ABT's new Sleeping Beauty production in great detail -- he's done it at least three times since the production first premiered. Yet Giselle, still beautiful and very successful, wasn't commented on much, or perhaps I missed a couple of the week's reviews(?!). I'd like to see Alastair discuss the dancing with as much passion ("serious" ness) as he finds clever one-liners.

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I have to say, I was impressed that he included her with the ABT ballerinas, when he specifically did *not* mention several principals and was downright hostile to several others (Paloma and Xiomara). I was also surprised he seemed more willing to be well disposed to her than in the past (I remember the boring comment as well).

Agreed. But what about the leading women he did *not* mention? Does Macaulay get any "dance pleasure" from principal dancers Julie Kent or Irina Dvorovenko? I thought it strange that he accused the women of not having the authority to match the men, and then dissected soloists (Lane and Part) without mentioning Kent and Dvorenko who have had more time to develop in the roles.

On a side note: Many reviewers have pointed out some performances he missed (like Part in Bayadere), and of course Alastair can't see 'em all, but having myself seen both Carreno and Gomes in Merry Widow this season, I think it's Gomes who really became the "real star: in that role. He takes the physical comedy of the first act to another level, in my humble opinion.

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Doesn't most of this come down to liking critics who say nice things about dancers, ballets and companies we like, and trashing those who ignore or write mean things about the dancers, ballets and companies dear to us?

Yep :wink: And love critics who love our favorite dancers, companies and productions :P

General note in Administrator mode: Please tone down the personal invectives, descriptions, etc. They are out of place in this forum.

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I agreed with some of the criticism of ABT set forth in the NY Times article. However, some of it was unnecessarily harsh. In fairness to ABT, not every performance over an 8 week season will be a particularly memorable or great one. No company in the world could accomplish that. Every Beethoven symphony is not considered great (some are merely good); every Picasso is not considered a masterpiece. Similarly, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect every ABT performance to be a brilliant masterpiece for the ages. As a basis for comparison, I attend many performances at the Met Opera each year. Not every night is an "A" night of operatic superstars. In fact, there are lots of "B" nights, but I frequently go to those "B" nights because the quality is very good, if not spectacular. Sure, I would love to be able to see world class dancers like Cojocaru, Lopatkina, Sarafanov, ..... during the MET's ABT season. Even if ABT can't or doesn not wish to hire them, I'm still happy for the opportunity to see the great dancers they do have- Corella, Vishneva, Herman Cornejo, Nina.....

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