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Cliches in reviewing

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In the most recent issue of Opera News, Ira Siff writes about cliched and overused phrases critics employ in writing reviews (providing a bit of history on how they change over time, too). I wonder if we can identify the commonplace descriptions that dance critics use in the same way? Is, as Siff concedes, the "word limit" excuse at least partially valid for justifying the use of cliches?

"Plangent" is high on his list of overused words in opera reviewing; I don't believe I've ever heard a dance critic use it, though!

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If I remember correctly, Anna Kisselgoff was apt to apply the phrase "hard-edged" if the women dancers wore leotards instead of tutus, but it's been so many decades since I gave up reading her regularly, I don't think I can cite chapter and verse.

Generally speaking, arts criticism itself lacking in style in favor of dependence on hackneyed phrases must call into question the writer's perception of style in their subject.

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The more I have to write, the more sympathetic I am to this problem.

When a cliche ends up in my reviews, it's usually because of one or more of the following:

  • I have to explain something I've explained before.
  • I don't have the space to go into detail.
  • I have to qualify or explain a distinction or shading to the general reader.
  • I don't have the time to think of something that's better.

If I don't catch it, often my editor does and asks for a fix. (Why I love editors chapter 452a . . .) But she's grinding out copy on a daily basis and occasionally we both goof.

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The more I have to write, the more sympathetic I am to this problem.

That's why I like Siff's article--I think he is too. He exerts a very light touch and is not writing a "cliches = moral failure" or "the downfall of Western Civilization" screed.

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Yes, although I'm disappointed (given Siff's wonderful alter-ego as leader of La Gran Scena - opera's answer to The Trocks) that he didn't try to get the caption of Roberta Peters as Despina fooled with to identify it as him.

I think we've discussed a few words in dance that have become cliched: "iconic" and "amplitude" spring right to mind.

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Like most writers, I try to avoid the pitfalls I recognize, only to fall into ones I'm not watching for. I'm more attuned to overused vocabulary than to cliches, I think -- some of my current glitches are 'emerging,' 'examine,' 'explore,' and most food words ('juicy, luscious, tasty,...'). I also overuse the m-dash (see previous sentence). Some of this is due to the time and space constraints that Leigh describes above, and some is just me.

I do use 'plangent' sometimes, usually in talking about a dancer who takes big risks in adagio work. I think of the emotional resonance of the sound, from the straight-on dictionary definition of the word, and its equivalent in movement.

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I think in dance, "charming" is the one biggest overused cliche, especially to describe a not-spectacular but not-bad performance. "Long-limbed" is another one. "Beautiful feet." "Brittle." "Expressive."

I'm really struck by the generic nature of these last few. While "silvery soprano" in opera reviewing is, as Siff points out, an overused and problematic phrase, at least it connotes something. "Expressive" doesn't really give us much, does it? And I'd love to see "charming" reserved for something really charming--a rare quality these days. Sounds like it's a euphemism for "pleasant," which I guess readers would see through as damning with faint praise (to use a cliche).

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Leave us charming, please.

The reviews I dread writing more than any other, is when something was "fine."

There was nothing really wrong. It didn't suck. But it didn't have any hook or distinction.

It's not fair to bury it, and there isn't much praise to offer.

It was fine.

It usually takes until 5:30 am to wring out 350 miserable words, and I need every hackneyed adjective I can get.

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I think we've discussed a few words in dance that have become cliched: "iconic" and "amplitude" spring right to mind.

I won't try to defend "iconic," having not the slightest idea of what it means in ballet. But I would like to speak up for "amplitude." This seems very descriptive of a quality of movement that some dancers clearly have, while some definitely do not. It's a single word, carrying a load that might otherwise require a phrase. I like amplitude as a look. So I like the term.

-- "Good feet" and "bad feet." These really do seem to mean something to those with a knowledge of ballet technique, so I take as a personal challenge. When I hear either term from someone I respect, it makes me look closer, hoping to learn something. These are terms that should not be used by amateurs.

-- "Expressive" can mean anything from an almost imperceptible turn of the chin to all-out St. Vitus' Dance performed with tambourines. If a term covers everything, it covers nothing, at least in my book.

-- "Elegant line" is perfectly clear, but I wish it would take a vacation, except when applied to someone whose every movement is elegant, like David Hallberg.

-- As a non-writer, the term I find myself using -- and regretting -- all too often is "really" as a qualifier. Too many years of listening to Ed Sullivan's "a REEEELY good Show." This is bad writing and may not qualify as a cliche..

-- A cliche I find myself using quite a bit responding to posts on Ballet Alert is "intriguing." Sometimes I use it because I really am intrigued. Other times, it's because I'm puzzled ... or when I can't think of anything else to say.

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"plucky" - "sassy" - "mincing"

The Times used to use horse metaphors a lot in the nineties - "filly-like" and "coltish" - and even once saying that a dancer (Lindsay Fischer) had finally "earned his spurs."

"Iconic" is used everywhere and is pretty deadly. It wants to mean classic. In architecture I always think of it an iconic building as so rudimentary – such as the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco - that you can conjure up all its meagre effects in your mind without ever having to visit it. Whereas with good architecture - or art - you are always surprised by what it has to say each time you see it.

I think "frisson" is used in art criticism where two genres or two techniques are used and certain overtones come out unexpectedly.

"Plangent" is beautiful sounding - but it slows down the sentence for me and I have to think about it.

OT: I'm sad that "sea change" became a cliche and its meaning was reduced to "complete change" rather than the original more evocative transubstantiation into "something rich and strange." I blame the on US mid-term elections of 1996 when Republican spokesmen used this term over and over in interviews to signal the final overthrow of the Roosevelt era.

Particular ways of turning in air, unique to a dancer, seem hard to describe - writers seem to pass over those in silence.



Also, every star of a certain age becomes "beloved."

Yes, Nikolaj Hubbe most recently, at least by two reviewers – which sort of diminishes him.

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