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Newspaper reviews: why so mediocre?


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"Were the dancers vocalizing, they might be saying ''Wheeee!'' "

Just read the Boston Globe's review of Boston Ballet's opening night. Not to beat up on this particular writer, who for all I know also has to cover community theatre and 4H fairs, but why is so much main media coverage of ballet so mediocre?

I think I read better reviews of performances in this forum!

I'm stewing about this because when I moved to Portland (from NYC, mind you) six years ago, Martha Ulman West, president of the Dance Critics Assoc was reviewing for the Oregonian. Since her retirement...let's just say I miss her desperately.

And the Seattle critic writes like she was a PNB board member.

What is it like in your hometown paper?

Outside of the pundits in the London and NYC papers, does anyone know of a critic they feel rises above the low average of most dailies?

A Cranky Watermill Who Hasn't Had His Coffee Yet...

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We've had threads on this topic before, although I don't have time to pull any up right now. A critic's tone and approach is very much conditioned by his audience. A writer for a regional paper, who may be the only person reviewing the performance, is not going to sound like, say, Acocella in The New Yorker. (He also doesn't have as much space. ) So often there's a lot of cultural and local boosterism involved. It's not like London, where you have half a dozen critics weighing in, and so there's a lot more freedom for differences of opinion and toughmindedness.

I don't want to make too many excuses, however. If the local company's leadership is in lousy shape, the critic is duty bound to say so. However, in some places that might put his job in jeopardy.

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Well, the Boston Globe critic, Christine Temin has been (IMO) so antagonistic and arbitrary in her reviews of Boston Ballet over the past several years, that she has completely lost credibility with me.

She's made it clear in her reviews that she doesn't appreciate "Russian Warhorse Ballets" (read that the wonderful classics that I want to see), and wishes Boston Ballet were more like San Francisco Ballet. Shockingly, her editor has permitted her personal preferences to replace what I beleive genuine reviews to be.

Now that Boston Ballet seems so obviously trying to imitate San Francisco Ballet, perhaps she feels obligated to congratulate them on listening to her wise counsel by giving pleasant if weak reviews.

I detest a critic who writes as if he or she has a personal axe to grind. Temin's views and reviews are like the sequel to the Emperor's New Clothes.

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On the subject of writing - borrowing from myself on the thread about the new Graeme Murphy "Swan Lake" at Australian Ballet:

charge a tariff to all writers who wish to use the words "firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary" in any dance review. This tariff should rise exponentially with each usage. Finally, any writer who uses those words should be forced to explain, in detail, exactly what was firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary and why. If s/he cant, double tariff.

In defense of writers in the dailies and with tight space limitations, though, sometimes a cliche is the only way to bring the point home in under 300 words or by a midnight press run. I just happen to be profoundly sick of that one, which is used for everyone from Nacho Duato to Mark Morris, from people who trained as ballet dancers to people who took a year of ballet when they were a kid. I'm waiting to hear it about Michael Flatley.

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I think it's partially a chicken-and-egg thing: There are so few cities where a newspaper can justify having a full-time dance critic -- you have to have a good, professional company in town, or at least a lot of touring companies coming through, or preferably both. But then, it's hard for a local company to get started and grow and become criticism-worthy ... unless there's already a good dance critic in town who can cover them and generate interest in their performances. :(

So you end up with either part-time dance critics who also cover God knows what else, or non-staff freelancers who may or may not be very good. On the newspapers I've worked at, there's always one or two people who love ballet (I'm one of them!) and can write about it well on deadline, but it can be hard to fit it around your regular duties. :eek:

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IT's so good that you miss Martha Ullman West....

I don't know about Boston, but for some time in some cities -- for so long now that the "tradition" has started to decay -- there's been better writing about dancing (and also about other arts) in the alternative papers, such as the Village Voice, the East Bay Express (in the Bay Area) than in such major metropolitan dailies as the Times or the SF Chronicle.

In fact, Arlene Croce started Ballet Review many years ago as a mimeographed sheet -- the ancestor of many 'zines -- with a glorious blast at the ...shall we say inadequacies of the critics in the great New York papers (If I've ever read the essay itself, it's been a long time -- but I've HEARD so much about it, I feel I must know it; still, I realize that all the phrases in my head are in fact her friend Pauline Kael's ridiculing "the ineffable Bosley Crowther" who was the fatuous movie critic at hte TImes.)

The problems at the dailies are just as often "editors" as they are "readers" -- for the editor decides who the ideal reader is, unless of course it's the marketing people who run the whole show and push everything so the whole paper is pitched to a certain demographic group, often thought to have a lot of disposable income, whose prejudices must be flattered and whose ignorance must be humored, even as their "needs are met" (i.e., they must be told how to spend their scraps of free time improvingly).

The cool thing about the alternative papers is that the readers are thought to be the intelligentsia... or at least, they used to be. The cool thing about this site, and about Alexandra's print magazines, is that the "reader" is assumed to have an informed concern about the art; in Boston, as elsewhere, the arts editor may not believe that anybody watches dancing except to look at sexy people and not believe that readers want to know much more than the whee-quotient of any performance....

The BAD news is 2-fold; A) ever since the paper shortage a decade ago tripled the price of newsprint, which was an emergency but it's been over a long time, there's been a draconian restriction on SPACE, which makes it almost impossible to handle a subject that requires considerable exposition (introducing a new company, or style; think of trying to explain what contact improv is aiming at to an audience who'd never seen it; that's the sort of thing the Village Voice was invented for) and B) there have been many hostile takeovers of alternative papers, and excellent writers like Ann Murphy, who used to have frequent pieces in the Express, are kept on the masthead but almost never allowed to write anything.... I've stopped reading the Express regularly (it's not really interesting any more; though it claims to make taste, they're just trend-spotting, not actually thinking), but I haven't seen anything of hers in a long time.....It seems to be mostly restaurants and movies and recorded music, though jazz and blues and indie music still gets good coverage.

SO maybe check out the alternative papers in Boston -- maybe especially the Gay papers. And to console yourself, check out the newspaper writing from the great days of the New York Herald Tribune, when theideal reader was I suppose understood to be a graduate of Bennington or Yale or Black Mountain or maybe a man from the motor trade, but the respect for the reader's intelligence and general culture was unbelievable by today's standards -- Edwin Denby's dance reviews are all collected and published -- you can find them cheap secondhand under the titles "Looking at the Dance" and "Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Street"; while you're at it, check out the music reviews of the guy who hired him, Virgil Thompson, they're collected, who sets the gold standard for giving you the real deal.

I pick one at random -- 3 paragraphs, published March 4, 1941:

I repeat, this was published IN THE PAPER one day....

"Revueltas" by Virgil Thompson

Europe has often produced composers like the late Silvestre Revueltas, the Americas rarely. Our music writers are most likely to do the light touch with a heavy hand. Revueltas's music reminds one of Erik Satie's and of Emmanuel Chabrier's. It is both racy and distinguished. Familiar in style and full of references to Hispanic musical formulas, it seeks not to impress folklorists nor to please audiences by salting up a work with nationalist material. Neither does it make any pretense of going native. He wrote Mexican music that sounds like Spanish Mexico, and he wrote it in the best Parisian syntax. No Indians around and no illiteracy.

The model is a familiar one of the nationalist composer whose compositional procedures are conservative and unoriginal but whose musical material consists of all the rarest and most beautiful melodies that grow in his land. Villa-Lobos is like that and Percy Grainger; so was Dvorak The contraries of that model are Josef Haydn and Satie and a little bit Georges Auric -- certainly Darius Milhaud. These writers use the vernacular for its expressivity. But their musical structure and syntax are of the most elegant. Their music, in consequence, has an international carrying power among all who love truly imaginative musical construction.

Revueltas's music could never be mistaken for French music. It is none the less made with French post-Impressionist technique, amplified and adapted to his own clime. It is static harmonically, generously flowing melodically, piquant and dainty in instrumentation, daring as to rhythm. He loves ostinato accompanying figures and carries them on longer than a more timid writer would. He orchestrates a la Satie, without doubling. He fears neither unexpected rhythmic contrasts nor familiar melodic turns. His music has grace, grandeur, delicacy, charm, and enormous distinction.


That's how people used to write in the paper.... o tempora, o mores....... I read these guys for company. Nobody writing in the paper or the magazines today that I know of can tell you that much in so short a space, nor has such faith that you'll KNOW WHAT HE MEANS....

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It would be a wonderful experiment to turn in that Thompson review to a handful of the arts editors at the major newspapers and see what they'd do with it :( I don't think it would be published today -- even though there surely are people capable of writing on that level -- because it wouldn't pass the mass market test.

I think Paul has hit on the nub of the problem, that arts coverage was once written with the expectation that it would be read by the people who were interested in it. I write from the perspective of a daily critic, who's lived through the paper price hike that Paul mentioned and has seen space given to dance tank. We very rarely cover cast changes any more, and the idea is, well, only 2000 people saw it -- of course, much much less than that for experimental dance -- so we just can't give as much space to it as, say, "Fear Factor," which is watched by millions.

The notion that Everyone must be interested in every piece that is written is noxious, I think. The critic has always functioned, at least partly, in the way the medieval troubadour functioned. S/he has access to the arts of the day in a way that ordinary people -- even ordinary princes :) -- didn't, and one of the roles is to say "You've never heard of this person, but what he's doing is very interesting, let me tell you about it." Or, conversely, "I know you all think this new play/ballet/opera/symphony is the finest thing going, but it's about ten levels below and 20 years behind what they're doing in Ruritania this season."

The space/audience problem doesn't answer all the complaints about daily critics -- one can be ignorant, unjust, or corrupt no matter what the space :) -- but it's part of it. Another part -- and it's a big one -- is that the Pundit Class, the supposed elite/intelligentsia that runs newspapers today could care a fig about the arts. If it ain't Britney, they don't want to know. This is a huge change in our culture, and if I were running educational outreach programs I'd spend some time educating the future editors of America.

Another problem today is that there are so few papers, and many of the papers don't cover arts criticism -- because, like, you know, who cares? I the hell don't, as an editor might say. Criticism of several decades ago was more robust -- decidedly different opinions, clearly expressed, so you could evaluate the point of view. I wouldn't object to a critic saying, "Oh, finally. None of those silly Swan Lakes, but some really good cutting edge stuff" if there were someone else saying, "Why is a ballet company doing soccer this season?" I think the bottom line is that we all judge a critic by whether we agree with what s/he says or not, and how it's said is, for most people, less of a concern.

(And thank you, Paul, for your comment about my magazines. One of the pleasures of publishing them is precisely that -- we can write for people who are interested and knowledgeable about dance.)

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I hasten to add, the coverage in the Wall Street Journal (whatever you may think of their editorial page) is always worth reading; that's an impressive newspaper. SO are the L A TImes, and of course, the NY Times, which may be dull sometimes but is respectably informed, and the Times does NOTICE dancing -- sometimes 2 or 3 reviews in an issue -- and never seems to sneer at the size of the audience --

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The following quote is an example of what I consider to be Tenim's antagonism toward Boston Ballet. To me, Temin's statement that the ballet was a dud is totally irrelevant to the rest of the article, and reveals an underlying mission -- to persuade Boston Ballet to perform Temin's repertoire.

If she is going to claim that the ballet was a dud, she should substantiate the claim somehow. Did tickets sales miss their projected goal? Did audiences boo and throw tomatoes? Is it a dud solely because Christine Temin thinks it was?

I saw the ballet and it was typical of the Stevenson genre, and IMO it wasn't great...but to call it a dud in print requires some objective basis.

''Anything for Dance'' is also formulaic. It starts with Suarez watching a show in which she was supposed to star and ends with a ''triumph,'' as the often-trite narration insists, in Ben Stevenson's ''Cleopatra.'' There's no mention that the ballet was a dud: That would spoil the happy ending.

This story ran on page N3 of the Boston Globe on 9/22/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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Susan, I take your point -- it's always good to be as specific as possible -- but if Temin had reviewed "Cleopatra" previously -- and negatively -- calling it a "dud" in a subsequent review would be common practice. With limited space, one can't rehash things too much, and also, to take a sentence to say why "Cleopatra" was a dud would derail the review, take it in another direction. I realize this isn't useful to someone who hasn't seen "Cleopatra," but there is just so much one can do in 500 words. (The same complaint can be, and often is, raised about second or third night reviews, which generally discuss the performances at the expense of the production, which was reviewed opening night. People who only see that subsequent performance might want to read a review of the production -- it's new to them -- but practice dictates otherwise, so a shorthand phrase -- the handsome, new "Swan Lake," or the ludicrously rethought production, etc -- has to suffice.)

I make these comments not to defend Temin, or any critic, but to try to explain why certain things are done the way they are. Newspaper reviews can't be long, thoughtful essays covering every aspect of the performance.

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Originally posted by SusanB

Shockingly, her editor has permitted her personal preferences to replace what I beleive genuine reviews to be.

But that's what reviews are. One person's point of view. You might say "This isn't my cup of tea but they did it well," but you cannot make yourself like something. You can say, "The audience gave X a rousing ovation," a handy ruse , but then you are reviewing the house, not the performance, and besides, in the end you only sound snotty and set yourself apart.( "While it appealed to many....") A genuine review is the genuine opinion of the writer. Since you know you disagree with the Globe critic, you can read her and know you would, had you been there, thought otherwise.

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FWIW - Christine Temin is an arts reviewer for the Globe. I don't think she does community fairs or 4H shows, but she does do art exhibits, other dance performances, and sometimes travel articles when she has gone someplace interesting in conjunction with her art/dance reviewing tasks. I've also been dismayed in the past by her negative reviews of Boston Ballet; sometimes it seemed that BB could do no right, so it is a relief when she says something positive.

I think the best ballet reviews in Boston are those published in the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a weekly, so their reviewer (often but not always Jeffrey Gantz) attends dress rehearsal and several performances before writing the review. Thus the review is generally more thoughtful and comprehensive than the reviews written against an opening night deadline. They are also available on the Phoenix' web site for longer than a day or week. The downside is that someone reading the review has only a few days to see the performance, since more than half the usual two week run will have passed by the time the review is published.

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The Phoenix isn't a daily, though, nor a general interest publication. In addition to the fact that a daily critic has to write for a general audience -- no use of technical terms, use only language and descriptions that anyone picking up a daily newspaper and reading a dance review for the first time would understand -- and has little space -- a midsized review is 12 inches, or about 500 words -- a daily writer is ON A DEADLINE. You have to write those 500 words in about an hour; sometimes you have until about noon the next day, but not the week or month that magazine writers have. (Historical note: some British critics -- and perhaps those elsewhere -- were famous for running out of the theater and dictating their review into a phone.)

Watermill, where do you get the idea that critics make a living writing dance criticism :) Very few are full-time staff people. Some are part-time, but most have a freelance relationship with the paper and are paid by the piece.

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Actually, for the heck of it, one day if you have the time as an exercise, try thinking through or even writing a review of a given performance at several targeted lengths.

A blurb of 100 words. (That's one long paragraph)

A column of 500. (4-5 long paragraphs)

An article at 1200-1500 words

An in depth article at 3,000

Amazingly enough, the first dance article I ever published was almost 14,000 words. I'm amazed it was published much as written.

I learned from having to write these different lengths that I'm long-winded by nature (that, or over-cautious. A lot of word-count is spent backing up assertions and allowing for exceptions to them). For me, it took more experience to be brief.

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All this talk of the Phoenix is making me so nostalgic. I remember the first issue (1969?). It was sold on street corners by city newspaper boys:"Hey getchah Feenicks!!" I was a drama major at Emerson (where they required dance: I took ballet: very amusing) The Phoenix was THE paper and I'm glad to hear it continues to rise from the ashes on a weekly basis.

Alexandra, I realize nobody who writes about the arts is actually making a living off it (except for a chosen few). I have several freelancer friends and have heard how difficult it is. Here's a question, then: Does that mean the chance to affect public taste, the power to reach so many readers, is part of the reason to write?

It's not for the money, then what is it for?

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Watermill, I doubt I'm the best person to ask. I was brought up in a home where the last question one asked was "how much money will I make if I do this?" I started writing because I was asked. As for the power, my first 10 years of writing, I was happiest writing Friday nights because those reviews only appeared in a relatively few papers Saturday morning and would not be "replated" in Monday's edition. I've definitely had situations where I've thought, I have to write about that, because I felt so strongly, positively or negatively, but never "Aha! I have power and can tell them all where to go," and I'm quite sure my friends who are critics aren't on power trips, either. I've also been very lucky to write for a paper that does not pressure writers to be either negative or positive.

I think writers write because they have to. I do think they write because they love dance, and that's often why they sound "mean." I'm not trying to say that critics are selfless saints, by any means, and I'd agree that there are mediocre reviews, and there are critics who are less informed and less knowledgeable than others.

Back to a point Susan B made at the beginning of this thread, about one one critic's "personal preference replacing what a good review should be," I think that's a good point. I also agree with Nanatchka that reviews are supposed to be personal opinions, but there's a balancing act.

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If I may join in on a question where I wasn't asked, I've got a reflection on Alexandra's answer to Watermill's question...... I write for newspapers and magazines also, but I've never written for a daily -- don't know that I wouldn't under the right circumstances, but I'm not a reporter. I'd have to be asked; I'd need to believe they were willing to risk it.

[Warning -- if this starts to sound very self-centered to you, it'll probably just get worse -- so maybe if it seems that way, just skip it; I’m offering it to anybody that's interested in why somebody writes, what I know about my own case. I don't mean to offend you.]

Thank God people ask me. For I'm certainly like Alexandra, I do it because I have to -- on the way home from the show, I'm still talking about it when everybody else is changing the subject, and I say a lot of things and then wonder if that 's what I really think, or was it a version of that, it wasn't totally wrong but well, really it was MORE LIKE THIS .....

TO sort it out, I really have to write it down....and rewrite it....

Sometimes I find myself going around for the rest of the week doing a dance I've seen (monkey see, monkey do....), like after Billy the Kid I kept doing that thing where he rolls his torso up through the spine and his shoulders mantle like a cobra and then he throws his head forward and looks like Defiance on a monument..... it was like a catchy song that had gotten into my head except it was a dance...'why am I "singing this song"? What about it has gotten so deep under my skin, and I think about it and think about it..... and that sort of thing makes me think Billy the Kid is a great ballet, it's on my mind.......

But then I had to share that, partly because it makes me feel like "am I crazy?" would anybody know what I mean? It's like Billy the Kid's like Dracula with the cape, he's becoming like a vampire, every time he kills somebody he does this weird thing with his back and becomes all glorious, magnificent, it's horrifying, but it's fantastic, look how gorgeous this is, he's becoming "Billy the KID" the one and only, ever more isolated, ever more famous,, lonelier, deadlier -- you know what I mean? Am I crazy for thinking this? And so on.... that feeling like you're BIG with some understanding, some conception, which is the offspring of the understanding that's in the ballet, which makes it pregnant, important, great in a way that other ballets like Filling Station are not...... And you want to see if anybody agrees....

Writing is where I figure things out like this -- I mean, it's like I've got to think about it and think about it and get my mind to slow down enough so it gets in synch with my hand -- me, I think best with a pen and paper, I can spell in longhand, and besides, there's something so kinetically pleasing about having my shoulder and elbow and hand going in synch that it calms me down, and my thoughts start to line up and come out in order, like dancers in a figure, and they've got an order to them that I don't know about till I see it but it's basically a paragraph, and as Gertrude stein said, "a sentence is not emotional, a paragraph is" -- and they come out and it's not until they do that, that I know what I think, and then I wonder if what I've written IS what I think, sometimes it's not, but often, dadgum it, it IS, or it's CLOSE.....

What Watermill asked that twigged me was in asking if there's a sense of power in reaching a large audience, and I think s/he asked it in a more innocent way than Alexandra took it -- well, in any case, I'd say there IS that for me, in that it UNDOES a feeling of powerlessness generated by the introspection -- when you get so inward that you actually approach the truth, and grasp it, or some of it, you've got a treasure, but you can't stay that deep inside yourself, -- especially not with this new burden, it makes you so much heavier, and anyway you've GOT to come back, but you've already used so much of your strength getting IN there -- Tovey said playing the late Beethoven piano sonatas was like rock-climbing, and he's RIGHT -- your fingers are swollen, you've just been clawing at the piano and hauling yourself along-- and writing is in its own way, like that, even if you’re not bringing back what Beethoven brought back, still, it's what your strength can get at, and-- bringing this back and offering it to the community gives you a function in the society that feels like it's something close to what you OUGHT TO BE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE, and that makes you feel good and tired, tired and good, and like you've got some virtue you can point to when the angel of death comes...... and if it's only the angel of sleep, well, then you get to wake up and see if anybody is grateful..... and in the morning how many stupid things it looks like you said along the way, you didn't mean that of course, and anyway it's not the POINT but if you read certain phrases in another mood, it looks like you meant something you didn't mean at all and don't believe and wouldn't say, so you've got to change the phrasing so it doesn't suggest that. Or maybe you made some silly mistake, and maybe it's not too late to change the Amores to the Heroides (the mistake I made in my last piece in ballet review, it's too late, that's in print).

Every piece has got a mistake in it. Denby, whose soul is with God, once confused 2 dark-haired ballerinas -- Nora Kaye and Alicia Alonso, I think -- wrote about the wrong one IN THE PAPER--o lord how did he ever live that down? -- he must have been mortified, but anybody can do it. Roger Angell, in his obit for Eudora Welty only a year ago in the New Yorker, his last paragraph began "Mrs. Welty" which he certainly knows better than (if ever a lady went to her grave a virgin it was Eudora Welty). Some copy-editor did that to him, but it happens to us all...... and how do we go on?

Well, Denby stopped as soon as the man he was replacing returned from the war -- kept on writing "more considered pieces," but that gig was up..... Because he no longer had the invitation? To leave the terrors of writing for the dailies to the journalists???..... I wonder about that. But what a loss for the rest of us. Walter Terry wasn't bad, not at all, but he couldn't use the idiom like Denby. Grace under pressure......

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Originally posted by Alexandra

a midsized review is 12 inches, or about 500 words -- a daily writer is ON A DEADLINE.  You have to write those 500 words in about an hour; sometimes you have until about noon the next day

In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post nowadays requires on-the-night reviews for the significant shows to be published the following day. I normally have to write a review of no more than 350 words and file it before midnight. Fortunately I live not far from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre where the major performances take place.

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It was Nora Kaye and Markova. Perfectly understandable error – two dark ladies with aquiline profiles, but. I remember reading somewhere that the boo-boo preyed on Denby for years, poor man.

Watermill's points about power can apply to critics of the arts, which is not to say that it always does. I think that, finally, people do write to be read. You're trying to communicate something to somebody, even if the only thing you're doing at the moment is working out your thoughts on paper for yourself.

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This is purely a personal response, but it was years before it dawned on me that anybody read what I wrote. I thought only the people I knew read it -- and I was quite happy with that thought. (Dancers routinely say when interviewed that they never read reviews, and I believed that. Hah!) I think, even before I was conscious of it, I was writing to make a record. That's communication, in a way, but not in the direct "I've just seen something wonderful and you've got to go too!" sense of things.

On critics and power, there's a book about New York theater critics called, "The Critics," in which the author (whose name I forget) wrote about Clive Barnes, saying that when he first came to the Times he was very confident and had very strong opinions. He panned one play and it closed, and those connected with the play blamed him -- I'm writing all this from a 20-year old memory, so please, if anyone knows more and I've got something wrong, correct it. They picketed the Times with signs like, "Go home, Limey bastard." The author felt that there had been a loss of confidence in Barnes's writing after that time, that he pulled his punches.

I sympathized with that, which I read before I had any idea I'd be a critic. I would not like to have the power to shut down a show. If you think you have that power, I think it would change the writing, one way or another.

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Another personal response - I started writing as propaganda (hopefully this is less sinister than it sounds!) When I talked with people about dance performances, I felt like there was a real issue for many in being able to "tell the dancer from the dance". Much of my writing is about that distinction. Maybe it was about power; I was hoping to get people to look at dance the way I did, or at least explain to them why I looked at it that way.

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