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Critics and Hometown companies -- what would you do?


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I'm genuinely curious -- and this is a spin-off of a topic Watermill posted about daily newspaper criticism.

You are the critic in a middle-sized American city. Your local ballet company is well-established, tours occasionally, isn't in danger of disappearing, but always walks a financial tightrope. You hate the direction the director is taking the company. You think his choreography is substandard, she's bringing in guest stars and letting dancers you think are promising languish, he's staging only "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" even though the company only has 24 dances and the stagings are wretched, or he's dumped your treasured "Swan Lake" and the yearly Balanchine triple bil and replaced it with choreography by his wife and the captain of the local football team. Whatever. Program after program is simply horrible.

You are the only person who will cover this company. The next critic is 500 miles away and afraid of flying. What would you do?

Write what you think and be accused of Maestro Bashing, e.g. "Once again, John Doe has presented an evening of his own work and, sad to report, once again each of the five works is dull, poorly constructed, vapid and musically inept. The dancers coped with the wretched material as well as could be humanly expected, but could not save the evening."


Write something "balanced" -- to the average reader, the review wouldn't sound like a pan, but one could read between the lines, e.g., "Our Local Company kicked off its 29th season with an evening of new works by its resident choreographer/artistic director, John Doe. While none of the works was perhaps of the top rank, nonetheless, the company's trademark energy shone through."


your alternative here.

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I'd write what I honestly thought but maybe as a season ending review (so as to not deter an audience from buying tickets)

I would think if you wanted to be taken "seriously" and be able to move up , say to a bigger market in a different city, reputation counts as something.

I think the lack of honesty is why people constantly snicker about certain critics being "on the payroll" of certain companies.

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I would still write in my review what I honestly think. After all, there is normally a preview of that ballet event written by a different arts correspondent the weekend before, so even a bad review shouldn't affect ticket sales that much at this later stage. What it may affect is funding to the local ballet company in the following season, as the funding bodies do keep a record of the newspaper reviews.

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In Europe, too, there's a different arts journalist who does previews and interviews, and they keep a firm line between this and criticism -- Kevin, it sounds as though Hong Kong is like that, too. As Nanatchka says, though, it's not like that in America, and there are terrible (honest) conflicts of interest involved in this. Again, if you're that Hypothetical Hometown Critic (the HHC), you may have to write a preview of a program you know you'll hate, and then review it.

The solution is to have more voices, of course, because even if the Hated Local Artistic Director really is the Devil incarnate, s/he deserves to have more than one view.

Calliope, I know what you mean about the "being on the payroll" problem. There are some critics like that. Of course, they aren't on the payroll, but they may have special backstage access, or -- I know of some instances of this -- get to travel with the company. BUT, what if we turn the situation around and you honestly believe that your local choreographer or artistic director is not only excellent, but horribly underrated by the world in general. How do you do that, without sounding like a perpetual gusher?

(A personal note: I got an email asking who was the local choreographer I hated so much -- NO NO! This is totally hypothetical!!!! First off, I don't write reviews regularly so I don't have the "hometown critic syndrome" problem. And second, we have more than one critic. And third, there's no one around here, ballet or modern, whom I think is without at least some redeeming qualities!!! I just think it's an interesting question, and the thread was sparked by someone's comment elsewhere about a local critic who had such an agenda it colored her reviews.)

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To the Dance Writer:

Set a Standard.

Stick to it.

It's not the critic's job to be either cheerleader or demonizer.

Be prepared to fend off or ignore emotional letters to the editor.

Do not party with the company.

If you do your job well, you will either be fired or have a job for life; it all depends on who's in charge, and you can't control that.

But you can sleep at night and get up in the morning and look in the mirror without self-loathing.

And godammit write well....work as hard at your craft as the dancers do at theirs.

I realize the above is rather high-falutin' and if followed by those writing for dailies will quickly lead to pink slips. I feel at this point that "working from within to change the system" is not the best policy. I also feel that editors don't take this part of the arts page very seriously, so a strange sort of artistic martyrdom is called for. Imagine the freedom in your writing if you didn't really care if you were fired for it?

On the other hand, (can you tell I'm a Libra?) those who have established themselves and are trying to make a living at this have a tough choice: you have worked hard to become a "taste-maker" and wish to continue nudging your dance companies in what you think is the right direction. To answer Alexandra's questions: Too much overpraise robs you of credibility. Too scathing an attack indicates pathology (even if it is warranted).

You have to be balanced and bite the good side of your tongue.

As a theatre professional, I read NY Times' Frank Rich for years, often violently disagreeing with him, but his writing was so entertaining, his arguments so well reasoned and his taste so authoritative that I almost went into mourning when he stopped his theatre column. While he was rarely mean-spirited, he never failed to call a show rotten if it smelled that way. And that included 10 million dollar Broadway musicals.

I am reminded of a Phillipino saying: "Fishing for a minnow while standing on a whale"

Is it possible that while we fish about for a solution to the mediocrity of the daily dance coverage, that here on the internet, in forums such as this, we are standing on a whale?

Just a thought....


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While I think a critic should be honest, there is a deifference between honest and just downright mean. Choice of words and tone can be very important. I always think it's fine to write a scathing review as long as you say WHY. And if you have the knowledge, TELL THEM HOW TO FIX IT. And go beyond saying that firing John Doe will fix the problem. Be specific. Maybe even site examples. Then the critic is respected as knowledgable and fair, not just an opinionated windbag.

When I was in elementary school, we were told to give each other CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM, which is maybe the best advice I was ever given.

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I think one should be honest and comparative within the company. For example, this ballet is yet another dreary work (that goes nowhere...) filled with unfocused energy executed by wonderful dancers. Or, yet another watered down version of a classic without the excellence required from the principal roles. Or, unfortunately the brilliant choreography of director y was not danced to its potential by the company's long standing principals.

I do agree that an end of the year or beginning of the season opinion piece is the correct place to propose changes in direction, repertoire, dancers, etc. Some critics then use the performance reviews to bolster the original proposal - bias. This is fair as long as the performances warrant such reviews.....

Finally, a critic must support the art and its success, but remain true to the art form and its standards.

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Originally posted by mbjerk

I do agree that an end of the year or beginning of the season opinion piece is the correct place to propose changes in direction, repertoire, dancers, etc.   Some critics then use the performance reviews to bolster the original proposal - bias.  This is fair as long as the performances warrant such reviews.....

I think this is such an important point. There is a dilemma here -- I'd go for year-end summaries rather than season preview pieces, personally. I think it's more fair to take the "The season just past raises grave concerns" approach than starting out the season saying, "Well, what have we here. Boring, boring, boring," or whatever. If one takes the latter approach, and then writes "The season opener of Company X was lackluster, with one dull piece after another," you'll be accused of having made up your mind in advance. (Which is true, in a way, but if you know the works, it won't be a surprise that they're boring!)

I can imagine, though, that there are situations that present difficulties. What would a critic in Miami do if s/he did not think that having a repertory dominated by Balanchine ballets was the way to develop a company? What would you do if you were in Houston and couldn't stand Ben Stevenson's ballets, etc.

mbjerk, thank you for this:

"Finally, a critic must support the art and its success, but remain true to the art form and its standards."

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

(Personally, btw, I'm of the "be honest" persuasion. If you think every new work is a misguided choice, that the casting is off, that the ballets are not shown to their best advantage, and/or that talented dancers are languishing, then you must say so, even if you have to say it four or five times a year.)

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