Anyone who signs on as a dancer or choreographer inevitably faces the battering ram of criticism. It comes with the owner’s manual. Whether in its extreme form—cane-wielding, Stalinesque teachers hurling verbal grenades, or poison-penned critics cavalierly slicing up art for the garbage disposal—or through more moderate examples, like a ballet mistress routinely dispensing a correction, the touch-and-go awkwardness of criticism can trip up even the most savvy recipients.
The emotional baggage accompanying criticism spills open as embarrassment, rage, shame, frustration, insecurity, shut-down, despair, revenge, or a retreat to the exit sign. For those with sharpened psychological tools, survival, self-introspection, and improvement prevail. Winston Churchill may have boasted that he did not resent criticism, even when “it for a time parts company with reality.” But for those with thinner skins and less than Churchillian resolve (i.e. sensitive artists), criticism stings, and dealing with it becomes a confusing affair.
Given that dance training normally begins at a tender age, youngsters bear the brunt in an art form where physical and technical perfection are demanded at a time when they are least prepared to field judgment.
“You’re terrible. How can I look at you right now?” “She’ll never get a job.” Those are just a few of the remarks prematurely aimed at Lisa Thorn, who has danced with Kansas City Ballet for 17 years and also serves as an assistant ballet mistress. “When teachers said things like that, it paralyzed me. I couldn’t think straight,” says Thorn. Restricted by a lack of flexibility, less than stellar insteps, and a limited rotation of the hips, Thorn makes up for her shortcomings with her innate musicality and feeling for movement. By holding onto the insight of a few smart teachers, garnering support from her parents, and respecting her overriding desire to dance, Thorn thwarted her detractors—but not without major insecurity. “Subconsciously I would say to them, ‘I’ll prove you wrong.’ But at the time I was afraid they were right,” says Thorn. “It did make me work harder. It definitely made me aware of every line I made or how to land,” she says. “I still battle it.”
Meredith Dincolo, a dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, recalls the earliest humiliations for herself and her young colleagues, when they lacked the experience to separate personal affronts from constructive criticism. “Sometimes the teacher made an example of us in front of the other students without explaining why it wasn’t working or how it should work,” says Dincolo.
But Houston Ballet principal dancer Mireille Hassenboehler thinks that callus-building comes with the territory. “You learn to be able to distinguish whether it’s constructive or damaging criticism, even when it’s coming from someone you respect,” says Hassenboehler. “You need those coping skills. When you’re onstage, you need to be able to say, ‘I messed something up.’ ”
Dincolo’s biggest frustrations surface when she hits a brick wall with a choreographer and nothing seems to work. “When it’s a black and white situation with no experimentation and no time to discover anything, it becomes an issue of right and wrong. That’s when the frustration and resentment come in, because there’s no feeling that the dancer is part of the process.” A turning point came for Dincolo, however, when a choreographer bluntly charged that, because she and her partner weren’t connecting on stage, they “ruined” a pas de deux. “I took the criticism heavily,” she says. But after processing the comments and refocusing the duet toward intimacy, Dincolo says she improved her performance.
Both Dincolo and Francesca Harper, a choreographer who has danced with Ballett Frankfurt and Dance Theatre of Harlem, agree that unbridled criticism from superiors—sometimes encouraged in institutional settings—tends to be more accepted in ballet companies than in contemporary troupes, where collaboration often comes into play. In other words, the more restrictive the environment for dancers, the greater the likelihood of unchallenged judgment.
For her first big commission—a premiere for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—Harper dealt with the ultimate public humiliation: She received a negative notice in a major newspaper. It stunned her. “I retreated back into a shell; I had to reevaluate,” she says. Using art as therapy, Harper rebounded by choreographing a new work called Subtext, which explores dancers’ insecurities. “I was so hurt that I wanted to do a piece about exposing the inner thoughts and neuroses of the dancers, and how difficult it is when you are performing onstage,” she says. The work includes the text of performers’ spoken input, including—no surprise here—the way dancers, especially women, remain steadfastly hypercritical of their bodies.
Harper may have been bruised by her experience, but choreographer/puppeteer Dan Hurlin suffered like a baby in a burn unit when his piece Hiroshima Maiden was slammed by a New York Times critic. Based on a true story about Japanese women who underwent reconstructive surgery after the bombing of Hiroshima, the piece uses puppets to portray the women’s experiences via traditional Bunraku mime, juxtaposed against the impressions of a young American boy who speaks. “I thought her review was way out of line,” says Hurlin. “She kind of called me a racist. It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s galling because I worked on it for three years. She completely dissed it in about 20 minutes,” adds Hurlin, who thinks the critic lacked background knowledge of Bunraku. The review produced not only devastating emotional consequences, but also economic repercussions when the theater decided not to extend the New York run, depriving Hurlin and his performers of additional income.
If Hurlin deserves a Purple Heart, Brenda Way, the founder/director of ODC/San Francisco, nabs the rank of four star general in the war against critical terrorism. For 25 years of her tenure with the company, Way enjoyed a variety of reviews—laudatory to venomous—from as many as seven different critics in the Bay area. Then the writing dried up, leaving only one “deeply hostile critic,” as Way puts it. “The year he hit, I think I shuffled around for a month feeling terrible. I felt like I’d been hit by a plague of locusts. It ate up every bit of self-respect I had,” says Way. “It wasn’’t about the work. It was about personal insults.” Not only did the company suffer poor morale, but local enthusiasm for dance also began to dwindle. “He used snide and demeaning language, and that affected the entire audience. It depressed public interest,” says Way, who genuinely admires the clarity of great dance criticism.
So how does Way—who outlasted her nemesis when he finally left the newsroom—handle reviews now? Experience tells her to leave reviews unread until about a month after the premiere, “until that exquisite sensitivity is no longer on my skin,” she says. “Then I can absorb the insights as they are expressed by the writer or dismiss their work as extraneous, or extract the important issue from the crap—that is to say the chaff—I just mispronounced that word,” she adds. “It’s important to know what you think of the work onstage.”
While Way has occasionally confronted reviewers via letter-writing, choreographer Douglas Dunn employed a guerilla stealth tactic against a New York critic for blasting his new work in 2003. In a pamphlet circulated to friends and colleagues, Dunn purged his outrage with a letter addressed to “Dear _____” that builds to a “gotcha” crescendo. It concludes with a suggestion for Critic X “to become a Buddhist, a taxi driver, quit writing, or ‘do something!’ ” Says Dunn, “It was a big breakthrough for me to get these feelings up and out in public—an inner mutation for me not to hide this stuff.”
For the record, a majority of those interviewed for the article—four out of seven—confessed that nothing that had ever been said about them either in person or in print was worse than anything they had thought about themselves. Talk about tough critics!
So can criticism kill a career? Probably in some cases, but all of the dancers and choreographers mentioned above are coping and forging ahead. Even Hurlin, who completely ceased working for a while, has planned a resurrection tour of Hiroshima Maiden, with a positive review from the Village Voice tucked into the front of his press kit. After all, performers are nothing if not survivors.
“I remind myself that I do this work because I love it,” says Way.
Joseph Carman is the co-author of Round About the Ballet, published by Limelight Editions (2004).