Alastair Macaulay Says Goodbye: What It's Been Like as the Controversial Chief Dance Critic
During his tenure at The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay has not been accused of being timid. Or boring. As the newspaper's chief dance critic, he has probably been the most talked-about writer in the dance world. His raves and his pans have become their own news; his words have led to as much chatter backstage as on social media.
At the end of this year, he's passing the baton along to a new critic. (His replacement hasn't yet been announced.) Although he'll still contribute to the Times' dance section through 2019, he says he wants to spend more time in his native UK, and work on a wider variety of projects, including several books.
Before he departs from his post, we took the opportunity to ask him a few of our most burning questions, and he agreed to respond over email.
What have you learned from watching the New York dance scene over the past 11 years?
To keep opening my mind to new possibilities. I grew up in a rural, conservative background. Much of my whole adult life has been a process of moving away from timidity and reactionaryism. I hope I was never racist, but I'm sure that I've had to go on learning to be more sensitive to racial matters. I'm sure that, when I began as a dance critic in 1978, I was in some ways horridly homophobic; it took decades to shed all that, both in my private life and in my views of the performing arts. I've been impressed by feminism for decades, but there are always aspects of sexism that I've had to rethink.
I've also learned how much good (often marvelous) dance there is—especially in the USA, especially in New York. When I took this job, I thought there would be much less dance to like than has proved the case. I'd never heard of Pam Tanowitz when I moved here in 2007; Justin Peck hadn't begun to choreograph. Those are two of the first choreographers who wrote to thank me this September when my retirement was announced; I was very moved.
Looking back, are there any artists whom you wish you'd started following earlier, or feel like you missed entirely?
I began as a critic in London in 1978; I remember a ballet fan saying to me in '79, "I'm really sorry for you, because you've missed the great days." And she was right.
But, to my happy surprise, there have been other great days since then. If you'll forgive some lists, I realize I've reviewed world premieres by (to start with artists now dead) Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor as well as (to name some of the living) Richard Alston, David Gordon, Mark Morris, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, Pam Tanowitz, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon. That's an awful lot of the history of Western theatrical dance—and I'm only mentioning world premieres by the more famous artists.
There's always more I'd like to have seen, but I resign myself to that. If anything, I've seen too much rather than too little, don't you think?
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the job of a dance critic?
1. People don't realize that critics get nervous, especially before world premieres. In London, I had to file reviews of world premieres within an hour or two of the curtain's fall. Your adrenaline gets very high: You feel like a greyhound.
With The New York Times job, only once or twice have I had to file a review before 9 am the next day. Nonetheless the exposure is extreme. And everyone gets much more heated about what the Times critic says, even if he or she is relatively moderate.
2. It's often assumed that critics mix with the artists they write about. I chose to do the opposite. I never once met Peter Martins. I wrote a big 1,500-word essay raving about Sara Mearns in 2014; I've never met her.
3. One misconception is that (to quote an old book called "The Bluffer's Guide to Ballet") "critics hunt in packs."
Some critics really do love to discuss what they've just seen. It has its rewards; you learn from critics with keener eyes and longer memories and better formed opinions. But—even though many critics deny this—there's actually a lot of subtle (or unsubtle) bullying going on, as well as sheer cribbing. I've known critics who try to tell me how to think; I've known critics who, having heard my opinions, then put them into print before I could publish them myself.
But the London theater critics—whose ranks I first joined in 1990—have a wonderful etiquette that you never talk about a show until all parties in the conversation have filed their reviews. I've tried to maintain that etiquette fastidiously. (One older New York dance critic cannot forgive me for it.)
4. People assume that my word fills houses or empties them: It doesn't. I've written rave reviews that have not had the effect of filling New York Live Arts or The Joyce, let alone the big theaters. And I'm happy to say that several artistic directors have paid no attention to what I've said in print: I admire that, because that means they've got a vision of their own.
What do you see as the critic's role in the dance ecosystem?
To reconcile heart and head; to show how emotion and intelligence can combine when absorbing works of art. To report on and to evoke an event for those who weren't there. To provoke and enrich discussion of dance. To help people show how many elements—how many values—go into the process of judgment.
How does it feel when people get quite heated over your reviews? Has anyone ever confronted you?
I grew up in a climate when the most striking critics were deliberate controversialists. Clement Crisp began a 1980 Financial Times review with the words, "Béjart and Stravinsky is one of those fabled partnerships, like Romeo and Goneril, or bacon and strawberries." Arlene Croce began a 1970s New Yorker review with the words, "On a grim night in Stockholm, you can either throw yourself in a canal or go to the Royal Swedish Ballet." Those two writers were great influences on me and remain beloved friends of mine. I've dropped a number of bombs in my time. The Financial Times had to consult its lawyers about what I wrote about Andrew Lloyd Webber, two of whose world premieres I reviewed. (The lawyer allowed my prose to pass unchanged.)
For better or worse, the 2010s are milder days, and—whether people are aware of it or not—I've grown milder too. Yes, some dancers and choreographers have complained to me, but fewer than have thanked me.
One male principal dancer texted me this year, very confrontationally, to complain about a piece by me that he hadn't even bothered to read in its original—he'd merely seen a quotation from it about himself on social media. I've known some critics be very vindictive: They'd have persecuted him in print ever afterward. As it happened, I replied very mollifyingly—but he wasn't to know that I wouldn't savage him in my next review.
Some choreographers have been scared of me. At least two suddenly announced that their premieres were not for review once they heard I was planning to come. (One of them changed her mind again when, at short notice, I was unable to attend!) But I certainly don't mean to scare anybody, and I don't dwell on any reasons they might be alarmed by the idea of my review.
On the whole, though, I don't hear from those I review—and that's how it should be. One modern dancer wrote to thank me for what I'd written: I wrote back advising him not to thank critics, since who knows? We may change our minds.
Delivering the Lincoln Kirstein Lecture for the Center of Ballet and the Arts, "Ashton and Balanchine: Parallel Lives." Photo by Gilbert Gaytan, courtesy Macaulay
Did you ever write something that you later regretted or reconsidered?
As a therapist once assured me in the 1990s, I'm not complacent. I regret commas, adjectives, clumsy turns of phrase, even if nobody else is bothered by them. Worse, I'm dismayed by the factual inaccuracies I've committed.
Opinions I regret less. So what if you hated the world premiere of The Rite of Spring or Waiting for Godot? Those are tough pieces that are easy to misunderstand even now. When I was younger, I seldom changed my views; now I'm older, I've been modifying my position more often. Good: That's progress.
The biggest controversy of my career was my "one sugar plum too many" review in 2010, about Jenifer Ringer in The Nutcracker. In 1892, the original Sugar Plum Fairy was called "podgy" and "corpulent" by a Russian critic; before 2010, other Western critics discussed dancers being overweight. I happened to choose the expression I did because others that night were struck by the dancers' weight more than I was. ("God, they're fat!" someone near me audibly exclaimed after the pas de deux.) I used the phrase "one sugar plum" because, unlike them, I thought Ringer was only a smidgeon too plump. How big's a single sugar plum?
Nonetheless the brouhaha went global and viral. For several weeks, it was frightening.
In the long run, however, I'm glad that that furor happened. It was no fun to be at the epicenter. But it taught everyone—and not just me—not to talk that way about women's (or men's) bodies any more. Onward and upward.
One regret alone has gnawed at me—my decision to leave my old job as a London theater critic. I love dance. But every critic has areas where their antennae take in more information. For some other critics, that's dancing. I realized, too late, that my own antennae are especially sensitive about the human voice, speaking or singing, and that I'd become known as the London theater critic most responsive to vocal matters. Also I'd become known as a particularly acute critic of acting. I've missed that, immensely (and anyway I'm homesick for London and the UK). Voice apart, I adored the wealth of new plays, the amount of comedy (dance critics seldom get to laugh out loud in the theater), the exciting number of political plays that gave me new information about the world, the cornucopia of classic plays that are always being rediscovered, and all that exposure to the endless marvels of Shakespeare. And I can never believe I gave that up.
Yet I took this job for a good reason: I wanted new adventures, to step out of my comfort zone. I was 51; I knew the fifties are a classic time for a midlife crisis, which always begins with the question "Is this all?" Well, here was The New York Times inviting me to change my life. Dance is singularly hard to write about, and I've kept trying to go for the things I find hardest of all or just the things about which I knew least. And if you want to know the hardest thing in criticism, I'll tell you: choreographic musicality. Thousands of us know how very differently Balanchine and Taylor respond to the same music in Concerto Barocco and Esplanade; almost nobody has discussed that difference. But I've loved trying.
Your first major project post-retirement will be finishing your Merce Cunningham book. But you also have 22 other book ideas! Which are you most excited about?
I've certainly done plenty of the spadework for books on The Nutcracker, on "Ashton and Balanchine: Parallel Lives," on Balanchine's Serenade, and on the depictions of dance in Degas' paintings and sculpture. So I'm impatient for those.
The Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison and I have been talking about a new Tchaikovsky's Ballets book. I've spent over 30 years researching and thinking about Adolphe Nourrit, the great Romantic tenor who wrote the original scenario for La Sylphide and thus conceived the first Romantic ballet. I long to write at greater length about Harold Pinter, especially his depictions of women and his much-underrated quality of compassion. I wrote two long essays on dance classicism in 1987 and 1997; I've got much more to say on the subject now. There's a book to be written on the singers, actors and dancers who have most redefined for me the potential of theatrical performance. Shakespearean verse-speaking—all Shakespearean acting—is an obsession of mine; I was being approached to write a book on that when this job came along. Another fascination is the device of the play-within-the-play: the way A Midsummer Night's Dream contains the Pyramus-and-Thisbe play, the way Fred and Ginger are often putting on shows within their film, the way Stoppard's plays and David Gordon's pieces contain other plays.
I'm aware some will change as they ferment in my mind. And I'll never have time for them all anyway! Frankly, after 40 years in criticism, I'm looking forward to staying home more often, spending more time with family and friends, and sitting still to read books and listen to music.
As one of the speakers for the unveiling of the plaque commemorating Merce Cunningham at Westbeth in New York City on September 20, 2018. Courtesy Macaulay.
More than maybe any other critic, you often comment on same-sex partnering (or lack thereof) in your reviews. Why has that been a particular focus for you?
Since my retirement has been announced, I've been told I've commented on quite a number of things more than any other critic! Those include the importance of eyes, the value of footwork, the diversity of musicality. A press officer just told me she'll miss most the way (outside the Times) I always refer to the "D*v*d H. K*ch Theater"! I myself would say the three things I've given new prominence to are the dimensions of Merce Cunningham dance theater, the complexity of choreographic musicality and the depth and breadth of Indian dance.
This is the first time anyone has said I've especially remarked on same-sex partnering, but that's okay. I hope it's true. It's part of a larger social agenda in my work: I've also spoken of the importance of women supporting men. The reason is obvious: These things are happening in the wider world outside dance! Same-sex marriage has become a major topic across the West, and most of us know opposite-sex marriages where the woman has supported the man. Why should dance exclude these things?
What will you miss about the job?
The readers! It's been amazing to hear from experts on Balanchine and Cunningham, on the Indian genres of Odissi and Kathak and Bharatanatyam, on tango, on flamenco. I'm not a dancer; I'm an outsider, an amateur, a wallflower. How astonishing to find my reviews have worked for them; some of them have even written that I've helped them to understand their own genres better. One Madrid critic kept writing to me to thank me for maintaining flamenco standards when (she felt) nobody over there was.
But I've also heard from many other wallflowers—people who don't dance or even go to see dance. (I remember in London the critic of the Evening Standard said that he wrote for the reader who only read the dance review because he'd read everything else in the paper and he had nothing else to read because he was on a London Underground train that was stuck between stations. I loved that idea.)
I'll also miss the travel, the constant supply of new friends, and the intense drama (and terror) of being among the very first to report on big first nights.
If you were forced to watch just one dance work over and over again for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Cunningham's Doubles (1984), a poetic and amazingly layered piece, full of contrasts, that he was working on reconstructing in the closing months of his life. Cunningham's work abounds in doubleness, ambiguity, layers. He always planned Doubles with alternate casts, whom he encouraged to accentuate its solos in ways quite unlike one another. Humanity, time and space, all take off, lyrically, intimately. There's always something new there.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
So you're on layoff—or, let's be real, you just don't feel like going to the studio—and you decide you're going to take class from home. Easy enough, right? All you need is an empty room and some music tracks on your iPhone, right?
Wrong. Anyone who has attempted this feat can tell you that taking class at home—or even just giving yourself class in general—is easier said than done. But with the right tools, it's totally doable—and can be totally rewarding.
When Jan Fabre's troupe Troubleyn presents his Mount Olympus: To glorify the cult of tragedy (a 24 hour performance) at NYU Skirball tomorrow it does so under a heavy cloud of controversy.
Fabre is a celebrated Belgian multidisciplinary artist who has been honored as Grand Officer in the Order of the Crown, one of the country's highest honors. His visual art has been displayed at the Louvre and at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. According to The New York Times, his dance company, Troubleyn, receives about $1 million a year from the Belgian government.
But in an open letter posted to Belgian magazine Rekto Verso just a few months ago, 20 of his company's current and former dancers outline a horrific culture of sexual harassment, bullying and coercion. This comes on the heels of similar accusations at New York City Ballet and Paris Opèra Ballet.
It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Earlier this week, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck gave us some major onstage makeup inspiration while attending an offstage event. While walking the red carpet at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gala, Peck's beauty look was still perfectly suited for the ballet with her top knot hairstyle and stage-worthy red lip. Peck's makeup artist for the night, Daniel Duran, shared his exact breakdown on the look, working exclusively with beauty brand Chantecaille. So, whether you're in need of a waterproof brow pencil, volumizing mascara or long-lasting red lip this Nutcracker season, we've got you covered.
There's a new tool that lets amputee ballet dancers perform on pointe. As reported in Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, industrial designer Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthesis he calls the "Marie . T" (after Marie Taglioni, of course) that allows dancers with below-the-knee amputations to do pointe work.
A carbon fiber calf absorbs shock while a stainless steel toe and rubber platform allow a dancer to both turn and grip the floor to maintain balance. What it doesn't allow the dancer to do? Roll down to demi-pointe or flat.
Former chair of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts dance department Linda Tarnay died on Tuesday, November 6. Her wish was to have her ashes interred in the columbarium at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery—the site of Danspace Project and just a few blocks away from the Tisch dance building.
Before her 35 years of teaching at NYU, Tarnay was a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop. She performed with choreographers like Anna Sokolow, Phyllis Lamhut and Jamie Cunningham. She also started her own company, Linda Tarnay and Dancers, and was an artist-in-residence at The Yard.
Margaret Selby never dreamed that her passion for dance would lead her everywhere from working on live TV specials like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to producing hip-hop musical Jam on the Groove, from Columbia Artists Management, Inc., to public TV's "Great Performances: Dance in America."
Now, through her company Selby/Artists MGMT, she helps clients like Dorrance Dance, MOMIX and Pacific Northwest Ballet navigate the behind-the-scenes elements that get their work onstage, like booking tours, marketing and planning upcoming seasons.
According to the new documentary DANSEUR, 85% of males who study dance in the United States are bullied or harassed. A quote in the film from Dr. Doug Risner, faculty member at Wayne State University, states, "If this scope of bullying occurred in any activity other than dance, it would be considered a public health crisis by the CDC."
So why is it allowed to persist in ballet? And why aren't we talking about it more? These are the questions that DANSEUR seeks to answer. But primarily consisting of dance footage and interviews with male dancers like ABT's James Whiteside, Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and Boston Ballet's Derek Dunn, the film only addresses these issues superficially, with anecdotes about individual experiences and generalizations about what it's like to be a male dancer.
When you're unable to dance, it's easy to feel like you're falling behind and losing out on opportunities. But this can be a time to reset your body and come back even stronger, says Ilana Goldman, BFA program director at Florida State University's School of Dance. "Some of the greatest leaps I made in my technique happened because of injuries," she says. "Learning how to deal with them is part of being a professional dancer."
Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
Are auditions rigged? Sometimes I see mediocre dancers make it into a company, and I just don't get it. The audition process is unnerving for me without feedback or any understanding of the rules.
—Madison, Santa Monica, CA
Raise your hand if you've received bad advice from well-meaning friends or family (or strangers, tbh) who don't know anything about what it really takes to be a dancer.
*everyone raises hands*
Sometimes it's even dance insiders whose advice can send you down the wrong path. We've been asking pros about the worst advice they've ever received in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and rounded up some of the best answers:
Where in the world is Miko Fogarty? Just three years ago, she seemed unstoppable. After being featured in the 2011 ballet documentary First Position, she became a teenage social-media star, winning top prizes at competitions in Moscow and Varna and at Youth American Grand Prix, and dancing in galas around the world. Last most of us heard, it was 2015 and she had just joined the corps of Birmingham Royal Ballet. A year later, she dropped off the ballet radar.
Turns out Fogarty, now 21, was taking time off to reevaluate her life, including the role she wanted ballet to play in it. She is now starting her junior year as a biology major at University of California—Berkeley and is considering going to medical school. (Her brother and fellow First Position subject, 19-year-old Jules, is a junior in the Berkeley economics department.) On the side she teaches private ballet lessons and gives master classes, and is the part-time conservatory director at San Jose Dance International, a new school in the San Francisco Bay Area led by artistic director Yu Xin. We caught up with her by phone.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
In dance, pushing through pain is often glorified. Dancers can be reluctant to take time off when sick or injured for fear of missing out on opportunities. It can feel even harder to justify when the pain isn't physical. Though it's becoming more commonly acknowledged that mental health is just as important as physical health, a dance career doesn't leave much time to address mental or emotional issues.
But dancers need to take care of their mental well-being to be able to perform at their best, says Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund. So what can you do if you need a mental health day?
The fall performance season continues at breakneck speed with everything from an international ballet company making its U.S. debut to a retrospective on one of New York City's most iconic dancemakers—not to mention more than a few intriguing new works. Here's what we've got pencilled in.
Yabin Wang converts movement into liquid that spills across the stage. A celebrity in her home country of China, this choreographer, dancer and actress has helped to pioneer modern dance there by blending Chinese classical and contemporary dance. Wang's international career was kick-started in 2010 at American Dance Festival, where she returned this summer to perform on a shared program with Michelle Dorrance, Aparna Ramaswamy, Rhapsody James and Camille A. Brown. She has also worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on Genesis and was commissioned by English National Ballet to create a piece for its Olivier Award–winning She Said program. This month, she is back stateside for the U.S. premiere of her Moon Opera, Nov. 3 in Pittsburgh.
It's the casting news we didn't know we needed until we heard it. Ever since it was announced that Wayne McGregor would be choreographing the new film adaptation of CATS, we've been anxiously waiting to hear whether any recognizable names from the dance world would be joining the A-list cast (which, in case you missed it, already includes Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift and James Corden). But never in our wildest dreams did we think that a Royal Ballet principal would be the first dancer to sign on.
The wait for Disney's reimagining of The Nutcracker is over. Although The Nutcracker and The Four Realms is not a full-length ballet, woven into the plot is a five-minute performance by megastars Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin alongside 18 supporting dancers, with a CGI Mouse King moved by jookin sensation Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley). Royal Ballet artist in residence Liam Scarlett led the film's choreography in his first major motion picture experience. "It was a call I didn't expect to get," says Scarlett. "I really am the biggest Disney fan, so I couldn't believe it!"