Doing Dance Criticism

January 30, 2011

Four significant dance critics, Sarah Kaufman, Wendy Lesser, John Rockwell and Lewis Segal (i.d.s below), spoke at U.C. Berkeley on Friday to some 80 students, dancers, and fellow critics, about the changing nature of arts journalism.


Kaufman challenged critics to go beyond the proscenium. Invite into your reviews pop culture, TV dance shows, and even airline passengers who (she noticed en route) are fearful of being patted down and touched. “It’s about movement and athleticism,” said Kaufman, who won a Pulitzer in part for a Washington Post piece that blew the lid off of Balanchine-worship. Here, on the other hand, she threw bouquets of purple prose at Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant. Grant, she said, was the very best of actors because he knew how to move.


Lesser, of the “Build it and they will come” persuasion, took issue with Kaufman, arguing that bowing to pop culture neither raises the level, nor lowers the age, of ballet concert audiences. Lesser prefers to shepherd classes of neophyte freshmen to the ballet. Afterward, they write what they see. She says it’s the choreography that makes for a bad or good show, offering Alvin Ailey’s Revelations as an example—his only for-sure box office hit.


Rockwell, a self-described rules-follower, addressed the advertised topic: the changing nature of arts journalism. “Dance criticism is not a test of one’s ability to describe movement, so much as writing skill, and bringing a world of history, context, and other art forms” into the conversation. “Don’t go all snooty with dance terminology unless you’re in a chat room with others” who speak the language, he advised. He praised choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky for pushing past the Balanchine obeisance that has, in his view, hobbled the New York dance scene.


Lewis Segal, who dubbed Natalie Portman as this nation’s ballerina assoluta, cited dance criticism as an opportunity for seduction, wagering that more people have seen Black Swan than Swan Lake. “This is not the case in Eastern or Western Europe, nor Cuba,” he proposed, “where people huddle around the rare TV set to see weekly ballet shows.” He lamented that, “We don’t have ballet on TV here any more.”


All four fell into step, in agreement that concert dance has ebbed, even as TV competitions and ethnic dance, including Indian, Butoh, Zumba and Flamenco, have become increasingly popular. Audience members asked the speakers about the low priority editors assign to smaller, experimental work; debated the pros and cons of a recent Joyce Theater innovation urging audiences to vote on works shown and awarding cash prizes to the winners; traded ideas about how, as full-time paid critic positions vaporize, to make the most of online opportunities; and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of filmed vs. live dance. They pointed out a new World Dance trend toward utilizing classical and modern technique, and the potential impact of anthropology on dance criticism.


At a post-panel reception, some students suggested that the university consider organizing another such forum, but with local critics as speakers. They felt that the discussion had taken a NewYork–centric direction, and were looking for more discussion pertaining to dance criticism in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Segal’s response to the forum’s theme captured the dilemma that critics everywhere grapple with: “The scene makes us; we don’t make the scene. When dance grows, we do too.”




dance critic for The Washington Post, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

editor of The Threepenny Review, regularly writes about dance, music, and opera. She is the author of eight books, including The Amateur: An Independent Life in Letters and Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering.

former dance critic, music critic, and editor of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, is the board chairman of the National Arts Journalism Program.

formerly the staff dance critic for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.


Sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities, The English Department, The Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies, the Letters and Science Dean of Arts and Humanities, the Distinguished Chair in Poetry and Poetics, and the Transnational American Studies Working Group.