Melody Mennite's first published review hurt like a punch in the gut.
While dancing Clara's solo in The Nutcracker, Mennite, then a teen, decided to sustain a balance for a few seconds. “I got greedy and held it too long and then fell flat on my face," says Mennite, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet since 2008. The critic who reviewed the show gleefully called her out on her face-planting. “I was mortified," she says. “But, even though it was there in the newspaper, I've always been able to laugh at myself. My very first review set me up really well to let stuff roll off my back."
Nobody enjoys getting a bad review. Whether in print or online, it can feel like public humiliation. The purpose of reviews is to help readers understand the value and quality of a performance, to analyze it and provide some historical context. Some critics take the responsibility quite seriously, while others indulge all their feelings, no matter how petty. In the world of cyberspace, anyone can become a critic, so it's no longer only the traditional print journalists creating the noise. And while the performers themselves aren't the target audience of reviews, reading about yourself can become as addictive as it can be deflating.
After a performance, some dancers simply choose to avoid their reviews altogether. Veronika Part, a principal with American Ballet Theatre since 2009, has been the subject of polarized reactions from critics who have either thrilled to her dancing or shrugged lukewarmly. In response, she chooses not to read reviews of any kind. “I learned early on in my career that if I didn't want to listen to the bad reviews, I should also ignore the good ones," she says.
Other performers simply remain cautious. “You have to go in and say, 'Am I sure I want to read this? Can I handle it?' " says McGee Maddox, a National Ballet of Canada principal. “If you expect something bad to happen, you don't have to read it." More than a decade in the ballet business has armored him for any acidic comments. “When I was younger I probably would have stewed about reviews, but now I'm aware of what the source is, what their agenda is," he says, referring to critics who try to create a splash in print or satisfy their need to opine. “Critics and bloggers are part of a world that doesn't affect how I enjoy my job or how I approach my work."
Not all dancers take their criticism so silently, especially when a comment feels out of bounds. There have been significant instances of dancers aiming back at critics, such as when Jenifer Ringer, then a New York City Ballet principal, nobly defended herself on NBC's “Today" show against Alastair Macaulay's piercing critique of her weight. Another came after the 1994 premiere of Bill T. Jones' Still/Here, when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce—without having seen the work—complained about “dancers I'm forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women or disfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art." Jones, taking offense as a dancer, choreographer and person, returned the favor by claiming Croce was among those who “have a frightened and limited definition of normal."
Absorb and Move On
With the right approach, reviews can be used constructively. Jenna Riegel, who currently dances with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, recently took the blunt impact of a 2015 review of the premiere of Jones' Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, based on the experiences of Jones' mother-in-law, Dora, as a French Jewish nurse during World War II. In his June review, New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Yet the excellent dancers must also speak, and their amateurish line readings continually undermine the show." Although many women share the vocalization of Dora's words, Riegel says, “I think I took it to heart a little more because I carry a good load of that text." Riegel reacted to the review in two ways. First, she tried to see what could be positively gleaned from it. “What of that can I take in?" she asked herself. “Could the nuances be shifted?" But she also wanted to respect Jones' intention that the dancers' personas shine through, rather than to offer a literal reading of one woman's voice. She ultimately decided that her approach could be “a little more fluid," but her own voice needed to be heard—a director's motivation that the reviewer might not be aware of.
Even vague critiques can lead to breakthroughs. When Mennite was granted first cast of the title role of La Sylphide, she and her partner worked exhaustively with a Bournonville expert to hone the tone, precision, style and drama of the ballet. Most of the reviews skewed positively, but one stung. “The writer critiqued me as not being a mature enough dancer to grasp the nuances of the role," she says. “And then the review said that my partner and I just needed some time." Although she felt let down, those comments helped her to grow because she was curious about what was blocked in her performance. “I would probably agree with it now," she says, particularly in the exploration of character development.
Still, the opinions that matter most come from the coaches, choreographers and the artistic director. “My job is to listen to those opinions—the people who are actually involved with the production," says Maddox, who says he has never changed his approach based on a review.
Reviewing The Critics
When do critics go too far? Mennite draws the line at attacking a dancer's physique. “I feel very disappointed at their lack of respect," she says. “You can criticize the art form but when you start attacking who someone is, I don't like that."
In the past, Mennite has wished she could tell some critics to broaden their education in the art form so that they “know what they're talking about." But recently, she has realized that audiences aren't always educated about dance, and reviewers are also delivering entertainment. “Now I would say that it would be nice if they could focus on the task at hand, try to write honestly and not to give in to any kind of sensationalism."
Part offers a decidedly different retort: “I would like to see a critic dance Swan Lake," she says. “When I retire I will happily lend them my tutu and pointe shoes."
A Bite from the Big Apple
New York City critics are infamous for their searing reviews, the most stringent of any U.S. city. Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite has learned from experience: “I have almost no expectations at all about receiving any positivity in those reviews," she says. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company member Jenna Riegel admires the dancers and choreographers who weather the harsh critical media in New York. “I just applaud people for making their art," she says. “They're pretty resilient. And to not be swayed or changed because of a review—that's even more impressive to me." No negative New Yorker, however, can compare with a dancer's inner judge. Says National Ballet of Canada's McGee Maddox, “No critic is as hard on me as I am on myself."