Why Do They Say What They Say?

November 19, 2008

Rattlesnake. Scoundrel. Pitbull. Pit Viper. Scumbag. Trash talker. Good-for-nothing. Witch. Donkey’s ass. Monster. Disaster. ?##@**??+!!!!


And what do they know anyway?


Dancers and choreographers often love to hate critics, especially when they’ve been subjected to a direct hit. Whether it’s the print or web equivalent of a spitball or a spear toss, the sting tends to linger, as does the resentment at being publicly humiliated. But, dance critics write from their own aesthetic vision. And if a performance doesn’t meet their standards—or tastes—then a negative review might be lurking in the wings. A dancer who has been so stung might well ask, “Why are they so mean?”


For purposes of full disclosure: I am a former dancer who has received at least one negative review. As a dance writer, I have written reviews that were considered far less than positive. I have been criticized by dancers. And I have been criticized by a dance critic for publicly disagreeing with another dance critic. So I have somewhat of a 360 degree view of this picture. I, like other readers, have been delighted, shocked, perplexed, and bored by print critiques that range from fair-mindedness to sheer condescension.


Dancers tend to overlook the fact that a critic’s first commitment is to the readers. “The critic has the obligation to report on the imaginativeness of this art and the measure of truth and beauty that is there,” says Joan Acocella, who writes for The New Yorker. “That goal, which I think is the overriding goal, can conflict with the virtue of kindness.”


Allan Ulrich, who reviewed dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner and now writes for the website Voice of Dance (as well as for Dance Magazine), admits that he can be harsh if something offends him. “I am not writing to empower anybody, but I am not writing to destroy anyone,” says Ulrich. “I am registering a response to how far I feel a choreographer’s ambition has been achieved or how well a performance has been achieved. I’m not emotionally involved with your career.”


Deborah Jowitt, dance critic for The Village Voice for over 40 years, defines the task of criticism as a way to illuminate the art form and to generate thought and dialogue. She avoids criticism that diminishes the integrity of a choreographer or performer with terms like “hopeless,” “useless,” or “incompetent.” “Criticism devalues the subject when it is stated in the tone of a judge, like, ‘This deserves to die’ or ‘This deserves no respect.’ What sometimes comes through the lines is, ‘It bored me’ or ‘Why did I waste an evening looking at this stuff?’ so that it all comes back to the ‘I’ of that critic. I have nothing against being critical, but I’m against negative criticism being applied in an impatient and destructive way, instead of being able to give the work and the readers respect by clarifying what made this particular work of art displeasing.”


As for the displeasures, the lengthy list comprises subjective onstage crimes and misdemeanors that a critic simply can’t endure. In the performance realm, technical ineptitude, slurred lines, tin ears for musical phrasing, overselling, stylistic inaccuracies, and bland delivery are natural targets. “There is the question of kinetic transfer, whether the dancer can communicate physical action to you so that you can feel it in your own muscles,” says Acocella.


Hedy Weiss, the dance and theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, cringes when she sees tense dancers. “I want to be carried away and not be worried about technique,” she says. “The best performances are the ones that make you forget about the unbelievable work behind them and have a life of their own.”


Ulrich pulls no punches with dancers’ affectations. “We had a much beloved ballerina here in San Francisco who decided she would grin from ear to ear while dancing Choleric in The Four Temperaments,” says Ulrich. “I said, ‘Madame X, wipe that smile off your face.’ ”


Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic for The New York Times, says that in his fledgling years as a dance critic in London, he was what he terms “an angry young critic.” Currently, he feels that he would lose more sleep over reviews that overpraise than those that go negative. He also cautions dancers about obsessing over criticism. “Generally I follow the rule that performers are ill-advised to read about themselves,” says Macaulay. He once wrote a scalding theater review of the actor Stephen Fry that stunned Fry so much that he literally fled the country. “They read reviews at their own peril. I am aware that they frequently do so more intently than anyone else. I am also aware that they are seldom going to read them right. All some of them will ever see is what it says about themselves . . . In my job, I think my best service to dance readers is to speak honestly about what I think and not to put in gentlemanly caveats, such as ‘If this may be said without hurting her feelings,’ as I remember certain British critics writing when I was young.”


For some critics, the issue of dancers’ bodies and looks can feel radioactive, while others consider it fair game. “If you are a performer onstage, putting yourself in the public eye, then it is a legitimate area of comment,” says John Rockwell, who wrote a controversial New York Times piece titled “Today, It’s Dance 10, Looks 3.” The article compared the “hothouse flowers” of Balanchine’s day to some of the current New York City Ballet principal dancers, whom he described as “spectacular dancers without being spectacular beauties.”


But Macaulay claims that he doesn’t place body slamming high on his list of critical talking points. “I learned from Lynn Seymour,” he says, “that a great dancer can transcend what is not considered the ideal body type.”


Jowitt cites the example of dancers Larry Goldhuber and Alexandra Beller, who use their ample size to their advantage. “It is less useful,” she says, “to talk about a person’s body than about the way he or she uses that body.”


Despite their advantage of voicing opinions in newsprint (or online) rather than in person, critics sometimes experience unpleasant backlashes. In San Francisco, Ulrich was denied press tickets for performances of Smuin Ballet. In 2001, Mark Morris announced extremely loudly within Macaulay’s radius in the theater that he was angry about his review. The choreographer Dianne McIntyre addressed Acocella by letter. “She said I was imperceptive, that I didn’t see things very well, and that I could learn a lesson by reading the works of Deborah Jowitt,” says Acocella.


But here’s the part everyone is waiting for: the regrets. As for “Today, It’s Dance 10, Looks 3,” Rockwell thinks the headline, chosen by an editor rather than himself, skewed the case he was making about “the kind of regimentation that seemed to have sapped the life out of some of Balanchine’s ballets,” rather than an emphasis on criticizing looks. In retrospect, Acocella wished she hadn’t said that dancer/choreographer Dan Wagoner was too old in a New York Daily News review. Ulrich felt uneasy about dumping on Donald McKayle. “Everyone loves Donald McKayle—a warm, supportive guy,” says Ulrich. “Helgi Tomasson hired him to do a piece for San Francisco Ballet and I wrote a very nasty review.”


And Macaulay admits a particularly haunting ambivalence. “I just can’t seem to get Wendy Whelan right,” he says of one of New York City Ballet’s top ballerinas. “I absolutely see what is admirable about her, but there are problems to me. And they are not just physical. I keep trying to analyze what they are. At the same time I recognize that the woman has intelligence, authority, and is sometimes the most purposeful person onstage.”


I have my own personal regret. In this magazine, I didn’t give Sara Mearns of NYCB her full due in her daunting debut in Swan Lake. A prejudice against directors shoving young dancers into major roles too quickly (I’ve seen too many dancers get injured or burnt out) got in the way of my seeing her considerable talent, which she now displays quite splendidly.


One point on which dance writers disagree is the boundary between the critic and the performers. “Choreographers and dancers don’t understand that critics are not part of the dance community,” says Ulrich. Acocella, barring a few exceptional performers and longtime friends like Baryshnikov and Morris, shuns interviews with artists, and always says “no” to press reps who want her to schmooze with their clients. Macaulay, in his many lead-up interviews for the New York Times position, was told that he couldn’t so much as be seen having coffee with a performer without it being blabbed about on a blog or perceived as a conflict of interest. Because he is close friends with Matthew Bourne, he volunteered to assign any reviews about the choreographer to other critics.


But Jowitt says, “I can’t help being part of the dance community. I was a dancer. I still perform. I choreograph for students. I teach—so many of the young dancers and choreographers out there now are people who were part of my classes. I can’t deny being part of that community. I just have to understand how I must behave honorably within it.”


“The best critics historically have been advocacy critics—Edwin Denby with Balanchine, John Martin with Martha Graham, Jill Johnston with the Judson Group,” says Acocella. “When there is a new artist who is perceived as experimental or difficult to understand, the critic will give herself the job of explaining art to the readers in the hope of easing the task.” Likewise, Rockwell often finds critics more engaging for what they love, rather than what they hate. “If they like something, they are speaking from a passion, and the passion engenders a depth of expertise that makes them better writers.”


Enthusiasm about the art form feeds the desire of writers to define its glories and flaws. And contrary to what readers usually think, the most rewarding part of the profession is not always the power to lob tomatoes. “Being a critic is a very good education,” says Macaulay. “You are learning all the time. That is the most interesting thing about the job. If it stopped being an education, I would move on to something else.”

Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to
Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).