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October 21, 2012

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In the Upper Room
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When I read about Herman's injury on a ballet message board, I thought immediately of you, Haglund. I hope he's getting better.

How did Macaulay land that NYT gig, anyway? (And how is he still there if he can't properly critique ballet?)

Hi Kit. It's quite simple: Macaulay landed the NYT gig because the NYT no longer cares about dance criticism enough to hire anyone who has any practical knowledge.

What exactly do you mean by practical knowledge? That one used to dance ballet?

Yes. If a critic is going to comment on either the quality or correctness of a dancer's technique, he needs first hand education and experience to do so. He needs to have stood at the barre and absorbed the discipline. He needs to have stood in the center and developed enough skill so as to understand what is right and what is not, what is one style and what is another, what is brilliant and what is cheap & sloppy.

Past NYT critics have had a practical or applied dance education. The most respected critic, Anna Kisselgoff, stood at the barre for 10 years before she took the job at the Times. David Vaughan who over the years has written for a great number of dance magazines and newspapers was still standing at the adv/professional barre every morning well into his late 70s and then sat on the side and watched the dancers execute the center.

The problem at the Times is exacerbated by its journalistic tradition of claiming that it is an expert and has the definitive word in everything. It puts pressure on an ill-equipped critic like Macaulay to make pronouncements that are wrong and which harm the art form -- the most well-known recent example being his shot at NYCB's Jenifer Ringer.

While I agree Macaulay is by no means a decent reviewer and should absolutely be replaced as soon as possible, I disagree with the idea that one needs to have had ballet experience in order to critique ballet. Indeed, a ballet reviewer must know "what is one style and what is another", what takes practice and what a beginner looks like, but this can be done with an intelligent eye and years of experience watching ballet and talking to those with more technical knowledge. I will acquiesce that technicality is most likely best spotted by an ex-dancer, though.

What is more important than that, however, is a need to take a step away from judging "what is right and what is not". While ballet is an old art with rules and regulations of sorts, I would hardly say that a great ballet performance is simply the execution of steps in a technically-correct way. In order to provide a compelling piece ballet review, I believe someone needs to understand the general audience and the multitude of ways dance can be perceived. Ballet should NOT, especially in a national (and international) newspaper such as the NYTimes, simply be boiled down to steps and "right and wrong" - these are inaccessible to many who watch and appreciate ballet. It is the job of the reviewer to go beyond that and discuss things like musicality and storytelling, both of which are capable of being understood by those who have never danced a day before in their lives. It is important for the future of dance in general that "right and wrong" are done away with in our discourse, and enjoyment, storytelling, and emotional movement are focused on, particularly in the media.

Clearly, as you said above, if one is going to start talking about ballet technique one needs to know ballet technique. But you also said that the NYTimes "no longer cares about dance criticism enough to hire anyone who has any practical knowledge." Why should they have to? Ballet has a chance to be lifted higher than it has been in years, and it needs a great reviewer on a national platform who can look beyond traditional discussion points like "good and bad", and look forward to ways that will engage a larger audience.

Hi Nicholas.

I don't disagree with much of what you have said. However, in the case of the NYT, it allows Macaulay unchallenged authority to pronounce "the best," "the most," "the –est," and to evaluate technical matters when he has no idea what he is talking about. He is constantly in error on technical matters, on style matters, and on speaking to the fundamentals of ballet. He makes it no secret that he cares little for classical ballet and that it is nearly torturous for him every year that ABT presents its weeks of classic story ballets. He delights in directing ticketbuyers away from a classic ballet or away from a certain dancer -- all the while portraying himself as an expert in the art form.

The paper that likes to portray itself as the most important national newspaper owes it to its readership to have more qualified dance critics if it is going to report on ballet at all. It has musicians writing on music. It has lawyers writing on law. It has MBAs writing on business. It should have someone who has stood at the barre writing about ballet.

As I have said before, if all a critic has is his taste, he should be reviewing restaurants - not the arts.

Thanks for explaining.

"The problem at the Times is exacerbated by its journalistic tradition of claiming that it is an expert and has the definitive word in everything."

*slow clap*

LOL, Koji.

Haglund,

I really don't qualify to comment here, because I am such an on-again, off-again balletgoer. (Although Tiler Peck and a new job may cure me of that affliction.) But I only just heard of Jennie Somogyi's latest gruesome injury. It is shocking.

I hope she retires. Enough is enough. Her body is telling her something.

She has a child. Isn't being able to play with your kid as she grows up more important than risking lifelong crippling injury?

If she were 25, if she didn't have a kid, I wouldn't be saying this. But more and more, as I age myself, I question the obsession that too many dancers have. I read something recently about how Alina Cojocaru spends "hours" lifting weights. This is insane.

I thought that it was very sad when Ansanelli retired. Now I applaud her decision. She had 10 years of high octane performing, and she moved on.

If you think my comment is inappropriate or offensive, delete it and no hard feelings. But that's how I feel.

My favorite dancers are those who perform joyfully, and with no sense of having gone thru agony and sacrifice. Of course dance is damn hard work. But it shouldn't be torture, and it shouldn't destroy the body. Jennie had a great career. It's time to move on.

Hi Diana.

I understand what you are saying, but each person's life follows a different path and some are able to juggle priorities much better than others.

I hope Jennie returns soon because she still has years of good dancing left. It's hard coming back after an Achilles rupture, and it takes a long, long time. I suffered three Achilles tears over ten years and managed to return to a satisfactory "new normal" following the surgical repairs. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Everyone is different, though.

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