Wednesday, December 15, 2010


On Criticism

A talented jazz bassist walks into the elevator mid conversation and says, " . . . and do you know what? Most of those critics can't even play! It's just a bunch of words." My husband relayed this story to me a number of years ago, back when he was at the New School, and it is a personal favorite. It is also something that has been on my mind lately as I think about the arts and criticism.

To be fair, there are music critics who play and dance critics who dance(d). Many more do not. One thing, however, when you look at the New York Times Book Review--hey! All the reviews are written. As in, all the book reviewers are also writers. Unlike jazz musicians, who are rarely reviewed by their peers, most writers are in fact reviewed by other writers, which makes book reviewing a unique discipline.

But what about dance criticism? The New York Times hired Alastair MaCaulay from the Financial Times in London a few years back; his tenure has been interesting. MaCaulay is a true balletomane. Witness these four articles on performances of Balanchine's "Jewels"; each danced by a different American company. MaCaulay finds something interesting to say about each one. This is an attentive and truly interested mind at work.

And then, there is this interview:

I also believe, passionately, that when you're watching people perform dance, music, or plays, then one inner fiber of you is dancing or playing or speaking too. That's why, when you go to "Carmen" in the cheap seats, people can't help themselves bursting into the Toreador song; they're so happy to recognize this great song, they have to join in.

MaCaulay does not dance-has never taken a class. He is said to possess a vast knowledge of the history of ballet, and to apply this to his writings. He is, in other words, a scholar. He is also someone who feels.

I've been thinking about this interview--and the story of the bassist--for weeks now. Is a critic a professional feeler who can analyze and translate these feelings into words? Put it another way--what does an audience member who cannot play jazz or a ballet goer who cannot dance, get out of a live performance? I know I certainly want to go home with a feeling. I want, for example, to go home as I did after watching Valery Gergeiv and the Mariinksy Orchestra perform Mahler's Second, to go home and wonder: "What the hell just happened?" I don't want to go home, as I did after listening to the Philharmonic perform The Firebird, and think: "What the hell was it with the tempos?" I'd like to go home moved, even if I don't know why. So, do I read critics because I want to know how they felt and I want them to analyze how they felt so I have some way to gauge how I should/might/did feel?

But I wonder if it matters whether or not a critic has engaged in the art form itself. I've been thinking about this a lot, particularly as it pertains to dance, in no small part because my new novel features a dancer and I've been trying to figure out how to write about dance well. It's difficult. Reading dance criticism doesn't always help. And dancers aren't generally known for writing, or for living a life of the mind.

But a few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience. I was in my morning ballet class as usual, when I spotted a young man who was clearly professional. And very good. The only reason he could possibly be in my class was because he was injured--which turned out to be the case. I felt all this sympathy--like I'd found some kind of magnificent bird kicked out of its nest and I wanted it to go back to its celestial realm.

After class, we ran into each other again and I learned his name and where he had danced. Then we stood outside the infamous Willie Burmann class and watched the professionals at work. My new friend told me how badly he wanted to be back in that room.

"What is it about Willie Burmann?" I asked.

And then he explained. The class works because of how Burmann teaches at the barre, and then moves this instruction to the center. Burmann had gotten him to turn--and he does not consider himself a turner. I don't consider myself a turner either.

"You have to stay on your toes," he said. "Even at the barre. Keep the weight off your heels." Then he told me that I ought to take the Willie Burmann class too. "Otherwise, you'll never get better."

Well, sure. I'd love to take the Willie Burmann class and to improve, but I wouldn't want to degrade the art form by showing up next to Wendy Whelan. And frankly, I find it embarrassing to watch some of those people in that class who so clearly should not be there. But the idea stuck with me.

In the next class, I tried to put these principles to use. While at the barre, I tried to keep my weight off my heels. Then we moved to the center--and everything was easier. I flew in my turns and landed them easily. I could also see how it would be a matter of time before I added rotations, in large part because I didn't even need to use my arms. Quite a few people came up and told me how great I looked. It's nice as an adult to get better at something, especially dance, which is really for young people.

Then, a few weeks later, I began to read the new Jennifer Homans book on ballet: "Apollo's Angels." I read this passage:

"The Danes had pristine footwork and quick, light jumps, achieved in part by dancing neatly toward the balls of the feet, but if you didn't put your heels down you would never gain the soaring elevation and leaps that characterized the Soviets. The differences were not merely aesthetic; they felt different, and moving this way instead of that could make a dancer, for a moment, into a different kind of person."

First of all, this is a wonderful book, and after hearing Jennifer Homans on Terry Gross--Homans was gracious, sincere and smart--I can't read the book quickly enough. I wonder if too much hasn't been made over her "death of ballet" battle cry. I see her point and, yes, ballet needs some kind of change. But second of all--her book meant something different to me because in a tiny way, her description of technique had mirrored my own small experience and opened up how the body is capable of more than we think if trained differently.

Do I have special insight into dance now that I have finally learned how to turn? I don't know--I occupy this weird space between someone who can sort of dance, but is light years away from really being able to do it. In class--jazz class in particular--I sometimes hear my hyper-wordy voice asking about something related to counting and I get this eye roll from the teacher because . . . dancers aren't supposed to analyze so much. Analysis is the real of cerebral people, ie writers. Worse: "You dance how you are!" is what you often hear from teachers--our bodies are supposed to reflect some inner truth. This always irritates me. My body is a poor reflection of who I am. My body is highly imperfect. If I have to accept that my body is a reflection of who I am, well, then I guess I have to accept life's disappointments every day. Who I am or what I think I am is more accurately reflected in what I write because that is more closely related to what I think. I'd like to believe that what I think is more important than what I look like.

And time and again outside of class, I'll learn that the lumbering adult dancer who can't seem to point his feet or keep his shoulders down in class, is a talented artist who supports himself selling actual paintings. Or that the awkward, so unable to stand up straight I thought she had MS woman, is actually a lounge singer. Or that some awkward, overly cerebral middle aged woman is a Shakespeare scholar. These are people whose bodies don't reflect who they are.

What does this have to do with criticism? Maybe it really only matters how something as esoteric as dance makes us feel. Maybe the point of any art, actually, is what it tells us about ourselves and how we as individuals respond to a piece, regardless of our training.

I dance because I like it and because it is the only form of exercise I enjoy and because if I don't dance, I get depressed. Since moving to New York, my classes at STEPS have often been the sole thing to keep my spirits up.

But I do wonder if insight into the mechanics of art matters. Do book reviewers read books more carefully because they are "writers"? See, I don't think so. I think that writers are very well aware of the hierarchy they occupy. They know who is who, and how they fit in, and who was shorlisted for what award, and who is with what agent, and who was on what list and how if they review, they are more likely to be reviewed, etc. And whenever you deal with a group of people, there is always a median, a sense of what is "accepted"--even in a group of people as creative as writers--and what is threatening and new and what might be considered "too" new. This is why I, and others, so appreciate it when we find someone with taste we admire and who doesn't seem to be influenced by fashion or politics, but who just reports back on what she likes.

Would it be better, then, if reviewers weren't writers? Well, then we end up back in the universe that the bass player at the start of this piece occupies--a world where the reviewers don't do the thing they are reviewing. That's hard for musicians to understand; so much of their art depends on interaction. Actually--I should clarify. Some musicians are also aware of the hierarchy, as I learned this weekend, when one professional musician told me about another one who invited a notable critic to his recording session and solicited advice for how to make the record-in-progress stronger. That's not a bad way to guarantee a good review.

I think that there is so much art out there, it is invariably important for us to have critics to help us ferret out what we might like and what we might appreciate. I still struggle with the very idea of criticism--that we all end up with the audiences we deserve, to paraphrase Robertson Davies who reportedly once said that every man ends up with the wife he deserves. It's an imperfect system. The nice thing is that if you are truly passionate about an art form, you can investigate it on your own--even if you are an old and incompetent dancer--and make up your own mind.


The Nutcracker, a Romance

At the end of the original "Nutcracker," written by ETA Hofman, the heroine, Marie, gets her prince. He'd been suffering under a curse, and was made to take the form of a practical, but otherwise ugly wide-jawed Nutracker. She, however, has seen through the curse, helped him defeat it and will be rewarded with the title of princess, and marriage.

Drosselmeyer's nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen and eventually marries the Prince.

In other words, the Nutcracker is a romance that ends pretty much on the same note as Beauty and the Beast where, due to heroics, the girl is able to get the boy who turns out to be handsome after all. But this only happens after much torment from the mouse King and Queen, and only after the young couple's mettle is tested night after night. In other words, the Nutcracker is a romance, but of the dark variety.

Another way to look at it, is that the Nutcracker is a kind of inverse Swan Lake, where the hero does not screw up, the half-man-half-Nutcracker does not have to sacrifice himself in order for any curses to be broken. Instead, the girl--just like Beauty and the Beast--saves the day. She's no hapless Siegfried, easily fooled by the Black Swan, or shallow Albrecht, who just wanted a bit of fun.

(Cover of Sendak's illustration of the ETA Hoffman tale).

Tchaikovsky would have read this story when composing the music for the Nutcracker. You might not know this now when you hear snippets of the ballet's more upbeat musical interludes--Spanish Coffee, the Waltz of the Flowers--when you are shopping at the mall. Listening to these pieces, you might think that the Nutcracker is just another variation of a Disneyfied Fantasia. But if you really listen to the music all the way through--really listen--you'll hear hints of the kind of romance and drama that Tchaikovsky must have been trying to capture.

Why is the Nutcracker so popular? I've been reading the New York Times critic Alastair MaCauley's accounts of his Nutcracker journey across America. Back in November, he wrote:

The importance of this ballet to America has become a phenomenon that surely says as much about this country as it does about this work of art.

And why is the ballet so important?

While the United States is far from young, it still matters to many Americans that this nation seems youthful and that it embraces newcomers. When the “Nutcracker” heroine arrives in the paradiselike Land of Sweets, she is at once made welcome. The Sugar Plum Fairy presides with her wand in ways not unlike the Statue of Liberty with her torch in New York Harbor. You have traveled far; here, in this land of milk and honey, find rest and delight. Here people of different races are equal; here you may make a new start.

One aspect of the discussion surrounding the Nutcracker that I haven't seen addressed (yet), is this idea of romance. If you speak to balletomanes, most will agree that their favorite version of the Nutcracker was the one produced by Baryshnikov, in which the lead dancers are not children, but adults, who play children at first, but grow up as the story develops. In the Hoffman story--Marie/Clara is a 12 year old girl. She is precisely on the cusp of adulthood, as one would have considered womanhood a century ago. In the Baryshnikov/Kirkland version of the Nutcracker, Clara/Marie helps to defeat the Mouse King, rescues the prince and discovers that . . . she likes him. Take a look at this clip, just after the Mouse king has been defeated and the prince gently thanks Marie and she, in turn, learns to dance with him, as an adult.

It's pretty romantic. The prince remembers that he is a prince. He's nice to Clara right away--just as a girl would dream a prince would be--and gently demonstrates that kindness and heroism and sex appeal can all go together. What girl would not fall for this?

It's a strong contrast to the way the scene is played by, say, New York City Ballet, in which the prince and Clara/Marie are children. I could not find a comparable video clip for you to compare. But there is this decidedly unsexy photo:

It's a lovely moment in the ballet between two children, though it does not, to my mind, take advantage of all the lush music Tchaikovsky offered. But that was not Balanchine's point in creating his Nutcracker: he wanted to be able to showcase students of different ages from his school and to give them a chance to perform. In Balanchine's version, the Nutcracker is still a magical story, but it is not a romance. And though I enjoy this production, I always feel that the music is not completely well served. An example:

Here's Gelsey Kirkland again, still in Clara's "nightgown," now in love and dancing because she is in love and dancing for her prince. The drama is grounded in the music.

Now, in the City Ballet version, here is the Sugarplum Fairy (I think that's Darci Kistler) who has greeted the children--and now dances (at a faster tempo).

I love this choreography, but as a story, the scene comes off more as a showcase and a stunt. The children--the prince and Marie--sit in the back and eat sweets and watch the Sugarplum Fairy and various other "sweets" perform, until it is time to go home.

Ditto for the way the story ends. In the City Ballet version, the chords come in and up the sleigh goes, while everyone waves goodbye.

It is perhaps telling that in the 1993 filmed version of the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, the role of the prince was played by MacCauley Culkin. Note the way he is transformed from Nutcracker to prince.

In the Baryshnikov version, the land of the Sweets begins to fade and Clara wakes up in her house, wondering if the awakening she has experienced was all a dream--though she also feels transformed. (You'll have to ff to 3:30 to hear the music and see the change). It's almost as though she's lived out a parallel version of the Wizard of Oz (movie version), or Peter Pan. Clara traveled to another world, had a magical experience, and wakes up changed.

Ballet companies deal with the issue of romance in the Nutcracker a variety of ways. The Russians follow the Baryshnikov version--to be fair, I should say that Baryshnikov follows the Russian version, because that's probably where he got the idea in the first place. It is just that most western audiences think it's *his* version because the 1977 televised performance was the first look at the romantic Nutcracker that many of us had.

Here's the Bolshoi with a gallant and graceful prince, and a Clara who must now grow up.

In the Bolshoi version, by the time we get to the classic "Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier" (which has to be about the most emasculating role since Prince Philip couldn't pass Mountbaten on to his kids), Clara and the Prince and their love have matured. The choreography and very rich and often dark music reflects this.

The action, the music, the story--all are grounded in something that makes sense.

Contrast that with the version where the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier dance. What is it with the tormented music? Why so tormented? They are just dancing for the kids sitting in the back. Here is an example from Tallahassee.

It's funny how the music almost sounds and feels different when it is not connected to the story in a way that is really meaningful. The drama and potential are there--but if the story is missing, then the music loses its meaning too. What's missing? The romance.

There are other ways to deal with the romance, than to either cast children, or adults. The Pacific Northwest ballet uses a young girl in the beginning, then switches to an older ballerina after the Nutcracker becomes a prince. It is often said that by using sets designed by Maurice Sendak, PNB's version of the Nutcracker is "darker"--though, again, if you read the original story and bear in mind that Tchaikovsky would have read it too, I'm not sure how the story could be anything but dark.

In regional performances, principal and soloist dancers from major companies are often brought in to perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, while children dance the roles of mice and toy soldiers. This has been an excellent way to bring "real ballet" and real ballet dancers to cities outside of New York, to demonstrate excellent adult dancing, and to give children a chance to perform--and mothers a chance to compete with each other and to video tape their kids.

Below--some children.

More kids--the girl is 11 and you will need to ff to 2:15.

Below, a more "romantic" Nutcracker, with tweens. The scene is just after the Mouse King is defeated and the curse is broken. This video is from San Diego.

Finally, an example in which a principal dancer--the wonderful Michele Wiles of ABT--is brought in to a regional company--North Carolina. She dances the Sugarplum Fairy with her cavalier. The kids, who presumably danced the first half of the ballet, watch from the side.

And once again, the music feels disconnected from what is happening on stage.

Why, then, is the Nutcracker so popular in America? What's with all the versions?

The short answer, to me, is that Americans love Christmas. It is practically our national holiday, though I realize it is not PC for me to say so. The news watches, breathlessly, to see what we will buy. These numbers tell us "how we are doing." We are, after all, a nation of consumers. The Christmas figures will determine if some business did "well" or "poorly" for the entire year. This may well decid if eyou wake up happy or depressed on January 1st, facing a brand new year, and a mountain a paperwork for your accountant.

But behind all this, there of course a more magical and spiritual dimension to Christmas, coming as it does during the dark time of the year. After Christmas, the days will subtly get brighter. And on the subject of magic--there is the fact that many of us grow up believing in Santa Claus, unable to wait until Christmas morning, only to learn later that Santa does not exist. The magic was created by our parents. Presumably, we grow up to learn of other more earthly pleasures, but the magic of Christmas is gone. There is a reason why: "I felt it was like Christmas" is a phrase often used to describe elation. I can think of two ex-boyfriends who were also ex-drug addicts who described cocaine to me in the same fashion.

As adults, we think of Christmas as having a romantic dimension. This is why we see the infuriating Tiffany ads every December.

It's why movie companies release romantic comedies during December--and why audiences want to go and see them.

The Nutcracker captures this sense of elation, or transformation and of romance. As a child, the presents, the tree, Santa--all are magical. As adults, we know that all this tender magic will fade. We also know that the only hope you will ever have of feeling that kind of magic again as an adult resides in an expensive present, or the ecstasy of falling in love. The story touches on all our favorite fairytale archetypes--Beauty and the Beast, the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan. The girl gets to be a princess, which, as the merchandise marketers of Disney know, is a sure-fire way to get female attention.

On a final note, I'm curious to see what kind of Nutcracker ABT will unveil. In interviews, Ratmansky, the Artistic Director, seems to hint that, like the Pacific Northwest Ballet, he will use a child and adult Clara--the hybrid solution. He has also noted that Tchaikovsky was in the throes of depression while writing the score to the Nutcracker, something I had not known. One hopes for a Nutcracker that entertains, but listens sensitively to the music.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Wikileaks and Writers

By now we all know the story of the music industry, and how it was forever changed by Napster. Never mind that Napster has gone the way of Netscape--downloadable music forever altered the music industry model. I, for example, can no longer go to Tower Records after a memorable evening at the Met to look for a recording to take home. Now I have to go onto iTunes (where I can at least get immediate gratification), or perhaps order a CD from Amazon.

The publishing industry, too, is changing. I've ranted before about my desperate wish for people to embrace the changes and to think constructively as to how writing and reading can move seamlessly into this new age. Much is always lost with change; but only a luddite would believe that good music--and good books--are gone.

But now, it seems, our government is going to have to learn what artists and musicians learned over a decade ago. Yes someone can, with the touch of a button, publish just about anything. Once upon a time, the impulse to share information would have depended on, say, a newspaper. Or a magazine. Or a book. And readers would have to go and buy that newspaper, magazine or book. The process is made much easier by the internet. But the desire to share, to blow the whistle, to turn turncoat (all depending on your point of view), is nothing new. It's just all much easier now. And yes, that means a few people can't control anything any more. Welcome to the world most of us have been living in for a while.

I certainly don't think that the appropriate way to respond to these changes is to prevent the sharing of information (hi Beijing!)--this would be antithetical to the freedoms we all say matter to us. But you can already see this kind of lumbering coming from the likes of Senator Lieberman who, let's face it, isn't exactly known for his intuitive understanding of modern technology. It is difficult for me to think of Wikileaks as a thing to be for or against--it just is. It was also inevitable. My guess is that diplomacy will have to change. I haven't any idea how--that isn't my job--but it is telling to me that only after music, movies and publishing have had to adjust to life with the internet, the government is now going to have its turn.

I often think about matters of diplomacy. Since I have been traveling overseas for so many years (and meeting diplomats on those flights, who always impress me) and listening to people from so many different countries, and listening to how they misunderstand each other, I--something of a worry wart--become very nervous at any sign of a culture clash. Here is an example. I got my hair cut today at a very nice Japanese salon and I took my almost one year old son.

"He's so good!" the stylists all said to me--in Japanese. They don't speak Japanese to most guests, but make an exception for me. "Is he just like this, or do you give him drugs?"


"Yes. Most of our American clients drug their babies so they won't cry. That's why so many Americans grow up to become drug addicts as teenagers. They were drugged when they were babies and so they grow up to be anxious and never bond with their parents, who they then complain about all the time, so they have to go into therapy."

I suppose that Tom Cruise would agree with this assessment. And it did give me pause for thought. It also told me what is going on in the minds of these stylists each time a tony client shows up with her kid. An exception was made for me. But only because I speak their language--no stereotype could therefore be enforced.

I do long for a day where we all get to see each other just as people, and where we take in information as we get it and as it is doled out.

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