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.

I've been thinking about this entry for the past couple days. You know me well enough to know I'm going to say that intelligent criticism can come from anyone, creator or appreciator, and likewise bad criticism can come from same. I'm so predictable. :)

Did you see that recent controversy where a critic called the lead ballet dancers in a production of the Nutcracker fat? (Both the male and female leads). And clearly they weren't fat, though their body types didn't conform to the critic's idea of what ballet dancers should look like.

This is what I hate about criticism: the idea that snarky comments somehow constitute the beginning of a conversation. Of course, "snarky" criticism has existed long before the Internet or that word came along to make such criticism as wide-reaching.
I did see that controversy. The bummer--I think the *entire* review was shoddily written, which is a shame because Macauley has written good reviews. I think he just didn't edit carefully and, well, he got what he got.
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