I got so upset and angry when I read his review of Cinderella in the Times yesterday, which is rather funny for me since not too long ago, I screamed at everyone at Oberon’s Grove (a very New York City Ballet fan-centric blog) for not letting a critic be critical and obsessing over those who harp on NYCB’s artistic director, Peter Martins And now that Macaulay’s ripping on my beloved American Ballet Theater, I know how they feel! Seriously though, obviously I stick to my guns that in a democratic system a critic can and should be critical, should never be silenced, and should offer opinions based in knowledge, education, insight, and love and passion for his/her chosen field. So, I value Macaulay’s opinions, and I respectfully disagree with him. The problem with dance criticism I feel, and the reason why fans get so upset, is that (unlike, say, film criticism or theater criticism), there aren’t enough critical voices out there offering different perspectives, leaving one person’s opinion to have HUGE repercussions, especially when that one person writes for the New York Times.
Anyway, I’ll return to my thoughts on dance criticism in a minute, but first I just want to say how much I LOVE the version of Cinderella that ABT is doing right now. (That’s dreamy David Hallberg, as Prince Charming, and fabulous Gillian Murphy, as Cinderella in that pic above, by the way). This version, a recent one by Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, sets the action in the Roaring Twenties, the women donning wavy bobs, the men suits (that means no tights, for straight men who freak out over such things — more on that subject in a later post…), replete with Art Deco sets and very fun, colorful costumes. The dance style is not classical, but rather modernist, ballet, and, set in the Jazz Age, the movements have a swingy, jazzy, hip-jutting, flirty component that’s rather fun and sexy if you ask me. In the Ball scenes, the women slink around on point, walking like they’re on a catwalk. It looks ten times cooler than it would in high heels, and makes me wanna go out and buy a pair of toe shoes, just to walk like that! No, it’s not “classical” ballet, but it’s a lot of mad crazy fun — can ballet please be fun for once? Is there a rule that says it always has to be serious and that everything ABT does has to be “classical”?? Almost everything ABT does during its Met season is classical. I’m so happy they gave us Kudelka’s Cinderella, and Lar Lubovitch’s Othello for a change. Classical ballet is sublime and it must be preserved and its beauty shown to younger audiences, but there must also be a good amount of the new for ballet to maintain a fresh focus and have a future. ABT is “America’s National Ballet Company” and it should have something for everyone, younger and older. We don’t need more (classical) Frederick Ashton, as Macaulay wants; we need more James Kudelka for the younger generation!!! Okay, enough of that rampage, back to Cinderella.
Everyone knows the basic Cinderella story, so I don’t need to repeat it, but here, Kudelka has gone all out on the humor and kept the wickedness to a minimum. Cindy’s stepmom is a nutty, silly drunk; her stepsisters consist of a bespectacled dork who nevertheless seems to smack into everything in (her poor) sight and confuse the prince with his assistants, and a would-be vixen who’s far too much of a sweetly geeky screwball to actually be seductive. Since this is a ballet, the stepmom hires a dance instructor (danced gorgeously by my wonderful — and tall — Vitali!) to teach the stepdaughters and their equally looney paid escorts to the Ball, how to dance. Of course the sisters hilariously fall all over each other and their paid men. Macaulay finds these characters all unfunny. I couldn’t disagree more. The audience was laughing hysterically and the ballerinas who danced the sisters, who took curtain call bows in character, all got tremendous rounds of applause, so I think the audience was largely with me on this.
I love the way the pointe shoes are used: in contrast to the sisters who don the shoes throughout, in the beginning Cinderella dances barefoot, echoing her life of poverty. Part of her Ball costume, as bestowed by the Fairy Godmother, consists of the beautiful toe slippers, one of which comes off during the mad midnight rush to get her back to her stepmom via her theatrical Pumpkin-mobile. (By the way, regarding all these fun props, etc., Apollinaire Scherr in her Newsday review likens Kudelka to film director Tim Burton. I LOVE that comparison! Please, Mr. McKenzie, spice things up more often at ABT; more ‘Tim Burton’!!!) Anyway, once Cindy gets home, she dances, one foot on pointe, the other flat — one foot in the land of fairy-tale, the other in that of her drab sad life. To me, it’s a perfect poetic illustration of the power of ballet to transport you to another world.
Okay, as for the dancers: Marcelo as P. Charming Marcelo’s like a movie star who somehow ended up on a ballet stage. He’s such a great actor, and he just has this face that says it all without even trying. When the dorky myopic stepsister puts on her glasses to see she has just been flirting with the wrong man and turns around to lay all her “charms” on Marcelo’s poor Prince, all he has to do is shift his facial muscles ever so slightly to widen his eyes and it’s the perfect understated reaction. You just can’t stop laughing. He’s like a Rupert Everett or a Hugh Grant or something; he doesn’t need to do much onstage; he’s a natural. I love the fact that he dances in NY, where I can see him up close several weeks per year, and would never ever want him to leave, but I do wonder if he could make that Baryshnikovian transition from stage to screen… And Julie Kent was beautiful. She dances so well with him; they’re such a perfect match. The pas de deux, which Apollinaire’s more advanced dance vocabulary can far better describe than I, were so sweet I wanted to cry.
(Above Marcelo headshot, as with all headshots, from ABT website)
(Marcelo and Julie on ABT Cinderella poster outside the Met)
David, on the other hand, is the quintessential ballet dancer. Just one look at him and you can tell he was born to dance ballet. He’s like a throwback to the great ballet men of yore. Marcelo is the consummate ‘leading man’; David the ‘danseur noble.’
(Above pic from The Winger. Just look at David with that shoe!!!)
And Gillian is such a spectacular ballerina, and, with her warmth and glow, so perfect as the fairy-tale heroine. Julie is a perfect partner — when I think of her I think of a beautiful, dreamy pas de deux; when I think of Gillian I think of crazy fast fouettes and pirouettes — she definitely brings to life the solo bravura parts of any choreography. People say Gillian is shy in real life — I can’t believe that! She seems so outgoing onstage!
The others: Carmen Corella!
I absolutely LOVE her would-be-a sexpot-if-she-wasn’t-such-a-klutz stepsister. (She danced in the first, Marcelo / Julie cast.) I know a lot of people long to play the principal roles, but the ‘sidekick’ parts are crucial, the main roles in contrast can often be a bore. She really brings those parts to life and often makes the ballet with her crafty, unique, often hilarious interpretations of them. Kristi Boone, who played that character in the second cast, was good, but I just really think Carmen owns that role — she should dance it every night. Marian Butler was expectedly cute as the bespectacled dork sister, but Maria Riccetto surprised me with her raucous rendition as well. (I still miss Erica Cornejo, who owned that role last year before she left ABT for Boston!).
He did this absolutely scream-out-loud pelvic gyration while Carmen’s stepsister was trying to fit her fat foot into the tiny toe shoe. It went along perfectly with the beats of the music and it was so funny I’m sorry to say I giggled all throughout the beautiful (and very serious) ending pas de deux between Cindy and the Prince, just remembering Craig.
Adrienne Schulte made my night Tuesday as the hilariously drunken stepmom. She completely commanded my attention everytime she was onstage. She is a Carmen-to-be
Above is Adrienne taking her drunken bow. Below, a couple more pics of the Tuesday night’s (David and Gillian) cast during curtain call:
Above, is Maria Riccetto as dorky bespectacled sister.
I left out a bunch of fun stuff, like the wildly bouncing pumpkin men, the ever-amusing Twenties-style world-wide search for the girl who fits the shoe, including the bumpy “car ride,” the independent-woman Amelia Earhart who could give a crap about some prince and his toe shoe, and the photographer with his blindingly flashy camera and the vanity of the new media with all its ‘poseurs.’ It’s so much fun, and is playing now through Saturday night. Don’t listen to Macaulay! Go!
Okay, if you’re not a dance-industry person or just some crazy person like me who really really really cares about dance, please stop reading now (because this next section will bore the pants off of you). Just get a ticket and go see Cinderella. Hurry, you only have a couple of days left. Go here for tix.
Now for a few stray thoughts on dance criticism: Apollinaire Scherr has a very interesting post today about her thoughts on Alastair Macaulay’s reign as the New York Times chief dance critic thus far (he replaced outgoing chief John Rockwell earlier this year; go here for Apollinaire’s earlier (and very controversial!) writings on that). As the chief dance critic of the New York Times, she believes he has the most important role of all press people in the dance world. I both agree and disagree with that. I think the Times speaks to the audience that is most likely to go to a ballet performance, and so, I think whoever has an article in that newspaper is going to have a lot of power. I think it’s we people in the dance world – the writers, the dance-makers, the administrators, the dancers, the fans — who pay attention to bylines; I think the average newspaper or magazine reader has no idea who wrote what article; they just remember the writing and opinion expressed within as “the Times article,” as in “The Times said, this,” or “The Times thought that,” about a performance.
That said, while I often disagree, yet sometimes agree, with Macaulay’s interpretation of or opinion on something, I appreciate that it’s there. BUT, I think it’s ESSENTIAL that other voices abound and are heard. Apollinaire (I’m sorry, I tend to call dancers and writers who I “know” –either personally or through their stage presence — by their first names! — it’s a sign of familiarity not disrespect, but I’ll try to remember to call people by last names!!) — anyway, Ms. Scherr made a reference to Macaulay not being that much of an “old fart” like some of his predecessors (ie: Rockwell, who I thought had some good ideas toward the end of his tenure which I’ll get to in a minute). I kind of disagree with her on that. I think some of the views he’s expressed have been that of an older generation, and, in particular, an older male generation, such as his piece on the retiring ballerinas, in which he made some kind of reference (sorry the permalink to the article has expired or I’d link to it) to ballerinas as being the most important part of ballet. As a younger woman, I, like several younger women I know, go to see the men, so that does not ring true with us. For example, it was lamented recently by one such younger woman that ABT’s 2007 calendar contained ballerinas. And, a look at some of the posts on the Winger message board, for example, replete with pics of Hallberg posing for a catalog in a dance belt, and you can see who is going to the ballet and for what reason. Anyway, I felt completely alienated from that review of Macaulay. BUT, I am also glad to have read a review with an alternate opinion from my own and, now I know why ballet is so important to an older generation, and particularly a male one. And I can use it to fight with my straight male friends who insist that no straight men ever go to the ballet unless they have homosexual tendencies (but more about that later…) Also, this Cinderella review, I felt, came from an older perspective — one that wanted all the classics back and was not open to the new.
I’m relatively new to dance, but I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of real anger and animosity and even rather crazy intense hatred in the dance world between writers / media and fans and media and administrators and dancers, sometimes even between media people. There seems to be more fighting in the dance world even than amongst lawyers
I don’t know if this is normal in the arts, but I recently attended two panel discussions that really floored me. The first was The Nothing Festival, which I blogged about earlier, and which was organized by choreographer Tere O’Connor and was supposed to deal with the creative process and the process of grant application writing. Instead, it very quickly devolved into a discussion, all choreographers both on the panel and in the audience in agreement, of how much the press basically sucks — how horrible the writers are, how they don’t know what to look for in a dance performance, how dance is totally devalued in the Times and on TV, how there are no good dance critics like (film critic) Pauline Kael, how dance criticism is awful compared to other arts criticism, etc. etc. etc. It was really actually very interesting for me as a newcomer to the dance scene, and I’m very glad I attended, and, toward the end of the four hours, we were actually beginning to get somewhere productive, but then it ended.
I then attended a panel discussion at NYCB with the main R+J dancers (Hyltin, deLuz, and R. Fairchild) right after the opening of Martins’ Romeo + Juliet. One of the first questions the moderator posed to the dancers was, “how did you deal with all of that criticism?” Mumbles of annoyance abounded in the audience. “Oh, it’s very hard; I don’t look at reviews anymore until after the run is over,” Hyltin said, a very upset tone in her voice. “One very nasty review really affected my performance one time,” she said, dejected. DeLuz, older and more experienced, was more cynical: “I gave up paying attention,” he laughed with a shrug. “They’re gonna say what they’re gonna say — they know beforehand, before they even see it.” A woman audience member then raised her hand: “Oh I just got so mad at that one critic; I just wanted to wring her neck… I just … well … I should have written in,” said, shaking her fist in the air. “Yes, you should have,” the audience practically said in unison. And just on my blog and on Philip’s blog, some of the comments we get, there’s so much anger at the dance writers.
All of that anger upsets me because, after being forced to take a break from dancing myself and now turning to blog about these dance performances that I see, I can say, of all the things I’ve done: law school, heinous bar exam, writing a novel and actually getting an agent to represent me, learning to dance as an adult — writing meaningfully, forget beautifully just meaningfully (!) about dance, about something so visual and so amazingly beautiful and so compelling, is just about the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. So, it greatly bothers me that dance people have so little respect for the incredibly difficult (and often very underpaid) work that dance writers do.
But what really confused me was why, why all the anger. I regularly attend book readings (where authors read from their work), independent film festivals (where the filmmakers are on hand to discuss their film), art openings (ditto for the artist), and I’ve never heard anyone ask, “how on earth do you deal with all the criticism?” And it’s not like criticism doesn’t abound in those fields — particularly film and book reviews. I think it’s at least partly due to the fact that there are so few writers, so few voices, which make those few existing voices incredibly important to the success of the production, or the reputation of the dancer. Scherr also criticised Macaulay for his sometimes sarcastic tone, in particular with respect to Irina Dvorovenko, and how damaging it can be to a dancer. I agree. Sarcasm in reviews is nothing new though — Gia Kourlas and Robert Gottlieb have done the same, as have Pauline Kael and, one of my overall favorite critics, Anthony Lane, whose reviews I often find to be works of art in themselves. And sarcasm is oftentimes very funny and it works well to make a point. But, I think that kind of thing just operates differently in film criticism — there must be tens of thousands of film critics all over the country. If a dance critic does the same thing, it could have a profound effect, since that one voice is often the only one that’s heard on a certain production or dancer. Tuesday night in the ladies room I overheard one woman to another: “How are you liking it?”
“Oh, I really like it?! I do!”
“I know, so do I?!”
“I can’t believe it, it got bad reviews, but it’s really actually good!”
People take these reviews very seriously.
I honestly got so upset over Macaulay’s Cinderella review, I’m embarrassed to say I nearly cried! I always get weird though at the end of the season; after all I’m not going to be able to see my favorites again for several months, and then only for a tiny three-week run at City Center. I guess I just worry that audiences aren’t going to see Cinderella because “The Times” didn’t like it, and then Kevin McKenzie’s not going to put it on again, and I really really really think that if ballet audiences are going to grow there needs to be more contemporary work performed, a combination of the classical with the modern, like McKenzie kind of did this season. I personally want to see them do more of it: more Mark Morris, and some Matthew Bourne and William Forsythe and Neuemier’s “Death in Venice,” etc., etc., but I well know I’m not going to get all that! Just some, though, would be nice, and the Kudelka is a huge start
I’m glad Macaulay’s given Gia Kourlas some good assignments (she got to write the Othello review and the Alessandra Ferri farewell review), and she kind of represents a different, younger-generation voice, so that’s good. But there’s still only one review of each thing, and so little space is given… And of course there are other papers and magazines but they often get overlooked by the general public, and then their review space is so limited too. And half the time, the reviews come at the END of the run (what was that Joan Acocella article on the two Romeo and Juliets doing in last week’s New Yorker; it’s been like 10 years since Martins’ R+J premiered now??) Dance critics and writers are hugely important, as they bring dance to the public with their insight, their vast knowledge, their poetic descriptions, their expressions of passion for their art, they create excitement for dance, they create dancer personalities with interviews and profiles. There needs to be more!
I also think sometimes dance critics are SO knowledgeable that they get bogged down in their own ken and forget who their audience is. As Scherr pointed out, in his review of Sleeping Beauty, Macaulay went on and on about the differences between McKenzie’s version of the ballet and the others, for example, the one the Royal Ballet puts on. I know it’s hard not to do this when there’s a brand new version that’s being shown and you have all these prior productions that you feel are superior, but what is the average ballet-goer supposed to do with a review like that? So, he thinks the Royal’s version is better; the Royal’s not performing in New York right now, so what am I supposed to do, buy a plane ticket and head to London, petition McKenzie to change versions for next year? Should I go see ABT or not — that’s all I want to know as a Times reader. Maybe this is completely contraditory, but I did like, however, his first couple of reviews, of the beginning of NYCB’s season and their Balanchine programs, particularly of Kyra Nichols’s performance compared to the others’. I’d blogged about it here. I thought those early reviews hinted at (and only hinted unfortunately, presumably because of space limitations) what made Kyra so great, what made Balanchine great, what perhaps could be missing from NYCB, from the other dancers, in terms of presenting Balanchine. Not that such reviews told the average reader whether or not to go to NYCB, but I guess it gave me a small sense of what to look for in Kyra, what to look for in Balanchine, how to look more closely at a Balanchine ballet and what to appreciate about it. And it got some people, for a short while, talking. So I guess good dance writing should also make people think, or compel them to look more closely, or give them a sense of what to look for, or just get people talking. His Beauty review didn’t do this, unless I don’t know the Times audience at all and everyone really does want to know which version is the best. How do you know who your audience is anyway?
Oh, and the thing I was going to say about Rockwell: I thought, “fuddy duddy” though he may have been, that he made a great suggestion toward the end of his tenure, and that was to rotate the productions during ABT’s Met season, as the opera does. I know one reason why newspapers and mags don’t give a lot of space to dance is because the runs of a certain performance are so short and a paper gets the review out and readers have about five minutes to get a ticket before the thing closes. I think getting rid of the block programming would give the media a chance to create buzz about something (through either positive or negative reviews) well before it closes. I realize this does nothing for the smaller companies who can only afford to have very short runs… It’s like dance isn’t that popular because there’s so little press and there’s so little press because dance is not popular… Ugh. Sorry for all the random, haphazardly expressed thoughts. Apollinaire just got me thinking!