Sir Alastair Speaks!

But he didn’t say much. And I should probably stop calling our new(ish) Chief Dance Critic ‘Sir Alastair’ and come up with a different nickname; he came across more as a jolly, down-to-earth commoner than a lord. Anyway Mr. Macaulay, along with dance writer and professor Mindy Aloff, addressed a crowd of mainly students, critics, and dance insiders last night at Barnard College. He spoke of: his move to New York (he’s still not completely moved into his new apartment and has no television, allowing him neatly to evade the question of the moment — what about all this dance stuff on tv?); what he misses about London (his garden, the West End’s plethora of Shakespeare plays); how he felt about becoming the NY Times’ chief dance critic (it was a welcome mid-life change, he and his audience at the Financial Times in London had grown a bit tired of each other, he was worried his appointment wouldn’t be well taken since he was from out of town — and rightly so, why should a critic not be homegrown?– people laughed at this, not sure why); his most trying life moments (serving jury duty and having to announce the verdict to a raucous courtroom, being charged with taking indecent pictures of minors after an officer saw him photographing frolicking children on a beach– don’t worry, it all worked out well as charges were eventually dropped); his dance training (ballroom, reading ballet technique books and sitting in on ballet classes); his favorite artists (Shakespeare and Mozart), etc. etc. — things on that level. It was nice to see his face and hear his voice, and it did make you realize he was human despite his sometimes harsh reviews, which was probably the point of the whole thing, but it was hardly the in-depth discussion of issues important to the dance world that I was hoping for.

During the Q & A, a student asked him if he felt that bad reviews played any part in declining dance audiences. He thought for a moment and answered that he didn’t know how much of an effect reviews really had on audiences. He thought his reviews had absolutely no effect on that of American Ballet Theater, as the Met Opera House was far from packed each week during the their summer season regardless of what he’d said in his most recent review. He also felt as a critic a certain degree of harshness was necessary, as it was the critic’s responsibility to “hav(e) a passionate subjective response” to a work. Wendy Perron, editor in chief of Dance Magazine, after noting that he’d largely written subjective reviews frequently inserting his own voice, asked if he’d ever taken a more objective tone. He responded that he wasn’t sure of the difference between subjective and objective with respect to criticism, but felt that his writing was a combination of the two. He viewed the objective part as describing what he saw, the subjective to tell why it mattered.

Eva sweetly asked him in her beautifully mellifluous voice whether he was going to explore the entire New York City dance scene and all the wonderful things it has to offer. He brightened considerably and said he’d just discovered “downtown” and had gone to a performance entitled something like “Accounting” and really liked it. He sounded authentic and it was actually rather cute. I don’t think he knows he got reemed for his review of that 🙂 Countercritic guy asked him something along the lines of whether he had to consider something beautiful in order to value it. I thought it was an interesting question and Macaulay did too, and even said so. “But I’m not sure how to answer it,” he replied. He said he liked it when a choreographer challenged his notion of beauty as Mark Morris has on occasion. Which I thought was a good answer. He mentioned other such choreographers, but I’ve forgotten who– I’d put my notebook away by then and was packing to go.

Hmm, what else do I have in that notebook?… He takes a few notes during performances but usually they don’t amount to much. He was first seriously impressed with the New York Times when he picked up a copy of the paper in London and saw a review of a classical dance performance on the front page. Such a thing would never have happened in a London paper, he said, as concert dance wasn’t considered “sexy.” He doesn’t regularly read others’ reviews of a piece because he doesn’t want them to influence his own, although his favorite critics are the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella (who has an “engaging” “shrewd” voice that, even if you disagree with, “you really want to spend time with”) and Wall Street Journal’s Robert Greskovic, who has a gift for detailed description (and is his good friend and sends him copies of his reviews). He said dance and music criticism were very challenging because the dialog one had with the piece was not a direct or natural one (as with a play) but forced the critic to translate from one language into another. I thought that was nicely stated.

That’s all. It was about an hour and twenty minutes altogether. It was okay, just wish the discussion would have gone deeper.

I came home and watched the video I’d taped of Dancing With the Stars. I’ll blog about it more tomorrow — am too tired now — but, very briefly: ridiculously, he hasn’t even danced yet and I am totally in love with Helio 😀 Does Marcelo have that same accent 🙂 🙂 😀 Am also in dancerly love with Mark Ballas 😀 How great were the perfs by those “girls” — Cheetah and Spice?! Whoa! And that opening pro number: you can’t say the ballroom dancing, despite Pasha and Anya, is better on So You Think You Can Dance! I wish there were more pro numbers like that! You can tell how different the demographic is for this show as compared with SYTYCD though — they have a lot of older contestants here. I thought Marie Osmond was a bit of a goof, but charming in her own way, and Jane Seymour was sweetheart 🙂 Could some ballroom insider please smack Chmerkovskiy for me for that self-description: “I’m known as the bad boy of the ballroom. But how can I be so bad when it feels so good?” 🙂 Okay, more tomorrow, I’m off to bed…


  1. Oh thanks for posting that picture! I always wondered what Macauly looked like and I alwyas imagined him to be so brooding—but he seems so normal!

  2. Hey Tanya-

    I posted my run-down on Counter Critic. My exact question to Macaulay was, “Does dance need to be beautiful, and if so, what does that look like to you?” He didn’t really answer either part, which was disappointing to me. Trust me, I spent like an hour formulating the question to be that specific.

    At any rate, I think it’s hilarious that the general response to his presence is generally something along the lines of…”He’s actually human.”

  3. Thanks Counter Critic! I knew I didn’t get the question completely right; I was packing up to leave at that point and had already put my pen and paper away so was trying to remember it. I thought it was a good question, especially since the rest of the conversation was so bland and general. Yeah, he didn’t really answer it. He probably didn’t know what to say on the spot but hopefully he’ll keep it in his head when writing future reviews.

    I actually wish the Times would be like some of the other papers (The Sun, Newsday) and allow comments on the articles. I realize most of them would probably not be all that well written and many would just be from disgruntled fans, but once in a while they might get a thought–provoking remark and I wish they’d open themselves up to that. Anyway, thanks for commenting and for linking to me!

    Ariel — I knew people would want to see his picture 🙂 That’s why I took it. I’m just sorry I had to turn off the flash; it came out a bit blurry…

  4. He’s much younger than I expected. David and I were just discussing what he must look like yesterday! Thanks for the pic 🙂

  5. Hi Matt! Yeah, he’s only 52!

  6. Very interesting read – you’re right he really doesn’t look like the “normal” scruffy critic!

  7. The blue skirt is VERY becoming 😉

  8. Tonya,

    Thanks for briefing us on that Macaulay presentation and also for giving us some idea of what he looks like (now I will be able to recognize him at the NY State Theater, Met and City Center when he is there for his reviews). I had wanted to make it to Barnard for that evening but I couldn’t pull it off. Sorry there was a lack of depth in the discussion and questions but that’s pretty much what usually happens in those kind of events.

    Hope you are going to see the New Ballets Program at the Miller Theatre this week and of course, Morphoses at City Center in October.

    Thank you too for your review of Dancing With The Stars – I missed it both last night and tonight but I’ll depend on you to let me know whether it’s worth catching up with in future weeks.

  9. This is so fascinating! Sir Alistair had a lot of cool things to say, although he seems a bit blase on his effect on the dance world. I think his reviews have more impact than he thinks it does.

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tonya! I was sitting on the right side of the room, near the middle. We’ll have to meet up at some other event in the near future! I posted my thoughts on the talk (finally!) over on the winger, on Justin’s dance analysis posting.

  11. Thanks you guys! Bob, it’s good to hear from you again, and I will post more on DWTS when I get some time! Thanks for being interested in my thoughts on that silly show — it’s hard to write about the actual dancing since it’s so all over the place and there don’t seem to be any real standards, but I still find the show fun to talk about just as a pop culture phenomenon.

    Evan, yeah you were on the opposite side of the lecture room from me. We will definitely have to meet up sometime! I’ll look for your comments on the Winger.

    Jolene, I’ve actually been thinking about that. I really do wonder about the effect of the reviews. I think the diehard ABT and NYCB fans will always go see those companies regardless of what any critics have to say. I know I do. With respect to those big companies, I think where the difference lies is in potential newcomers, who probably take those reviews more to heart than we do. For example, I’d love to know exactly what brought all those people to Martins’s R+J. The State Theater was really filled to capacity every single night for that and I think the entire run was practically sold out before opening night, before the first round of reviews even came out. I think it was probably more their inventive advertising and marketing strategies with all the posters and fliers and Kristin’s Tragic Love videos. But on the other hand, there were some early magazine and newspaper articles about the young dancers Martins used, etc. So, newspaper and magazine hype was created beforehand too. I think, as Counter Critic says, that the real difference that reviews make is in the smaller stuff. If a small company’s work gets trashed, or worse, gets no coverage at all, people are either not going to know about it or not want to spend money on it. I think in that department Gia Kourlas probably has more effect than Macaulay though, because I think most young people or people who are more likely to try a smaller, downtown performance tend to read Time Out. So her recs are probably key. They probably read the Times too though, since most arts-oriented people do… It’s an interesting issue!

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