Dissing of Kyle Abraham And Shallowness of Ballet World Is Marring My Pasha Excitement

Tonight is the fabulous Dance Times Square escapade to see Pasha et al in the So You Think You Can Dance spectacular. I am really excited about it — have no less than three cameras in my bag just in case of battery outage (though I charged everything anyway — just the neurotic in me) :) I do hope they let us backstage and to take pics; otherwise expect a copious write-up! Good: I was upset this morning after logging onto some of my regular dance websites, and am now feeling better just writing about tonight :) Thanks Pasha, and thanks blogging software :)

What I’m really upset about is how shallow the world of ballet seems to be. At the Fall For Dance festival a few days ago I saw a most profound, moving work performed by African American dance-maker Kyle Abraham. As I wrote earlier, to me the piece used a combination of ballet, modern dance and hip hop to explore racial and gender issues and evoke the struggle to break free of prejudices — both those held by others and sometimes subtly taken on yourself. I’m very upset about the complete dismissal and oversight of Abraham’s work by both the press and the blogosphere. NYTimes chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay says only of the work that it was show-offy and involved too much upper-body “archness.” (Macaulay also criticized Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” which I liked, but I’m not bothered by that because he actually gave it the time of day and analyzed it a teensy tiny bit; I’m far more disturbed by his complete dismissal of the meaning inherent in Abraham with no real analysis to speak of).

Similarly, Justin Peck of the Winger, a NY City Ballet dancer and Columbia University student wrote a little review of the night, perhaps for his class on dance criticism, and in his review of Abraham, he simply names the different dance forms used, then dismisses the piece as lacking “structure” (without further analysis). Neither reviewer seemed even to notice the racial or gender implications of the work. How anyone could fail to hear the loud gunshots and ambulance / police sirens going off at the beginning of the piece is completely beyond me, but I guess I’m a criminal appeals attorney who’s represented poor minorities for the past several years, so such noises may be more resonant to me. (By the way, a bit off topic but important: I think all attorneys should at some point in their careers represent someone whose life is starkly different from their own — even if it’s just pro bono — it expands your universe exponentially).

Then yesterday on The Winger, smart ABT dancer David Hallberg, posted this video of choreography by Mats Ek, whose work he was moved by at the Fall For Dance performance he saw. I thought it was a beautiful, moving portrait of a woman’s sorrow at losing her husband. Others, however, couldn’t see any sorrow, any story, but only focused on dancer Sylvie Guillem’s beautiful feet. Yes, Guillem has great feet. But is an attractive body part what really draws people to this art form? Is that what ballet is all about? Prettiness? Is it not about meaning, about moving people by telling them a compelling story, about making people think? Is ballet really that unintellectual? I have two advanced degrees. If you don’t at least try to stimulate my brain cells with your so-called art, I’m perfectly happy to return to favorite novelists who actually explore the human condition.

The problem isn’t just ballet fans though. I feel sometimes that those entrusted with stimulating public discourse are not even trying. (Here I’m primarily speaking of critics who write for the NYTimes, which I admit, is the only paper I regularly read due to both time and money constraints). Claudia LaRocco’s review of the final night of FFD read something like this: this whole festival is stupid, so it goes without saying that everything I saw that night was stupid. The first piece, in addition to being stupid was ethnically insulting in its “cliched” use of Indian dance to characterize London business culture (no further analysis as to exactly what it was about that piece — a huge crowd-pleaser that I found very intriguing — was cliched); the second piece (a brief excerpt of Camille A. Brown’s evocation of a woman trying to find herself) was bad because Brown moved too fast; the third piece was worthless because it was just there (no further analysis); the fourth piece comes from a choreographer (Jorma Elo) whose work always sucks; and the last piece was bad because it was “pleasurable only at a kinesthetic level and only at times.”

The critic character in Laura Jacobs’s novel, “Women About Town,” which I’ve quoted from before, views her work as deciphering for the public just what it is that makes a performance work or not, and unlocking and illuminating the hidden meaning of a piece (“there’s always a key,” she says at one point, though I’ve returned the book to the library so may be getting the exact quote wrong). I just don’t see any of that going on in the world of dance.

Tellingly, LaRocco begins her review by asserting that these days there is such a plethora of crap the best a critic can hope for is “competence.” These critics are coming from a place of anger, not of analysis. Countercritic led me to this article bemoaning how bloggers are displacing professional critics, which, the author argues, is tragic given critics’ historic role in leading the audience to understand and appreciate something in which they couldn’t previously find value (ie: Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”). Okay, I understand that. But can someone please tell me when was the last time a dance critic illuminated a work of cultural value that was dismissed by the general public instead of the other way around?

I can’t even begin to describe what that auditorium sounded like after the presentation of Elo’s work (the ‘always sucky’ choreographer). His “Brake the Eyes” which I wrote about earlier, was so stunning, so brimming over with meaning, the audience was buzzing with discussion after the china doll / puppet ballerina snapped her fingers and the lights flicked off. “Was she controlled by the others or was it the other way around?” “That combination of music was so interesting!” “What was that cool music besides the Mozart, it doesn’t say in the Playbill.” “What was she saying in Russian?” were some of the questions I overheard. People are starved for analysis. Some of these people (especially the young and internet savvy) are going to come home and Google “Jorma Elo” or “Brake the Eyes,” and what are they going to find? Certainly not analysis. How can the public find meaning in concert dance, see it as anything other than the movement of attractive body parts if the writers aren’t trying to lead them the right direction?

Of course I know newspaper writers are under very strict word count limitations, making it impossible for them to delve very fully into their subject. But in the age of the internet, can’t at least the web articles be longer? Also writer Paul Parish has an interesting analysis of the newspaper problem (go to the very bottom of this post — scroll all the way down to where the bold reads “Paul to Tonya et al” and then to the paragraph that starts “I still think…” Foot in Mouth posts tend to be delectably gargantuan!!!). I don’t entirely understand what Paul is saying, but it sounds intriguing!

Anyway, the closer it gets to 4 pm (when the magic DTS bus departs for SYTYCD land), the better I am feeling. Hopefully I should have a good dance night: there won’t be any ballet there, after all :(

16 Comments

  1. “Hopefully I should have a good dance night: there won’t be any ballet there, after all”

    Unless you count this:
    Danny Tidwell>> Ballet>> Former ABT Member>> ABT>> Bad Reviews>> Atlantic City SYTYCD Review>> ok, im stuck. But I just made up a vicious circle for you 😉

    Selly

  2. Hi Selly! Oh, I know, I plan not to read ANY reviews of this! Of course I’m sure I’ll see a headline and won’t be able to resist…

  3. Hi Tonya. I recently came across your blog through the winger but I’ve kind of just been peeking around until now.

    While I agree with a lot of what you say, it seems slightly contradictory to me that in your more recent posts you talk a lot about how the work needs to mean something, but then you focus so much on the individual dancers. Your obsession with people like Marcelo Gomes (and let’s admit….he’s rather swoon worthy) or more recently Ethan (who I still watch in Cneter Stage frequently) override almost every other aspect to an alarming degree. Does this not seem a little contradictory to you?

  4. Tonya, I truly hope you enjoy yourself this evening because it sounds like you could really so with a hug or two right now!
    Please don’t give up on ballet. Ballet is a beautiful, moving and profound art form that can – when well perfomed and with good choreography – reflect the human condition. Swan Lake, Concerto Barocco, Les Sylphides – they are masterpieces and our world is richer for having these works in it. That said, ballet is performed with the human body and it exalts a particular body type. So does every other type of dance – some dance forms are more inclusive in the body types they exalt, some are more exclusive, some dance forms are more sexually overt, some are less. Anything is valid as long as it does not diminish the performer as a human being.
    Notwithstanding, tonya, you do have an internal conflict. On the one hand, you want the ballet world to be more intellectual. On the other hand, your self-prescribed medicine is the So You Think You Can Dance spectactular?!
    Apologies for the rambling, but I enjoy your writing too much not to comment.
    P.S. Please consider posting on Ballet Talk. You won’t agree with everybody there (and many won’t agree with you), but the discussions are lively, thoughful and incredibly knowledgable.

  5. i have two words for you. I know i’ve mentioned them before, but here they are again:

    arlene. croce.

    she is anthologized. there’s even an arlene croce reader. get her out of the library. you will not be sorry.

  6. Thanks for the comments, you guys. Cindy, I’m not completely sure how my enthusiasm for a certain dancer contradicts my wanting critics to try to find meaning in a work before outright dismissing it (to the extend LaRocco was doing that, and now I feel like I went overboard with my critique of her review!), but, well I’ll just say that I kind of write my blog in a persona, mainly in order to interest people more in ballet; that’s probably what you’re picking up on with the Marcelo stuff — so what you find alarming is really my way of showing enthusiasm and attempting to get others to do the same (ie: ballet is not something really ‘abstract’ and ‘elitist’ as some may think, there are really cool and normal-ish people like Marcelo in that world too, etc.); the Ethan post was mainly tongue in cheek. Also when I review Marcelo’s performances, I try to focus on his dramatic abilities (as I do with most of the dancers in the story ballets), which is the dancer’s way of conveying meaning, which is what I’m saying is either lacking or no one’s bothering to try to figure out in the more ‘abstract’ ballets.

    GWTW, thanks :) I know they are all masterpieces! But actually regarding SYTYCD, that’s the thing: no, I don’t believe going to see SYTYCD is contradictory to what I said above. For one thing, one of my good friends is in it, but for another, that show is just plain fun. I don’t expect there to be deep meaning there, I just expect to be entertained and have fun. What upsets me is when ballet people stick up their noses at those of us who like ballroom dancing and the other kinds of dance that’s on that show (which has mainly happened just in this past season and I think largely because Danny Tidwell’s been on), saying we’re all a bunch of idiots for liking something so inferior to “high art” and then it seems like all everyone is seeing in ballet is beautiful bodies anyway, or structure and other things that don’t really get at the meaning of the art, which to me is the important part. I will check out Ballet Talk though! And thank you for the nice compliment about my writing :)

    e, thanks, I keep forgetting about her!

  7. Hi Tonya! Yet another interesting entry – I agreed with a lot of what you said and completely understand your frustration. I guess it also plays on the stereotype that dancers and people interested in dance aren’t as “intellectual” – I wasn’t aware of this stereotype until you brought it up on my blog and I read a classical pianist’s (albeit hilarious) play on “romeo and juliet” (“romeo and juilliard”) where he introduces the ballet dancer, “Candy, a ballerina of slender build and slenderer intellect;” ( http://jeremydenk.net/blog/2007/09/21/i-hope-they-dont-take-away-my-alumni-card/ ) . I wasn’t aware of this stereotype, and IS really hard to hear it as well for me, having graduated from a top university and currently getting two post graduate degrees.

    But in another sense, I think it’s that certain pieces can resonate more with one person than another, and in different ways. I took a dance, gender, and history class as an undergrad, and we studied the “gendered” view of old ballets such as La Sylphide. And I remember a student asked the professor, How can we as an educated audience, still appreciate such misogynistic ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle, that are still playing in a lot of theaters today? And her answer was, it isn’t savory to view these ballets in the gendered way, but there are lots of OTHER ways to view it. You can view it as, “the lead dancer’s port de bras are so pretty or Sylvie Guillem’s foot is really pretty”, or you can talk about how this dance is making a political statement about gender or war. I love pieces like the latter, watching pieces that make me think and ponder its multiple layers – I think this is why I love Sondheim so much (my favorite musicals include his Sweeney Todd and Company), but as I’m sure you can, I appreciate the beauty of Angel’s jumps or David’s lines.

    I have no idea if this makes sense, but thanks for the interesting entry.

  8. Hi Jolene! Yeah, I was really introduced to that stereotype recently at Jacob’s Pillow during one of the readings. The moderator asked Carolyn Brown (whose recent book is a memoir about her work with Merce Cunningham) and the moderator asked her if it was hard to write since there’s this understanding that dance is so “unintellectual” — but she didn’t say it in a bad way; it was more like dance is inherently visual, more akin to paintings than a book or play, I guess. So since dancers don’t think in words, she assumed it would be hard for them to convey thought in words. Brown didn’t really know how to answer! But I still think dance can be intellectual in the sense that we can talk about it, and discuss its meanings and implications. People do that with art after all — just look at some of the art criticism in Time Out or the Times or anywhere; it’s pretty good, gives the reader a sense of what the exhibit is about, what it’s trying to do, and how well it succeeds or fails at that aim. I guess what I’m trying to say is that with so much that I read on dance, it seems like the writing just doesn’t say much of anything — it doesn’t tell me what was there, doesn’t shed any light on what I just saw, doesn’t give me any specific interpretation that I can chew over — it just basically snidely says it was bad. And then even a lot of balletomanes just want to focus on the dancers and their bodies; and there’s definitely a place for that like you said! But what happens then when someone like Kyle Abraham or Jorma Elo comes along where their work really means something — you can’t really focus on the dancers doing beautiful things with their beautiful bodies because that particular piece is not about that; it’s about something else, but no one either wants to or knows how to discuss the meaning. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say!

    Anyway, thanks for your nice compliment :) Sometimes I’m just excited about a particular dancer and the way they move me, but sometimes I try to think more as well :) That class you took sounds fascinating — I wish I would have taken dance / theory / history classes like that when I was in college.

  9. Tonya, you confuse me to no end…while sometimes I understand your inflection through your writing, I feel like the tongue in cheek manor that you refer to is completely lost and comes across as a scary obsessive fan. I’m all for cheering on the men of the ballet world, but seriously, in moderation. The use of emoticons (which I’m so not a fan of because I feel like they are a cop out for expressing yourself properly through words) most of the time has the alternate effect. I don’t know where you feel like you are taking the dance world with your opinions. Being the said avid reader that you are, do you have the same fascinations with authors you respect?

  10. Cindy, all I can say is you have your opinions, I have mine. If my blog upsets and offends you so much, then please stop reading it.

  11. Hmm… The “critic” problem is a very real one, and I’ve been stuck there myself (back when i used to write music reviews). Tight word counts and even tighter deadlines can have a negative effect on reviewers, but…. Well, I miss Arlene Croce. But I think what’s happening with the NYT reviews is (at least partly) a result of overall editorial policy changes over the past 7 years or more. I doubt someone as articulate and ruminative as Croce would be able to land a job at the NYT today.

    When I was reviewing, i often wondered why there was such disparity between what I heard and what other writers heard on the same CDs. Often it seemed like we were listening to completely different albums, and not in a good way, either…

  12. Oh, one more thing: there IS a lot of insensitivity (and just plain ignorance!) re. works made by people from ethnic (and other) minorities, and far too much dismissiveness [sp??] in the press – a lot of “Ho hum, another one of those pieces by someone who’s [insert adjective].” I used to post on a film board where some relatively well-known critics were constantly making uninformed – and outrightly ignorant – statements about films that were either made by and/or about characters from all kinds of minority groups (African American, South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Iranian… the list is very long). I find that truly appalling and can’t post there anymore because these people are so blatant – and flippant – in their disregard for anything that’s not from their particular universe(s).

    And for those same people to complain about bloggers strikes me as hilariously ironic.

  13. Thanks for your thoughts, e2c — I didn’t know you used to be a music critic! Yeah, it does seem to be an editorial thing at NYTimes because I’ve noticed all of the reviewers seem to have the same basic format — nothing goes very deep, there’s just a bit of description and then some very general, vague words about whether it’s a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” with minimal reasoning — like you get one or two words to describe why it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and nothing more. And they all seem to write that way. I think that’s why (Winger) Justin’s ‘review’ made me so upset. I realize obviously he’s not a professional critic and it’s unfair to criticize him as if he were, but I felt like he wrote that review for a class where he was being taught to write in a certain way that bothered me, so felt like I had voice my opinion!

    The social relevance / racial / ethnic issues and how they’re dealt with or not is also so intriguing to me. It just seems like some critics think art is something that should transcend the social realm, so you can’t even talk about it on that level. But I think that’s so problematic — I think that mentality comes from a certain position of power in society. Macaulay, when he reviewed Accounting For Customs, basically said we don’t need to talk about race, the work stands on its own for the brilliant use of the steps of the Customs House; it looked to him like Ziegfield Follies or something like that. And he got ripped by Eva Yaa Asantewaa and Apollinaire Scherr for that refusal to view it on the artists’ own terms. The artists had said in their mission statement that the piece dealt with the African diaspora and the process of acculturation into another land and culture, etc. (the reason why it was performed where it was). So he wouldn’t even critique the artists’ ability to achieve what they set out to do. Eva in particular pointed out that, with his insistence on not viewing the work as having anything to do with what the artists said it had to do with, he completely missed certain things, like how the way that the bodies rolled UP the stairs instead of down (which was amazing) showed resistance, etc. If you outright refuse to look at a piece of art in a certain way, even the way the artist is trying to get you to look at it, you miss all kinds of things that may have really expanded your knowledge or made you think. And if you’re a critic then you’re passing that lack of insight onto your readers.

  14. Tonya – Macaulay sounds lazy to me! (I’m not kidding.) That kind of attitude is what made me move away from the film board I mentioned earlier – people would either ignore the obvious or else criticize the directors and scriptwriters for making any statements on social issues – just plain wrongheaded and prejudiced, in my view.

    As for my having been a “critic,” eh – I called myself a “reviewer” and feel that that is a far more accurate description of what I did, and of what most “critics” do. I didn’t need some sort of exalted social status vis-a-vis using the “critic” label…and I’ve seen people get away with some awfully appalling statements simply because they were (or still are) “critics.”

    For me, it was hard partly because I’m a musician. That became too fine a line for me to walk comfortably, especially knowing that no matter how bad something is, the people involved have spent time, money and effort in getting it recorded and putting it out. So it made it harder for me to slam releases outright, which was a good thing. OTOH, I did find that writing negative reviews was far easier than finding the right words to commend something/someone. (Sad but true.) Sometimes I feel as if some people write negative reviews because they believe (or someone believes!) that they should. I’ve taken to avoiding reviews (especially book reviews with plot summaries) if I’m planning to actually read the book(s) in question, and that’s working for me. (Very refreshing to not be thinking about someone else’s impression while forming my own.)

    At any rate, I’m all for bloggers who can write and critique well. Suddenly the world of commentary on the arts is no longer closed off, and I think that’s a good thing.

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