So, if you haven’t heard, the New York dance world is all up in arms over NY Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s review of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. The full review, which is here, I think is generally pretty good. But then he begins his concluding paragraph with this:
“This didn’t feel, however, like an opening night. Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm. They’re among the few City Ballet principals that dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity.” (Ringer and Angle are pictured above, in that production. Photo by Paul Kolnik.)
Angry reactions have abounded: here are a couple on Huffington Post. In the second piece, Jennifer Edwards, quoting critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa (a friend of mine), notes that Ringer has had an eating disorder in the past and argues that this sentence was disrespectful, reckless, and irrelevant. Edwards also quotes an earlier reflection of Macaulay’s on his role as dance critic:
“My job is to be a professional aesthete with serious criteria; and I share my perceptions and my values with the reader as best I can.”
Edwards concludes by posing two questions:
“1. Do you read the Times dance reviews? Has this changed over time?
2. Do you feel reviews of this nature are of use to venues, arts organizations, audience members, aspiring young dancers, and artists?”
I wrote a little comment on HuffPo but thought I’d elaborate a bit here because I think it’s an interesting, and complicated, issue.
I definitely don’t think a dancer’s weight affects the quality of a performance unless the dancer really can’t dance. I’ve seen Ringer dance pretty recently and she is a tiny thing with no weight problem whatsoever. I didn’t see this performance but I’ve always thought she was technically a very good dancer with a lot of charisma, particularly in roles like the one Melissa Barak recently gave her where she can act as well as dance. And I think Jared Angle is one of the best male partners – if not THE best – City Ballet has. I think Macaulay just wanted to be snarky – that’s part of his critic’s voice. I think he thinks he’s being funny. Maybe snark and sarcasm in critical reviews are partly a British thing? I see a lot of it though in reviews these days.
I think Macaulay knows a lot about dance history and I get the most out of his reviews when he focuses on that – on the history of a production, how this compares to others’ or past productions, the history of the performers, the artists, etc. I generally like his Nutcracker review, most of which focuses on Balanchine’s unique take on Tchaikovsky. The serious parts of it are very illuminating and show why this production is important and thus why a reader of his review might want to go see it. So the snarky part about Ringer’s weight seems really out of place. I actually re-read the sentence and that directly following it a few times, thinking maybe he meant that Ringer and Angle were dizzy, dancing with childish abandon when they usually dance like adults. But, no, I think he has to mean that they were both plumper than usual – the same as everyone else’s interpretation.
In response to Edwards’s question 1 above: I do remember former chief critic John Rockwell making references to dancers’ bodies, albeit not with the same snarky voice. In particular I remember him likening Marcelo Gomes’s legs to “tree trunks,” which offended some dance-goers. But it also seemed that he really loved Gomes and he’d lauded his dancing in the same review. So then it didn’t seem like he was making a value judgment, just a description.
It is tricky, because it’s hard not to talk about bodies since they’re kind of inherent in this art form. I offended readers (mainly on Facebook) once in my review of Burn the Floor on Broadway by saying that the tiny Broadway stage looked way too crowded during the ensemble numbers with all of those dancers and the band sharing it. I said it looked particularly crowded when Maks Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff were the leads, as opposed to Pasha Kovalev and Anya Garnis, since the former two – Maks in particular – were so large. I didn’t at all mean it as a criticism of him, but of the staging (and I suggested they take the band off of the stage, like in Tharp’s Movin’ Out). And, everyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows that I often prefer larger dancers (Veronika Part, Marcelo, Roberto Bolle, Vaidotas Skimelis – come on!) But I was still attacked and even told if I didn’t remove it, those people would never read my blog again.
Also, sometimes a partnership just doesn’t work right when one dancer is too large for the other. Sometimes certain movement, certain styles look better on one dancer because of that dancer’s physique. I think those are valid criteria for judging the quality of a performance. But it can still get out of control – as in So You Think You Can Dance when the judges just start talking about the dancers’ bodies. How many times did they have to remark on Josh Allen’s butt? I always felt embarrassed for the whole show whenever that happened but everyone else seemed to think it was funny. But of course New York Times is not a corny TV show.
What is the purpose of a newspaper review anyway? To let your audience know from your educated perspective what is good and bad about a performance, and whether or not they should spend their money and go see it. I don’t really like Edwards’s second question because I don’t think the purpose of a review is to be of use to venues, artists, aspiring dancers, and arts organizations. The critic’s duty is to his readership – a general audience of potential dance-goers trying to decide whether to spend their money on a certain show. The critic has to be honest about what she thinks did and didn’t work in the show and why. And I also think for the presumably well-educated NY Times audience it’s nice when the critic goes into the history of a production, of a dance, the way Macaulay often does. But the critic can’t be protecting the artist from hurt and also serving his readership of potential dance-goers. Otherwise, he’s going to end up lying to someone.
Which gets back to the issue of whether a dancer’s weight gain or loss is a serious criterion in judging the quality of a performance. I think it’s ridiculous that someone would think it is, but what do you guys think? Why are we, as a culture, so hung up on weight anyway? People are always criticizing certain dancers for being too thin as well…