Does a Ballerina’s Weight Affect the Quality of a Performance?

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…

14 Comments

  1. Hey Tonya –

    Since I started working at The Post, I think more and more that the criterion of mentioning is reportage. If the reader needs to know about it, then you mention it. A major weight gain or loss is newsworthy the same way it would be with athletes; as part of their fitness. If it’s altered the look or execution of a performance enough to have an effect, then the reader ought to know.

    There’s also a way to report that without twisting the knife.

    See you on the battlefield!

    Leigh

  2. If weight needs to be reported on, I feel it can be done respectfully. “One sugar plum too many” is mean. Perhaps his opinion with better wording could be, “Ms. Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Mr. Angle, as the Cavalier, appear physically heavier in this production. Additionally, they’re among the few City Ballet principals that dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity here.”

    (Personally, I felt the burn on the “being an adult but not dancing like one” more that the “eating too many sugar plums”!)

  3. Tonya–I was so happy to see you comment on this article. I have slowly come around to appreciating much of what MaCaulay writes and to looking forward to his articles. It takes a true balletomane to jet around to four separate productions/performances of Jewels, for instance, and to find something different to say about each one.

    *I* thought that this with this article, MacCaulay was demonstrating Nutcracker fatigue–what with his jetting off to see so many productions, I thought *he* was the one who had eaten too many sugarplums (as an aside-has anyone had sugarplums? Sweets have definitely improved over the decades). I didn’t learn a thing. I thought it was ill-thought out, and hastily written. I didn’t learn much and was disappointed.

    More interesting would have been–contrasting the Balanchine’s “children’s” ballet to the “romance” ballets from Russia. That would have been historical and topical–especially considering Ratmansky’s new production on the horizon (which I will miss! damn damn!). And I thought the comments about weight were filler.

  4. Bernard Profitendieu

    When I read the article I never thought he was referring to weight, rather he was saying they were sluggish that night in their dancing as you would be if you’d eaten too much.

    He’s regularly complimentary about both of them and, especially, Angle.

    If you’re looking for something to get indignant about, you’ll can find it anywhere!

  5. Nope. He was discussing weight, which he makes clear in another article for the Times today. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/arts/dance/04ballet.html?ref=dance (Not sure if the link will work or not, but anyway . . . )

    I still maintain it was a hastily written article, without context or really without anything interesting. It added very little to my appreciation of what is going on at City Ballet this winter.

  6. Thank you, Marie, for linking to that! I hadn’t seen it – I think it may have been posted as I was writing this… Anyway, funny because, Erin, he addresses the same thing you did – about being more stung by the second comment about their dancing without adult complexity and depth. I would have been more stung by that part too, but I think if I were these dancers, what really would have angered me would be his tone, and the fact that it just seems like such a shallow criticism. I totally agree with what Leigh says – that if it affects the execution of a performance or altered a look then it’s newsworthy and should be reported. But that didn’t seem to be the case here. And Macaulay seems to say in the piece Marie linked to that that’s not his criterion; that ballet demands a certain focus on the body – lines, precision, etc. – that it’s hard not to focus on every little flaw even when the body’s not really in movement.

    I don’t know. To me, the things the dancer can do with his or her body are what’s important. Neither Gillian nor Misty at ABT have the typical “ballet body” and yet Gillian’s regarded as one of the best ballerinas in the world. Margot Fonteyn wasn’t that thin either… Certain bodies – long-limbed and thin – can make certain lines. But then other bodies – smaller and more compact, more muscular – can often move faster, jump higher. I was thinking of this at Alvin Ailey tonight. It’s what the dancer can do that’s important.

    Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful comments you guys! Marie, to be honest, I haven’t been reading much of the Nutcracker reviews. (Someone pointed me to this one because of the controversy). It’s not my favorite dance, and it seems like there are so many Nut reviews in the Times right now! They probably are all tired of that ballet. I do hope he writes something good and detailed (and historical!) for ABT’s because I think that will merit it.

  7. I don’t think that weight really affect performance either. However I do think that if you are too overweight in the dance world, it could hold you back.

  8. That reviewer was just mean and sounds a little too smug. Perhaps both dancers do need to rethink their current fitness levels, but I should have thought a Brit could have found a more polite way to say that .

  9. Tonya,
    I failed to mention that I’m also http://lavenroseramblings.blogspot.com
    Just reviewed your book, “Swallow,” which was fantastic!

    Deb/BookishDame

  10. Hi everyone (hi Tonya!) – I’ve been following this with much fascination, and I love that he has responded as well. I think there are more PC ways of saying what he’s saying, but I also think that the fact that he’s so un-PC is part of his appeal. People read his reviews for his honesty, and yes, snark. What else is going to get a non-dance lover to read his reviews? And he’s very good at it, with intelligence and wit, for better or for worse. Also, with all this negative widespread backlash, I will bet you that the NY Times dance section hasn’t received this many hits in a really long time.
    For me, weight is important if it really follows through with the intention of the choreographer, or whatever point is being made on stage. If sloppy lines break up a pristine picture that is presented onstage, let’s say, of a perfect world that ballets love to portray, an imperfect body, bent legs, sloppy landings, or a myriad of other less volatile/non-PC issues, may mar the perfection of the presentation. Like a thesis, all the supporting arguments should support the thesis for something to make sense. This is what ballet is to me, and I love that it’s an intellectual art, where all the different aspects of ballet fit together like pieces of a puzzle to an end that makes sense. I think there are better ways of saying what Sir Alastair did (he could have gone with the idea that they didn’t look like an opening night cast, although it’s hard to imagine Jared Angle anything but), but that’s me, and that’s one of the many reasons why I’m not writing for the NY Times. 😉 It’s too bad, because other than the razor sharp ending, I thought the rest of the review was fantastic. His analysis of the Balanchine Nutcracker really brought it to life for me, and I thought most of it was an excellent review.
    On another note, I’d like to say that some of my favorite ballerinas are not the thinnest girls onstage. My beloved San Francisco Ballet has quite a number in their roster, something that which artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been quite proud of, saying that a number of people have told him how they love how healthy his dancers look. Sometimes added weight gives power and gravity that can be so breathtaking onstage. More than their weight, a dancer’s ability to be versatile and convincing in a number of roles should be the most important skill to hone, rather than trying to lose pounds.

    • Hi Jolene! Thanks for commenting – good to hear from you again! Perfectly said, and I couldn’t agree more that a dancer’s weight is important in the context of a performance. Most of my favorite dancers – male and female – are usually the largest in terms of height, build and stature. I often find that the ballerinas I most like are some of the most muscular ones. I like the ones with the more powerful bodies; I prefer them to the thin wispy ones. I also think muscle can help a ballerina to lift and hold herself up. So, being really thin is not always conducive to easy lifting for the male dancers, especially if thin means weak. In my studio, the more muscular, stronger female dancers had the least problems with lifts.

      But I think weight is often more about aesthetics in ballet than it is about ability to do a certain move. Everyone has their own preference, I guess. And Macaulay’s entitled to his. Weight in and of itself is an interesting issue though because people do have their own preferences and many old time ballet goers are just so used to seeing the thin willowy women onstage. If they see something else they’re kind of stunned. And I think Sir Alastair is one of the old timers. But a lot of young people (particularly men) are turned off from the ballet because of what they see as emaciated female bodies. I hear that complaint a lot from non ballet-goers – that the women are flat-chested and sometimes are so thin they seem half-dead, and the men are all muscly and wearing these revealing costumes. You can’t please everyone… But I think there just needs to be multiple voices. This is what really sucks about there being only one or two newspapers that have dance sections anymore. There’s one loud and powerful voice that drowns out the others.

      I also think Sir Alastair was trying hard to be snarky, and the NY Times likes it because it leads to more readers. You’re totally right about that – I bet it did get the Times a huge number of hits!

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