In many fields, excellence can be measured. Tiger Woods is known as a great golfer because of his record of tournament wins. Warren Buffett is considered a great stock picker, because he’s made billions. A great ballet, however, isn’t quantifiable. A performing art like ballet is developed through the blood, sweat and tears of the rehearsal process. Dance critics have the responsibility to sift through the work, bemoan the uninspired, note the good and celebrate the great. As the world of critics and that of dancers intersect only on opposite sides of the footlights, the critical process can seem oblique and capricious to performers. Given that no two performances, much less ballets, are alike, how do critics determine what’s good?
Everyone’s A Critic
While there are no prerequisites to becoming a critic, beyond an interest in dance and the ability to communicate well, critics play a powerful role in the evolution of the art form. Their reviews are the first draft of dance history. (Over time opinions can change: Balanchine got negative reviews in the early years of New York City Ballet.)
Prior to the popularity of the internet, there were only a handful of full-time dance critics in the country, and their opinions were influential for dancers, choreographers and audiences. The internet has replaced the era of one expert voice exalting or condemning in newsprint with a cacophony of voices expressing approval or disapproval. And yet some reviews still carry more weight than others. “One would like to think that some experience and thinking about the arts or one particular art form, some context in which to place one’s judgments, means something,” says The New York Times dance critic John Rockwell. “Not everything, but something.”
It goes without saying that any one person’s evaluation of a dance is inherently subjective. “Having an opinion is not the same as making a sound assessment,” says Robert Greskovic, who covers dance for The Wall Street Journal in NYC. “Longevity in looking at ballet does not necessarily make the assessment of such long-timers reliable or worthy of discussion. Sensitive and canny viewers can be more perceptive and valuable observers than myopic, sometimes bitter, devotees who have been watching ballet for many years.”
Even seasoned reviewers can fall prey to the power of nostalgia. “The real problem is that a lot of dance critics—and I try to avoid this really carefully—are caught up in the memories of the dancers who were predominant when they were the same age as the dancers,” says Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal. “It’s never as good again, as the dancers keep getting younger and younger and you keep getting older and older. You’re tied up with memories of your own youth as much as anything else.”
Yet, even with these limitations, critics—along with the public—determine which works are considered masterpieces. “The consensus of posterity means something,” says Rockwell. “At this point, we can say, without too much fear of qualification, that [Balanchine’s] The Four Temperaments is a masterpiece. We say that because ever since it was premiered, people have loved it.”
What Constitutes A Masterpiece?
In evaluating a ballet, critics look at all the elements: dancing, choreography, music, lighting and costuming. “So-called masterpieces tend to be all-of-a-piece,” says Greskovic. “[It is possible to] admire and highly regard one element of a ballet production, but if the interrelated elements aren’t all in
harmony, [a reviewer] can single out one element or another as exemplary.”
Even with all elements in place, there still needs to be that ephemeral something that takes a work to the next level for it to be truly remarkable. “Take Serenade—the music is beautiful and the costumes are gorgeous and the choreography is musical and well-organized,” says Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman. “You can’t point to anything there that doesn’t work, and yet that’s not a formula.”
The key is knowing that there is no blueprint for creating a great ballet. “If it were reducible to a formula, we would have a lot more great ballets on our stages,” says Segal. But there also are no rules. Choreographers needn’t be limited by traditional definitions of who and what makes ballet. “Anything works if it works,” says Rockwell. “A great modern dancer—Twyla Tharp, for example—can make great ballets. And classically trained dancers can make really boring academic ballets. So let a thousand flowers bloom in terms of what is ‘permitted.’”
Separating The Dancer From The Dance
Onstage, ballet is an artistic union of the choreographer’s intent and the dancers’ performance. Because choreography has the potential to outlast the original performers (and vice versa), critics consider dancers and the dance separately and as a whole. Greatness of one or the other doesn’t predicate a lasting success: Skillful dancing can save a single performance but not a work for posterity, and choreography can enhance performers’ artistry without putting them in the history books. “A certain dancer’s quality or expertise can refocus, for better or worse, some element of the choreography,” says Greskovic. “An inspired dance is one that shows off its dancers fully and carefully.”
Great ballets can withstand cast changes. Rockwell cites a recent work that survived the test. “Everybody spontaneously independently loved the pas de deux of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. And even when [Sebastian] Marcovici came in to replace [Jock] Soto, people thought it was great.” And Kaufman notes that she’d see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform, no matter the choreography. “When Baryshnikov was going around with White Oak, probably 80 percent of what he performed was entirely forgettable but for the fact that he was the one doing it,” says Kaufman. “He’s somebody I would still see even if he was doing a country line dance.”
When Baryshnikov defected in 1974, his awesome technique and charisma captured audience’s attention and changed the face of ballet. The ability of a dancer or a choreographer to advance the art form is what Segal considers greatness. “Baryshnikov had that quality of convincing us that whatever he did, other people needed to learn how to do, because suddenly it was the cutting edge,” says Segal.
Throughout history, the ballets that have been considered masterpieces have propelled the art form forward. “Whether we’re talking about the Rose Adagio [in Sleeping Beauty], the 32 fouettés [in Swan Lake], what Baryshnikov did in [Twyla Tharp’s] Push Comes to Shove or [Nijinsky in] Le Spectre de la Rose, each of those ballets went into the history books because they released something in the leading dancer that we hadn’t seen before and realized would forever be part of ballet from then on,” says Segal. “It could also be an ensemble like Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering or Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading.
“How do you create a great ballet?” Segal continues. “Essentially you show us something that we haven’t seen before, and you show it to us in a way that we recognize it’s part of what we’ve been waiting for. That you’re fulfilling a need for something is the next step of the art form. The weird thing about some of this stuff is that it seems instantly familiar even at its most innovative. And we recognize it as maybe something that didn’t exist before but has now become indispensable.”
In Kaufman’s opinion, great ballet should have an intellectual as well as visceral impact. “Mark Morris’s V leaves you thinking about it and analyzing for some time afterward,” she says. “Every time you see it, you can further that analysis and build on it, like reading a great novel.” But while it’s certainly true that great art inspires the mind, must ballet be transformative and intellectually stimulating to be great? Is it enough for it to be, well, fun? Film critics can compartmentalize—admitting that Blazing Saddles doesn’t aspire to be Citizen Kane yet is great in its own right. Can the same be true in dance?
It’s on this point that audiences and critics often diverge. The Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards, set to the music of Prince, was critically panned but played to sold-out houses and standing ovations when it premiered in 1993. John Rockwell finds a similar case in the work of San Francisco choreographer Michael Smuin. “I don’t think his ballets are very good,” he says, “but they give a lot of people pleasure. There’s a certain showbiz pizzazz to his stuff that some people like.”
Yet entertainment is part of the theatrical experience, and Rockwell admits that an element of fun in and of itself isn’t cause to dismiss a performance, citing Ashton’s Tales of Beatrix Potter as a crowd favorite that also pleased critics and earned a lasting place in ballet repertory. Balanchine was quoted as saying: “Ballet is important and significant—yes. But first of all, it is a pleasure.”
For most critics as well as dancers, much of the pleasure is in the process. Just as a dancer practices a movement over and over, a critic writes and rewrites, trying to express clearly opinion and assessment. And just like dancers, critics run the risk of being misunderstood. “Dancing is not easy,” says Greskovic, “and neither is shaping written commentary about dances and dancing.”