Confessions of a Dance Critic
Since being named chief dance critic of The New York Times more than four years ago, Alastair Macaulay has become one of the most talked-about people in dance. His reviews, whether passionate or critical, generate instant buzz. Before his move to New York, Macaulay was chief theater critic for London’s Financial Times, and covered dance for a variety of publications. Last winter, after writing that New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many” in The Nutcracker, he set off an international firestorm. Ringer is a beloved ballerina; weight is a volatile subject in ballet. Before it was over, Ringer had given a gracious interview on The Today Show, saying that Macaulay was entitled to his opinion, and the controversy had been featured in news coverage on three continents.
When what one British writer dubbed “the ballet wars” had subsided, Pointe decided to find out more about the critic who is reshaping the dialogue on ballet. This fall, Pointe editorial advisor Kate Lydon took Macaulay to lunch near Lincoln Center to find out what he sees as a critic’s role. Macaulay agreed to answer Pointe’s questions via a follow up e-mail. An edited version appears in our December 2011/January 2012 issue, and below are his unabridged answers.
What is your main objective when writing a review for The New York Times?
A review has several layers, doesn’t it? The first aim, especially in a newspaper, is simply to provide a report of what happened. And yet in dance that’s never simple, because describing dance, whether for the layman or the specialist reader, is among the toughest tasks in journalism. I spent seventeen years (1990-2007) as a London theatre critic: I loved it, but I used to laugh when my colleagues said that this or that play was going to be hard to review—I’d always tell them, “You have no idea! Any dance performance is harder to describe than this.”
But meanwhile a review also involves analysis, contextualization, interpretation, emotion, evaluation. Criticism of the arts is usually the first stage of artistic history—the stage in which a work of art begins to fall into some wider context. The first motto I gave myself as a young critic was “Go for the larger issue.” There’s no single method of writing a review: I’m always trying to show the different ways in which dance can have an effect on us. Some people fight sky of interpretation or emotion or (in particular) evaluation; I tend to plunge right in.
And there’s another layer: writing itself. A critic is there, in a large sense, to entertain—to put on some kind of performance in print (though not to make himself the center of the entertainment). He’s not writing some methodical or official examiner’s assessment—he’s there to write something that’s happily, sensuously engrossing as prose and as thought. Humor helps. If your readers can laugh at what you’re saying, they find unconsciously that they and you share at least some of the same values.
What do you see as the role of a dance critic?
A director-writer in London once greeted a critic I know and said, “I see you were wrong about that play last week.” My critic friend said, “My job isn’t to be right, it’s to be interesting.” “Ah, I see,” said the director-writer, “A failure on both counts!” The critic laughed and laughed—he often told that story.
A dance critic tries to reconcile head and heart. In the first place, he shows that dance prompts both real emotion and serious thought. In the second place, he brings feeling and analysis together. The word “critic” is linked with the word “criteria;” and a critic is there to show that our reactions to dance aren’t just accidents of personal taste but are connected to criteria—to values we have in other arts and in civilized life. That’s why I think evaluation matters: You’re applying your values.
Dance forms have their own intrinsic criteria. Is the foot pointed or not? Was the double pirouette complete or flubbed? Was the phrasing musical?—and many more such points. But there are extrinsic criteria, too. There was a Dance Critics’ Association conference in 1990 at which Joan Acocella and I got labeled “the truth-and-beauty brigade.” That’s OK by me!
Did you ever imagine that your comment about Jennifer Ringer having “eaten one sugar plum too many” would cause such a stir?
Since the remarks were tucked into the fourteenth paragraph of the review, no! One colleague emailed me to say he thought my review was very delicate and restrained. He didn’t even notice the “one sugar plum too many” remark, because he actually wanted me to be much more severe on those two dancers—though he changed his tune when he realized what a storm that review caused.
Here’s what happened. The grand pas de deux ended that night and a voice near me in the orchestra said, “God, they're fat!” Afterwards my companion and I discussed whether this was fair. She felt yes. I felt that Ringer was only a fraction overweight: hence “looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.” Only one. How big is a sugar plum? Jared Angle had put on a lot of weight between hip and thigh, which is why my remark about him was more emphatic: “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” Yet the brouhaha was about Ringer. I think that was deeply sexist; it tells us plenty about our culture.
I’ve written positive reviews about both on other occasions, especially Angle. Curiously, though I’ve mentioned men’s weight a number of times over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever remarked on a woman’s weight before. Retrospectively I did about Lynn Seymour, but her main career at Covent Garden ended the year I became a critic. She was, as I’ve often remarked, one of the most important dancers of my entire experience; but her weight, especially in a tutu, was something you couldn’t avoid discussing.
For the five weeks after that Nutcracker review, the responses came in like a deluge. I didn’t read websites or blogs or Twitter about it; I avoided newspapers and TV accounts; but even so I heard plenty. An old boyfriend of mine emailed me to say he was having a quiet evening at home in Sydney, Australia, when suddenly my face came up on prime-time Sydney TV news. An old ballet chum wrote from Paris to say she’d read about in Le Figaro. Apparently it became a double-page spread in some British newspaper—so lots of old friends informed me.
Is there anything out of bounds in criticism?
Well, sustained irrelevance doesn’t help matters, does it? Neither does serious inaccuracy, or drugs, drunkenness or falling fast asleep. And I’m not fond of critics who throw their weight around, who behave as if nothing is so interesting about dance (or any other art) as the sound of their own voice going on about it, or as if they have to show off just how much experience they have.
Then there is professional misconduct: I know of critics who have reviewed whole ballets when in fact they chose to leave before the final act. If you leave during the performance, have the courage to say so; or just don’t file a review. Almost as irritating are the critics who, in listings or critic’s choices, urge their readers to see shows they themselves can’t be bothered to see. And those who claim to have seen performances in the past they haven’t.
Then there are various kinds of corruption: the critic who has been briefed how to react to a performance before it happens, the critic who takes sides as a matter of playing power politics, the critic who would rather stick by his allegiances and his offstage friendships than be honest about what he saw, the critic who intends to dine the leading dancer or the choreographer soon after the show and so writes a review that won’t spoil dinner. I’ve observed all these: They’re sins that are all too easily committed.
The critical sin I think about most is insincerity. Perhaps we can all be guilty of it, though? For example, there’s a dancer you just don’t enjoy. But then you read that a choreographer you greatly admire says that this dancer inspires him above all others. Then maybe after a while you find yourself adjusting your opinion about this dancer. Eventually you forget that you had reservations about her in the first place. I’ve seen that happen in others, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve done it myself. As a rule, though, I’m obsessed about being sincere and about remembering my changes of opinion.
Obviously some people felt that I went beyond the pale with the “one sugar plum too many.” They want to believe that a woman’s body may not be criticized. I don’t accept that for a moment. The whole nature of ballet demonstrates that bodies are there on view to be discussed.
I certainly think I once went too far—in a review more than thirty years ago, which almost nobody noticed—in writing of a dancer in a way that seemed not just to point out what was wrong with his dancing but to wish him harm. I honestly don’t even remember the wording now. But the moment it was published, I knew that I should never have written it. Scarcely anyone even remarked on it—I remember one particularly positive reaction—but it stays uncomfortably in my memory.
Since then, I’m sure I’ve been on the cusp a few times. There are times when perhaps I hurled a 20-pound bomb at something that deserved lighter treatment. I go over some of these in my conscience, but even in retrospect it’s never easy to decide what’s proportionate.
What do you like about ballet? And what do you dislike about it, or about the way it is danced/choreographed today?
I don’t love ballet any more than I do several other dance forms. But it has particular qualities of amplitude and virtuosity that can make it singularly eventful. Its musicality isn’t actually more remarkable than the musicality of several other genres: think Fred Astaire, think Mark Morris, think great flamenco or Indian dance. But, because of the way ballet projects in space, that musicality can register colossally throughout a huge theater. And that can be heart-stopping. When ballet is great, time and space come together in a very powerful way.
Ballet is also an art of the ideal, isn’t it? When a woman steps onto point in arabesque, she can at once become something other than a woman: she can become a work of ideal geometry. That’s thrilling, and I’ve loved it ever since I first saw ballet. But this is something about which—living in a world that has been reshaped by the struggle for gender equality—we should also all feel a certain ambiguity. Ballet is a sexist art. In fact, I often say that it is the sexist art—the one and only art that’s based upon the dichotomy between male and female. He is not permitted to step on pointe (except occasionally as a comic or character effect). She is not permitted to promenade him or support him in pirouettes. I must admit that I love ballet as an art of chivalry, and I enjoy the fact that its sexism is to the woman’s advantage rather than the man’s. But I regret that the chivalry is really only one-way. Too often the sexism and acrobatics of ballet can be just mindless, and without any serious connection to the way we live today.
Do you have a favorite dancer or choreographer whose work you always look forward to seeing?
Not just one. The critic David Vaughan once said, “Ashton, Balanchine, and Cunningham are the ABC of contemporary classicism”—he said it while all three were still alive—and that ABC remains the top of my choreography alphabet. I find it instructive to return even to their least works. There’s always something new to see, new things to say about them, new ways of feeling about them.
As for dancers, what I’ve written about Soledad Barrio, Alina Cojocaru, Herman Cornejo, David Hallberg, Sara Mearns, Rashaun Mitchell, Natalia Osipova and others is a matter of record. I learn from them, and keep hearing about great performances they gave that I had to miss. I see dancing too many nights of most weeks, but it’s wonderful to hear of performances that make you wish you'd seen even more.
Have you ever seen a company class or been to a company rehearsal? If not, why?
Yes, I’ve seen company class, and yes, I’ve seen company rehearsal—but rarely. And almost never while I’ve been doing this job. When I was a young critic in London, I asked if I could watch the Royal Ballet School. My request was declined—and I understand now why the school wanted its students to work in a critic-free environment—but I made it because I was hungry to learn. Of course I’ve loved watching class—there are so many aspects of the mechanics of dancing that are fascinating. If a company gives a class or a rehearsal that’s open to other critics and/or other members of the public, then I’ll go, too; the Cunningham company gave a public class this July that was marvelous to behold.
But it would be wrong for me to ask for special treatment or private access. My job is to review performance, not preparation. It would be unfair to ask dancers to take class or to rehearse a ballet if they’ve been told the dance critic of The New York Times is present—or if they haven’t been told! In one case, a press officer for one company far from New York organized a schedule whereby I, visiting the company for three days, was expected to watch class on my first morning in town. In the circumstances, it would have been rude to refuse at short notice. In two other cases, schools were rehearsing works that I was unable to see in performance, so they allowed me to watch one rehearsal in each case—simply because I very much wanted to see choreography that was rare anywhere. But those are the only exceptions since I started this job.
How does a company, choreographer or dancer get a complete rave from you?
There isn’t a formula! And I wouldn’t want to see a company or a dancer or a choreographer who was setting out to get a complete rave from The New York Times. I want to see if he, she or they create a world onstage; if they have integrity; belief in themselves; spontaneity; intensity; mystery; sensuousness; complexity; rhythm; line.... But I don’t sit there ticking those things off on some checklist in my mind.
Do you ever think about the effect—good or bad—that your reviews have on individual dancers, choreographers, directors, companies or the state of the art?
Not often. It’s much better for everyone if I don’t spend time thinking about that. A critic who thinks about his own power and influence can be all too dangerous. I’m always relieved when I see a company director ignoring my reviews, even when I believe my points were important—as long as he or she seems to be seriously pursuing his or her own vision. I’m always apprehensive if I suspect a dancer has adjusted his or her performance because of my review. Did they do it because I was right? Or just because they want a good review next time?
I once knew a New York theater critic who, when she got an important job, walked down Broadway, looking at each theater, and saying, “Mine! Mine! All mine!” It’s very interesting to tell that true—and funny—story to different critics. Some of them react, as I did, with shock; I really don’t try to be conscious of wielding power. Others, including critics who are good friends of mine, love the sense of the influence they have: They recognize the “Mine! All mine!” story as an impulse of their own.
Do you ever wonder if your reviews are having an effect on ticket sales or grants?
Again, it’s not good for me to spend time thinking this way. I’d been in this job less than a month when I heard, third-hand, that one company had got an important grant because of a review I’d written. Well, I’m glad the money went to a good cause, but I’d rather not have known that it was because of what I wrote. And you know, people who buy tickets or give grants have many reasons: It’s easy to say a critic was the reason, but there are always other reasons too.
Do you think that your ability to be fearless on the page—in your opinion, writing and criticism—makes you a more lively read?
In life, I think I’m quite an inhibited person—though not all my friends agree. In print, I cast off most of my inhibitions, and that’s one of many reasons I love my work. I love fearlessness and honesty in dancing; I try to write that way.
You know a lot about ballet history and you have seen many, many performances in your 30 years as a critic. How important is it for a critic to have that kind of knowledge?
There have been some important dances I’ve seen for the first time while I’ve been doing this job—Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra, the bedroom pas de deux from Antony Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet, Jerome Robbins’ Four Bagatelles, Cunningham’s Second Hand, not to mention many world premieres—and the most important thing in those cases has been to be honest about how they struck me as a newcomer.
Whatever experience and knowledge you’ve got, use them. But use them judiciously. To me it’s a bore when a critic says, “I have seen every Giselle of note in the last fifty years” before announcing that last night's Giselle was good, bad or indifferent. Yet when a critic can show how Fonteyn or Makarova changed his or her idea of Swan Lake, then that can be stimulating. I’m always asking older people about the dancers and actors and singers I missed; and some of what they tell me—say, about Markova or Danilova or Ulanova—really shapes my ideas of what dance can be. My best New York friend and I still argue about Makarova’s performance in Swan Lake, which I last saw in 1980; and that argument—my friend’s points as well as mine—has recently deepened Swan Lake for me. I’m steeped in history, and I hope I make that history useful.
After so many performances, how do you go about keeping an open mind for each new one?
It’s probably impossible, isn’t it? But I have a few methods. I find I avoid people who tell me what they think tonight is going to be like. (Some critics and some fans really like to prepare the way they’re going to think in advance.) I like to be quiet in my seat for a few minutes beforehand and enjoying some relaxed conversation with my companion. The more relaxed I am, the better. I love the etiquette maintained by London theatre critics: when talking to one another, only talk about a production once all parties in the conversation have filed their reviews. (You used to hear a lot of daily-paper critics say, “So what did you think of last night, then?”)
Even if I’ve been intensely opinionated in the past about tonight’s lead dancer, I find myself trying to let those opinions drop beneath the surface of my mind. Every dancer—and, actually, every ballet—is a work-in-progress. So look for what’s new tonight. The interesting Swan Lake is the one that added to your idea of that ballet, not the one that confirmed your existing idea. Among the many emotions I have about Sara Mearns’ performance in Swan Lake, one is simply relief: It’s wonderful to know that, having seen that ballet perhaps 300 times, I can be moved again by a striking new performance. I took a friend who’s 80, a former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer, to see two City Ballet Swan Lakes in 2010, partly because I wanted it to prompt her into telling me about Margot Fonteyn’s performance, which I missed but which she saw and worshipped many times. Well, at the first one, she couldn’t stop telling me about Fonteyn—it was actually too much. Neither of us was looking forward to seeing the production again the next day. But we went, and this time Odette-Odile was Sara Mearns, whom we’d never seen in the role, and my friend didn’t mention Fonteyn once. We just talked Mearns and the ballet and the music. Wonderful.
A critic is supposed to be a lens, but obviously all criticism involves personal opinion. How do you balance that? Where is the line between objective and subjective?
Surely there can be no line between them. A lens isn’t purely transparent, is it? It intensifies, it magnifies, it distorts. The dance matters more than I do, but what I bring to it—what each of us brings to it—matters too: We’re not made of litmus.
The other night I was watching Balanchine’s Union Jack. It’s about Britain; I’m British; I was brought up singing some of those folk songs. It satisfies me for all kinds of objective reasons—rhythm, spacing, color, complexity, intensity—but for all kinds of subjective reasons, too. Some of those subjective reasons—the British ones, for example—are just what my readers what to know about, though they also want to know that it was loathed by many in the London audience in 1979. Then there are subjective and objective responses that are inextricable: Is the way we feel about rhythm, which is so vital to that ballet, objective? It’s partly personal and very culturally determined. I don’t want to read a critic who’s only subjective, and who can only tell me about his emotion but not why that emotion arose from what he saw. I don’t want to read a critic who’s only objective—I want to know how the dance affected his sensibility.
Do you think that your style of reviewing is having an effect on younger reviewers? How do you think you are changing dance criticism?
Look, I sometimes suspect I have an effect on some other writers—some positive, some negative—but I really don’t spend time thinking that way. I still learn from older and bygone critics. In dance, Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce were the two I steeped myself in, but I also owed a huge amount to Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp, who were very active godparents in my career, to David Vaughan, and many others. And I learned many layers from them: ways of shaping a review, when not to rush in with a blast review and when to deliver a full-voiced rave, large points about choreography and performance and history, little tricks of humor and rhetoric. Probably in due course I’m becoming the same thing for younger writers. If so, I hope I’m useful. Socially, I try not to be standoffish. But I spent many years being an angry young critic, and I don’t want to contemplate my transformation into some influential grand old man. I’m not young any more, but I’m still angry often enough.
What is your rule as far as meeting dancers, directors or choreographers?
Generally I avoid it. Part of me would love to meet Alexei Ratmansky; I hear only good things about him as a person, and I’ve never read an interview with him that asks him the questions I’d like to ask him. But if I meet him, then Jorma Elo or Wayne McGregor can demand to meet me with equal justice. I’ve never met Peter Martins or Kevin McKenzie—the artistic directors of the two companies I review the most—or most other choreographers or artistic directors. I don’t like critics who schmooze or who write the “As Maggie Smith said to me in her dressing-room afterwards” kind of review. I did do a brief phone interview with McKenzie recently about David Hallberg joining the Bolshoi, but only about that; he handled it perfectly.
Again, there have been a few exceptions, but—while I’ve been doing this job—only in a small way. And even then I almost always regret it. This August, Hallberg wanted me to break the story about him joining the Bolshoi. I must confess that the journalist in me couldn’t resist something so historic! It was marvelous to spend time listening to him; and I hope I asked him good questions. But the main after-effect was to make me feel compromised. Now, because I’ve had dinner and good conversation with him, I feel a fraction differently about him than I do about most other dancers. Which is unfair on them, isn’t it?
I did have dinner once with Cunningham in the last year of his life; but I’d been working for over 10 years to write a book about him, so the situation was different. I never knew him well. I’ve done a book of interviews with Matthew Bourne—the expanded second edition came out in England this autumn—and because he and I are friends, I announced before I took this job that I wouldn’t review his work in the Times. Actually I don’t think that knowing him makes me predisposed to like his work. He was my student for three years—and if you’ve marked somebody’s dance-history essays, you can write a negative review of him, too! But when it comes to those pieces of his that I love, even if others love them too, skeptics would always assume that I’m writing that way because Matthew and I are pals. So I don’t review him in this job.
At earlier stages of my career, I did a great many interviews with a great many choreographers, dancers and artistic directors. All arts writers do that, though I cut back a lot during the 13 years I was chief theatre critic of the Financial Times—I never met Trevor Nunn in all the years he was artistic director of London’s National Theatre. This situation I’m describing is the particular predicament of being chief critic at The New York Times. It’s a very exposed job, in which people gossip and blog and write on Facebook about who I take to the theater, what facial expression I’m wearing, and who I’m seen talking to in the intermissions. I find that very hard to handle. Each chief critic at the newspaper probably handles it differently.
What can dancers in general take from your reviews? What can the dancers you are writing about take from your reviews?
Pass! Edwin Denby wrote in the 1940s that reviews “are a sort of conversation between members of the audience on which the artist eavesdrops at his own emotional risk” and that “it is astonishing how rarely, how very rarely it (what the artist overhears) is of any use to him in his own creative activity.” I second that. If performers find themselves unable to resist reading reviews of themselves, then I would at least urge them to read the same critics on everything else in that period.
Occasionally you can see an artist (especially actors in long runs) perform his reviews rather than his original performance, which is dismaying. Many dancers have spoken of how a review has made them self-conscious about something they had hitherto always done without serious thought. I did hear that one excellent dancer recently was floored when she read the rave review I had written of her; but her only more specific reaction was, apparently, to say, “Now I shall have to work all the harder so as not to disappoint.” A true artist will pursue his or her own vision, not the facsimile of themselves in any review.
There are a few cases when a review can perhaps be useful to a creative artist: he or she is relieved and moved to find that the critic has understood certain aspects of their work that weren’t obvious. The best feedback I ever had along those lines was from Harold Pinter when I was a theatre critic: He rang me once to say that he could “take or leave” what was in most reviews said but that I was really “in it”—inside his thought. But really that’s a happy accident: I wasn’t writing for him.
Merce Cunningham never remarked on my reviews of his own choreography, but he was an eager reader of what I wrote about others. I’d been at the Times just a few months when he spotted me at some event, summoned me over, grinned and said, “You’ve changed everything”; then he told me how much he wished he’d seen a performance by Reggie Wilson at the Custom House I’d written about a few weeks before. And aged 89 in his wheelchair he went to see Soledad Barrio just because of what I’d written about her. I loved the way he stayed interested in other forms of dance. When we had dinner, just nine months before he died, he spoke about Balanchine, about Ulanova and Maximova, but also about seeing Soledad Barrio a few months before: “She's the real thing,” he said.
Are there any reviews you have written that you are most proud of? Are there any you regret?
I’ve already touched on the one that I know I regret. Yes, there are a number of reviews I’m proud of—but mainly ones I wrote before I came to The New York Times: ones that I wrote over a series of days for the Times Literary Supplement or Dancing Times or The New Yorker and had the chance to revise some days later. It’s an accident that I’ve ended up in newspapers! I never thought I was that way inclined.
I like the reviews that have taken me somewhere I hadn’t been before. On the morning of every New Year’s Day, when other people make their resolutions, I lie in bed and see if I’ve written 12 pieces in the previous year that have stretched me beyond my previous capacity. If the answer is yes, then I decide it was a good year.
I think I’ve written reviews about Balanchine, Cunningham, Mark Morris, Ratmansky and Indian dance for the Times that took me somewhere new. Earlier this year I was proud of what I wrote about Black Swan. Just recently I loved writing about Degas’ ballet paintings and sculptures; and even more about Grand Central Terminus as choreography.
You honestly don’t know your full thought about a dance until you try bringing it to the surface in a review. The process of writing can bring you in touch with areas of feeling and thought that were nebulous in your head or your heart when you were watching. When that happens, I love my job.
Just a Few More
In a nod to “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Pointe also asked:
What is your favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Moments of revelation and recognition—moments that make the world seem new to me.
What turns you off?
A lack of spontaneity.
What is your favorite curse word?
Is “blimey!” a curse word? If not, then “bugger.”
What sound or noise do you love?
What I’m most responsive to in all of the arts is the human voice; but more ravishing yet are birdsong and the sound of running water. I’m a farmer’s son, remember, and a farmer’s brother too.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“A damn close shave in your case!”