Hindsight is 20/20. For a ballerina, having a daughter who wants a ballet career can be both elating and scary. A professional knows all the hardships—injury, pain, competitiveness, disappointment. And she can spot every mistake her daughter makes. It’s a mixed blessing for daughters, as well. While a mother who knows exactly what it takes can help, the fact that she probably has her own opinions about every phase of training comes at a cost. “Now that I’m a professional, it’s great,” says Gabriella Yudenich, a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet whose mother, Barbara Sandonato, danced with the company. “But when I was 15, my mom and I had some nasty fights about ballet.” When a dance career passes from mother to daughter, what does that mean for their relationship? Here are several who have found different ways to cope.
Irina Dvorovenko and Olga Dvorovenko
Olga Dvorovenko explains that her daughter, American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko, was always independent and driven. She remembers when a 10-year-old Irina marched into her Kiev Ballet School audition, told the pianist what music she wanted and performed a self-choreographed solo—and was accepted to the academy. Then at 16, Irina traveled alone to the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, and returned with a silver medal, prize money and a new TV, VCR and video camera for the family. Then there was the car: “Irina had a used car shipped home from one of her first professional tours in Japan,” Olga says. “We never had a car before.”
Talk to Irina, though, and you’ll hear about a mother and father who worked diligently to provide for their daughter and guide her through the inevitable tears and hard work of a dance career. Olga and Vladimir Dvorovenko both trained as ballet dancers and became principals with the Ukrainian State Academic Dance Ensemble. Despite the couple’s relative success, life was bleak in Ukraine during the Soviet era. They didn’t have an abundance of anything at home. “Dance was our light,” Olga says.
From Irina’s earliest days, she loved being in the theater. “The dancer’s lifestyle excited me,” she says, “to sparkle and dazzle onstage and to be exceptional.” She dreamed of a career that would take her to the top. Her parents taught her how to work, how to look at and correct herself. When Irina was a teenager, her father filmed all her performances. “He would sit next to the orchestra pit and tape me, then we’d go home and work,” Irina says.
“As dancers and teachers, Vladimir and I would see every error,” Olga says. “We’d say, ‘If you do this, it will be better.’ ‘Look at this finger, here, it has to be up.’ It takes hard work—a lot of work—to be number one.”
Irina never rebelled. “I’d rather hear corrections, even if they sound painful or uncomfortable, from my family than hear that someone doesn’t like something, but doesn’t tell me why or explain how to fix it,” she says. Today Irina still looks to her mother for input. “My mom’s my mentor and advisor, friend and supporter,” she says. “I don’t hide anything from her.”
Gabriella Yudenich and Barbara Sandonato
Barbara Sandonato, founder of the Barbara Sandonato Ballet School in Philadelphia, was a trailblazer. An elegant and sophisticated Balanchine-trained dancer, she was Pennsylvania Ballet’s first company member and first principal in the 1960s. Back then, she had no idea that her daughter, Gabriella Yudenich, would one day be the first member of Pennsylvania Ballet II and, now, at 28 years old, a soloist with the main company.
Early loss drew mother and daughter together and helped dispel some of the natural tension that arose during Yudenich’s teenage years. Alexei Yudenich, Sandonato’s husband and Yudenich’s father, who was also a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, died when his daughter was only 6.
After her husband’s death, Sandonato turned to teaching, traveling up and down the East Coast to make ends meet. Since she had no extra money for childcare, she took Yudenich with her. When she was 11, Yudenich had an epiphany after seeing a documentary, Backstage at the Kirov. “It struck a chord within me,” Yudenich says. “It showed a girl in the corps de ballet being singled out for solo parts and her rise to dancing Odette in Swan Lake. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do this.’ ”
Sandonato remembers the night, during a commute in their car, when her daughter told her from the backseat that she wanted to dance. “I said ‘Gabby, you’re 11, you have to do such a crash course,’ ” she remembers. “If by 13 you’re not accepted to a major school, it’s not going to happen.”
But Yudenich’s desire was sincere, so Sandonato began training her at home. “We got up every morning, put the kitchen timer on and stretched,” Sandonato says. Yudenich also began taking Sandonato’s classes, and enrolled in summer courses at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, where her mother was on staff.
At 14, Yudenich entered the School of American Ballet’s year-round program on full scholarship. During the audition, Sandonato remained in the lobby. She had been in the school on full scholarship herself under George Balanchine. Yudenich has long dealt with people thinking her opportunities came through her mother. “This is a very competitive profession,” she says. “And people are going to say what they’re going to say, period. It’s been almost harder at Pennsylvania Ballet because people know who my parents are.” But ending up there almost seemed like a coincidence. The year she left SAB, PA Ballet needed girls for their Nutcracker. Yudenich auditioned and got hired. After, she stayed on as the first member of PA Ballet II.
Now a soloist, Yudenich and her mother know that their successes have come from perseverance. “In our business you’re always striving,” Sandonato says. “Telling someone they’re the best is not going to help. You have to be strong enough of mind and body to improve yourself to the capacity that you can.”
Hannah Marshall and Cheryl Yeager
A quintessential soubrette with an effervescent stage presence, Cheryl Yeager proved a popular principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s. She danced leads with Julio Bocca and Mikhail Baryshnikov in ballets that included Coppélia and La Sylphide. She also had roles made on her, such as Twyla Tharp’s razor-sharp Brief Fling.
Yeager’s daughter, Hannah Marshall, now a pre-professional student at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, is more at home in lyrical roles like Swan Lake’s Odette. Even at 16, Marshall has an effortlessness in her dancing that makes it seem like each sky-high extension and expressive upper body movement really does start from deep inside and move out.
While Yeager did not teach Marshall until her daughter was 11, she oversaw Marshall’s dance development from the outset. Marshall took her first “Mommy and Me” class as a toddler at Manhattan’s Ballet Academy East, where Yeager is on faculty, and she continued on through the graded level program at BAE until moving to JKO last fall. “It was just so nice having her in the same building,” Marshall says. “And she guided me, but with just enough room that I could do things sort of on my own.”
When Marshall did eventually take class with her mother, there was occasional mother/daughter tension. (“Sometimes with technique I can get a little, ‘Enough, Mom,’ ” she says.) Marshall has relished, however, the moments where Yeager can offer perspective. “The first time I didn’t get a part,” Marshall says, “I was crushed and she knew exactly what to say because she’s been there, but she could also be my mom at the same time.”
Now that Marshall is on her own at JKO, Yeager misses her but is glad that she is doing what she wants. “When you’re a dancer it affects your life forever,” she says. “It has been my life since I can remember, and now it’s her life, too.”
Have you ever seen a dancer stand in arabesque looking like a prima, then have difficulty stringing together a pas de bourrée? What she’s missing is coordination. It may seem simple, but without the ability to move all parts of your body together efficiently, grace and clarity will be impossible to achieve.
“For me,” says Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, “the essence of coordination is catching momentum, whether that be the torque of your back, the rejection of the floor or the speed you have launching into a jump.” Coordination is key to finding that essential flow that makes dancing seamless.
Focus on the Big Picture
“The most natural form of coordination is opposition,” says Raymond Lukens, artistic associate at American Ballet Theatre’s ABT/NYU Masters Program. “It’s a motor skill humans learn by crawling and walking.” However, ballet requires so much form—pointed feet, turned-out legs—that when dancers focus too much on the details they lose the freedom to be coordinated, taking away what nature provided. Dancers can get back in touch with their opposition by incorporating épaulement, which connects the two sides of the body through the use of the back, head and shoulders.
Putting broad strokes of movement into the body first and then refining the details can also help. In PNB company class, Boal gives “a tremendous amount of exercises that have the dancers launch away from the barre.” This forces them to shift their weight, and focus on moving the body as a whole from the start of class.
ABT’s curriculum builds coordination with a simple rule: Students must move their arms and legs together. Mannerisms like letting the arm trail behind the legs when closing to fifth can actually make the body less coordinated. “Opening and closing the arms and legs together ensures that when you’re in a neutral place, your arms are in a neutral place,” says Lukens. Think of grand jeté: If the arms are late to close before taking off, the port de bras will work against the thrust of the movement, and the jump won’t achieve its full height.
Sometimes when dancers go from student to professional their coordination can seem stilted, but often this is just due to the process of maturity. “The body-brain connection, on average, isn’t complete until age 15,” says Lukens. “Somebody who is 18 is still developing.” Franco De Vita, principal of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, adds, “Also, when dancers first get into a company there can be apprehension. A tense person can’t move so easily.”
Dancers who have difficulty with coordination often have difficulty with musicality, too, says De Vita. Jill Johnson, director of Harvard University’s dance program, says musicality can provide an inner, driving metronome that helps a dancer find coordination.
Make musicality a priority in class: Instead of allowing yourself to lag behind the beat to squeeze in a longer balance, a higher jump or a few extra turns, force yourself to stay on the note to train your body to move musically. “Dancing musically is anticipating which way your body weight needs to go—never being on balance, but always carrying the momentum so that you arrive at the next position on the note,” Boal says. “Your mind has to be at least half a count ahead of your body.” If the musicality of a certain phrase has complex syncopations, clap it out or listen to the music without dancing.
Play Brain Games
Coordination is also about the mind. One of Johnson’s mentors, choreographer William Forsythe, gives dancers a series of coordination exercises created by Dr. Paul Dennison. “The theory is that your right side is governed by the left side of your brain and vice versa,” Johnson says, “so if you cross your right hand to your left knee, by crossing the midline of the body you’re coordinating the neural synapses since both sides of the brain are being used.”
Johnson also works students’ brains by asking them to reverse combinations from front to back. “My teacher Erik Bruhn’s famous phrase was, ‘Now reverse it.’ Coordination has a lot to do with being able to think on the spot,” she says. “And sometimes allowing yourself to feel completely disorganized can help you learn about how your own coordination works.”
At times, improving coordination is just about teaching your body how to move. Learning jazz, character, tap, Spanish dancing and other styles can be beneficial. “When I taught at Ailey, I sometimes observed Horton class,” De Vita says. “I remember seeing my students doing double pirouettes in attitude finishing with the legs in a split. I couldn’t believe it—just yesterday it was impossible to do double pirouette in attitude in ballet class. They’d say, ‘Oh, but in ballet it’s not a free movement.’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Letting go of your quest for better turnout, better feet, better extension can bring your focus back to the essentials of simply dancing.
The New Kirov Academy
The Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, has gotten a makeover. After its principal benefactor withdrew financial support last year due to economic difficulties, the school named Martin Fredmann artistic director. He hired new teachers and introduced a more current version of Vaganova technique, including nuances such as rolling up and down from pointe rather than springing. “I want the students to be fully integrated into the ballet world of now,” he says. Instead of only performing Petipa variations, the dancers learn full acts of ballets as well as neoclassical pieces. “Dancers need to be prepared to enter a corps,” he explains. Also new is a two-year program for preprofessionals ages 18–22. In addition, the school launched a studio company of advanced students, which performs at local schools and other events. “The heritage of this school will not change,” Fredmann assures. “We’re just bringing it up to date.”
High Schools Unite
Auditioning for colleges can be overwhelming—even before the quest for financial aid. Wish you could try for dozens of scholarships in one fell swoop? Check out the National High School Dance Festival. This yearly performance-packed weekend showcases original choreography from high schools across the country. Last year, almost 40 colleges and summer programs (including Juilliard, Texas Christian University, Mercyhurst and others) attended—and offered scholarships to the students performing. “NHSDF gives students an extended audition for these higher education programs,” says executive director Kathryn Kearns. The 2012 festival will be held at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, March 8–11. Applications are due January 13. Selected schools will be invited to showcase their pieces in one of the six gala or concert performances over the course of the festival weekend. See nhsdf.org.
California To China
If you dream of dancing abroad this summer, check out Long Beach Ballet. Its six-week program begins with a three-week training intensive in Long Beach, followed by a week-long residency with the National Ballet of China, Guangzhou, and then a two-week tour to other Chinese cities where the students perform, sightsee and take class with local dancers. The program is open to students ages 13 to 20, selected through a national audition tour, and costs $4,985. See longbeachballet.com/summerChina.html.
A Fresh Perspective
In addition to giving students rock-solid technique, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is now looking to foster their imaginations. This January, the school will launch a new student choreographic workshop called FirstSteps. Four choreographers will be selected from among the current CPYB student body, after interested dancers give faculty members a detailed proposal. The chosen students will then have nine days of rehearsal in the studio before presenting the finished works on January 21.
CPYB principal faculty member Laszlo Berdo, who will direct the program, says, “I want students to come into this workshop with a blank slate, to explore their creativity.” However, there’s also a secondary motive: to make the students better tools for choreographers. “Once you go to the other side and are in the front of the room, you start looking at dancers in a new way,” says Alan Hineline, the school’s resident choreographer. “You begin to understand how artistic directors or choreographers see you and what the expectations are.”
“Whenever you dance, think of speaking with your feet. Early in my career, Atlanta Ballet’s ballet mistress Rosemary Miles gave me that correction, and it led me down a whole different path of using my feet—not only making them as articulate and supple as possible but also having strength and control.” —Milwaukee Ballet dancer Julianne Kepley
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!”
When Daniil Simkin auditioned for American Ballet Theatre, he had one of ballet’s most unusual resumés. Privately trained by his mother, he had honed his performing skills on the international competition circuit and had a collection of gold medals to prove it. Clips of his performances had made him a YouTube sensation.
“I’d heard about him and seen his videos,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “He did a gala in New York and the buzz was intense. When he came to take class with the company, I remember thinking, ‘It’s not a matter of if he’s talented enough. It’s a matter of if he can survive the expectations of where his career’s going and fit into the way we have to work.’ ”
McKenzie nevertheless offered Simkin a spot as a soloist. While Simkin’s hothouse training had produced a dancer with technical ability, musicality and charisma, there were still some areas he needed to work on. At 21, Simkin had little experience partnering, and he had never danced in a company as fast-paced as ABT. “When you train at home, you have total control of how you prepare,” McKenzie says. “Join a big company like ABT, and you don’t have that luxury. You don’t do one thing, hone it and then move on. You prepare 16 things at once.”
Now, nearly three years later, Simkin seems on the verge of a breakthrough. During ABT’s annual Metropolitan Opera House season, he will make his New York debuts as Franz in Coppélia and Basilio in Don Quixote. He will also perform in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream and Benjamin Millipied’s Troika, dance the lead in Antony Tudor’s virtuoso Shadowplay as well as a host of other repertory roles.
Watching Simkin rehearse, his intelligence and focus quickly become apparent. He was born into a ballet family, and he gets his critical eye from his mother. A former principal with the Novosibirsk State Opera in Russia and then a dancer with the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Olga Aleksandrova now teaches and coaches. Simkin’s father, Dmitrij, was also a principal dancer in Novosibirsk and danced with Wiesbaden. And his brother, Anton Alexandrov, 10 years Simkin’s senior, currently dances with the Hamburg Ballet.
Simkin was 6 when he began performing alongside his father. “The choreography needed a small boy and Dmitrij decided to try Daniil,” Aleksandrova says. “The role was complicated, with precise musical timing and acting. We were stunned by Daniil’s ability to keep all the necessary details for the performance in his head.”
When Simkin was 9, Aleksandrova thought he should start ballet lessons. “You cannot really call what I was doing with my dad ballet,” Simkin says. “My mother was like, ‘Okay, this is not cute anymore. Either we start training properly or you cannot continue performing.’ ” Aleksandrova began working with Simkin in the family home in Wiesbaden. They soon moved to a studio. Eventually, she taught him six days a week for two hours a day.
She was also teaching in Frankfurt at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts. But Aleksandrova’s private classes for her son were different from traditional ballet classes. “I had a totally free hand,” she says. She drew on her Russian foundation, but took ideas from other school systems. She added footwork and balance techniques derived from the French school, for instance, and the turning techniques she admired in Cuban dancers. She tailored each class specifically to Simkin’s needs, taking as long as necessary for him to master each technical challenge. “We grew very close working one-on-one,” Simkin says. “She’s not only my teacher, she’s my mentor, my tutor, my psychotherapist, my personal assistant.”
The private lessons let Aleksandrova and Simkin work around his academic schedule. Simkin was in a demanding, top-tier program for the brightest students. As time passed, the family faced a difficult choice: send Simkin to a vocational ballet boarding program or let him stay in school and continue private lessons. “Both of my parents left home to train at 10 years old,” Simkin says. “They were in the Soviet Union, so it was just, ‘Okay, you’re going to do it.’ They didn’t want me to leave so young.”
In the end, Aleksandrova taught Simkin for 10 years. In fact, Simkin completed his final high school exam the day before he left for the 2006 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS, where he took home a senior gold medal.
He had begun competing when he was 12. Since Simkin rarely worked with dancers his own age, competitions gave him perspective as well as performance opportunities. “After a while, it gets hard to just do class every day,” Simkin says. “Because I had no spring performance or exams, competitions provided a goal for me to work toward.”
Since a competition focus can limit a dancer’s growth—drilling one variation over and over may help win a medal, but it doesn’t always translate to handling a range of choreography—Aleksandrova made sure Simkin pushed himself. “Whenever we went to a competition, we always took a new variation with other technical things to work on so that I improved,” he remembers.
A computer geek by his teens, Simkin began posting videos of his winning solos on YouTube, which garnered him international fans. By the time he arrived in Jackson, his reputation had preceded him. He had already won first prize and gold at the 2004 IBC in Varna and the grand prix at the 2005 IBC in Helsinki.
His Jackson win cemented his phenom status and his professional career took off. He landed a job as a demi-soloist with the Vienna State Opera Ballet, while also touring the world on the gala circuit.
After two years in Vienna, he began to think about a move. “My dream was to be in a major ballet company, like The Royal Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet or ABT,” Simkin says. “ABT is very New York. You get so many different schools and personalities. There’s so much inspiration.”
He joined ABT in September 2008, not seasoned but eager. Sarah Lane, one of Simkin’s first partners, remembers his arrival. “When I saw him dance, I thought, ‘This guy can do things that no one else can. He is athletically gifted.’ ” But he still needed to hone his partnering skills. “For me, it’s a challenge because I didn’t have so much experience,” Simkin admits. “But I’m getting there.”
At one point, he went to the gym regularly to build his upper body strength, but now, he says, his workload has reached the point that he no longer needs to prioritize the gym visits. (Yet he still does a daily exercise routine in the studio.) McKenzie has cast him carefully, with an eye toward helping him develop, and making sure he has enough preparation to soak up all he has learned. “Daniil has humility as well as a pragmatic understanding of where he is in his development,” McKenzie says. “Plus he has an amazing ability to absorb.”
During rehearsal weeks, Simkin often spends eight hours a day at ABT. When he leaves, he may hang out with friends or go to see another company perform. Even so, by the time he gets home, he can still have trouble falling asleep. “I thought that when people said ‘New York is the city that never sleeps,’ it was rubbish,” Simkin says. “But it’s actually true.”
Turning on the computer remains one of Simkin’s favorite ways to get his mind off dance. “It’s a passion,” he says. “I am a bit of a geek.” The day of his photo shoot with Pointe, Simkin had gotten up early to be at the Apple Store in time to buy the newest iPad. While he prefers to do much of his recreation online, it’s not all play. Simkin’s curiosity about the internet has put him on the cutting edge of how new media is used by ballet artists. Collectively, the videos Simkin has posted to YouTube have gotten over 2.5 million hits. When The New York Times reported last year on how dancers are opening up the ballet world by Tweeting, they interviewed Simkin.
This summer, however, Simkin may find that he is being Tweeted about more than he is Tweeting. Simkin’s fans have been waiting impatiently for him to perform leads like Basilio with ABT. Their wait is finally over. “The public,” says McKenzie, “is just waiting to eat him up as a star.”
Kate Lydon is the editor in chief of Dance Spirit.
For more Daniil, check out youtube.com/daniils, facebook.com/daniilsimkinfans, twitter.com/daniil.