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|About the Change|
Chief Dance Critic,
by Alan Helms
Alastair met with me in Boston recently to discuss his career and his views on dance.
Alastair Macaulay: I grew up in a farming family. Every male relative I ever had was a farmer. I, however, had unusually severe asthma from earliest childhood. My parents were intelligent people: I'm the youngest of five children, we all grew up with books and records, and we're all quite strong-minded people who grew up knowing how to argue. We all listened to music (non-farmers don't expect farmers to be able to discuss the difference between one recording of Beethoven's Fifth and another, but my two brothers still do), we all talked books (my father could recite Shakespeare, Burns, and other poets for hours on end), we all enjoyed going to theatre. But I lived indoors more than they did, because I was allergic to everything on the farm outside. And so that world of books and records became of greater importance to me.
I not only grew up with asthma as the controlling element in my life until I was seventeen, I also grew up with a deformed chest, a "beak" pigeon chest. At the age of eleven, I was told I would have that for life, which was a cause of real misery to me. My family enjoyed sport, and I went to boarding-school where sport was compulsory for everyone - except me. I was so ill that I became the permanent exception to the school rule, and I grew up hypersensitive about my torso. But when I went to university at Cambridge at the age of eighteen, my new doctor took one look at my chest and said, almost casually, "Oh, they can do something about that." They could indeed; and when I was just twenty, I had major thoracic surgery. An operation, lasting five and a half hours, chopped my breast bone in two and lowered it, and also lowered all my ribs onto this lower breast bone.
That was utterly life-changing, but what was equally marvelous was the follow-up physiotherapist. She at once got into my nervous system, by saying things nobody had ever said to me before. She knew how boys with chests like mine rounded their shoulders on purpose to make their chests seem less prominent. "But now that you've got a splendid 'new' chest," she said, "I want you to develop a splendid new posture." So I became posture-obsessed.
I had already begun to watch dance - ballet in particular, though not only ballet - and I don't think it's any accident that now, after that operation, ballet began to mean much more to me.I was opening up my own body, learning to stand straight and keep my shoulders back. Now here, in ballet, was an art where that kind of physical radiance was
I read Classics at Cambridge - Latin, Greek, especially the literature, but also with courses in ancient philosophy and ancient history. It seems now that every other art had happened to me, in a serious way, before dance did. I fed off books and music throughout my childhood, I was interested in painting (the boy with whom I was best friends at the age of sixteen became a painter), he and I both acted in every play at school, we listened to classical music, we read poetry, we were going to the opera from the age of seventeen. In my last year at Cambridge (the year after that chest operation), I played the biggest role Noël Coward ever wrote for himself: which made me convinced I should be an actor. Most of the people I spent time with at Cambridge were involved in music or theatre, and several of them still are. Some of my Cambridge contemporaries became famous theatre directors: Declan Donnellan, Roger Mitchell, Nicholas Hytner, Jeremy Sams.
I'm sure I learnt more at Cambridge from my friends about music than I did from my teachers about Classics; and I'm lastingly grateful for all I learnt. My own musical training is much too slight, but I would turn pages for a Classics friend who was a pianist; and he got me in the habit of listening to music by following it with the score. He became a music critic at the same time I became a dance critic, by the way; his name is Richard Fairman, and it's thanks to him that I first joined the “Financial Times,” for which he's still writing.
If you came from my kind of family and my kind of boarding school, you needed courage to commit yourself to the arts. I can see now that all my friends and I in those years were giving each other that courage.
Probably a thousand things over the years, but I like to cite three particular epiphanies. The first came when I was about six. I listened to every record we had at home - Scottish and English folk songs (Kathleen Ferrier), "My Fair Lady," "Oklahoma!", "South Pacific", "Oliver!", the "William Tell" overture, "Carmen," Hansel and Gretel," "The Magic Flute", "Figaro" - I just devoured them and re-listened endlessly, from the age of three. (Pop music and the hit parade only hit me when I was seven or eight.) When I was six, I began to realize that something was going on in "Figaro" that was on a different level of feeling. I didn't yet take in the greatness of the finales to Acts Two and Four - those happened to me in a big way when I was in my teens. When I was six, it was the arias and duets, especially the Countess's great aria in Act Three. I can't have understood the emotion of a rejected wife, can I, at the age of six? But that's what art does for us: it takes us into something we wouldn't otherwise know. The Countess's pathos entered my soul, and the melody and structure of the aria moved me very deeply.
The second happened when I was sixteen. Over the years I'd followed the hit parade closely until about 1970. Then – I was fifteen - I turned back to classical music with a new need, which kept deepening. When I was sixteen, I listened to a dim BBC Radio broadcast of the classic EMI 1956 recording of Verdi's "Rigoletto" with Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas. Why did I need even to listen to that? I wonder now. Maybe just because I had recently fallen in love with "La donna é mobile" and I wanted to hear it in context. I expected a light, charming opera, like that aria. Instead, the dramatic intensity of the rest of that opera and that performance amazed me. Even though I didn't understand Italian, I could tell these people were possessed. It hit me very hard. A few months later, I bought that recording for myself - the first records I ever bought, actually - and I got to know that recording inside out. In particular, the artistry of Maria Callas was one of the great revelations of my life: the connection between her unparalleled musicality and her acute identification with the music's drama took me deep into areas of my own nervous system and into the most intense aspects of music-drama. Callas - and Gobbi, and Verdi - shook me by the shoulders and said "This matters." This couldn't ever just be background listening. (I've been a Callas nerd ever since, and I've also become a nerd about historical singers: I have a huge library of opera recordings and vocal recitals with recordings going back to 1898.)
And the third occurred when I was twenty, five months after my chest operation. I'd watched some dance since my mid-teens - modern and flamenco as well as ballet - but I wasn't serious about it. Several of the friends who'd come along with me to opera had been saying, yawningly, "Why don't you take us to the ballet for a change?" So I began to watch the ballet repertory, partly just to keep them happy. Richard Fairman likes to remind me that I came back from my first "Sleeping Beauty" saying "Well, it was all right, but you'd never want to spend time going back to it." That was when I was nineteen. But that "Sleeping Beauty", and many of those other early performances, featured Rudolf Nureyev. He was in his late thirties; I thought he was at an age where he wouldn't last much longer (little did I know!); and he was dancing all the time in Britain. Apart from my first "Sleeping Beauty", he also danced in my first "Swan Lake", my first "Fille mal gardée," my first "Giselle", my first "Corsaire" pas de deux, my first "Raymonda" Act Three, my first "The Dream", my first "Manon"; he was my first Apollo, and my first Prodigal Son - all of which I saw when I was nineteen and twenty. Since I had my chest operation soon after my twentieth birthday, my gathering excitement over these performances was all tied in with my new sense of my own physicality. But I'd also seen ballets without Nureyev. I'd seen Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" twice, both times with Merle Park, who was a thrillingly musical, daring, and incisive Juliet. Now, in January 1976, I went to see Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev as Juliet and Romeo. Nureyev was terrific, but the life-changer was Fonteyn. Curiously, I certainly didn't know my life had changed when I was in the theatre or when I left it. I could see Fonteyn was sometimes in pain; I could see she was working over-hard to seem fourteen years old, though her intensity was such that I couldn't believe she was anything else; I had a fair idea that she was at times doing different steps from those Merle Park had done, though I couldn't have told you what at that stage. There were moments, however, when the whole house gasped aloud in emotion: a reaction I only ever heard again at Fonteyn performances. Anyway, I went home with mixed feelings about the performance.
For the next six weeks, however, I found that some image or other of Fonteyn, Fonteyn, Fonteyn kept bursting in on me. I could be cycling down the street at Cambridge; I could be in the middle of a literature supervision; I could be shopping; and all I could see was this blinding flash of Fonteyn. I had never reacted before that way to a performance, and I never have again. (In 1952, Denby described the effect of a Toumanova performance like this: it hit him one way while he was watching, quite another way in recollection.) No MacMillan purist will accept what I'm going to say here - since this is part of the legend of Lynn Seymour's very different Juliet - but in 1976 Fonteyn's stillness on the bed in Act Three was overpowering. Her bleak physicality in the tomb scene was haunting, too: she seemed touched by rigor mortis as Romeo pulled her about. But the astounding moment, which I described in my "New York Times" debut piece, was the way she reacted in the balcony scene to Romeo/Nureyev kissing the hem of her dress. He knelt and took the
When, on leaving Cambridge, I told my parents I wanted to act, they behaved as if there was a death in the family. I was not yet twenty-one, and I was still close enough to them for their reaction to make a difference. (I never pursued the idea.) They'd spent years worrying about my health, so they wanted me to do something secure. We disagreed, but what none of us realized was that I was actually already set on my future course. My inner life wasn't about acting; it was about trying to make sense of the performances, the music, the books that had moved me. But I didn't recognize that yet. I moved to London to work in bookshops: that was something to pay the rent while I found out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. Meanwhile I found myself going to ballet four times a week. I also went to opera and theatre. Really I was just living all my spare time in theatres.
No, I'm a closet dancer! I used to come home and compulsively re-live parts of the ballet around the house. It just got into my body early on; I remember trying to run like Merle Park's Juliet! Ludicrous, I know. But nothing could have stopped me. When I was twenty-two, two friends and I had one Sunday when we somehow did the whole of "Swan Lake" in the sitting-room after lunch, and another time "Sleeping Beauty".
Later on, when I began teaching dance history or lecturing about aspects of dance, I would demonstrate movements. Joan Acocella (the dance critic of "The New Yorker") says that the first time she ever saw me, in London in 1985, I was on a street corner, doing some huge gesture through the body; I must have been telling friends about the bits that most excited me in Ashton's 1955 version of "Romeo and Juliet," which London Festival Ballet (today's English National Ballet) had just staged and which we - including Joan - were all just watching for the first time onstage. And you know what? I can tell you now just what gesture I must have been demonstrating to friends on that street corner. Ashton gives Juliet an amazing moment when her father joins her right hand in marriage to Paris, but she - though nobody in her family sees this - flings back her left hand in despair to the Nurse, who is the only one who sees and understands. And she, the Nurse, presses that hand consolingly to her cheek. The thrilling thing is the hugeness with which Juliet's whole head and neck arch back as she flings that arm. As we say in England, it hit me for six, and I absolutely remember having to talk about it – to re-live it - afterwards.
The older and fatter and stiffer I get, the more I demonstrate. It’s ridiculous! Recently I gave a lecture on Balanchine at Stanford University where I kept showing gestures and even steps. The point is not that I dance well - I really don't, and I'm now fifty-four years old - but that I'm trying to show the movement objectively. As a writer, I have to convert that into words. But when you're giving a lecture, or talking to friends, it's quicker and easier to demonstrate.
I also believe, passionately, that when you're watching people perform dance, music, or plays, then one inner fiber of you is dancing or playing or speaking too. That's why, when you go to "Carmen" in the cheap seats, people can't help themselves bursting into the Toreador song; they're so happy to recognize this great song, they have to join in. When you know the play or the music or the dance, then it's easier to recognize that inner response - the part of you that's doing it too. But I think it also happens the first time you see or hear a performance: some part of you inside is dancing or speaking or singing along with those people onstage, even though you've never witnessed this work of art before.
When I was sixteen, my best friend from school had the idea that, when he became famous as a painter, all his letters would be published. He insisted that I reply to everything he wrote me (he left school a year before I did) and so we got into the habit in our teens of writing twice weekly to each other. Often, we replied the same day we received the other's letter. The intention was to be entertaining and debonair: very Evelyn Waugh. We wrote about everything. And "everything" included theatre, opera, and ballet. Well, my letters became full of those. At Cambridge, I found further friends to write to. Some of them knew much more about ballet than I. At the beginning of my final term at Cambridge - I was twenty - one of them came back and said "I read your letter about ballet to my mother, and we both think you
When I moved to London, however, my letters were endlessly about ballet. I wrote them obsessively - on the bus going to work, in my coffee breaks, in my lunch breaks - I just couldn't help it. I just had to figure out why Tuesday's "Swan Lake" was more moving than Friday's, what made Merle Park's musicality more remarkable than Monica Mason's, why Anthony Dowell was purer than David Wall but why Wall made "Swan Lake" a larger experience. Now other friends – the ones I was writing to - began saying "You should be a dance critic" because they could see from my letters how preoccupied I was by writing about dance. But I kept ignoring them - until finally, when I was twenty-two, the penny dropped. Even then, I wasn't sure about criticism, actually. But I did realize I had better commit myself to the performing arts one way or another. My friend Sarah Montague, the one with whom I used to dance whole ballets after lunch, wrote a dance column for a fashion-and-gossip monthly newspaper called "Ritz"; and suddenly she handed me her column. She had citizenship problems, was obliged to remain in New York, and made me a dramatic 'phone-call from Heathrow to explain she had been allowed back for one weekend alone: "My dear, you're a dance critic - and you've got five days to write your first column!" She also introduced me the next night to Mary Clarke, who was then dance critic of "The Guardian" and editor of "Dancing Times", and who, with Clement Crisp (dance critic of "The Financial Times"), was writing a series of very successful dance books. This was May 1978; I was twenty-two.
"Ritz" didn't pay a penny, but it was a good education in journalism. You had to name-drop about who was in the audience and wearing what, which was fun. But I was also determined to go against the grain and to describe and analyze the things about dance about which I was passionate. I covered ballet, modern dance, the movie of "Grease", jazz dancing, mime, disco: a fair range. I was indiscreet and opinionated; and soon I found I was also an Angry Young Man (which I hadn’t expected to be). Often I found myself highly controversial. One ballet company struck me off its press list; another threatened to; one critic got libel lawyers to threaten a libel action against me (which terrified me but which my editors loved).
My first answer is: None.
I've heard people say that you should have watched eight hundred dance performances before you begin as a critic.
Those ideas about experience propose that a critic must be an expert. I, however, believe that criticism begins
My second answer, however, may seem to contradict my first. A critic should use all the experience he/she has. I've always thought historically, and I happen to have a very detailed and extensive memory, so I've always made a lot of use both of research and experience. For me, criticism is certainly the first stage of history, and I go on re-thinking a great many of the past performances I've seen, even after more than thirty years.
When you finally see Léonide Massine's "La Boutique fantasque" for the first time, just see it for what it is; you'll never have the chance again. Don't spoil it by spending a week in advance looking at old footage at the Dance Collection or reading all the Ballets Russes books about it. You'll only ever see "La Boutique fantasque" for the first time once in your life. Let it happen to you in full innocence, not by having filled your head in advance with ideas of how it used to be. Chances are you'll have read something about it anyway, and that's fine.
In particular, don't do any research during the few days immediately before the performance. I learnt this as a theatre critic. I once re-read "Much Ado About Nothing" on the day I was going to review it. Of course I arrived at the theatre with a whole set of strong opinions on how it should be played; the closet actor in me knew just how to do Beatrice, Benedick, and every other role. The production I saw was, however, in a quite different style. If I hadn't recently done any homework into it, I would almost certainly have responded more happily to this other style. So, once I'd realized that, I stopped reading scripts of plays immediately before seeing them in performance. (Sometimes it’s good to read a play about a month beforehand.) Even if we London theatre critics were given the script beforehand, and even if it was a new Pinter or a new Stoppard (which were the most challenging tasks for a theatre critic to review on the night – my deadline would be 11:15pm), I just preferred to go in with my mind as blank as possible and let it be an adventure. (Many critics would disagree, by the way. I remember the terrific tension before the world premiere of Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll", when critics had been only allowed to read the script that afternoon and some had chosen to do so. But I don't know what on earth they thought they gained from it.) A play is written for performance, not for reading. Go back and read it afterwards, sure, as a memory-aid. But the first time round, experience it the way the playwright intended, in the theatre.
For a while after that, though, I prepared for the play not by reading it butaround it. I once turned up to review "The Tempest" straight after reading an intelligent essay by the scholar Anne Barton about it. Hardly had the production begun - the director was Sam Mendes, with Simon Russell Beale as Ariel and Alec McCowen as Prospero - than it did something Anne Barton had specifically said was a mistake for "Tempest" directors to do: it made Prospero visible during the storm, controlling the elements. Probably she was right, but actually that wasn't an especially important point in view of Mendes's whole production; I, however, paid too much attention to it because of reading her. Over the years, I ended up re-reading most or all of the Shakespeare plays and reading about them quite extensively - I still do, and that remains a great private pleasure for me today - but in general I found it was best if I avoided doing that in the two weeks before a particular performance. Then the play would hit me in the theatre with much more immediacy, rather than coming across as an inferior version of the Platonic ideal I'd just been contemplating.
Because I have a good memory, I'm likely to start remembering a great many previous productions and performances of "The Tempest" or "Swan Lake" whenever I go back to see them; and I'm going to draw on all the research I've done into them over the years. But I like it best if today's performance or today's production establishes my terms of inquiry for me, rather than my going into the theater with pre-set ideas of what angles to take on it. Once I get home from the performance, I may well start doing quite a lot of research. Sometimes as a theatre critic, if I was filing my review the next morning, I used to be up half the night.
I mentioned "La Boutique fantasque." Few Americans today have ever seen it; and not many Europeans have either, now. (Too bad: Ashton told me in 1988 that he believed it was the only perfect Massine ballet.) But I had been watching my first performances of that just around the time I became a critic in 1978. I'm glad I came to it fresh. But then I started to read about it - not systematically, but eagerly. Well, on my twenty-third birthday a letter came from Mary Clarke asking me to write my first review for "Dancing Times" about some performances that included "Boutique
I realize now that the sense of not knowing enough is a good way to feel. I still don't feel I know enough about "Swan Lake", which I must have seen three hundred times and in many different productions and about which I've read extensively. This afternoon I was at the Harvard Theatre Collection looking at the Sergeev collection of material, and it showed me that I was right: there's a great deal about "Swan Lake" we - I - have still to learn. That's wonderful. Maybe readers think I sound like Moses bringing the Ten Commandments, but I prefer this feeling of being a student.
Most maybe, but never all. And sometimes I’ll be the one who knows least. When I started this job in 2007, I was the only person in the whole wide world who'd never seen Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"! Which was just fine. I still have never seen live performances of Martha Graham's "Primitive Mysteries" or Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table," among other historic works. Isn't it good to know there are still some works I've never seen onstage?
What matters is not having seen twenty Ophelias but in spending time between those twenty performances thinking about "Hamlet" and Ophelia. Any critic who keeps returning to "Swan Lake," "Figaro," "King Lear" should build up not just memories of what he or she has seen but also a body of research. I'm shocked when a critic who has seen a number of "Hamlet"s doesn't know some of the most basic differences between the early editions of the play. I'm irritated when an experienced ballet critic reveals that he or she doesn't know why someproductions use different music for Aurora's variation in the Vision scene. That's what Petipa did in the original! Those critics should know that. I would advise any young dance critic to spend time researching the different musical and choreographic texts of “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”: you’re going to be coming across those works in different productions many, many times in your career, and it helps to have the information under your belt.
Possibly I need to do more research than some. That's how my mind works. Most critics don't have the space in which to use expertise, so some of them don't bother to acquire it. But I can't help feeling that it's unprofessional - and irresponsible to readers - to keep revisiting these works with no body of thought and research about them. I hope I don't write as The Expert - even if it sounds to some as if I do. I just use what knowledge I've got. There are certainly readers out there who know more than I. I hear from some of them, and I'm very happy to consult some of them too. When it comes to Balanchine style and technique, how could I possibly know even a tenth of what the dancers and teachers know who worked with Balanchine? I'm always trying to catch up: which I enjoy.
There are a few works of art on which I do feel I've got little or nothing new to say, and in those cases I do all I can to avoid having to write about them. There are a few middle-of-the-road choreographers about whom neither I nor my colleagues at the "Times" much enjoy writing. So we try to do them in rotation. Once every four years isn't too bad!
In London in 1978, I was the right young critic to come along at the right time. I got plenty of breaks, plenty of experience, and – perhaps fortunately – I never got a job as the chief dance critic of any newspaper or weekly magazine. Mary Clarke gave me a lot of work at "Dancing Times," where I did much of my best dance writing for the next twenty years. When I was twenty-four, "The Guardian" asked me to become its second critic; Mary - its chief dance critic - often threw me in at the deep end, asking me to replace her at very short notice (hours or even minutes). So, while I was still twenty-four, I wrote on-the-night reviews -for 11pm deadlines - of companies as varied as Maurice Béjart’s and Merce Cunningham’s. I began to realize that I like being given hoops to jump through. I was always scared stiff, but I also loved the challenge and the adrenalin.
Though I had no money - I was always terrifyingly overdrawn at the bank - I somehow scraped funds to get me to see dance in New York and Copenhagen in 1979, and later Paris, Leningrad, and Moscow; I went to New York and Paris many times. Several American critics gave me positive feedback about my reviews, especially David Vaughan and Arlene Croce, both of whom became important friends and correspondents. In London, Clement Crisp - who was the wittiest and the most knowledgeable of the London dance critics - was very encouraging, too. In particular - this was all while I was twenty-four - Clement gave me the introduction that led to me teaching dance history at B.A. level, at the Laban Centre, which in those days was the first place in Britain to have any full-time B.A. in dance. I used to learn all my dance history hours before I taught it! And I'm grateful, because a lot of what I taught between 1980 and 1988 has lodged very usefully in my memory.
I also found that I adored teaching; I even enjoyed marking essays, though it must have consumed hundreds of hours of my life (thousands, actually). Several of those students went on to become successful administrators, choreographers, critics, dancers, examiners, even dance-history teachers; the most famous is the choreographer Matthew Bourne. At the Laban Centre, I became the founding editor in 1981 of a quarterly magazine that in 1983 became "Dance Theatre Journal", which did amazingly well. It was a good place in which to be contentious! The British dance world was stuffy and complacent. We blasted away as best we knew how. My friend and contemporary Deirdre McMahon (who was both a dance critic and a professional historian) and I gave each other a lot of courage in those years: we laughed a lot, and we were enthusiasts, but we were also very angry with the scene.
In 1988, thanks to Arlene Croce, I became guest dance critic to "The New Yorker" for six months while she took a sabbatical. The editorial conditions at "The New Yorker" were the best. I worked like a very happy slave; I couldn't have enough of the fact-checking and the line-editing. The "New Yorker" editor-in-chief then was Robert (Bob) Gottlieb, himself a passionate dancegoer, and I adored writing for him; I've never known an editor who made things such fun.
© Alan Helms
Then in 1993 another British newspaper, "The Evening Standard," made me a seriously tempting offer to become its chief dance critic and second theatre critic. The "FT" countered that offer by inviting me to become its chief theatre critic, while remaining its second dance critic. It's interesting that I chose theatre and the "FT", and assumed that I was making a choice that would determine the rest of my life. It felt as if my life had come full circle. From January 1994 on, there I was, reviewing theatre, almost fourteen years after I'd wanted to become an actor. I quite often found myself reviewing people with whom I'd been at university.
From 1994 till 2007, my main work was that: chief theatre critic to the "FT". Newspaper space diminished, so I stopped doing much dance or music reviewing there. For a while, I even thought my dance reviewing was behind me; and that seemed OK. I'd moved on - or so I thought. But in 1996 the "Times Literary Supplement" asked me to start reviewing dance. I loved that, but the arts section there seldom wanted more than two dance reviews per annum. They were big essays, sometimes covering whole seasons; I adored writing them. And, since I was busy with theatre, I went only to the dance I wanted to - Noh and Kabuki theatre, Indian dance, modern dance, ballet, Fred and Ginger, a big range, as well as covering some theatre and even music for them. Several of those "TLS" essays are among the pieces I'm most proud of. (Three of them are in Bob Gottlieb's 2008 anthology "Reading Dance.") Meanwhile, I still did some teaching and examining in dance history; I wrote my short biography of Margot Fonteyn (1998) and my big book of interviews with Matthew Bourne (2000); I organized the Royal Academy of Dancing's 1999 conference on Fonteyn; I contributed to other conferences on Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, dance reconstruction, and other subjects; and I became a regular London lecturer on aspects of dance. So I was a theatre critic who was still very active in dance, but on a part-time basis. It was a very rounded life, a very fulfilling one, and that's how I expected it to carry on until I retired. And there were months on end when I didn't go to any dance performances.
The wealth of London theatre was phenomenal. It still is. I was back there recently, and in a single day saw two virtually unknown Tennessee Williams plays, "Spring Storm" and "Notebooks of Trigorin". The team that was doing "Spring Storm" was also doing Eugene O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon," another rarity. Those three are American plays, but what city in America would present all three at the same time? Meanwhile on that London visit I also saw three Shakespeares, a Dion Boucicault, a Bulgakov, and five new plays, including ones by Sebastian Barry, Alan Bennett, and Mark Ravenhill. Four other new plays were still running - Michael Morpurgo's "War Horse," Jez Butterworth's "Jerusalem," David Hare's "The Power of Yes," and Lucy Prebble's "Enron" - which I'd seen on previous visits in 2009. No, not all those plays are good. But if that life had continued, I believe I would have been very stimulated and very happy.
That was the hardest and most protracted decision of my life. The job was dangled in front of my nose for over three months without actually being offered to me: I was sounded out in late October 2006, told early in November 2006 that I was top of the list of candidates, but wasn't offered the job until February 2007. From mid-November, rumors became increasingly widespread that I had already accepted the job. An old friend wrote to me on January 2 "Why didn't you tell me you were taking the job?" even though I hadn't yet come over for interviews. I lost a lot of sleep, and I couldn't resolve it in my mind until some twenty-four hours after the offer arrived.
Two things decided me. One: I was being offered the chance to change my life at the age of fifty-one. For most people, to reach fifty is usually to resign themselves to the fact that their lives now will not significantly change.
The other may seem preposterously small to you: When I came over for interviews in January 2007, the "New York Times" one day ran a review of a performance of "The Messiah" on its front page. That’s all. But I knew, from years of declining space for reviews in London, that nothing seems less sexy to most editors than another performance of a staple of classical music like "The Messiah". If it's reviewed at all, then it's given small space low down. But here was a non-star "Messiah" being given prominent treatment just because it was a noteworthy performance. So I thought: This is a newspaper in which artistic standards still count.
No, absolutely not! And I hope I don't sound professorial. If I do - a few readers think so - then I regret it. Whether or not it's apparent to readers, I'm happiest when I feel like a student: when a work of art or a performance has given me something new to write about. A lot of my pleasure in this job at the "New York Times" has been in the ways it's stretched me - given me new thoughts. Often I'm setting down ideas that have only occurred to me in the last few hours - while I was watching the performance or after.
If you learn from it, OK; but that's something for the reader to determine. My job is to be a professional aesthete with
But I do remember, when I was new to dance-going, that I wanted to learn from critics. I moved to London in 1976, and found myself automatically going to the ballet several times a week. I just felt there was so much for me to learn - I was twenty-one, and ballet-going was something I'd only begun, on an occasional basis, when I was eighteen - and so I read critics to accelerate the process. One of the most important things I discovered, almost at once, was that the critics with whom I agreed didn't necessarily teach me any of what I wanted to know. It was often more stimulating to read a critic with whom I sometimes or often disagreed if he gave me more to think about. (And in 1976-77, my first year of living in London and going a lot to the ballet, I learnt that way from Clement Crisp in "The Financial Times".) It could be relatively useless to read a critic who had the same thoughts as mine without ever
When I discovered Edwin Denby in 1977 and Arlene Croce in 1978, as well as David Vaughan's Ashton book in 1977, then I began to learn vast amounts. They lit fires in my mind.
But I don't believe I wrote that as a teacher or in a teacherly way. I never took a dance class (except a bit of ballroom) and I wouldn't presume to teach anybody how footwork should or shouldn't go. I was just writing as an observer; I was just saying how looking at footwork has enriched my life.
That idea came from some very enterprising technology people at the "Times". I can't even remember now how they chose that solo from "Biped" (Banu Ogan was the dancer); I must say it was a good choice. I do remember that the two video-technology men, whom I hadn't known before, admitted to me later that they had begun by disliking the solo and ended by really liking it. I loved doing it just because it was a new challenge.
The "Times" really rose magnificently to the occasion of Cunningham's death: a huge front-page spread to his obituary, a video-obit tribute on the website, a big photo spread in the Arts section, an excellent photo album on the website, and more besides. For me. that time was very strange. Many dance people were in grief. I had reason to grieve too: I'd met Cunningham a number of times over twenty-nine years, sometimes for long conversations or interviews, and I was (am) working on a book on his choreography. But I had no time to mourn then at all. For days, I was just run off my feet with work. And yet, in terms of journalism, it was very exciting. The obituary, in particular, achieved a really colossal circulation. And the work on analyzing the "Biped" solo – which took a few days - was a marvelous task; I loved it. I'm not a dancer, but I'd been hearing people analyse aspects of Cunningham style for decades, and I'd been writing about it; so this was a chance to piece a lot of information together. So I don't know whether that qualifies as teaching. But if you and others learnt from it, then that's very gratifying.
There are so many ways to look at dance, and so many things to see in dance. I've always been interested by that; and a particular revelation of Arlene Croce's work for me, while I was still new to the field, was to find how many different angles a critic can take. To me, this is part of what I call technique in criticism. If you just have the same one or two methods of looking at dance, and the same few things you're looking for, then you'll soon be a bore. But with Croce, when she was writing one big essay every two weeks, you felt you never knew in advance what line she was going to take. Even if you could guess what her topic was going to be, and even if you could guess what her general attitude might be, it was astounding in 1979 and 1980 (the first two years I followed her work) to see the wide range of contrasting angles from which she would view dance. She'd home in on a dance detail, she'd stand back and sum up a general trend in the dance of the era, she'd approach her subject by way of other arts, she'd make the mind of the choreographer as interesting as if she was summing up a leading politician. And she'd write about 19th-century ballet, Diaghilev, living choreographers in ballet or modern or post-modern, tap, dance on film. It was all so unpredictable, and it made the world of dance much larger and more serious.
So I'm always trying to stretch myself - to find more things to see and more ways of looking. Right now I'm reading a book about medieval dance mania and I'm researching a piece on the diversity of African dance. Those are both fields on which, believe me, I know little! And I'll never know enough about them. But I think what I'm learning from them will actually give me more to see in the forms of dance with which I'm better acquainted. For the same reason, I keep trying to educate myself - not systematically - in history, in painting, in music, in culture. Another of the books I'm reading now is feminist: Germaine Greer's "The Whole Woman." When you talk to me about Whitman or Proust or Joyce, you remind me how much more reading I have yet to do. And that's a good way to feel in life: wanting to know more.
Well, if I do sound professorial, maybe that's why. I've given an awful lot of lectures! To me, however, it always felt as if teaching came out of criticism. I'd been a critic for two years before teaching came along. And I always preferred to teach the history of dances and choreographers I'd experienced in the theatre. Teaching Doris Humphrey in England was uphill work, because I scarcely knew anything except what I'd read in books. But when I was talking about dance from Bournonville to the post-moderns, I was working from experience, and was doing the same kind of thing I did as a critic: trying to account for the feelings I’d had while I'd been watching. If I look back on all the pieces I've written over more than thirty years, I can see that some have been primarily historical, others primarily critical; but there are many where criticism and history for me are simply inseparable.
To me, criticism is about reconciling heart and head. As you experience a work of art, you feel something you can't at first explain, but then you bring your mind - and your whole being - into trying to explain it as rationally as you can. History is all part of that inquiry.
I now realize I was thinking historically in my first few months as a dance critic, even before I started to read Croce. Her work was often the most exciting kind of history, so that encouraged me to carry on along those lines.
Yes. I often remember it as if they were the first two journalists I ever read seriously, which on reflection I realize isn't true. I read critics of other arts, I read other dance critics, and I read other journalists; but those were the two that illumined so much for me.
I was just twenty-two when I first came across Denby's work - by accident. Nobody had told me he was special. I wasn't ready for him at first; I'd seen so little. But I kept returning to his work. I remember the impact of reading his great "Notes on Nijinsky Photographs" essay for the first time. I was on the upper floor of a London bus, and I couldn't bear to get up when it came to my stop; I just needed to go on reading. Fortunately it was summer, so, having got off the bus, I just found a bench and carried on to the end. Several people have called it the greatest piece of dance criticism ever written, and I have no objection to that. It hit me with a kind of stupefaction and amazement; I'd simply never read an anatomical analysis of a dancer or of dance photographs like that. And yet so much of what he wrote connected to other things that I'd seen in dance. For example, what he said about Nijinsky's stance connected powerfully in my mind, while I was on that 'bus, to something that amazed me in Lynn Seymour, whose dancing mattered hugely to me. I had been trying to analyze how she could say volumes by standing motionless in profile, and how, in a full-length ballet, her body seemed to change in age and weight from one act to another; Denby's precision helped me to understand her. But mainly he was making me recognize things I'd never acknowledged before: especially his amazing point that the space between dancers in Nijinsky's "Faune" is a statement comparable to the intervening space in the paintings of Cézanne, Seurat, and Picasso.
Croce was more diverse. Denby's chief method was to plunge you straight into the dance, but Croce forced one to think about issues, values, culture. Of course, when you go back to Denby, he is addressing issues and values too, but less contentiously. The contentiousness of Croce was very exciting; very liberating, actually.
Anyway, both of them wrote, above all, about Balanchine. I loved some of the Balanchines I'd seen danced by British companies, but it was impossible to see from the dancing of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet why "The Four Temperaments" mattered so much to Denby or Croce. So, during my first year as a critic, I sold some of whatever stocks or shares my father had given me on my twenty-first birthday and came to New York for three weeks; and I watched City Ballet, mainly from standing room in the fourth ring, at least seven performances a week. Quite by
But Denby in particular and his great 1952 essay "New York City's Ballet" helped me to feel the connections between the choreography and the city. The first two pages of that essay, all about looking at New York, are probably my own favorite passage in Denby; and I saw the city through his lens.
I met Denby two or three times on my second visit to New York - I especially remember the passion with which he spoke about watching Cunningham choreography - and I still have friends who tell me plenty about him. I wish I'd known him much better. But Croce I got to know well almost at once, from our first meeting at Covent Garden in 1979. And it was so stimulating to read her pieces as they came out. Probably I was lucky that I read almost all of them at a three-thousand-mile distance, and that many of them were about dances and dancers I didn't know. I was deeply affected by her work, but I was also out of her immediate orbit and was mainly looking at different performances. But we corresponded. Some of her letters strike me as being as profound as her finest essays. She was also a thrilling conversationalist, so that to spend time with her on each visit to New York was wonderful.
For his or her quality of mind. Never mind how much a critic has seen: what matters is how much a critic knows about his or her own mind and how well he or she takes you into its workings.
When I was back in London recently, I passed a theatre outside which one critic's review was reprinted in full, and it ended with a line like "I guarantee that this production will bring a tear to your eye." To me, prose like that is simply foolish. No critic can guarantee how each member of the audience will react! I try never to tell readers "You must see this show," let alone "You will love this show," let alone “You too will cry.” They've got minds of their own; let them read my review, if they choose to, and make their own minds up. Sometimes I'll rave about a production while knowing that it's not for all readers; and I've certainly attacked shows that have all the makings of successful crowd-pleasers. Those situations are inevitable. But if I can take the reader into my sensibility, if I can show how this work of art operates on my senses and my mind, then I'm doing my job.
I also want to see the critic focusing on the subject in hand. There are a few too many critics who seem to be saying “There’s nothing in dance I like so much as the sound of my own voice going on about it.” But I feel that way about many of my own earlier pieces. Bob Gottlieb, when he was editing me, had a marvelously gentle way of getting me to pare away some of my gratuitous effects: he’d look at a paragraph and say, quite softly and without aggression, “This is just throat-clearing” or “We don’t need this” – in such a way that I didn’t feel defensive in the least: I usually saw what he meant in a moment. My prose really improved no end after working at “The New Yorker”. And all the best editors I’ve had have been American.
It’s important – crucial – to entertain the reader. But not to make yourself the center of the entertainment. Your subject can be this performance, this choreographer’s whole body of work, this trend in
I’m fairly sure that others have applied all those words to dance before I did. Just read Croce: her vocabulary was really extraordinary. I often laugh about two reviews she wrote of the dancer Nichol Hlinka at New York City Ballet: in one, she called the texture of Hlinka's dancing "chocolatey" and in another she called her account of a role "Tolstoyan". Just imagine being chocolatey and Tolstoyan! If I were Nichol Hlinka, I'd die happy to have achieved so much. Mind you, three of us younger critics once spent ten or more minutes arguing about precisely what we thought Croce meant by "Tolstoyan" there!
Probably the one who set the pace here was Théophile Gautier in the 1830s: once he'd called Marie Taglioni a "Christian" dancer and Fanny Elssler a "pagan" dancer, once he'd written of how Elssler dancing the Cachucha “seemed to shake down clusters of rhythm with her hands”, the doors opened on how dance could be evoked. To my mind, Croce is echoing that when she writes of “the ratcheting tap clusters that fall like loose change from his pockets” that Astaire does in the “I Won’t Dance” solo in “Roberta”.
There are a few words I've applied to dance that may not have entered dance description before, but I think that's true of any dance writer worth his or her salt. Dance is so non-verbal that you have to work hard to evoke it. It's very natural for a young writer sometimes to work too hard; that’s what I was sometimes doing in my first ten years, because I was learning how to write.
It remains hard, but that's often the greatest pleasure of the task: making some portrait of the performance that somehow evokes it for people who weren't there and for those who were. There are particular challenges, I find, when describing primarily percussive dance style such as flamenco or tap. And any dance genre from another part of the world--Indian and African dance forms, for example--is likely to raise all kinds of difficulties for the writer. And the musicality of well-known Western choreographers is often the most ineffable factor of all. But as long as you feel the sensuousness of dance, then you respond; and that response makes you want to communicate, to verbalize. Some part of you stirs in response to dance, and you have to seize on that feeling of being stirred and bring it to life. Like every dance writer, I can moan about how hard it all is, but actually these are the aspects of the job that are the most exciting.
I keep trying to adjust my style anyway. By the time you're conscious that this or that aspect of writing is your style, it's probably becoming stale, a shtick. So it's actually useful to be writing in a paper or a magazine that has its own style. The "New York Times" does some things that I learn from and others that I try hard to avoid. I am an inveterate re-writer anyway, so I enjoy the editorial process. At every British newspaper, you file a piece and you almost never get to see it again until it’s in print, unless occasionally you're in the office while they're trying to fit it into the allocated space. But the "New York Times" absolutely involves its writers in the editorial process. It's not unusual for a copy-editor to ring me with six suggestions for revisions - whereupon I'll seize that opportunity to make twelve other changes of my own. That's quite often when I do my best work.
The "New York Times" has many pronouncements about style, a few of which I - like many of its writers - dislike. But actually it's a less constricting style for me than the "Financial Times" one. The "FT" was generally opposed to all elisions ("can't", "don't", "it's"), and it disapproved of using the first-person singular more than once in a piece. The elision rule, which came and went but was sometimes imposed forcibly on us, was often preposterous. If they'd ever thought it through, they'd have had to write Shakespeare's "All Is Well". I often broke the first-person singular rule. But actually I came reluctantly to find it an extremely good exercise: I learnt - perhaps not often enough - to put the focus on what I'd seen rather than how it affected me. And combining that with the no-elisions method obliged me to change my voice very considerably, but not actually in a bad way: it all taught me to be more objective, more focused. In most ways I find the "New York Times" style stimulating, even liberating. And you know, any decent newspaper writer will sometimes try establishing a style that is very distinct from his or her paper's. If you're writing about dance, you're automatically going to sound different from most writers; so go for it! Use your differentness. Swim upstream against the current.
Not nearly enough! Just think how many players are in the pit when you go to the ballet, and how few words are ever written about them. Just think how many times we hear "The Nutcracker" and how rarely anybody writes about the score.
Then there's dance musicality--responsiveness to music--which, as I was saying, I firmly believe is the hardest thing in dance to write about. Everyone knows that Balanchine, Ashton, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris are "musical", but almost everyone leaves it there. Well, it must be obvious to everyone that those four men are "musical" in very different ways. This needs discussion and analysis, because it's at the basis of our response to their dances.
I've been trying harder in this job than ever before to write about music and musicality, yes, just because I think they're so obviously central to everybody's experience of most dance. I don't write this way because I have a background of musical training - I don't - I write this way because the music is there. It's really shocking to me how superficial most dance criticism has been in this respect. And I don't think I've really got into the depths of it.
In almost every respect, so much easier. Of course nobody will ever say anything like the last word on Shakespeare, and so the task will remain very stimulating. But even Shakespeare is something of a gift to write about, because he uses words. As you listen, your mind starts to reply in words. And you can quote "O reason not the need", whereas it's hard work to talk about a diagonal of sixteen petits développés across the stage in Aurora's third-act variation.
The only way in which theatre is perhaps harder is that, because it uses words, it is possible to be more obviously wrong or inadequate about a play than about a dance. Some critics at the premiere of Harold Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes" really thought he was saying there are concentration camps in Britain. He wasn't, and they seem pretty silly now in a way that few dance critics ever do.
But dance is hard to write about on just about every level: to describe, to analyze, to interpret, to contextualize.
Some people have always maintained I wrote better about dance than about theatre. I hope they're wrong, because I passionately loved writing about British theatre. I would say that if I never left London, even to go to Stratford-upon-Avon, then London theatre would still give me a greater range of material to write about than all the dance I see across America. The five categories I miss most are: Shakespeare; the virtually unknown plays that are revived to amazing effect (such as Lope de Vega's "The Great Pretenders", Gorky's "Vassa Zheleznova," Odon von Horvath's "Figaro Gets Divorced"); the lively wealth of new plays; comedy (you don't often get to laugh out loud as a dance critic); and political plays.
But if they're right - that I write better about dance than about theatre - then that's because I rise to the very difficulty of reviewing dance. And I think there's something in the energy of dance that can get into your prose.
At the moment that's a prime part of the excitement of the job. Finance may not make it possible forever; and I dare say I'll run out of energy too. But it appeals to the tourist in me, of course; and there are many further parts of America I'm longing to see.
In Britain, in the few years before I took this job, we'd seen Balanchine danced by five of the leading American companies: New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. So I knew that - the "Balanchine Diaspora" - was an American story before I arrived here. Now I've begun to discover how many other stories there are across the country.
Yes, of course! But plenty of readers (and too many critics) don't see criticism as being grounded that way. They assume that we're just stating points of view that aren't based in systems of values. A critic (I think I'm quoting D.H.Lawrence in a great essay on Galsworthy) should give the reader some standards to go by.
What standards do I mean? Well, each genre has its own intrinsic criteria (did they speak the verse as verse? how did he phrase the top C? is the foot pointed? was the rhythm clear?). Ballet is full of such issues of technical competence. Were the pirouettes successful?
But ballet - like every art form - gives us many other standards to consider. There's ballet's highly peculiar treatment of gender (I always call it "the sexist art" because it's the only art predicated on the dichotomy between male and female); there's its tendency to be hierarchical; there's its strong connection to Romantic fantasy and escapism; there's its preoccupation with classical form but also with virtuosity. So you can apply a feminist lens, a Marxist lens, and many other socio-political lenses. I don't mean you have to pursue specific political agendas; but you shouldn't take the generic peculiarities of ballet for granted. It's also a Platonic art, an art that continually proposes an ideal: which gives us plenty to think about, doesn't it? Ballet is, perhaps above all, connected to music, and here there's so much to be said that brings us near the heart of most ballet choreography and most ballet dancing. Ballet is also a descendant of Greek and Renaissance concepts of harmony, and so that gives us further criteria too.
The ultimate criteria, however, are the big abstract ones: truth, beauty, expressiveness, morality. My review of the Tharp Sinatra - as well as in the debate that followed - showed that some of my criteria are moral: Is this presentation of men and woman good? To me, if a man had choreographed that show, we wouldn't have hesitated to call it dismayingly sexist; it reminded me of that old feminist slogan "This demeans women." Strange from Tharp, whose women were so remarkable in the 1970s and who has subsequently made some remarkable other roles for women.
On the criterion of truthfulness: I often took actor friends with me when I was first a theatre critic, and I found they were always saying "I don't believe that performance", often about some acting that had struck me as impressive and intelligent. That was very useful to me; it heightened my instinct for the phoney. And so I began asking "Do I believe this? Is it true?" not just about acting but about all art.
The nature of beauty is something any critic continually investigates: you're forever being asked to look at a movement or a physical position that you might initially have considered ugly, to listen to music that you might start by finding cacophonous, to follow events onstage that at first seem nonsensical, but that doesn't mean we should forget about the importance of beauty. Some works of art gain because of the degree of ugliness and discomfort they include. "King Lear" should never be a comfortable experience. But its horrors are all connected to enlightenment.
As for expressiveness, I don't require that a work of art depict subject-matter or convey a message, but I find that, when art is successfully about itself, it is also about other things. I love many kinds of dance that are principally about steps and movement, but some pure-dance movement just fails to give us any coherent or interesting idea of human energy, whereas many of the greatest pure-dance works are actually powerfully expressive and frequently dramatic.
I've sometimes fantasized about undertaking an Aesthetics course that would make us, its students, address the most difficult questions, like "What does the Queen of Night's coloratura (in 'The Magic Flute') express?" and "With reference to such works as 'Antony and Cleopatra' and 'Tristan und Isolde', can tragedy be transcended?" But the course’s final essay question would be "Why is it that the greatest moment in all art concerns whether Figaro or Cherubino jumped out of the window?" I'm joking - or maybe I'm just exaggerating slightly. Still, the passage in "Figaro" I mean - it's in the Act Two finale - is so thrilling partly because it's virtually just a French-farce situation but so much is at stake. If the wrong man jumped out of the window, then the Count may divorce his wife. What's extraordinary is the way Mozart here brings rhythm and tonality to bear. The accompaniment suddenly goes into anapaests, which is what happens in this opera whenever Cherubin(o), the amorous pageboy with an anapaestic name, becomes an issue in the drama; and the underlying chords slowly build up an extraordinary tension. The rhythm becomes all the more marvelous when Susanna, twice, starts to speak a line before the Countess has finished saying hers; we're absolutely there in all the suspense and human immediacy of their moment-by-moment overlapping reactions. It's all amazingly quiet, too. But we're aware of how much is simmering beneath. The Count keeps up an almost unbearable pressure of interrogation, and the pauses before Figaro delivers the answers that resolve the situation are heart-stopping. The whole thing combines exciting wit and contentious drama, and there's an overall brilliance of unbroken form, so it's satisfying and astounding at the same time.
But perhaps I could make the same point in this Aesthetics course with another question: "Why is almost any Cézanne still-life painting of a few fruit greater than Picasso's celebrated depiction of wartime affliction in 'Guernica'?" If you agree with the question – obviously I do - then the answer, as with "Figaro," raises major criteria about the interconnection of style and content in art. Cézanne makes a few apples matter more than Picasso makes the Spanish civil war: so what does that tell us about how art affects us?
In "The Sleeping Beauty," it's not too hard to see that the great supported adagios in each act can be great occasions for drama. But one of the ballet's greatest moments, at least as I used to watch it years ago, comes from Aurora alone, in her Act Three solo variation. In the phrase I’m thinking of, she simply advances across the stage in a diagonal doing the same step (petit développé) sixteen times, while her upper body - wrists, eyes, head, arms, torso - move in a steady crescendo. (This is the bit I was demonstrating to you when we left the theater after a “Beauty” performance! I especially like it if she seems at first to be looking towards her advancing foot through the ring described by her circling hands.) Now why can that sequence be so overwhelming? Well, we're watching something grow from small to large. We're watching poetic coordination. We're watching something simple that gradually involves the entire body. And we're watching a marriage of music and dance that is remarkably subtle: If the ballerina simply matches the music and phrases her upper-body movements in two series of eight - as usually happens today - she, curiously, makes a far more trivial effect than if she goes for one accumulating series of sixteen, which is what always used to happen and which catches a larger structural point within the music. Another point is that we should feel her whole body is involved: Alfred Rodrigues, who used to play the King with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, said he saw better than the audience ever could how Margot Fonteyn’s whole back would breathe while she was doing that phrase. And the whole series shows us something about this heroine at a point of resolution in the drama. By taking something small and showing how it builds, Aurora's reminding us of all the diagonals and all the crescendi we've seen in the ballet so far. She's also showing us, now that she has been awakened from sleep to love, how she has grown within her own spirit. And, as she does this in public, she's actually telling us more than her own story. She becomes the embodiment of the whole court, the whole legend. They all slept and awoke with her; their fate rested on hers.
I'm not spelling out what criteria I'm using here. It's a bore when critics are too obviously methodological. But I hope it's apparent that I'm certainly using criteria.
I want to say "Totally". Actually, sincerity in life is a very dangerous thing, and not always a virtue. Hitler was sincere! Nonetheless, in criticism, I crave it.
In general, I think the critic should be the first person to utter the uncomfortable truths. When “The New York Times" offered me this job, and after I'd been through the final storm of making my mind up, I asked to have the weekend before making my decision. During the weekend, I could ask any questions about the job. But I found I only had one question: "If I took the job, are you aware how many severe reviews I would write?" The "Times" arts editor, Sam Sifton, wrote back at once "That's what I want! I don't anyone being dishonest or unduly kind in my pages." So I knew I could work with him. In fact, I've found far, far more dance to love than I'd anticipated. But the freedom to speak my mind has been crucial.
Sincerity is actually the starting-point of criticism. You leave the theatre and you start to ask yourself not just "What did I see?" but "What did I feel?" It's not always easy to answer that question,but the more honestly you can do so, the more profoundly you're going to address the experience. It’s no fun when you feel you’re the only one in the audience who missed the point of a show, but you just mustn’t fake an emotion you didn’t feel. Instead, you have to work out what you felt and why you had a problem, even if it didn’t seem to be a problem for anybody else.
Those two questions sometimes seem miles apart, don't they? Beauty and sexual attractiveness don't necessarily coincide. Classical ballet proposes a certain kind of beauty - the perfectly proportioned, smooth-muscled, straight-limbed dancer with some notable length of neck and moderate size of head. Occasionally a very great dancer really does seem perfect that way. Margot Fonteyn's proportions really were perfect by the standards of her day, and she had enough beauty to be an icon of style to Audrey Hepburn.
Today Roberto Bolle strikes many people as beautiful the same way: face, physique, allure. Why doesn't that do much for me in his case? Well, there have been women with the same physical virtues as Fonteyn who never made a fraction of the same impression. So what mattered with Fonteyn was how she used that perfect equipment. (I know her feet were imperfect, but in her greatest years they looked attractive and worked well enough.) In Fonteyn's day, people spoke above all about line and musicality: one or two dancers perhaps had lovelier line than she, one or two were perhaps more excitingly musical in some ways, but nobody brought everything into play together as satisfyingly as she did. And it's worth remembering that many of the greatest dancers in history broke the mold. Marie Taglioni's arms were too long and her shoulders too rounded. Anna Pavlova was too thin. Vaslav Nijinsky's legs were too massive. Lynn Seymour's neck was on the short side, and she inclined to plumpness. That didn't matter; they transcended their limitations. Today Baryshnikov has become the greatest dance icon since Fonteyn, but I don't suppose anybody thinks he's physically perfect. Like Auguste Vestris two centuries before, and like Nijinsky, he's on the short side. When he first emerged in the 1970s, he actually seemed less personally attractive than, with relaxation, he later became, although it was at once apparent that he was utterly phenomenal and miraculous. I'm not yet very interested in Bolle because he doesn't seem to me to have much individuality: generally I think he's charming, beautiful, perfect, and forgettable. I can remember almost no phrase I ever saw him dance. But the right choreography may yet release an individuality in him I've seldom yet noticed. His 2009 "Sylvia" at American Ballet Theatre made me hope so; that's the only ballet in which he had inflections that turned him from an amiably impeccable blank into a real temperament with nuance and the kind of charm that stays in memory.
It's interesting that Balanchine, who did so much to fill his stage with his vision of loveliness, held up Fred Astaire as the greatest of male dancers. Astaire was nobody's idea of a perfect beauty. I'm sad when I hear of people who, for that reason, aren't interested in Astaire's dancing or his films; and I'm sadder if they say they prefer Gene Kelly, who is actually so much duller a dancer. Kelly certainly seems hunkier and sexier, though that fixed grin and stiffish neck soon kill his sex appeal for me. But there isn't a moment when his rhythm or his basic courtesy as a partner are remotely as compelling as Astaire's.
Because Astaire's dancing is endlessly fascinating, I could argue that it confers on him a personal beauty that his face and form lack. But I think his effect on us is more complex. I don't think any Astaire film makes me feel I'm in love with him. Something odder happens instead. Watching him, I feel as if he is me and that he is expressing my emotions, my response to the music, as if I'm in his body. It's the greatest achievement of the democratic spirit in dance. There are dancers today who have something like that: almost everyone in the Mark Morris Dance Group, actually. Maybe none of the Mark Morris dancers strikes me as perfect in physique, but I've often felt my breathing change in watching them. This isn't because they're gorgeous; it's because their dancing is so free of mannerism, so fresh in manner, that I feel I'm being danced by them while I'm watching.
What do we find sexually attractive? When I was a theater critic, I became aware I was more likely to be sexually attracted to actors than to dancers. I still am. Why is this? I happen to find the more relaxed musculature of actors more appealing in sexual terms. Interestingly, leading dancers often acquire this when they're nearing the end of their careers. Baryshnikov was more astounding in his twenties than later, yet in his forties he was more irresistible.
But there are dancers who breathe some aspects of sexiness or allure even in their youth: I imagine Nureyev and Seymour always had it, and by the time I first saw them in their thirties it was very powerful indeed. With Nureyev, sexiness was part and parcel of his stage glamour, his "Look at me" physical sensuousness; but with Seymour, though every curve of her legs and every ripple of her vertebrae conveyed it, her sensuality seemed to come from way beneath the surface. You could be viscerally stirred by her in some ballets without finding her physically beautiful; and you could find her overpoweringly sexy almost as if she released aspects of your own sexuality by her quality of movement.
Some people go to the ballet to get their sexual kicks, and I can't say they're wrong: that's writ deep into the history of the art, with all those noblemen and roués who used to frequent the Paris Opéra as a place to find their mistresses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For me, however, it was useful to learn early on that performers (actors as well as dancers) almost always look significantly different offstage; and their degree of attractiveness changes offstage, too. Nureyev looked smaller than onstage, for example, and much more guarded. Some dancers are actually more alluring offstage. Either way, I don't confuse my feeling with them onstage for something in real life.
One way, I'm disconcerted by those people whose main interest in ballet is the apparent sexual thrill they get from watching the physical perfection or athletic prowess of dancers. Another way, I'm disconcerted by dancegoers who claim that sexual responsiveness plays no part whatsoever in their feeling for dance. I remember watching a rare film of Maximova and Vasiliev with some dance experts who reacted with the "When Harry Met Sally" noises you associate with orgasm; it was embarrassing, but sincere. By contrast, I remember two different critics, from different cities, telling me in all seriousness they never ever fancied dancers. At the time, I was terribly impressed. But they were both people I knew as friends, and afterwards I remembered that one of them had once got into a lather of flirtatious excitement about Irek Mukhamedov in his Bolshoi days, and the other had told me of an erotic dream she had once had about Baryshnikov. If I remembered my dreams better, I dare say I'd find that dancers occur erotically in them now and then. Not often, I suspect, but maybe I'm kidding myself.
Certainly I've known moments when I've felt as if I was in love with a dancer, and when that felt the right way to respond to his or her performance. And if I’m writing about that performance, then I’m writing with a full heart, as if I’m smitten. Two friends of mine were once apparently talking about a “New Yorker” essay I wrote in ’88 about the Kirov ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova: one of them said “It sounded as if he was making love to her” and the other replied “Yes – all night.” I laughed so much when I heard that, but at some level I’d certainly been infatuated with her for months. Mainly I was crazy about her artistry, but I also had a good time describing how physically gorgeous she was. When I first saw the tango dancer Gabriel Missé in ’08, he wasn’t an Adonis, but I was no less lovelorn: I’d never seen footwork like it, and – in a form so sensuous as the tango – he’s a sublime partner. A friend said to me “You just want to dance with him yourself!” Actually that sounded preposterous to me – I really didn’t – and yet at another level I felt as if I already had been dancing with him by watching him. The tango is a very easy form to respond to kinaesthetically.
But in truth my main reason for going to watch dance isn't to find sex or love. If it were, "The Four Temperaments" wouldn't have been such a life-changing ballet for me.
If you're only going to ballet or theatre for sexual kicks, then you're missing out a lot. There are plenty of sexual dimensions to ballet, but they go way beyond the allure of the object of desire. I'm homosexual, but my reason for revisiting "Swan Lake" is certainly not because I hope to fancy the Prince. The right dancer in the role of the Prince can light up the whole ballet, and if he's virile, ardent, and handsome, then that certainly helps; but even so, that only takes me into the surfaces of that ballet.
When I was twenty, my Tragedy teacher at Cambridge told me that one didn't go to art to identify with it, that to watch "Hamlet" just to recognize oneself in Hamlet was an essentially adolescent approach to art. Of course, I was adolescent in just that way! A few months before, I had heard Schubert's "Winterreise" for the first time, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim, and I had responded absolutely as if this was my story: it seemed to numb my very heart. Just around the time I was having that seminar with my Tragedy teacher, I was watching my first "Swan Lake"; and though I didn't analyze my emotion too painstakingly at the time, I know now that in all my first "Swan Lake"s I absolutely responded as if I was both Odette and Odile. But I took on board what he'd said and tried to wean myself off from this regrettably adolescent habit.
Now, however, I find I return to it. I think we find ourselves in what's happening onstage. Some part of us answers "Yes".
Odette's conflicted reluctance to commit herself to a man's love, and Odile's flirtatiously don't-touch-me way of playing with a man were both things I recognized at some deep level within myself; I was always much more involved with either heroine than I was with the Prince, and "Swan Lake" - in those days much more interesting in the internal drama of its choreography than it is today - was a ballet I followed with a particular kind of confused, amazed recognition. I've mentioned Nureyev, but there was a male dancer in those days I loved more: Anthony Dowell, on whom I developed some kind of powerful crush. When I look back on it, I think: What was that about? Dowell was intensely beautiful, but I see now that I honestly didn't fancy him for a moment. So I see now that what I loved was that he was a kind of role-model for me; I wanted to be in life what Dowell was onstage, to have that kind of grace myself, to exist in the world with his kind of glamorous, androgynous courtesy. In "A Month in the Country," Ashton gave him a role in which he caught not just that appealing grace but also the perplexity and conflictedness of a young man's feeling amid a sophisticated climate; and I used to watch Dowell dance that as if I was deep inside the character.
But the main event of the ballet is the more conscious emotion of the mature heroine, Natalia Petrovna, which I saw Lynn Seymour dance twenty times; and at some level I identified with her too. Ashton, with his wonderful humanity, gave her a different kind of perplexity and conflict, with a layer of guilt about her own powerful emotion for this young man: well, of course I could relate to that! I was much more repressed than she. And Ashton gave both of them steps that got inside my body. I can feel my inner fibers moving again as I think of them moving in that ballet. Only the young Twyla Tharp has ever had the same kinaesthetic effect on me as Ashton: it's sometimes hard for me to sit still while I watch. So I was responding in many ways. The Royal Ballet's overall style in those days was more Ashton-based anyway, so I think in "Swan Lake" and other ballets there were many Ashton-like inflections that helped me to respond to the steps as if I was dancing them.
Balanchine does not, I think, have that kinaesthetic effect on audiences, but he does have a yet more profound dramatic effect. Even though the Balanchine stage characteristically is filled with his vision of female loveliness as if they were just a heterosexual male's fantasy playland, his heroines are very strikingly conceived from within. (Balanchine's ballerinas often remarked on how beautifully he demonstrated their roles to them.) Croce, in the essay of hers that still knocks me out the most ("Free and More than Equal," 1975), wrote "If George Balanchine were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director instead of a choreographer, his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our time.... Sexual complicity in conflict with individual freedom is a central theme of the Balanchine pas de deux, and more often than not it is dramatized from the woman’s point of view. ... He can make comedy or tragedy, and sometimes a blend of both, out of the conflict between a woman’s free will and her need for a man; he can carry you step by step into dramas in which sexual relationships are not defined by sex or erotic tension alone." That point about "from the woman's point of view" is very interesting, and, I think, true. And a man can respond to it as he watches. I don't mean to make the mistake of thinking that women and gay men are emotionally equivalent, but I think there's plenty in Balanchine's women that a gay man can at any rate recognize.
And actually there's much in Balanchine's heterosexual men - the blinded hero in the Elegy of "Serenade", the Poet in "Sonnambula", that a gay man can identify with too. One power of art is that it takes us into minds we might not otherwise have comprehended. Sexuality really isn't everything, even in the ballet: you should have room in your heart for Bottom and Puck as well as Oberon and Titania.
To me, no serious critic needs to say "As a woman, I feel…." or "As a gay man…." Our job is to be human, to respond to Romeo as well as Juliet, and that's one way in which our response should be personal.
I do have women friends and gay-male friends who have a much keener interest in specific male dancers than I do. But I think they're missing out on so much else. Occasionally, balletomania sounds distressingly close to pornography. Dancers matter less than choreography, and no dancer can transcend trash choreography - though some can release the most engaging aspects of trash.
On another front, I want a piece of dance writing to show some sign of coming from a point of personal engagement or emotion. I can't stand reading a review or a historical/critical/analytical essay that's merely correct with no sign of original thought or feeling. In London, the Royal Opera House programs - expensive but well worth keeping - are full of very informative essays about each ballet; a couple of them, however, currently contain essays that are absolutely correct and historically accurate but are like an impersonal assembly-kit of what intelligent people have been saying
Somewhere in every piece of critical or historical writing I want to find some evidence that this writer has brought himself or herself to the subject. Even if you're relating some aspect of the art of Isadora Duncan, it should be new in some way. That can be done in an entirely impersonal way that concentrates on stylistic Duncanisms. Or it can be a very first-personal-singular way that demonstrates the gap between Isadora and womanhood today; or the connections between them. All these methods and others can be important. I can lose myself in the idea of Isadora; I can't lose myself in Alwin Nikolais, so I'm going to approach those two figures of American dance history in very different ways. But neither my reaction to Duncan nor my reaction to Nikolais is going to be simply a correct, official approach. I don’t want to read a review of a flamenco performance or a Bharatanatyam dancer or an American Ballet Theater dancer that sounds if it were written by an external examiner; I want to read someone whose own intimate feelings were involved.
The deeper point here, however, isn’t about Me or about This Critic. It's about some new engagement with the subject. I'm about to read my third biography of Eleanor of Acquitaine. Her story is always a great one, and I don't need a biographer who thinks it's also about himself or herself writing today. But I do need some fresh angles on a story I already know.