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The Buzz, 2-17: The Rockwell Files
Dance, 10, Looks, 3, New York Times, 0

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

Years ago, when I was locked in a high-stakes legal battle with my employer -- over whether it was my employer (the Newspaper Guild's view) or I was just a busy freelancer (the company's view) -- a lawyer friend offered some valuable advice for deflecting the character assassination with which the company's attorney (being unable to assail our case on the merits) was going to go after me: Just pretend he has Tourette's Syndrome. The invective coming from his mouth has nothing to do with me and is just incoherent babbling generated by his own malfunctioning mouth and mind, over which he has no control. One would like to be able to apply the same nonchalance to the idiocy -- not just opinions 'different than mine' but plain mistaken thinking, superficial writing and even historical inaccuracy -- dribbling from the hackneyed pen of John Rockwell, but unfortunately, Rockwell's not just muttering harmlessly on a street-corner but in the forum of the New York Times, which, in its ongoing disdain for dance has appointed him its chief dance critic.

To monitor Rockwell's errors as they need to be monitored -- notwithstanding its own WMD reporting fiasco, the Times is still regarded in many quarters as infallable -- would make a full-time occupation. The Buzz does not have that kind of personpower. However, the community does! Herewith, the Buzz launches an occasional sub-division, with frequency to be determined by your contributions, which we can only call... the Rockwell Files. When you catch John getting it wrong, please e-mail the Buzz at paul@danceinsider.com. (If you're a dance artist, you can ask for your name to be withheld, as long as we know who you really are and as long as your remarks aren't libelous.)

I'll get us started with a whopper, Rockwell's column of February 6, "Today, it's Dance, 10, Looks, 3" in which he basically complained that ballerinas aren't hot enough anymore. (Sorry, modern dancers -- you apparently don't even register for consideration as to whether you meet John's beauty standard.)

Let's start by giving the devil his due: I mentioned my hellish legal proceedings above. At about the same time this was going on, San Francisco Ballet comped me for its entire 1994 season; I had written about the Ballet's anniversary for Reuters the year before. The juxtaposition of the positive -- representing the power to dream and to soar -- of the ballet with the negativity being thrown my way by the Reuters lawyer convinced me I wanted to turn more people on to Dance's power to inspire and to dream, and was one reason I decided to devote myself full-time to dance journalism. Another -- as I openly tell people when they ask what led me here -- was that in preparing the San Francisco Ballet story, I got to interview three gorgeous ballerinas in one day, and found ballerinas a lot more fun to hang with than the stockbrokers who were my regular lot as a Reuters correspondent. So I think it's legitimate for dance journalists to enjoy being surrounded by pretty people. (In a 1999 article, I unfairly outed a dance photographer colleague for privately remarking, at a Momix concert, "When was the last time you saw four female dancers, all with great tits?") Nor do I pretend that we should be immune to letting physical beauty influence our critical appraisal -- where the performer has the artistic chops as well. Dance critics are only human (really!), after all.

However, it's quite another thing for a critic to complain in public that there aren't enough real babes in ballet (sorry again, modern dancers), even to the point of requesting, in print, that a dance company director promote more lookers: "With genuine respect for its current leading dancers," Rockwell writes, "and despite the genuine pleasure to be derived from their performances, the (New York) City Ballet might try cultivating a few more gorgeous hothouse flowers like those that graced its stage in decades gone by." (Never mind your decades of training, I'd like you better if you had a glamor puss.) As grave as this is on the level of insulting dancers everywhere (Nothing personal, but you're a dog) -- not to mention irresponsible, as a form of subtle pressure on the company director, for who can ignore a plea from the New York Times's chief dance critic? -- Rockwell's thinking also fundamentally misapprehends the source of dance's beauty.

Let's look at two key paragraphs:

"Surely," he writes, "the beauty of so many great opera singers of the past (too numerous to list) or, to stick to the subject, so many Balanchine dancers (Vera Zorina, Tanaquil LeClerc, Diana Adams, Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent, Gelsey Kirkland and (Suzanne) Farrell, to name just a few) gave them an image that reached beyond their excellence as dancers and attracted the attention of the broader public as well."

And later: "The best dancers at City Ballet have their impassioned fans, and they deserve them. But do those dancers reach out beyond the dance world, the critics and former dancers and subscribers, in the same way their predecessors did? In an appreciation of Peter Boal on her dance blog, the critic Tobi Tobias called him 'a great dancer who is not a great star.'"

Let's leave aside for a moment that Tobias is wrong if she really said this, and stick to Rockwell for now. First off, the beauty ballet and modern and other dancers bring -- their gift to us -- is not in their visages, but in their artistry and how they use it to highlight the choreography and music. In fact, I can think of at least two dancers towards whom I would turn my head if I saw them on the street, but from whom I turn away when I see them on the stage. (Or did, the last time I caught them.) As to Rockwell's proposition that it takes looks to reach beyond our rarified circle of critics and dancers and create beautiful art that touches everyone, well, let's look at one of those predecessors. (I hate putting it this way, but Rockwell leaves me no choice, so I hope the dancer will forgive me the insult for the sake of the bigger battle.) I hope Marie Taglioni won't be offended if I remind Rockwell that the first dancer to use pointe artistically is sometimes described as not having been a great beauty. And yet, more than anyone before her, she made of ballet a popular art, her artistry alone making of her a popular star transcending genres. She was the rage. And she did it not with a knock-out face, but a knock-out technique and the ability to channel that technique into a stage beauty that brought beauty into more people's lives.

The damage of idiocy like that being peddled by Rockwell is that it risks blinding the general public to the beauty a Marie Taglioni can offer, and that it risks discouraging future Marie Taglionis (in the realms of ballet or modern) -- not because of any technical imperfection, but because they're not what Rockwell considers pretty.

The job of a dance critic is to explain -- ideally, from a grounding of authority and with more than a dose of lyricism -- why a dance or a dancer succeeds, and why, when appropriate, they fail, and thus aid the advancement of the art and enhance its understanding and appreciation by the audience. If superficial beauty is so important to Mr. Rockwell, perhaps he should apply his standards where they'd be more appropriate, as a beauty contest judge, and not as a critic of a serious art form.

Got a Rockwellism for the Rockwell Files? E-mail paul@danceinsider.com. Make sure to include your first and last name, and to let us know if you'd like them withheld. Thanks to you-know-who for the tip, and to hhh for the dialogue.



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