The Buzz, 12-1: Critics Cornered
Macaulay & McCarter: Ballet's not dead, but intelligent criticism may be
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- Years ago at the War Memorial Opera House, watching a performance in San Francisco Ballet's United We Dance festival, I happened to be seated next to a critic for a well-known British dance magazine. Whenever a corps dancer with a well-rounded body appeared on stage, out came the binoculars.
Well, the NY Times's Alastair Macaulay must have studied in the same school of aesthetics, which confounds the shape of the body with how it shapes the dance. For there it was again Monday, in Macaulay's review of the opening of New York City Ballet's production of Balanchine's version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" where, according to Macaulay, "Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many," and "Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm."
This is not dance criticism. This is cat-calling. It is unworthy of a critical column. And as far as fairness, it would be like me evaluating Macaulay not on his critical merits but on the puffiness of his cheeks in this photo of him. Macaulay's looks are as irrelevant to his job as Ringer and Angle's are to theirs. Otherwise, why don't we just put rail-thin models with no artistic ability up on stage and re-cast Alastair Macaulay with Hugh Grant and be done with it?
Worse, Macaulay's talent gage is dangerous to young dancers, the vital feeder stream for the art he supposedly cares about, because when they see that this is what gets noticed, they won't just stop eating sweets, they'll stop eating, and some of them will die on the fake altar of thin-ness that vapid pretend critics like Macaulay think constitutes legitimate critical criteria.
Speaking of pretend critics: Every ten years or so, an ambitious young writer comes along who, having picked the wrong field in which to make a sensation -- dance criticism -- decides instead to take a short-cut and just go for sensationalism by taking cheap shots at the art which pays her bills. In an earlier generation, it was Gia Kourlas. Today, it's a critic for the right-wing rag the New Republic who has apparently written a history of ballet which reaches the idiotic conclusion that ballet is dead. Never mind that this falls right into the hands of mainstream newspaper and magazine editors by giving them yet another reason not to cover dance; all the writer cares about is that it makes a short-term splash which will get her her 15 minutes, catapulting her out of the pool of starving dance critics.
Saying ballet is dead is like saying theater is dead or math is dead or visual art is dead. Ballet is a language. One can certainly conclude that the ballet repertoire is going through a dry spell -- I know that in an age where mediocrities like Christopher Wheeldon are put on the same program as Balanchine and Robbins, I have certainly reached this conclusion. But just because today's novelists aren't as memorable as yesterday's doesn't mean that literature is dead.
Cultural criticism is not faring much better as far as new voices, one of the brightest of whom in recent years was Jeremy McCarter. Trolling the Internet to try to get in touch with Jeremy, a friend who is now a cultural critic for Newsweek, I was astounded to find an article, published by Newsweek, in which he actually compares Sarah Bernhardt to Sarah Palin. But perhaps I should not be so shocked. Right next to the article, under the headline "Trending on Newsweek," are these two captions: "Anne Hathaway's Breasts Are Way Distracting," and 'Confessions of a Viagra Salesman." I guess one is known by the company one keeps.
Why do I care about this? Because the descent into the gutter by critics like Macaulay and McCarter is also a tragedy for my own art, the art of criticism. Macaulay has a vital forum and is wasting it. As for Jeremy, well, he's better than this. In fact, though you wouldn't know it from his Sarah-Sarah analogy, his previous criticism is unique and insightful, even authoritative and wide-ranging. As I've realized while writing this piece, as a writer he's certainly better than me. So why is he swimming around in the cess-pool? Quelle gaspilage!