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Flash Excerpts, 8-2: Tobi Tobias on Dance
From the Sublime to the Subpar, Capturing the Dance

NEW YORK -- In more than 30 years of writing dance criticism, principally for New York Magazine, Tobi Tobias has displayed an unsurpassed ability to capture the essential elements and qualities that make a dance, and its performance, work or not for her.

With the caveat that a dance review should always be read in its entirety to fairly convey the writer's point of view, following are some highlights of how Tobias has percieved and related the New York dance scene in reviews published by New York Magazine this year. Excerpts are followed by links to the complete critiques in on the magazine's web site.

Discussing Albert Evans's entry in this year's New York City Ballet Diamond Project in the magazine's July 15 edition, Tobias wrote: "Albert Evans's 'Haiku' (the charismatic dancer's first choreographic venture) is an amateurish example of the (Modern) genre, its crudely disjunctive phrasing failing to connect to the urbane discontinuities of the John Cage music it presses into service. Evans is markedly unresourceful when it comes to arranging his small cast in space and downright vulgar in his obsessive use of full-frontal female crotch displays; only Balanchine (working with Allegra Kent in 'Bugaku') could make that pose subtly erotic." To read the complete review, please click here.

Tobias can also wax positive when she finds dancing and dances that elevate all that is uplifting about dance, as in her June 24 review of American Ballet Theatre's spring season: "For its annual spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre -- bless it! -- focused on the uses of enchantment. The company has added to its repertoire two key works from the sixties by the British choreographer Frederick Ashton, 'La Fille Mal Gardee' and 'The Dream,' in productions fine enough to guarantee pleasure to veteran viewers and the uninitiated alike.

"Each of these ballets creates an imaginative world that is utterly absorbing, with dance (and mime, that now-neglected art) delineating a wide range of character and a kaleidoscope of moods -- all set in a storybook landscape. Both propose an idea from which we've tragically become alienated: that life's inevitable troubles can be resolved and happiness grasped, every soul rewarded according to its particular needs. In exquisitely calibrated choreography, as full of intelligence as it is of grace, both offer visions of the sublimity that can be achieved through perfect (and even imperfect) love." To read the complete review, please click here.

In her May 27 of Indisputably Martha Graham, the Graham company's first performance in two years, at City Center, Tobias not only provided the political context of the occasion, but picked up on a key breakthrough by the ensemble in their interpretation that eluded some other reviewers.

"While the courts deliberate on the tangled web that is the ownership of Martha Graham's dances," she began, "the late great choreographer's company gave a heartening one-night-only show at the City Center that demonstrated its moral -- if not legal -- right to this heritage. It proved -- does the issue really need proving once again? -- that a distinctive dance technique and the works created with it must be passed, without significant lapses in time, from body to body, from one generation of performing artists to the next, if the material is to retain its vitality and authenticity."

Later on in her review, Tobias observed, "The performing style on display came as a surprise. The over-the-top emoting that had increasingly characterized the company's approach in the past several decades -- until it looked like self-parody -- had been wiped away. The dancing and acting were measured, tempered, almost calm. True, some dramatic impact was sacrificed, but there was a compensating gain: a clearer view of the choreography. (It wasn't, after all, mere anguished writhing, as veteran viewers had come to fear, even about works they had once greatly admired and thrilled to.) This less emphatic, more thoughtful manner is a wise choice at a time when the company no longer commands stars of genuine diva power. If it survives this difficult period in its history -- the concert was certainly a positive omen -- it may once again breed performers made for that Graham specialty, ecstatic expression." The back-hand dismissal of the Graham company's genuine (and generally acknowledged) current divas, of whom there are at least two, Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, also demonstrates why Tobias has rankled many dancers. To read the entire review, please click here.

Like any reviewer worth her years of seasoning, Tobias also has the ability to see and explain what is grand and disappointing in the same artist. Reviewing Ballet Tech's spring season at the Joyce April 29, in one paragraph she conveys choreographer-director Eliot Feld's one-time promise, his current failure to live up to that promise -- and her own personal anguish at this disappointment:

"Two other pieces introduced this season, 'Skandia' and 'Pianola,' proved to be examples of Feld's all too familiar resorting to dubious evocations of local color and vehement but pointless reiterative jiggling, respectively. The Conlon Nancarrow music for player piano used for 'Pianola' was at least a bracing element. More significant than the season's new entries were the revivals of two ballets from his earliest (and, alas, most fertile) days -- 'At Midnight,' created in 1967, and the 1971 'Theatre.' Both are rich works -- original, intelligent, and full of feeling -- that promised a distinguished future for their choreographer. Some 30 years after their making, we have seen this undeniable talent continually dissipated in pieces that are childish, gimmicky, and obsessive. What happened?" To read the complete article, please click here.

A good -- and fair -- critic also knows that a work can't always be pegged in black and white terms. Sometimes writing with verity, accuracy and fairness entails working a little harder to clearly describe a dance that neither crashes or crescendos. Reviewing David Gordon's "Private Lives of Dancers" at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church February 11, Tobias was able to clearly assess the most recent and mixed results from an artist for whom she clearly holds longterm respect and admiration:

"This piece, divided into rehearsal and performance sequences -- the first relaxed, with talking, the second with the dancers fiercely focused and silent -- isn't one of Gordon's finest. The plotline, which has one of the performers possibly leaving the troupe for, ironically, family life (marriage and kid), isn't made sufficiently central and compelling. The disparity between what Gordon and Setterfield, now well advanced in middle age, can manage physically and what dancers still in their athletic prime can achieve isn't comfortably resolved. As usual, the choreography lacks variety, in both vocabulary and dynamics. And the performance segment -- where the laid-back rehearsal accompaniment gives way to the "real music," strongly influenced by Stravinsky -- owes too much to the strategies of Nijinsky's Rite of Spring ballet, which Paul Taylor has already treated, brilliantly, in a three-tiered construct of rehearsal, performance, and detective story. What The Private Lives of Dancers is, is appealing, especially to the initiated. David and Valda have taken up residence in our imagination. We've come to care about them in a sort of family way." To read the complete article, please click here.

To read more of Tobi Tobias's dance reviews for New York Magazine, please click here.

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