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Flash News, 2-15: London Calling
Times Taps Macaulay for Top Dance Post
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- The New York Times has named Alastair Macaulay, chief theater critic of the London-based Financial Times and chief dance critic of the Times Literary Supplement, as its new chief dance critic, the Dance Insider has learned. In an e-mail interview this morning, Macaulay, 51, who starts his post in April, discussed the appointment with the Dance Insider. A transcript of the interview follows.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Please don't take this as a challenge, but it's something our readers will want to know: What qualifies you for this position? Do you consider yourself a dance specialist, and if so, why?
Alastair Macaulay: I've been a dance critic since 1978. In 1980, I was a winner of the Ballet Review competition for young critics. I was founding editor of the British quarterly Dance Theatre Journal in 1983; I served as guest dance critic to the New Yorker during two six-month sabbaticals taken by Arlene Croce in 1988 and 1992; I was second dance critic to the Guardian newspaper (UK) in 1979-90 and have been second dance critic to the Financial Times since 1988. Since 1996, I have been chief dance critic to the Times Literary Supplement.
I taught dance history at BA and MA level between 1980 and 2002 at a number of British colleges, was chief examiner in dance history to the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing for 15 years (1987-2002), and have lectured about aspects of dance in the USA, Canada, and Italy as well as Britain. My former students include the choreographers Matthew Bourne and Lea Anderson, the critic Sophie Constanti, and the dance academics Angela Kane and Stacy Prickett.
I have spoken at dance conferences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley as well as London. See, for example, "Looking Out" (edited by David Gere), the proceedings of the 1990 Dance Critics Association Los Angeles conference on dance and multiculturalism; "Following Sir Fred's Steps" (edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andree Grau), the proceedings of the 1994 Roehampton Institute (UK) conference on Frederick Ashton; and "Revealing MacMillan," the proceedings of the 2002 Royal Academy of Dance (UK) conference on Kenneth MacMillan. The latter two conferences were my ideas, as were the 1999 Royal Academy of Dancing (as it was called then, UK) conference "The Fonteyn Phenomenon" and the 2000 Royal Opera House conference "Teaching Dance History." Within the dance world of London, I am well known as a lecturer on aspects of classical ballet at the Royal Opera House and in running focus days on the choreographers Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris.
Since 1990, my work as a full-time theater critic has often made this time-consuming commitment to dance exhausting. And yet I've needed to go on doing it, even in cases where there was no pay whatsoever. Why? Because I care about the art and history of dance, often passionately, sometimes obsessively, always, I hope, seriously.
PBI: I understand you've authored a biography of Frederick Ashton.
AM: No, this is an error. However, it is probably not too much to say that I am, with David Vaughan. Julie Kavanagh, and Stephanie Jordan, one of the four most expert writers on Ashton's choreography (those other three are all great friends of mine); I often write and lecture on his work; and I would love to write a book about his work one day.
PBI: Do you see yourself as a ballet specialist, or do you also feel qualified
to cover modern dance, and if so, why?
AM: I have written both a short biography of Margot Fonteyn and a much larger book of in-depth interviews with Matthew Bourne. She was a ballerina, he is a modern dance choreographer on the cusp of theater. Perhaps these two facts alone answer your question?
But I have also been at work since 1997 on a book on the choreography of Merce Cunningham, whose work I have watched since 1979. (When I was only 24, in 1980, I was given 10 minutes' advance notice to write an on-the-night review of a Cunningham opening night in London, which included a world premiere. My deadline was 11 p.m.. Does a critic's life get more terrifying? Only years later, when I had to write on-the-night reviews of world premieres by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard in 1996 and 1997, did I experience the same kind of supreme but thrilling challenge.) An extended essay by me occurs in the 2001 book on Mark Morris's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato." There are books on aspects of ballet history I hope to write if time allows: apart from Ashton, I passionately hope to write a biography of Adolphe Nourrit (1802-39), the tenor who wrote the libretto for the 1832 "La Sylphide." I hope this gives you an idea of the range of my tastes.
I feel qualified to write about both ballet and modern dance because I have followed both forms closely since the 1970s, and I have studied and taught the histories of both. To me, there should be no either/or about this. Any serious dance critic has long been aware of, and interested in, the extensive overlaps between ballet and modern dance.
And why just ballet and modern dance? Those aren't all the dance there is. I've also written about dance in Disney films, dance in the Astaire-Rogers movies, Indian dance, flamenco, ballroom, Pilobolus, and other genres. I do not claim to have expertise on all forms of dance, but I do not claim that expertise is a critic's starting-point anyway. A critic starts always in ignorance. What he/she does not know in advance of a performance is at least as important as the knowledge with which he/she arrives at that performance. What matters more are keenness of sensibility, a sense of the world outside dance, and the serious application of larger criteria. Above all, a critic needs a passion for the truth -- for what he/she feels to be true.
PBI: Will you be in charge of making review assignments?
AM: I shall be a central part of that process.
PBI: As I understand it, you currently work for the Financial Times, as
chief theater critic? On staff or freelance?
AM: I have been at the Financial Times since 1988. I began as its second dance critic, in which capacity I remain. I then also became one of its music critics, in which capacity I was fairly busy in the years 1988-94 (opera, chamber music, vocal recitals, symphony concerts). In 1990, I became one of the newspaper's full-time theater critics, and in 1994 I became its chief theater critic. I am freelance, but have received a retainer from the newspaper since 1989.
PBI: Who else have you written for, particularly on dance?
AM: As mentioned earlier, I was second dance critic to the Guardian in 1979-90, have been second dance critic to the FT since 1988, and have been chief dance critic to the Times Literary Supplement since 1996.
In the years 1978-97, I wrote extensively for Dancing Times (UK). Apart from editing (later, co-editing) Dance Theatre Journal in the years 1983-88, I wrote extensively for it in those years and again in the years 1993-97.
In the years 2004-07, I have written a series of mainly historical and analytical essays for Royal Opera House Covent Garden programs -- on ballets by Bournonville, Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine, and Ashton, on the Massenet music for MacMillan's "Manon," and on the opera "La Juive."
I have written occasionally for Ballet Review, the Village Voice, DCA News, Dance Magazine, the RAD Gazette and many other publications.
PBI: As far as you know, will Jennifer Dunning, as well as current
freelancers Gia Kourlas and Roslyn Sulcas, still be reviewing for the
AM: As far as I know, not only will they, but so will Claudia La Rocco. I have been in regular contact with Jennifer Dunning (whom I first met in 1980) since November about the posisbility of working together at the "Times."
The offer only materialized at the end of last week (February 8-9), I only spoke to the FT and considered their counter-offer on Monday (February 12), and only on the afternoon of Tuesday 13 (British time) did I advise both newspapers that I would be accepting the Times offer. My next immediate move was to make e-mail contact with Gia Kourlas (whom I had met in January), Claudia La Rocco (whom I have not yet met), and Roslyn Sulcas (whom I used to know years ago), and they have all made warm and enthusiastic replies. I like what I know of their work and am genuinely look forward to getting to know it and them better.
PBI: How do you see your role as a dance critic, generally and writing
for a newspaper?
AM: A critic describes, analyses, contextualises, interprets, evaluates. He/she also entertains: I mean this in the serious sense that Balanchine told Denby that ballet is entertainment. But the word "critic" is, obviously, intimately connected to the word "criteria." In that sense, what makes a critic good is his/her choice of criteria and his/her application of them. A critic is a professional aesthete, a reporter on the ostensible facts and the intimate effects of art, and a communicative writer with passions and values.
PBI: Will you be responsive to the NY dance community -- not, of course,
as pertains to your criticism but as far as listening to its feedback
on dance coverage?
AM: How can I say at this stage? The senior dance critic and editor Mary Clarke gave me in the 1970s the advice that the senior dance critic Arnold Haskell gave her in the 1940s: "Never predict."
PBI: As a British-based critic, what qualifies you for this position
over American candidates?
AM: I've written a great deal for the New Yorker, the Financial Times, and the Times Literary Supplement -- three publications for which the New York Times has great respect. As chief theater critic of the FT for over 13 years, I have very considerable experience of working for daily newspapers. I've written for many years about theater and music, and thus hope to bring some breadth to the area. I've been writing about dance for almost 29 years, and a large part of my dance writing has always been about American dance.
My first visits to the USA were all to see dance. On my first morning in New York, in January 1979, I stood in line for standing room places for New York City Ballet, and I did that for eight performances a week for three weeks. I was 23 years old, and I had withdrawn every bit of money I had to make the trip, all because the dance writing of Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce had inspired me to find out why on earth New York City Ballet prompted them to write such inspiring prose. Once I had bought my standing-room place, I used to spend every day in the New York Dance Collection, where I was a frequent visitor for many years (and will be again).
More recently, my visits to America have often been to see dance by Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, whose companies I've been to watch in New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Orange County, and St. Louis. I've also had the opportunity to follow their work and Christopher Wheeldon's in Europe, where all three choreographers have given major world premieres this millennium. My experience of American ballet companies goes back 30 years this year: I can still tell you who danced what at every single performance by American Ballet Theatre at the London Coliseum in the week of July 18-23, 1977. Thanks to the visits by American ballet companies to the Edinburgh Festival and London in recent years, I have had the chance to see some American ballet productions that have not been shown in New York, not to mention most of Christopher Wheeldon's many ballets for the London Royal Ballet.
As I've mentioned, in 1988 and 1992, I worked as guest dance critic for the New Yorker. I covered choreography by George Balanchine, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Peter Martins, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp and other American-based choreographers -- just as I've often covered them in Britain.
Since 1979, many of my best friends have been American dance critics and members of the American dance community; I'm looking forward to seeing more of them.