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Clive Barnes, Rest in Peace

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 The Dance Insider

If there's a Heaven and it has a theater, Clive Barnes has probably just taken his preferred seat to watch the new solo being created by Gerald Arpino for Rosella Hightower. And the subsequent thrilling, erudite, and witty review in the Paradise Post -- positive or negative -- will no doubt increase the audience for dance in the Great Beyond. (Oh look: Paul Newman has just taken his seat behind Clive's; but you know who the dancers in the audience are watching before the curtain rises.)

Barnes, the reigning dean of newspaper dance criticism -- while he also wrote for specialist magazines, it was as a mass-circulation newspaper critic that he helped popularize dance -- passed away Thursday at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, at the age of 81, from cancer-related complications, reported the New York Times, where Barnes spent 13 years as dance and sometimes theater critic. For the last 30 -- up until a few weeks ago -- he worked tirelessly as dance and theater critic at the New York Post. He began his professional dance writing career at Britain's New Statesman more than half a century ago, was appointed the first dance critic of the Times of London in 1961, and was brought across the Ocean by the New York Times in 1965. If Barnes had one over-riding achievement, it was his key role in popularizing ballet and dance through lively writing that did not depend on reader dance literacy to be riveting, even if those in the know could reap extra benefits. (For piquant examples of his reviews, the responses they sometimes incited from theater world luminaries, and a complete assessment of his career, see the Times obit, written by William Grimes with reporting from Anna Kisselgoff.)

Richard Philp, the respected longtime editor of Dance Magazine, where Barnes began his must-read Attitudes column in 1989, said Thursday, "He was one of my closest friends over many years -- almost 40 years -- and in this life you don't have many close friends; he was an influence on so many of the decisions I made, both professional and personal -- and perhaps it is the personal that has been the most important to me: At the end of our long phone conversations he used to say, 'There, I just saved you $150 talking to a psychiatrist,' and indeed he had, many times, many times, over many years. A close friend, a substitute father, a profound influence, a source of continuing encouragement. This is a very hard loss personally and, of course, professionally."

Reached Thursday, Alastair Macaulay, the Times's current chief dance critic -- also lured to U.S. shores from Great Britain -- told the Dance Insider, "My path crossed with his relatively little until the last 18 months; he moved to New York when I was about 11 years old. He expressed delight that the New York Times invited me to become its dance critic, was complimentary on my work here, and was a colleague of unfailing good cheer and good manners. He, [his wife] Valerie, and I had a very happy, gossippy, laughter-laden lunch in July, and we all hoped to follow it with another soon.

"Curiously, I am least acquainted with his work for the New York Times, though I remember reading and re-reading his 1974 reviews of the Royal Ballet season in New York when they were reproduced in a Royal Opera House publication ("About the House"), and some of his points about repertory and dancers entered into my bloodstream. (One of them, about Ashton's "Symphonic Variations," I later borrowed in a 1992 New Yorker essay about that ballet. Since Julie Kavanagh then quoted my point in her 1996 biography of Ashton, I felt a pang of guilt in having not acknowledged Clive; and this summer, when I found that part of her biography was in Robert Gottlieb's 'Reading Dance' anthology, I wrote to Clive to say so. He wrote back to say that any such apology or acknowledgement was unnecessary, and that critics inevitably borrow from each other as they continue to cover the same ground.)

"Over the years, I did become acquainted with some of his work for [UK dance publication] Dance and Dancers going back to the 1950s, and this, coupled with his excellent 1961 study of Ashton ballets, struck me as marvelous journalism and often brilliant analysis. I think it was I who drew the Ashton study to Bob Gottlieb's attention, I'm delighted that he included part of it in his anthology, and I was proud to be able to tell Clive so this summer."

To get an idea of the mammoth assignment that confronted Barnes in covering the dance scene in New York, and the mammoth energy -- and conscientiousness -- with which he met the task, take a look at this passage from our late colleague (and dear friend to Clive) Joseph H. Mazo's "Dance is a Contact Sport" (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1974 and Da Capo, 1976), in which Joe chronicled a season in the life of New York City Ballet. (Pay attention particularly to the last line.)

"The company knows there is competition in town," Mazo begins, setting the scene for opening night of the Spring 1973 season. "Nobody expects a full house or full press coverage. They know there are three major dance events tonight, and the only paper in town with three dance critics is the Times. NYCB is not offering a premiere. It is not showing a new star. It has not been off the boards for several years. It is just coming home, as it does every fall and spring. There's more news when the swallows come back to Capistrano. Clive Barnes, the leading dance and theater critic for the New York Times, is not here tonight. Many people think he is a very good critic, others insist he is a very bad critic, but nobody denies that he is a very important critic, perhaps the most important in the world. If you were first-string dance critic for the New York Times, you would be the most important dance critic in the world, and NYCB would very much like to have you at its opening night. Clive hardly ever can attend an NYCB opening, though, because there almost always is something else going on that takes priority. Frequently, he must cover the first night of a season too short to delay review."

Philip W. Sandstrom, an arts producer and Dance Insider critic, believes that Barnes himself would have provided great material for spectacle. "When Clive Barnes hosted the Dance Magazine awards, I was enthralled by his presence as part of the history of dance, his irreverence toward the players, and his comic portrayal of any number of ballet stars of the past and present," Sandstrom said Thursday. "His reviews, though sometimes irregular (whose aren't?), were always crystal clear; you knew where he stood. His highly opinionated writings reflected his sense of history; he'd seen more than a lifetime of work. A few years ago, I approached him to star in an Off-Broadway show about himself. He would play himself and wax about a current or historical dance performance. He was so colorful and so many people had an interest in what he had to say that I thought the show would be a hit by word of mouth alone. This format would be interspersed with live interviews of choreographers and dances from current productions. Clive would grill them on the nature of their work or whatever struck his fancy.

"I was hoping that the show, which would be taped each night, would be his legacy. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the project never got off the ground. Too bad -- it would be nice to revisit a good Clive tongue lashing, just to appreciate his genius one more time.

"He was bigger than life. The dance reviewing community and history will sorely miss him. R.I.P."

Harris Green, a contributor to Macfadden publications and to the Dance Insider, and who worked with him as an editor at Dance Magazine, said that it was precisely that sense of history which meant that Barnes "had seen enough to know what to be impressed by and what not to be impressed by."

"Clive was the only contributor to Dance Magazine who never put up any resistance to any changes I, as features editor from 1994-2000, may have had to make to his copy," Green recalled. "One regular contributor to the Village Voice had responded to my improvements by complaining to editor in chief Richard Philp that it was 'no longer any fun to write for Dance Magazine.' One shameless fount of rancid journalese was so aggrieved by a re-write that she had lied to Richard about my reducing her daughter to tears over the phone by the way I had asked her to relay my request for source material. Not Clive. I regularly had to remove anywhere from eight to 12 lines from his column because it ran too long. Once, after I had faxed him the amended copy for his approval of my surgery, he said, 'Harris, I can't tell where you cut me.' 'Clive,' I said, 'I just took out all the "perhaps."' He did have a habit of interjecting a second, contradictory thought after a firmly stated opinion. At his frequent best, however, he brought his readers an informed historical perspective that few dance writers can match today. Writing about 'Coppelia,' for instance, other critics would contrast the Swanildas of the 1960s and '70s. His standard had been set 20 years earlier, by Alexandra Danilova. Such experience will be missed and so will he."

I did not know Clive well. We crossed paths at Dance Magazine, and if I didn't always realize it at the time, I see now, in the scrutiny he would later level on the Dance Insider, particularly my own sometimes brutal criticism, yet another sign of the seriousness with which Clive took dance -- and our metier. (And also, perhaps, the protectiveness he felt towards it, a concern over its fragility which might explain the diplomacy he sometimes exercised.) In his columns at Dance Magazine, he had the unique, seemingly contradictory abilities of speaking from authority and with humanity. You respected his knowledge, but didn't feel he was flaunting it before you -- he was more interested in infecting you with his enthusiasm than impressing you with his facts.

As reported by the Times, Clive Barnes is survived by his wife Valerie Taylor Barnes, a son, Christopher, of London; a daughter, Maya Johansen, of Woodstock, N.Y., and two grandchildren.

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