La Petite Mort: Alastair Macaulay and the Death of Dance Criticism

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Mr. Jacobs: Good morning, boys and girls.

Class: Good morning, Mr. Jacobs.

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Mr. Jacobs: Very nice. Billy, fix your tie. Much better. Today, boys and girls, in Remedial Arts Criticism class, we’re going to discuss how not to be a complete and utter jackass when writing a review.

Billy: Can I ask a question?

Mr. Jacobs: No, Billy, you cannot go to the bathroom. Your last symphony orchestra review paid not nearly sufficient attention to the brass section, and your summation of the woodwinds totally blew. Hold it.

Billy: [sulking] All right.

Mr. Jacobs: Pain is good for you, Billy, if you’re an arts critic. Better you should suffer like artists so you might actually know something of their daily lives. Class, today we’ll consider the Senior Dance Critic of the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay. Lately, he’s been a very bad critic, you know.

Cindy: What makes a critic “bad,” Mr. Jacobs?

Mr. Jacobs: Cindy, I’m so glad you ask! It’s certainly much more pertinent than going to the bathroom. A bad critic is someone, for example, unable or unwilling to distinguish between the performance given by an artist — an actor, say, or a dancer or a musician — and the physical characteristics of the performer himself or herself. In other words, John Simon, the theater critic, was criticized for how he reviewed actress Zoe Caldwell in the original Off-Broadway version of the musical Colette, written by The Fantasticks creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. In the edition of New York magazine of May 25, 1970, Simon wrote:

Miss Caldwell is an actress of glibly spectacular competence, who once, working at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, exhibited something more than that. In New York, she merely exhibits herself, whether in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or in the crime against Mme. Colette, a performance that is all shoddy histrionic trickery.

Cindy: But why is that unfair, Mr. Jacobs? Simon didn’t write anything about Caldwell physically, he merely panned her acting and did so with vigor.

Mr. Jacobs: That’s true, Cindy. But Simon wasn’t content to talk about Caldwell’s acting — which is where his job as a critic should have begun and ended. To viciously attack someone’s physical characteristics for the sake of going after their physical characteristics is unethical, not to mention gratuitous and lame. Shall I read more of Simon’s review?

Billy: Anything to get me closer to the bathroom, Mr. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs: Your suffering is endearing, Billy. All right:

…Miss Caldwell is fat and unattractive in every part of the face, body and limbs, though I must admit that I have not examined her teeth. When she climactically bears her sprawlingly uberous left breast, the sight is almost enough to drive the heterosexual third of the audience screaming into the camp of the majority. Colette had sex appeal; Miss Caldwell has sex repeal.

Cindy: Wow, Mr. Jacobs. John Simon’s an asshole.

Mr. Jacobs: A gratuitous asshole, Cindy. Big difference.

Billy: What does this have to do with Alastair Macaulay?

Mr. Jacobs: Plenty, Billy. In a recent review of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Macaulay apparently decided that panning the dancing he saw was not good enough, or at least not unburdening enough. Instead, Macaulay lampooned the physical attributes of two of the dancers in a fashion that would not have tonally unwelcome to Pol Pot:

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. They’re among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity.

Cindy: Wow, Mr. Jacobs. Macaulay’s an asshole, too.

Mr. Jacobs: Gratuitous, Cindy. Don’t omit your adjectives. Make them your friends. And also, think about what some people have been writing about Macaulay in the wake of his review. Here’s Jennifer Edwards in the Huffington Post:

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…this Perez Hilton-esque comment degrades not only the work of the dancers, but the art of cultural criticism. Commentary of this nature does nothing to educate, inspire, or bring about innovation in the field. Additionally, it’s the responsibility of not only the critic but also the media outlet and its audience to maintain certain standards.

Billy: But what, Mr. Jacobs, should those standards be? Who gets to decide?

Mr. Jacobs: Good thing you’ve taken your mind off urinating, Billy, because a lot of people — pissed off people — are on that very subject right now. For one thing, we must determine what, in fact, constitutes gratuitousness. In other words, Macaulay could have just as easily stated that Ringer and Angle are “among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity”; it’s clearly within the purview of any critic to consider the quality of a performer’s performance. Looking like one has eaten one sugar plum too many, looking like one has sampled “half the Sweet realm,” however, does not evaluate performance, it evaluates a waistline and tells the reader nothing about the aesthetic value of the event. In addition, as a matter of well-written English, discussing the consumption of sugar plums does not inevitably lead the reader to what qualifies as “adult depth or complexity.” Indeed, one has nothing to do with the other — Macaulay, it seems to me, ran out of things to say and put his critical skills on autopilot while he, like you will in a few moments, Billy, went to the metaphorical bathroom. I ought to note, by the way, that the person Edwards went to for additional comment, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, took a shot at Macaulay nearly a year ago on her blog, condemning him for “holding down a position of outsized power that he never merited,” and not actually going to the dance often enough to remotely justify his points of view. Macaulay, Yaa Asantewaa wrote last January, far too boldly idolizes “elite choreographers” and is, therefore, simply ignorant about dance as a discipline as well as an industry. As if to capitalize on this criticism of the critic, Edwards noted that Ringer “has discussed in both Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine that she struggles with an eating disorder,” thus underscoring the idea that Macaulay’s plum-eating comment is plum-nasty.

“I do not know if Macaulay is aware of Ringer’s history,” Yaa Asantewaa is quoted as saying in Edwards’ article, “but even if he is not, his slam at her size was a slapdash choice and an abusive one.” To be sure, Macaulay would argue to the contrary — like John Simon, he undoubtedly believes that everything is game. Of course, everything is not game — it’s only game if the New York Times (or Simon’s old employer, New York magazine) deems it acceptable. For heaven’s sake, even Perez Hilton thinks Macaulay was out of line. In quibbling response, Macaulay wrote a think piece basically defending his actions, and spent a good chunk of the article describing his own physical challenges in a bizarre example of inchoate me-too-ism. One wonders what Macaulay would say about Jerry’s Kids if he had cerebral palsy, too.

Billy: Mr. Jacobs, can I review your presentation?

Mr. Jacobs: Sure thing, Billy. That would be ironic.

Billy: It sucks. If you don’t let me go, I’m going to pee right now.

Mr. Jacobs: [chuckling ostentatiously] All right. You were a good sport.

[Billy exits, sticking his tongue out at Mr. Jacobs as he leaves the room.]

Cindy: He’s a pain in my ass, Mr. Jacobs. Billy thinks gratuitousness is fine in arts criticism. In fact, he’s not peeing right now. He’s writing a review of Elaine Stritch in A Little Night Music. He thinks she’s too old to play Leonora Armfeldt.

Mr. Jacobs: Not everybody agrees about this, Cindy. That’s why Billy will end up a raging alcoholic in the gutter where he belongs someday. What this does do, though, is give me a chance to share something. Do you know Patrice Miller?

Cindy: I think I’m about to.

Mr. Jacobs: Yes, you are. Patrice Miller is — I’m quoting — “a producer, director, sometime choreographer and at-all-times educator in the performing arts in New York City.” And she’s furious about this Macaulay situation.

Cindy: I can imagine.

Mr. Jacobs: You can do more than imagine, Cindy! She wrote me a long, two-part email about Macaulay and gave me permission to publish it on the Clyde Fitch Report. I think everybody should respond to this. Here it is:

Part I:

Sometime back you wrote a post about Wendy Perron’s basically anti-blogger piece and rightfully challenged her on it. Was Perron’s request for dancers to stop writing a bigger comment on dance journalism itself? The past weeks have been particularly uninspiring in the dance criticism world, and I have found myself in a similar position as Perron — except I’m not asking choreographers to stop blogging, I’m asking critics to stop writing. Specifically, two recent pieces from the New York Times are what I’m referring to. First, Alastair Macaulay’s review of the Complexions dance company has caused quite the stir among the major companies — Ailey, ABT and other major companies have been writing and calling the artistic directors of Complexions ever since, in support of the company, something very rarely seen in the dance world. And, second, there’s Toni Bentley’s review of a new ballet history book.

The issue present in these two “reviews” is not the actual criticism but the improper and, frankly, uneducated tone and structure. These two articles, published by an institution that for the past century has been an integral part of American dance history through its critics, point to a disturbing trend in dance criticism, and possibly arts criticism in general. And that is: the true lack of criticism itself. What happened to the academically-minded critic who evaluated work based on an evolving aesthetic and vocabulary, who challenged creators to live up to actual ideals, who could write a complex sentence?

I believe the state of dance criticism is bordering on dismal and needs to be addressed.

Part II:

The above remarks may have been a bit reactionary, at least with that initial Macaulay call-out. However, his review of The Nutcracker, with his criticism of Jennifer Ringer and Jared Angle having eaten sweets themselves — at the very least sloppy, at the very worst unprofessional and uncalled for — seems to speak to my general understanding that dance criticism is a dying, if not dead, art. Reading Macaulay’s criticism in the context of the entire paragraph, it would seem he’s referring to the lack of depth in their performance, perhaps comparing it to a sugar-high crash. However, it doesn’t read clearly like that; it sounds more like an attack on the dancer’s bodies and the blogosphere has caught on to it. (I’ve received a couple of “WTF?!” emails from friends who aren’t dance readers but are involved in feminist and body image causes.) That a New York Times dance critic would even be thought to comment on something like that — especially in the case of City Ballet and Ringer and Angle — is scary. This is the institution that published John Martin?