Critics & Criticism: Alastair Macaulay

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I started this blog in part to explore arts criticism — who does it and why, what makes good (and bad) criticism, etc.  Last year, for the first time I taught a theater criticism course at Penn, and found the experience rewarding and vexing.  (Complicated to explain — maybe I’ll try in another post.)  In preparation, I looked around for critics commenting on criticism — surprisingly, there wasn’t as much as I expected.  But this video of NY Times‘ dance critic Alastair Macaulay grabbed my attention immediately.  I didn’t end up using it in my class — too far outside the central focus, and probably it demands too much specialized knowledge.  But it made a deep impression on me, and I’m happy to share it here (link below).  Essentially, Macaulay is talking about the difficulty of finding language to explain dance, and he focuses on key moments in Swan Lake (at 2:58) and Sleeping Beauty (at 6:27).

Some of you may recall Macaulay from a dust-up that followed his 2010 review of a New York City Ballet Nutcracker, in which he commented that a particular ballerina was overweight.  That’s not all he said about it, of course, but that’s what fueled a firestorm.  There were outraged comments from readers; also further explanation (not apology) from Macaulay himself.  I won’t try to summarize it here (it’s easy enough to find on-line), but the lines were sharply drawn.  Though I personally thought Macaulay’s justification was valid, many didn’t — and dismissed him (and in some sense, criticism more generally) as impossibly finicky, often cruel, and inflicted by those who on some level hate the art form they’re employed to judge.

But the Alastair Macaulay we see in this video is nothing like that.  He’s thoughtful, articulate, sensitive.

A few points that really strike me:

  • The examples he chooses are not the big, virtuoso bits (Odette’s 32 fouetté pirouettes in Swan Lake; Aurora’s long balances in Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio).  They are (relatively speaking) not daunting technical challenges.  Both sequences are as much about grace, character and storytelling as they are about “steps.”  (For that matter, the Henry IV scene he mentions quickly when talking about theatre criticism is also not a traditional “big moment.”)
  • He recognizes that there are traditions here that exist for a reason (and he’s immensely knowledgeable about them, and clearly considers it part of his job to be a standard-bearer) — but he also expects that each interpreter has the freedom and responsibility to bring something fresh and personal to a work.
  • His passion for ballet is so palpable! — and such a refreshing corrective to the cliché that critics don’t actually love what they do.

Anyway, judge for yourselves.  (By the way, in addition to Macaulay’s interview, I’ve included links to the specific moments he mentions.  Balletomanes among you may have a sense without seeing them, but I think the illustrations are valuable.)

The Sleeping Beauty sequence is particularly intriguing in the clips below, because we can see six dancers in the same sequence. There is considerable reworking of the choreography (by Sylvie Guillem, especially); my sense is Diana Vishneva comes closest to presenting what Macaulay describes–but judge for yourselves! In any case, I’ve given the dancers’names and a time stamp for where to find the precise series of steps in the video montage.


2 replies »

  1. Alistair Macaulay’s reviews in the NYT — when I was reading the Times daily — often struck me as too fussy, but then I was reading them from 3000 miles away and without the opportunity to see the performances he was describing. But how could one not recognize and appreciate his passion and his knowledge of and respect for dance as an art form? (The overweight ballerina issue has nothing at all to do with art and everything to do with making weight-conscious non-dancers feel good about themselves.)

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