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December 13, 2006

Critiquing the Critics

Time Out New York has just published an article critiquing the New York critics in several fields including dance. Like much of what TONY does, it’s aimed more at titillation than at stimulating discussion. TONY decided to work in the form of a survey, which dooms the enterprise at the outset: There is too small a group of respondents (though there may be more I don't know, in the list of panelists I recognize seven names as dance professionals) for any type of real analysis. But numbers and rankings are more sexy than a discussion. I’m rather surprised TONY didn’t give each of them stars.

Here’s a do it yourself guide to evaluating a critic. It takes more work, but you’ll learn more from it:

Go to a performance, one popular enough that you know it will be reviewed by several papers. Think about what you saw. Now read every report you can possibly find on the same performance.

Apollinaire Scherr, a critic at Newsday, blogger at Artsjournal and one of those reviewed, wisely notes that, “to say that a critic's got ‘good taste’ is just saying, ‘She's like me!’” At the same time, how close a critic’s viewpoint is to your own – I refer to it as “overlap” – is important and useful to know when reading them. I’ve learned that certain colleagues will usually dislike something I enjoy and with others I have a relatively close overlap. Overlap does matter. Reading a review by someone with whom I have almost no overlap is like visiting a parallel universe. Often it’s instructive; sometimes it’s disorienting or even infuriating. Still, reading contrary opinions helps you define your own aesthetic.

There are less subjective criteria. Depth of viewing is important. Openness is as well, the openness to realize that each performance needs to be judged on its own merits, and that not only is ballet not modern, but French ballet is not American ballet is not English ballet is not Release Technique is not Graham is not Cunningham is not Tanztheatre. A critic should not judge one form or aesthetic by another’s goals. (And that, Mr. Rockwell, is another reason why the differences between them matter.) The nuts and bolts of being a good writer matter as well, although there is one writer I can think of, who when someone criticized that critic’s pedestrian writing style, I responded, “But at least I know I went to the same performance.”

Update 12/15/2006: More thoughts on the subject here.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at December 13, 2006 6:49 PM

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Good points. Well made. I would also say that for those of us who rely on critics to choose what to go and see, you then come to rely on ones with considerable overlap. Or at least ones where you can engage with what they say and come to your own conclusions.

The thing about respect for the genre is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to film critics. I happen to like a good romantic comedy from time to time. But lots of critics seem to think the whole genre is pointless so it is almost impossible to find out if a particular film is a good or a bad film *of that genre*.

Posted by: JoVE at December 13, 2006 9:46 PM

I liked reading your opinions about this, especially since I read the article at TONY last night and thought "What?" they blasted a lot of the critics I like. Haha, it made me second guess my taste.

Your post reminded me of something totally unrelated, but a quote from you that I'm always repeating. A while ago you posted something about reviewing and you noted that you always review "in proportion." I've been keeping that in the back of my mind every time I go on an assignment. It's like, my semi-mantra!

Posted by: Ariel at December 14, 2006 10:50 PM

Ariel - good to hear from you. Proportion matters, and it takes depth of viewing to get it. It's just as dangerous to slam Mobile Ballet for not being the Mariinsky as it is to praise Mobile Ballet as if it were. The more you see, the better you can calibrate.

Jo - Hello as well! It's interesting to realize that critics are important as a "consumer guide" function - especially if you're writing for a general publication. I use critics like that as well; mostly to tell me to check out something unfamiliar. I also understand the difficulty with genres. There are some sorts of dance I just plain old don't like. Even if I can avoid slamming them for being of that genre, I still can't write like I enjoyed watching them. Unlike writers in dailies, I can often avoid those assignments, and that is often the best solution - although on occasion my editor will send me to something specifically because I don't like it and she's relying on me to round out the picture. Not to slam the performance, but in a situation where we've already published raves and she wants a reasoned dissent.

Posted by: Leigh Witchel at December 14, 2006 11:16 PM

So, speaking of critics, did you see Terry Teachout's piece in the NYT today? He was writing about Christopher Wheeldon striking out and forming his own dance company. Estimated annual budget $5 million (hope he's got a big line of credit on his credit card).

I expect that TT is right about the fact that Wheeldon is known for his works for larger companies than the 20 dancers he plans to have.

The thing that struck me as a bit off the mark was TT's comment that "He became New York City Ballet's resident choreogrphaer in 2001 and since then every other company in the world has either commissioned a Wheeldon ballet or wants one." I am assuming he's indulging in a bit of journalistic hyperbole, but I'd be interested to know what you think of this comment and of the rest of the article.

Posted by: Margaret at January 20, 2007 8:35 PM

Oops - I forgot to put
on that last comment. Does it still count?

Posted by: Margaret at January 20, 2007 8:36 PM

Teachout's article is in the WSJ rather than the Times, and it's behind a subscriber wall, which spares me from critiquing it.

Wheeldon's choreography? I'm perpetually divided on it, usually from ballet to ballet. I think he has ability and talent. I don't usually believe he's saying what he actually thinks, rather what he thinks we'd like to hear.

As for Wheeldon's company, when he has the money, we'll know it. $5 million is a lot to raise without an individual backer who serves as an anchor to line up other donations. My guess is that it will be pick-up work.

Posted by: Leigh Witchel at January 21, 2007 12:24 AM

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