Critical thinking: reviews redux

I know, I know, I go on about reviews and reviewing, but apart from personal feelings, they matter. I was recently criticized in a chat-forum (link omitted for reasons of taste) for being ‘mean’ to some of the New York City Ballet dancers who appeared in London on a tour (I said they weren’t very good). The feelings of the post-ers was that the some of the dancers I had mentioned were young, and replacing more senior dancers who were injured and unable to appear. This of course is a chronic problem for dance companies.

But in a way, as a reviewer, it is none of my business. Instead, the question for me as a reviewer, is who am I writing for? The dancers? I don’t think so: not my job. My job, is to give my opinion and (hopefully) an informed perspective based on wide viewing over (ahem) four decades, to explain why I think something is good, bad or indifferent; but it is also to say to potential audiences, ‘go/don’t go’. The top price tickets at the Coliseum for that tour were £90: give or take, $150. My responsibility is not to be kind to dancers, but to say, ‘Yes, spend your money here’; ‘No, don’t bother, not worth it.’

I covered the Royal Ballet’s most recent Triple Bill last night (reviewed here). I had recently seen their new Alice in Wonderland, and didn’t much care for it (review in TLS forthcoming). But the Triple was a thrill, and I left the theatre remembering why it is I am so passionate about this art-form. My review is not so much a review, as an attempt to recreate that thrill: I was giving a little of the history of Ashton’s Rhapsody, to be sure, but also saying, ‘God, yes, rush right over and grab a fistful of tickets! This is the performance and the dancer you want to tell your grandchildren you saw!’

And I think most people recognize that these are the elements of reviewing. There is a fascinating piece today in the WSJ (here) on the truly farcical situation the Cleveland Orchestra has got itself into. Short version: the Cleveland Orchestra hated the reviews that the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s critic was writing about them. Instead of kicking the newspaper around (my preferred method), it kicked the newspaper’s hierarchy around. And the newspaper responded by getting rid of the critic. The story is long and messy and depressing. But the upshot, apparently, is that the orchestra has now hired itself a pet: a ‘critic-in-residence’ to produce a blog filled with bright and shiny features about their wonderfulness.

He writes on his (orchestra-approved) blog: ‘Comment on the concert you are about to experience. Review if you wish, if you must.’ Where to start with those sentences? Listeners/audiences should comment before they hear the concert? Comment on what? The performance that hasn’t happened? Then they should review it, ‘if you must‘? — that is, if you can’t control your disgusting impules to prefer one style over another, commend some artistic decisions while feeling others have not succeeded? According to the WSJ, this c-i-r’s own judgement is nuanced and delicate: one piece ends: ‘As my 18-year-old jock hip-hopper college freshman would say, “What a beast!”‘

Readers and audiences are not fooled by this kind of non-criticism, and even more, they are not interested in it; the blog is garnering about three comments a month. Being criticized is no fun. I know. I’ve been there, and no doubt will be there again. But I’m a big girl, and as long as a review is about my work, not about my haircut, my morals or my nasty habit of eating cashews with my mouth open, it’s fine. Not fun, but fine. I’ve even learnt from reviews, and taken things on board in my next books.

I’m sure those NYCB dancers I was ‘mean’ about are fine too. And probably the Cleveland Orchestra musicians are too (if not their trembly bosses).

And do go and see Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody. You won’t regret it.

4 thoughts on “Critical thinking: reviews redux

  1. One thought when criticising NYCB, and I’ve been fairly tough in this respect myself, is that there’s no like-for-like comparison with the Royal Ballet. Say what you like about City Ballet, they are all Americans, home-recruited and home-trained, mostly at SAB. The Royal, on the other hand, goes round the world cherry-picking competition winners, and has – what is it? – more than 30 nationalities represented. So the overall standard is likely to be stronger. But I suspect that City Ballet’s engagement with its home audience is of a subtly different character than the Royal’s. I suspect that, at times, it must be like supporting a rather wobbly football team. It’s an up and down experience but you go because that’s where your allegiance lies. Hard to get that across in a review, of course.

  2. I agree: and when you can get a great seat for $40 and a good one for much less, it’s no skin of anyone’s nose: like supporting Accrington Stanley. But at £90?
    And (given my North American background) I also think that technically NYCB dancers are very often superior to ‘our’ dancers. What I was objecting to was the lack of performance style: some dancers giving transcedent performances, some looking like they were in Holiday on Ice. Nothing to do with standards of dance, but lack of teaching of/concern for what it is you are doing onstage apart from the steps.

    • You’re right, and it’s odd. The first night of their last season here, at the Coliseum, was a mess. Some really indifferent, uncaring performances. And then the next time I saw them, a couple of days later, it could have been another company. Actually, I think they often look very stale in Balanchine. Very much Oh God, here we go again…

  3. Very much what Suzanne Farrell described as the ‘Who are you dancing *for*?’ question. But then, I never felt Darcey Bussell knew who she was dancing for — or even that that was a useful question to ask…

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