The Playgoer: Lazy Criticism

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Lazy Criticism

Here's a nice rant from dance critic/blogger Alexandra Tomalonis. I confess to knowing little about dance--it's a real blind spot for me, which is inexcusable as a critic of "performance"--but I find much, shall we say, relevance in what she's saying to theatre and, for that matter, all arts criticism.

Worth quoting at length. Context is the a recent ballet opening in Phoenix and the review in the main paper there.

Richard Nilsen, the Arizona Republic's arts critic, spent most of his review telling us not how the company presented the crown of Romantic Ballet, not how this or that dancer compared with famous dancers in "Giselle's" personal pantheon, not even what the production looked like, but that "Giselle" should no longer be danced: "a relic of an extinct zeitgeist, and one we are well rid of."

Well, that's that. The Kymer Rouge approach to arts criticism: if it's old, or you don't understand it, smash it. Nilsen, of course, is more than welcome to detest "Giselle" or find it boring, but usually when a critic is in such a pickle, he squares his shoulders and writes about what's onstage. The audience doesn't want to read, "I've been watching 'Nutcracker' for 20 years and if I see one more party scene I'm going to scream," and if someone is forced to write a review of "Sleeping Beauty" who hasn't thought of it as anything more than a fairy tale she thrilled to when she was three, she might take an hour or so to read about the ballet and find out why it's considered a masterpiece.

I don't fault Nilsen for the review. He explains his point of view very clearly and bends over backwards to be fair to the dancers. I fault the editors who do not seem to understand the responsibilities of a newspaper to its readers and the arts. Once upon a time, newspapers in large cities had dance — and music, and art, and literary — critics who knew their subjects thoroughly. Once upon a time, an editor working on a review that took so much space to object to the existence of a work rather than explaining, analyzing, or commenting upon the production or the performance would have pointed this out, and guided the writer. Once upon a time, an editor, even a weekend editor, would have known that "Giselle" wasn't an odd, obscure little ballet that a whimsical artistic director had misguidedly inflicted upon the public, but a masterpiece that is currently in the repertory of every major ballet company in the world.

Bashing "Giselle" for its existence is on a par with giving the same treatment to "Hamlet" or "Faust" (Oh, come on. Does anyone really sell his soul to the Devil these days?) Complaining about mime in ballet is like complaining about recitative in opera (They should cut the monotone stuff and stick to the hit tunes.)

....Someone new to ballet who saw the production will look in vain in this review for guidance as to what the ballet is about or how it was danced in any detail, and someone who was thinking about going to the ballet might be discouraged. Classical ballet is relatively new to Phoenix, and newspapers once took that into account, understanding that it was part of their mission to educate readers. The Arizona Republic ran a preview piece: Giant canine will take center stage for"Giselle" which may have brought a few dog lovers to the ballet, but didn't explain transcendentalism, or why a work of art whose premise is that love can outlast death might possibly still be relevant.

And so such a review matters to Phoenix, which is one of the largest cities in America now, and one trying to attract residents by building world class performing arts companies. How will a ballet company, a symphony, an opera company, and/or serious theater troupes grow in such an atmosphere? Reading dance criticism today (in many cities, not merely Phoenix) one sees that editors know little about the arts, and seem to care less. Many reviews are of the level one could read in smaller American newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s, when there really wasn't much ballet in America and one could forgive a critic for not having seen much. There were no videos, no DVDs, and very little to read. Some of those old reviews were superficial, or slightly off-kilter (often written by music critics, pressed into service for the once-yearly ballet performance by a touring company), but for the most part the writers understood the context of the works, and the art form, they were writing about. Otherwise, criticism is piffle — not the "sentimental piffle" that this review called "Giselle," but just plain piffle.

1 comment:

Rob Kendt said...

Wow, that's a blast from the past. Some of my first pro journo clips were for the Republic, and some were edited by Nilsen. He may not be his own assigning editor now, but I would venture to say that he has the depth and breadth of knowledge to say what he says in his review. Tomalonis' complaint that Nilsen is lazy and under-informed doesn't square with his review, which if anything errs too much on the side of specialized knowledge, over-cultivated opinion--in a word, snobbery. Having had some experience of covering the arts in Phoenix--which has a decent symphony and a good regional theater, as well as one of the best museums of Native American art in the world--I can tell you that holding oneself above local attempts at high culture is an occupational/geographical hazard--it comes with the territory, literally. Tomalonis goes on to worry that the biased Nilsen will be "the only critic who will ever write about" Ballet Arizona. But there's also the New Times (yes, that New Times).