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Writers' Archive

What Critics Do

By Joan Acocella
copyright 1992 by Joan Acocella

[Note:  This piece originally appeared in Dance Ink in the Summer 1992 issue and is reprinted with permission.]

Do critics come into the theater with immovable biases?

No one who is over a day old wakes up in the morning without some biases, or expectations born of experience. Where one has met with good one expects good again—likewise the bad—and most critics try to design their reviewing schedules on that basis. They try to work it so that they will get to review the concerts they think will be most interesting.

But that still leaves many concerts that, however bad the critic expects them to be, nevertheless have to be reviewed because the critic or the editor thinks they're important to the public. Either it's a big, foreign ballet company, or the choreographer is considered one of the immortals, or something else. And in such a case, the critic is not sorry to go. If the public has been bombarded with ads and flyers and advance pieces saying that the impending attraction is wonderful, and if people are being asked to pay fifty dollars to get in (or ninety-five dollars, in the case of an orchestra seat for the Boishoi Ballet's last New York season), and if that company is in fact not so good, it is the critic's job to be there and say so. To do this is not unpleasant.

Really, it's childish to ask that a critic be without biases. Taste, some sense of judgment about the field, is a large part of what a magazine or newspaper is buying when hiring a critic. All one wants is that those tastes should not be unduly restricting. What people should worry about is not critics who have biases, but critics who have no biases, no fidelity to their own experience, and who therefore are willing to go with what the publicity machine tells them.

Do critics talk to each other in the lobby? Do they make up their minds together around the drinking fountain?

Those who are friends talk to one another, and they do discuss the performance. In the process, they unquestionably influence each other, but in subtle ways. Critic A Will Say, "Did you see that wonderful dancer with the crew cut?" or "The set is such a fright!" Whereupon critics B and C, if they didn't pay much attention to the set or the dancer with the crew cut before, will notice them when they go back in after intermission, and they may end up liking or disliking them enough to mention this in their reviews. But very seldom, in my experience, does it happen that critic B will come out and say, "What a wonderful piece" and then, upon hearing critic A disparage the piece, change his or her mind and trash the piece in print.

In fact, what usually occurs is the opposite. When two critics disagree in conversation in the lobby or the subway, this forces them to amplify and defend their opinions. In the process, those opinions acquire a certain solidity that they didn't have before; they become the seed of those respective reviews. Furthermore, once the person has made the defense, he or she can't go back on it in print without losing face. So those lobby confabs foster as much disagreement as agreement.

Where influence occurs is not so much in the lobby as in the whole history of relationships between critics, in the innumerable cups of coffee and phone conversations they have had, in the conferences they have attended together and the plane trips they took to get there, during which they have talked and talked about dance and built up their ideas together. This process may foster agreement, but it is not the kind of agreement one would want to do away with. It's not unanimity; it is a set of shared principles about what the main issues are--what dance consists of, what it is about-and without those principles there can be no decent thinking about individual performances. If you haven't thought about the relationship of dance to music, you'll be in a poor position to write about Merce Cunningham or George Balanchine or Mark Morris, and the way such thinking usually gets started is through conversation. If there's one thing that is an absolute constant at the Dance Critics Association annual conferences, it is that the critics from the smaller cities will complain that they have no one to talk to--they are the only dance critic in town-and therefore, they feel, they remain narrow, unchallenged.

Every community of people that is making or writing about art is aswarm with influence, and this is how it should be. Should Picasso and Braque have had less influence on each other?

What extra-artistic considerations affect reviewing?

1. Political considerations. It is very hard, today, to criticize a dance piece about AIDS, though many of these pieces, however serious their subject, amount to very little artistically. One also takes a deep breath before finding fault with a piece about racism. In New York, the majority of dance critics over thirty are liberals, and this absolutely affects reviewing.

2. Practical/financial considerations. Particularly today, when advertising revenues are down, all critics are locked into a contest for space. How often will they get to write? How many column inches will they get? Where will the piece be placed? The answers to these questions will determine not only how much they get paid but how much they get to say about the field and hence, in some measure, how important they are- how many people listen when they speak.

Space is thus very, very important. How can critics influence their editors on this score? Together with their talent as writers (and in the case of most publications, far more than their talent as writers), the thing that will determine the editor's decision is the health of the field itself. Is dance hot? Are masterpieces being produced? Are terrific young people coming up? In other words, is there any news here? The next time you open a newspaper and see an unremarkable new work being proclaimed a masterpiece or a middling talent being declared a young genius, think of this.

I do not mean to make it sound so venal. Very rarely, I would guess, does the critic consciously descend to the calculation, "If I praise this guy to the hilt, I'll get a lot of space to do so, and that will help me keep my job.' Those facts are there, and no one is unaware of them, but usually, I think, the mental process hovers around the level of the critic's wish that the field be going strong. Oil riggers wish for the health of the petroleum industry; dance critics wish for the health of dance. And wishing will make it so.

3. Psychological considerations. Above all, the wish to appear judicious. Together with a concern for the health of the field, the desire to seem judicious leads to what I call the Rule of One: the unspoken rule that when a concert or a series of concerts is really bad through and through, the critic must nevertheless pick out one work to praise. Before Serge Diaghilev founded a ballet company, he was, among other things, an art critic, and in 1899 he wrote an article pleading with Russian art critics not to praise a painting simply because it was the best painting in the show they were reviewing. The principle Diaghilev was attacking here is still with us, and it is an essentially conservative principle. The idea is that if this event is 'ours'-if it has been put on in our town or by our ballet company or by a choreographer whom our dance history books say is good-then it must be sort of okay. But sometimes it isn't okay, and to shift the emphasis from that fact to the one little item in the program that was not quite as bad as the others is to distort the truth in favor, again, of a wish.

4. Rhetorical considerations. Readers of book reviews may have noticed that such reviews are often written in sonata-allegro form: ABA.
    A. This is a good book, and here are the good things about it.
    B.  There are some bad things about it too, and here's what they are.
    C. Still, it's a good book.

A lot of dance reviews are written in the same form. You can recognize it. just look for the paragraph beginning "The piece is not without its problems" about halfway through and then the paragraph beginning 'Nevertheless' about two inches from the end.

For dance reviewers as for composers, part of the attraction OFABA form is its pleasing symmetry. It also has the appeal of seeming judicious. The reviewer has tallied up the good and the bad and is giving you the full, unslanted report.

It is not unslanted, though. It is slanted toward whatever the A point is, and the A point is usually praise. Though ABA form can be employed for negative reviews-A. this piece was terrible; B. it had a few good points; A. but really, it was terrible-it is normally used for positive reviews, and often it serves as a mechanism by which a reviewer can turn a negative or a mixed reaction to a positive conclusion without losing his or her self-respect. Indeed, you can sometimes hear the little voice under the grinding of the ABA machinery: "I really didn't like the thing that much, but okay, it's this choreographer's first big piece in two years, so here's what I can say was good about it. Now, here's what was wrong with it-nobody can claim I didn't notice. Now, for the end. Well, I said what was wrong with it, didn't 1?' And so the reviewer sort of looks the other way while the ABA machine chugs to its ineluctable conclusion: reiteration of the opening theme- in other words, praise.

I said before that it is very rare for a critic to go into print with an opinion different from what he or she expressed in the lobby, but many, many times I have seen critics put what they said in the lobby into the B section of an ABA article, thus cushioning their criticism between layers of mitigating praise. Like the Rule of one, ABA form is conservative in its thrust. The critic is saying, 'Look, I see the problems too, but if we just reorganize our perception of them in this way, we'll see that everything is okay after all, and we can all just go on doing what we've been doing."

I have sorted these various extra-artistic considerations into different categories-political, practical, psychological, rhetorical-but they all come down to the same thing: a pressure to praise. This is because business is bad and the field is artistically depressed.

If there is all this pressure in favor of positive reviews, why are some reviews so negative? Why are critics' responses, in general, harsher than audiences' responses?

First, the critic has seen much more dance than the audience. The average dance critic is in the theater perhaps three to four nights a week. So what is new and therefore delightful to the audience is less new and delightful to the critic.

Second, the critic is concerned about the field. At the premiere of a new and unexciting ballet by a choreographer who has received a lot of attention, the spectators may be saying to themselves, "Well, that's a nice enough ballet," while the critics will be saying to themselves, "This is a little nothing. When is somebody going to make an interesting new ballet? What is going to become of classical ballet?'

Third, the audience is preselected, while the critics are not. The audience consists of people who already like Erick Hawkins or Kenneth King or whomever, or have heard good reports. That's why they came. The critics, despite their efforts to review things they think will be good, are often there simply because the event has to be covered. They are predisposed in favor of dance, but not necessarily in favor of this dance.

Fourth, the audience members have paid for their tickets, while the critics have not. For the audience, this is their night out. They want to have a good time, and therefore, insofar as they're able, they will have a good time. I know how they feel. I feel the same way when I go to the movies, and I like almost all the movies I see. I like the big screen and the good-looking movie stars and the fact that I'm not home working. But film critics have seen a lot of big screens and movie stars, and when they go to the movies, they are working. Therefore it doesn't surprise me one bit that they liked A Kiss Before Dying less than I did. And I don't read them in the hope that they'll agree with me. I read them so that I can hear about the film in relation to its context. What are the issues surrounding remakes of old movies? What is the place of a psychopathic-killer thriller in the nineties? How did Matt Dillon's performance in this movie stack up against the other things he's done? What kinds of choices did the director have to make? The choices he did make-what do they tell us about where he's going? In other words, I want somebody whose job it is to think about movies all the time to tell me how this movie fits into the field and, if it has more than a place in the field, if it has some special grace, what that grace is. Dance reviewers should offer the same sort of thing, and readers should look to them for that, not for agreement.

 

 

 

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Watching Ballet in the City of Art
A Gala for Claude Bessy in Paris 34

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