Friday, January 15, 2010

Summing Up Alastair Macaulay

Alastair Macaulay is a bored man.

The New York Times chief dance critic, an import from London, has been holding down a position of outsized power that he never merited. When he first got here, I thought he'd bring a voice of passion, which I value. But, for the most part, I stopped reading his work when it became clear that his experience and sympathies mainly run to elite choreographers—Balanchine, Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris--and a handful of other artists he deems masters of the craft. Ask Macaulay to stray beyond his comfy zone, and he loses it.

As an arts critic and former Bessie Awards committee member, I've seen a ton of dance of all kinds in New York and had been doing so even before I was first published in 1976. When I go to a concert, if I happen to stumble in any direction, I'm going to fall onto a dance critic. When it comes to contemporary “downtown” dance—a stupid term we've learned to live with--I can count, on one hand, and that's being generous, the number of times I've noticed Macaulay in the mix. I see everybody out there, and everybody sees me. If Macaulay were attending and humbly studying up on anything other than major, mainstream events, I'd certainly run into him.

New York dance and performance artists have been incensed about Macaulay for a long time, but he really struck the rock when the Times published his end-of-decade summary, Choreographic Climate Change (aka, A Decade's Worth of Dance, Dancers and Choreographers). I must admit I'm only reading this article now after having been directed to it by the vigilant folks at Movement Research and on Facebook.

We ought to thank Macaulay for producing a document that—like the solemn wisdom of Pat Robertson and the learned policy pronouncements of Sarah Palin—gives us a vivid idea of who he is. He is a very bored man. And boredom comes from not caring enough to look deeply.

For instance, if you are bored, you're likely to fail to notice that “political relevance” can come in numerous forms, some of them not obviously in your face. If you are bored, when you call the 1980s and 1990s decades of decline and loss, you might note the deaths of Tudor and Balanchine, the deaths of MacMillan and Robbins, yet fail to commemorate the toll that HIV/AIDS would come to take on the wider dance community. If you are bored, you might overvalue the souped-up technical proficiency of today's ballet dancers. If you are bored, you might seek out and laud contemporary ballets that are “happy,” that “express joy” and give you an apparently much-needed, if temporary, boost.

But think now, what if that were the criterion for every art? Only happy plays? Happy music? Happy cinema? Surely unthinkable. Then why envision the dancing body as only a source for entertainment, something to be consumed like a drug?

That “age-old belief that dance expresses joy?” That may be true but only a fraction of the story. Look to any traditional dance, and you will find a spectrum of purposes, meanings, moods and challenges to both performer and audience. Even flamenco master Soledad Barrio's work, which Macaulay clearly enjoys and repeatedly writes about, dares to explore the rougher terrain of the soul. So what's he talking about?

Frankly, not much. His article is a scandal of bubble wrap masquerading as critical assessment. There's not much there there. Really, this thing would get extremely poor marks at university.

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

So, here's the quote that has everybody steamed:
  • Dance critics like to look for hope in the best modern or postmodern choreography being shown in downtown Manhattan. I’ve seen good material there too and among young modern-dance choreographers elsewhere, and yet — amid a field too large for anyone to keep complete track of it — I sense that too little of late has amounted to anything historic.
“Dance critics?” Well, apparently not Macaulay. He does not look because he rarely attends. And when he does attend, he does not look. At least, not deeply.

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

“Downtown Manhattan?” Progressive contemporary dance and performance exist throughout the New York metropolitan area, and a substantial amount of it rewards exploration.

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

“I've seen good material...” Ah, the whiff of condescension.

“young modern-dance choreographers” Please. What is this modern-dance? That's a legacy, admirably upheld by some existing companies and choreographers, but there is much, much more to post-balletic dance, and it certainly cannot be summed up by the term “modern-dance.” But Macaulay has neither time nor inclination to identify what he's talking about. Instead, why don't we hurry on to safer territory—African dance!--because, you know, African dance is, itself, just one thing.

He calls contemporary dance “a field too large for anyone to keep complete track of it.”

There it is: “Why, you don't expect me to actually attempt to catch up and learn something about this field, do you? I simply don't have time!”

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

And those sketchy allusions to African, Indian, flamenco, tap? Please. These art forms and their artists deserve more attention and specificity, even in an article of this nature and slapdash-ery. And speaking of slapdash-ery and outright slapping:


You can afford to be left cold by its most famous current leader, Savion Glover and still find a wealth of excitement in the performances of several other stars well under 40.

Oh, poor Savion. You're the one tap guy Macaulay bothers to identify, and he rises up and uses this moment of power to slam you. How very useful to the field of tap dance.

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

Dance is the art with no history.

Come again?

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

He continues:

When a step has happened, it leaves no trace.

You know, that's only true if you're bored, and the traces of that dance cannot penetrate your hard head and harder heart.

Senior Dance Critic. New York Times.

I make no predictions of where dance is going or how posterity will judge the decade’s choreography. But it closes with many of us feeling greater delight in the field, and hope renewed.

Well, you could knock me over with a feather boa!

“It closes with many of us”--excuse, me, who's that us?--”feeling greater delight in the field, and hope renewed.”

That's what you call tying a neat bow around an empty package.

Aside from all the aforementioned happy dancing, I can't locate the rationale for Macaulay's “greater delight” nor for his “hope renewed,” and I certainly doubt it has anything to do with the kinds of artists of all kinds who give me hope on a daily basis in this crazy world.

Let me say it plain, because I have little to lose:

The New York Times does not care about dance. If it did, it would give dance a senior critic with diligence, breadth of knowledge, curiosity, serious chops and respect for artists.


49 comments:

MariaColacoDance said...

YES!!!! thanks for saying all this.

Alberto said...

Ashe!!! Eva's comments are a true example of profound criticism and analysis. I'm both appalled and now disregard the New York Times dance reviews altogether because I and WE deserve much better.

Julian said...

i love you

Rachel Feinerman said...

Yes! I can not get over his patronizing and underinformed reviews of modern dance.

jaybthe3 said...

Indeed! I have begun using AM's reviews as bizarro criticism: if he likes it, I can be pretty sure I won't, and vice-versa.

Here is the review he wrote of Riedel Dance Theater's "Ukranian Eggs" from the NY Int'l Fringe Festival 2009 (one of the few times he ventured downtown, and he expresses regret):
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/arts/dance/27fringe.html

Here is another review of the same performance, from Chris Harcum at NYTheatre.com:
http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/review_fest.php?p=100298

It's shameful that in one of the best cities in the world for dance that the most otherwise-complete daily arts publication drops the ball on dance criticism. Shameful!

Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

Thoughtful. Smart. Passionate. As always. Let's hope it reaches the right eyes.

pachin said...

Thanks-gracias-obrigado-merci-gratzie-arigato-sesie-dincuyie-spaciba-efgaristo-etc Eva !
We are in "the Times for changes" and your blog is part of it

Layard said...

Work it out, Eva! Thank you for being so invested in this dance economy - powered not by money or great privilege - but by passion, such as yours. Thanks for calling out banality for the sake of truer erudition. Keep us real! Keep us hopeful! We need your insight...

That said, how often does the world of dance criticism and journalism come together to dialogue as its own sub-culture within our community? Just a question to consider.

Bmac said...

speak truth to power Eva!

Sarah A.O. Rosner/The AOMC said...

Well said! Thank you for adding your voice to this dialogue!

steven said...

if the times cared about dance they'd also stop assigning reviews to gia kourlas. she clearly hates everything.

kelliest said...

word.

Saul said...

Thank you

Jill said...

You go, Eva! Thank you for your ongoing insight and bravery. You are always able to see the richness and complexity in our field and speak on its behalf.

oslasam said...

Fearless, passionate, and righteously indignant, Eva, you speak for us all, dancer, choreographer, and dance-goer alike.
No slams on the British, but must we 'entertain' them, the curious little cousin across the pond that we are? Clearly, Mr. McCauley runs daily screaming from his own shadow, figuratively, and literally, most likely. Bless his heart.

dancesihaveseen said...

Wow. I started rssing his articles and thought I'd read them for an idea of what a 'good' dance critic would sound like, and I did read that article which I didn't really understand. Thank you for putting this in perspective. I find a lot of people seem to think that all the 'great' choreographers are dying off and a new generation (the ones being taught now) needs to take their place, completely ignoring all of the people who are making a name for themselves/changing the dance world and aren't 80 years old.

gus said...

Thanks for articulating so eloquently and clearly what so many in the field are seeing and feeling. Granted, it's an impossible job, but a critic's responsibility should be to try to better the art and enlighten choreographers, readers, and audiences, not discourage them.

jodyoberfelder@gmail.com said...

It is something to be critical of critics. We focus on these evaluations and take them to heart and mind.

jenabrams said...

As usual, Eva, you are both courageous and rapier-sharp. Even if we don't have the Times, at least we have you.

Doctoradancer said...

Thank you so much for this. What makes this all the more shameful, newspaper reviews continue to be over-valued components of any application for a grant or higher ed job; to have bored and ill-informed reviewers dishing out whatever they feel like and avoiding works that make them uncomfortable is truly a disservice to the wider dance arts economy.

Jaki Levy said...

Thank you for taking the time, thought and care to dissect this for the community. The NYTimes did serve a need and is valuable. It's too bad Macauly is interfering with that.

Kate said...

THANK YOU!!!! WELL SAID

mvworks said...

Eva, just the other day I was saying how much I appreciate your perspective, criticism and dedication to dialogue. This article is just one example of why. Thank you for passionate response to an unpassioned man with too much power.

Carolyn said...

The outrage at his article is well-deserved and your comprehensive dissection of it is passionate (unlike his) and right on. Thank you for managing to keep track of and intelligently commenting on the "too large" group of artists that are making exciting, challenging and historic (yes indeed) work. You rock.

Amanda said...

Amazing! Bless you for putting it in writing!

Amanda said...

Amazing! Bless you for putting it in writing!

Javier said...

It frightens me that some might rely on the words of a critic to give consideration and even support (financial or otherwise) to the field of dance, specifically, this critic.

You have put all the thoughts in my head together when I think of Alastair Macauly. His and my career rely on a craft that he does nothing but bash.

susan said...

Why not restrict Mr. Macaulay to choreographers over 80, Mark Morris and ballet? Who at the Times decides who reviews what? Mr Macaulay IS bored...with US. Why not let someone who cares enough to be specific review "Downtown" dance. Good criticism invigorates dance making not whining. We are at risk.

Nancy Garcia said...

Wow, Eva. You really hit the nail in the head and broke through that wall. I'm definitely going to repost this. Thank you so much.

neotropic said...

Thank you! Thank you, Eva. Especially for that last, direct statement. Macaulay's inability to write a coherent article proves how unfit he is for the job, but it is the NYTimes that should above all be ashamed for not finding an editor with deep knowledge of the field and above all -- CURIOSITY.

Eva YaaAsantewaa said...

Thanks, everyone! As I wrote on my Facebook page--where comments have also been pouring in--I'm deeply grateful for your your support, and your respect means the world to me. I'm not certain what the community can do to move forward on this issue, but I hope that my effort will make a difference.

lori said...

Thank you for making a difference, Eva.

Ennis said...

mccauley's disparagements notwithstanding (you hit the nail on the head, btw), telling to note in that terms of nonclassical dance, it's Claudia LaRocca and Roslyn Sulcas who do all the heavy lifting in terms of coverage; they're the saviors of exciting dance at the Gray Lady.

Jonathan said...

Being sputteringly surprised that the person who replaced Joan Acocella at the Times is similarly inclined towards Lincoln Center/City Center based stuff seems a little lacking in perspective. And disaggreeing with another critics decade-end list never makes a faily uninteresting blog post. But really do we need a facebook page for it? The team at the times is better than it used to be. McCauly La rocca, sulcys Vs Acocella, Anderson and Jennifer Dunning. Does anyone remember how crappy the writing used to be at the Grey lady? Times is considerably better than it used to be and Village voice is considerably worse this decade. Lets complain about something action-able like putting a weekly Dance page in the Voice.

Kate said...

THANK YOU for courageously saying what needed to be said. his writing reminds me of when my relatives ask if i'm 'trying to make it' in new york. the reason he's bored with ballet is because great artists have found that even the most virtuosic ballet is too limited a language for 2010. he seems to have no reference for what is actually a very loving and vibrant dance culture. since i've found it, maybe i HAVE made it. thank you for creating this dialogue...

Todd said...

thank you....I love you for saying in words what I am thinking and feel. you comments hit the spot.. love yah. Stone

Donna said...

Eva, Thank you. Reading the NYtimes article and realizing all the NYT does not see, notice, value and respect in the dance world brings such a heavy heart to those of us working in the less visible dance arena. It is someone like you who is truly out there and seeing all different works in all different spaces that helps to rekindle the drive and remind us that it's time to go to the studio... Thank you again.

colleen thomas said...

you are my hero and i love you!

Keith Hennessy said...

What a delight to read sharp criticism of the protected critic. Thanks. Of course the NYT should print this!. (Keith Hennessy, SF)

david said...

Alastair Macaulay writes like an overburdened university professor delivering grades to a group of students he doesn't care for. His erudition does not conceal his lack of insight.

Carrie said...

Thank-you, Eva. Your commitment to the form is inspiring. There is something very disturbing about the way Alastair uses that word "historic". One, because you are absolutely correct in that he does not see very much work outside of a few ballet companies and "ordained" choreographers. Second, his writing, while sometimes articulate and passionate never seems to interface with the culture at large. And yes, the "dance is made for pleasure thing". Such a limited view. Yet he bombastically decides what seems to be and not be "historic". What does that mean anyway? Not only are you correct to call the New York Times on not hiring someone with more curiosity and breadth as their chief critic, but they should be very concerned at someone writing about culture who lacks relevance. Even "lay people" who read Alastair have voiced frustration and fatigue at his "rarefied tone" and "tendency to unnecessarily foam at the mouth." I don't know what kind of accountability is at the Times, so perhaps they do not care that they are well behind the curve with their Chief dance critic.

aconnor1 said...

Thank you Eva for pointing this out, I completely agree. And kudos to you for having the guts to be a true critic.

Mary Love said...

Better to chime in late than never, I hope. Thank you for this wonderful post, and for teasing out the many layers of condescension in Macaulay's article. His utter dismissal of anything local and new (aside from Wheeldon) took by breath totally away-- its no secret that he doesn't care for "downtown dance," but this felt like a new level of brazen. It is rewarding to read your thorough dissection of it.

Makeda said...

Ashé.

Yes, thank you so much for writing this. I've absolutely stopped reading The Times because of the obvious lack of care for dance.

Thanks again.

sondheim said...

Hi - We just had the worst review AM might ever have written - below is/was my reply (which I don't think was published in the NYT of course) -
- Alan

To the Editor:


I'm writing to respond to Alastair Macaulay's review of our performances, in
the January 22 Dance Section.

I've never responded to a review, negative or positive, before, but
Macaulay's demands it. The review is a diatribe, neither a description, nor
an analysis. No one reading it would have the slightest idea of the evenings
themselves. We deserve better.

Macaulay's dismisses the music/song as follows: "Meanwhile, he is
accompanied by two colleagues. Alan Sondheim plays a variety of stringed
instruments; Azure Carter sings her own songs in a series of pretty frocks
and petticoats, and even dances a little. Both are entirely trivial." This
is sexist and obviously insulting. He may not have liked the music, but this
says nothing. (I should mention that there were dancers, musicians, and
choreographers in the audience - some quite well known, etc. - and none of
them had this reaction; far from it. We also played to large houses, in spite of the review.)

Macaulay also dismisses Foofwa d'Imobilite's name as follows: "Mr.
d'Imobilite has provided several pages of accompanying literature. These
cover his 'conceptual libretto' for 'Musings,' the wordplay within its title
and his own name, his methodology and the inspiration behind
'Involuntaries.' It's all clever, but, like his name, damnably arch and
contrived." This is stupid and ad hominem. The "several pages" were written
by d'Imobilite, Carter, and myself, by the way - Macaulay apparently paid no
attention to the distinction.

He likewise paid no attention to the half-hour video, intended as an
introduction to Involuntaries; he paid no attention to the lighting of
Musings, which was computer-controled and designed as a dance performance in
itself; and he apparently paid no attention to the details of Involuntaries
itself. He thinks otherwise: "Mr. d'Imobilite's choreography for himself
consists almost entirely of spasms." I've seen spasms, and this is as nonsensical as saying that Michael Jackson's choreography is just prancing
about. In fact, the sections of Involuntaries are quite distinct from each
other, as the audience understood.

I don't know Macaulay, and don't want to, but he appears to favor an ugly
form of connoisseurship I've seen far too often. Rather than attempting to
understand the work (reading the program notes? watching the video? watching
the performance itself?), the performance is used as an excuse for yet
another agenda - in this case, I assume, a return to ballet or traditional
Cunningham. The readers of the Times deserve far better than this. The Times
stands alone, in a sense, and for better or worse, functions as an arbiter,
if not of taste, at least of what one might see of an evening. And for that,
we need analysis and care, and at least someone who loves downtown dance,
someone who understands it, to review these occasions. It's difficult enough
to work on a kind of edge without being slammed by relatively unresponsive
critics in the Times.
Thank you.

Sincerely Yours,

Alan Sondheim
sondheim@panix.com
718-813-3285

Threshdance said...

You are spot on!

Kate said...

Having just been dissed by Macaulay in the Times, and having witnessed on too many occasions his callous disdain in writing about contemporary dance artists I deeply admire, it's clear to me - the man is permanently out to lunch and he's downing martinis at our expense. Eva, thanks for your truth-telling here! Makes me feel like we're not powerless as a community in the face of such willful ignorance.
- Kate Weare

lenore said...

maybe Alastair Macaulay should keep his FAT superficial mouth shut! His sad pathetic critic opinion is useless to me, and everyone else!

zata said...

EVA and all: As an authority on flamenco dance, I am again and again amazed and impressed with Macaulay's astute critiques of flamenco performances that get to New York. I know nothing at all about other kinds of dance, but this man's instincts about a genre he is not specialized in make him nothing less than a genius, and I've written him several messages telling him so.

Estela Zatania, Editor
www.deflamenco.com
Bi-lingual online flamenco magazine

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