Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A few thoughts on Macaulay at Barnard

"I hope I say what I see. I hope I don't just give my opinion. You have to justify it. It's important to discipline your feeling as well as your vision." -- Alastair Macaulay

Alastair Macaulay
, the New York Times's new Senior Dance Critic, joined the ranks of dance journalists in 1978--a few years after I did--and now sits in the most visible, most influential and powerful position in our (still rather marginal) field. I greeted the Times appointment of this talented, expressive British writer with a mixture of hope and skepticism, and now my hope has been bolstered somewhat by Macaulay's chat with Mindy Aloff, his American colleague and friend, at Barnard College last evening. As they say in the sports world, that hope comes with an asterisk, and we'll get to that asterisk later.

What I like about Macaulay

Now that I've had a chance to lay eyes on the man and hear him speak, I'm intrigued and can well imagine how the Powers-That-Be--who, according to Macaulay don't know much about dance and small-talked their way through his job interviews--would find him a captivating candidate. Before an audience of Barnard dance students and faculty, with a fair representation from New York's critic rank-and-file, Aloff posed gentle questions and Macaulay responded with all the courtly grace of the ballroom dance student he used to be and the "closet dancer" he says he is today.

His thoughtful replies often took the form of stories--some amusing in a low-key way, some honestly told at his own expense. (Here's one: He must rise very early to draft his reviews at the Times offices because he has yet to set up a computer--or much else--in his apartment.) I was surprised and charmed by his soft-edged, even self-effacing manner. And I recognized in all of this the person whose work first caught my attention--a writer with a very human, personal voice, a clear sense of engagement, a smart but also free, lively, colorful mind. Confident in his writing, but not overly invested in his own cleverness. Authoritative and firm in his opinions but not arrogant. Someone who sounded as if he gave a damn.

His critical expertise and experience extends to music and theater, but he declares a proper respect for dance--"a hard art to write about," which it is. In his work, he recognizes a desire to communicate why dance matters to him, the son of a farmer. As a farmer's son, he knows a thing or two about nature, like precisely how swans' massive wings beat and sound, and that perceptiveness informs his preference for one Swan Lake choreographer's approach to the movement of swans' wings, which he demonstrates impeccably. Even if I were not a birder, I'd have tip my hat to Macaulay for that alone.

What still concerns me

And now we get to that asterisk.

"A critic--if he's going to spend time looking at this art--had better become acquainted with plenty of it."

That was Macaulay talking, not me. But it gave me just the opening I needed for a question I later asked him after listening to him repeatedly (and solely) refer to his gods: Balanchine, Mozart, Cunningham, Shakespeare. Imagine if you took up residence in New York but your exploration extended only as far as Lincoln Center and its immediate precincts and you never ventured down to Chinatown or out to Little India, and you never discovered the amazing variety of little shorebirds (and the occasional swan) at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. In short, I felt that a Senior Dance Critic of the New York Times should be required to get around more.

I've been thinking a lot about this since he got here. My thoughts have not always been as diplomatic as my words were last evening. I posed my question nicely, and he agreed. He mentioned, with pleasure, some initial excursions--to Noche Flamenca, to Reggie Wilson and Andreya Ouamba's Accounting for Customs. Although he declared his intention to critique any dance according to his own sense of what was right, he acknowledged that his inexperience with some forms, histories and legacies could interfere somewhat with the effectiveness of his criticism. In short, he promised to work on it.

One of my colleagues, while trading emails with me about Macaulay's notorious smackdown of Doug Varone's Dense Terrain, described the Times guy as a work-in-progress. It's clear, from the non-defensive openness in his answer to my question, that he'd agree with that assessment. He has hit the ground running, and he says he is interested in seeing more, seeing more widely, and determined to write honestly, based on his perceptions and standards.

I know I will not always agree with Macaulay, but I respect his word, and I want to see him take on the most interesting and remarkable and even the most baffling dance New York has to offer. I'd like to see him show his colleagues at the Times and elsewhere what the Senior Dance Critic of the New York Times should be, and maybe make us all work a little harder to catch up. I remain interested in what a writer of his passion and sensibilities will do with the multifaceted challenge and opportunity that is New York.

(c) 2007, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

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