Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dance critic Alastair Macaulay goes one sugar plum over the line

By Barry Johnson

By now, most of us who care about dance have heard about NY Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay's published characterization of New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer -- that she has "eaten one sugar plum too many." The line was the sort of tossed-off insult that nearly always gets critics in trouble and a weak attempt at humor. Ringer was dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, you see.  Maybe just to prove that he isn't a sexist, Macaulay also thrust thusly at Ringer's partner: "Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm. They’re among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity."

The response to Macaulay's insult was instant and overwhelmingly negative, "in many cases obscene and abusive," Macaulay wrote in a follow-up explanation of his original review. Of course, that follow-up only made it worse, at least to me, especially after watching video of the performance on the Today show.  Take a look:

Do you see any upper arm wobbling in Ringer's performance, the sort that Macaulay claims to detect? Uh no. I don't see it. What do I see? A very fit woman dancing. The adjective that her supporters use is "warm," and that's what I see, more or less. She invites you in to the dance, into her performance, and creates a welcoming and comfortable social atmosphere. So much for Macaulay's crack about Ringer's lack of adult depth in the original review.

Ringer's response in the video is perfect. Sure, Macaulay can write what he wants (not quite, which raises a question: Where were his editors?), but his opinion is only one among many, she says, and frankly, she's glad she dances for New York City Ballet, which features dancers of various sizes, because all of them have something to add to the company. That includes her own.

Just in general, I hated the explanation far more than the review. Macaulay's always trying to have it both ways. He shouldn't have to factor in Ringer's eating disorders of the past, but just for the record, he's had some physical problems, too. And he tries to back away from the whole "fat ballerina" thing by citing some rotund dancers he has liked -- Mark Morris and Lynn Seymour, specifically. But he wants to eat that cake, too: "Ballet demands sacrifice in its pursuit of widely accepted ideals of beauty."
I would far preferred for Macaulay to say that he has come to expect the angularity of most contemporary dancers and their hyper-definition -- of cheekbones, muscles, tendons, skeletal structure. That he finds this the most expressive, "beautiful" body type for dancing. And that he's going to continue to single out dancers who don't meet that standard, which I suspect even he would admit is a moving target. The issue of cultural attitudes about women and how deforming and harmful they can be is not his problem. He's just the dance critic.

Of course that last part would be a lie. As chief dance critic of the New York Times, he's one of the people who creates those cultural attitudes, who demand that "sacrifice" in order to achieve "widely accepted ideals of beauty."  But the rest of it would at least be honest, and it might lead to a general discussion of bodies in the culture in general and dance in particular.

My own education into the expressive power of "non-traditional" dancing bodies came very early in my career as an arts writer.  In the late 1970s, Annabelle Gamson toured a show of her recreated Isadora Duncan dances. She was in her 50s and when she danced onstage, the body wisdom had accumulated during a lifetime of dancing made the leaps and circular runs and trailing fabric trains of those dance mesmerizing. She wasn't young, she wasn't lithe and skinny, she wasn't a gamine. But the satisfactions she offered, the animation of Duncan's choreography of delight, were no less for that, and I suppose we could argue that they were greater.

A Seattle critic at the time, I can't remember who it was, suggested in print that Gamson had no business being on stage at her age. And he was so wrong, that I resolved from then on to look past "widely accepted ideals of beauty" when I watched dance and try to figure out what really was going on. Dance is about what the body expresses, not how that body measures up to my psychosexually distorted ideal of beauty. And dancers aren't statues. They aren't sex objects or models on a runway. They have trained their bodies to convey the ideas of choreographers, and sometimes they can do that even though they don't look like 14-year-old gymnasts. Really. They can.

My real criticism of Macaulay is that he got Ringer wrong when he said she didn't have adult depth. Dead wrong. He was blinded by his ideals of beauty and he didn't see the dance, didn't see how effectively she conveyed Balanchine's ideas, how she "socialized" the playing space, how she reached out to the audience. He imagined that she was too "sugar plummy" or something and failed to see what was really happening. That's the problem with those ideals. Well, one of the problems.

I'm not always anti-Macaulay. I think he has a good eye for the structures and meanings of dances. That comes across in the original review of "The Nutcracker" and in his recent review of Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut," which is a send-up of "The Nutcracker."  But this little episode makes me think that his thinking is conventional, brightly spun often times, but conventional. With enough thought, he can overcome that problem -- his review of "The Hard Nut" talks about how his view of that dance has changed over the years -- and get past his normal tropes and prejudices. I'm hoping that he uses this little episode to think himself beyond this "ideal beauty" bit -- because it's just not defensible.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Alastair is nothing if not conventional. Barry, I'd be VERY interested to see you do a close reading of his NYT work and discuss implicit and explicit attitudes toward women. It's my personal view that Alastair is not only conventional but misogynistic. Witty, glib, charming in a most abrasive and abusive way, but not nearly as competent as his predecessors at the Times

Bob said...

Well, I miss Jennifer Dunning a lot. She had an unusual balance of grace, acuity, and empathy. Alastair is a witty, brittle writer -- in a way he seems a throwback to the cultural journalists of the 1920s through the 1950s -- and there's little doubt that he knows his traditional ballet backwards and forwards. Is he misogynistic? Excellent question. Sometimes he seems that way. I think it's maybe more that he has his own particular view of perfection, and anything that falls short of that is, well, imperfect. Sometimes he has insights that I find extremely valuable. But he doesn't seem to have the capacity to be surprised by artists, which is a shame. I do like reading him, but I take him with more than a grain of salt -- which, come to think of it, isn't a bad way to take any critic, said the critic. I do think he's utterly wrong on this chubby-ballerina business.