Ballet & The Review(er)

If we have learned anything from this season’s dance literature, it is that dancers, choreographers, and directors fear a bad review. Whether it is trash talk, ballet gossip, or just bad dancing, they voice their opinion in full and begin social media campaigns, twitter wars or pull their work. No matter what it may be #respectgoesbothways or #dancersfeeltoo or whatever it may be, you have to ask yourself, what is the most important thing about dance? Lately, there has been a lot of talk on social media about reviews, reviewers and the power of the review in dance. I have been accused of a lot of things lately in my reviews, which I completely understand, and normally I would probably defend myself in a rather harsh, blunt, and ferocious manner. But, I was then was inspired to write about something more important than why I write the way I write, but the hopeful future of ballet.

ballet review

Some say that reviewers have no clue what goes into dancing, so they have no business giving a review, especially a negative one. I do know what goes into it and have experienced it and still believe that a negative review, if deserved it should be given. Because ballet and dance is a live art form, mistakes are bound to be made, dancers are going to get tired, and directors will make poor choices. You can’t get around that, but nowadays everyone is a reviewer. Whether it is a thumbs up or thumbs down on youtube or a like or share on Facebook, a repost on Instagram, these are all forms of reviews. These reviews gain popularity, create a discourse in dance, and allows people to understand the progression of ballet. Don’t get me wrong, I question how some of these big time reviewers have gotten to where they are not ever having danced a lick in their life, but then I am reminded the reviewing dance is also an art. Dancers are selected based on talent, emotion, and their ability to translate music and art onto and into their bodies, while reviewers translate that beauty into words for the masses.

More and more companies are moving towards crowdfunding, and to do that, you need to have the support of people, dancers, philanthropists and more. Reviews on social media or even a mention on a blog can go a long way. The problem is when something isn’t right or something is off, it’s noticed. Why are reviewers, myself included so judgmental? The process to be a ballet dancer is a privilege. It takes a lot of hard work every day, and because it is an aesthetic art, your heart, soul, life, everything is poured into this process. This high standard is set across the board, from students at age ten to a professional in their prime, the standard is clear. We can’t make exceptions based on an excuse, a popular name, or a company’s prestige. It doesn’t work that way. At an audition, should a company director make an excuse for bad technique? A dancer being off their leg that day? If you can’t pull a triple that day, but you later you say, “I promise I can…” Does it matter? In the end, the reviewer’s job is to write what they see, how they feel, and how its audience absorbs and interprets a single performance.

Why does the review matter? A good review goes a long way, it keeps people coming to performances and gives those who don’t have the opportunity to see a performance a chance to understand what happened. A good review can up sponsorships and donors, and a good review can promote a dancer. A bad review can cause a company to lose funding, shake a dancer’s confidence, and usually, causes are larger discourse in social media. Because dance is so subjective, and reviews are also subjective the more reviewers invited to a performance the spectrum of reviews becomes larger. Different people like different things. For example, if you invite me to a Balanchine Bill, I will probably be a lot more critical, but enjoy the performance more. If you invite me to a postmodern show I will probably leave at intermission if it’s not good. If you invite me to a classical ballet, it better be damn good or I will probably fall asleep in it. The review itself has to be good, it has to be exciting and engaging, honest and precise. If not, and companies just want a good write up, it’s just a payoff. Just send the reviewer tickets and an expensive bottle of wine and you will probably get a good review. But then, is that fair for funding?

The problem with ballet right now and dance, in general, is the lack funding and support to lower or smaller companies. Recently, while in NYC I gave a series of reviews, and they took a lot of criticism, all comments I didn’t post. One, because I was offended, two, because I have the power to edit, and three, I just didn’t care for them. I did read them and took what they had to say to heart. One comment said I took a cheap shot at a principal’s technique, another comment said I come off arrogant and full of myself, and another comment said I was down right rude and childish. Ironically, this review everyone was upset about was shared a ton on Facebook and gained a thousand likes on Instagram…  But while in NYC, I wrote a review that I loved, had nothing but good things to say, but got very few views, zero comments, and zero shares. So, what does that say?

How to progress dance? Dance preservation of dance is something that is not in the lack. We once used labanotation, now we have video recording in 3D, 360 degrees, and filming the entire creative process. But, the progression of dance has been proved time and time again. That dance is progressed by artists pushing forward and the delicate dance between the reviewer creating discourse and the people. In 1913, Rite of Spring premiered causing a riot in the Opera house. In July of that year, it premiered in London, while the premier was not chaotic like Paris, the reviews were mixed and took stabs. It took over three years for the world to accept and celebrate the Rite of Spring, and now it is one of the most celebrated works. But, all of this was predetermined by Diaghilev, he understood PR and wanted scandal and worked hard to create it. While not everyone can pull off a scandal like Rite of Spring, the idea is there. Just like Brittany’s meltdown and shaved head, bad PR does help, because it makes for a great comeback story, a triumphant I told you so, and a push towards being better and greater. By creating a written discourse about dance, it ensures the progression of what comes next.

To write about dance is a privilege. To have experienced dancing has also been a privilege. To have this blog be a success and having the financial support from my readers is a privilege. One- I don’t take lightly. I am forever grateful to the universe for this opportunity, but, I don’t think that I should give a good review when it isn’t deserved. As a ballet teacher I demand perfection from my kids, so when I see a sloppy turn or an unclean line on stage at the Met, Lincoln Center, or Segerstrom, it frustrates me because I know that a sloppy turn or an unclean line will cost these kids an audition. When I watch a performance and I see a disconnect in the pas de deux, or choreography, or relationship between the dancers and the audience, I think what is the point of it all? When I watch a performance and it isn’t good when things go wrong and the dancers don’t save the performance, then why are they getting paid? Yes, each dancer worked their ass off to be the best, but if they don’t perform well, then what’s the point? It is like baseball player who can’t bat. Yes, they don’t lose their job for one bad game, but after a few bad games, a contract won’t get renewed or they are traded. So, when a principal dancer isn’t on their game or lacking what the audience wants, then they shouldn’t be applauded in the press. There is a ton of talent nowadays sitting in the corps de ballet doing nothing but waving a rose or standing in B plus because principals are there for the sake of a name, for the sake of reputation, or the sake of favoritism. For ballet to keep progressing we have to keep up with what is expected in ballet class and on stage. I’m sorry, but a triple pirouette isn’t enough anymore. When kids are expected to do five or six, I expect to see the same on stage. When dancers are reamed in class and rehearsal for not performing or relating or emoting, I better see that on stage. When choreographers are expected to deliver innovative works at the competitive level, I expect more at the professional level. And if you are an established choreographer, I expect even more. You cannot rely on a name, or reputation of being a dancer to be a good choreographer. Just because you were a good dancer, doesn’t mean you are a good teacher, you might be a good coach. Just because you were a bad dancer doesn’t make you a bad teacher or bad choreographer. All of these things are such a privilege to be a part of, but if you do not deliver something that people want, feel, or crave, then what is the point of feeding the art and progressing it?

So, as ballet progresses, we have to keep making space to talk about dancing both good and bad. We have to progress the art by constantly talking about it and sharing it. If dancers don’t feel safe when being reviewed, then they aren’t rising to the occasion that art form demands. If a reviewer doesn’t feel safe when being read, they don’t understand that everyone is entitled to an opinion. If the artistic staff doesn’t want press around because of fear, then they aren’t confident in their own decisions and direction they are leading the company. While some just want roses and feel good reviews, that doesn’t help people understand the art. It doesn’t make for a great performance. It is why the Benois awards hold significance, to honor those who are beyond exceptional in a single performance. It is why competitions like the YAGP doesn’t give out a GRAND PRIX winner every year, it is reserved for those who are beyond exceptional. Something that everyone in dance is constantly struggling for, so when it is achieved it is celebrated and becomes a part of ballet history.

As it all goes both ways, the important thing is that someone, somewhere is documenting what is happening, what is inspiring, what is innovative, what is glorious, good, bad, and ugly. That is art, and that is the captivating moments that will forever be a part of ballet history. Because if it goes unnoticed, if it goes untalked about, if it goes unwitnessed, then what was the point of all those years of training, hours of rehearsals and emotional giving? Sometimes, we do fail, and unfortunately, the press capitalizes on that moment. Other times you succeed and the world applauds you. Regardless, it is all a part of a job- a job that is a privilege.

3 responses to “Ballet & The Review(er)”

  1. I applaud your courage in speaking your truth! You take risks and you do your best to be fair. In regards to the fact that your positive reviews got little notice vs. a negative review. I believe this is part of the over all social media issue….anything negative out there gets shared, discussed, debated and ‘liked”. Kind words, positive experience are briefly read, maybe shared,not often discussed. This is not exclusive to ballet/dance, it is unfortunately, the way of the world.
    Thank you for your blog. I love reading your prospective.