Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorkerby Arlene Croce
The best of America's best writer on dance
For twenty-five years, Arlene Croce was The New Yorker's dance critic, a post the magazine created expressly for her. Her entertaining, forthright, passionate reviews and essays revealed the logic and history of ballet, modern dance, and their postmodern variants to a generation of theatergoers. This/i>/i>
The best of America's best writer on dance
For twenty-five years, Arlene Croce was The New Yorker's dance critic, a post the magazine created expressly for her. Her entertaining, forthright, passionate reviews and essays revealed the logic and history of ballet, modern dance, and their postmodern variants to a generation of theatergoers. This volume contains her most significant and provocative pieces—over a fourth of which never appeared in book form—covering classical ballets, the rise of George Balanchine, the careers of Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, and Merce Cunningham, and the controversies surrounding many of the twentieth century’s great dance companies.
- University Press of Florida
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Read an Excerpt
Writing in the Dark
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Looking back over the events covered in these pieces, I can hardly believe they happened. That dance could ever have been as rich, as varied, and as plentiful as it was in the seventies and eighties now seems a miracle. When I was appointed The New Yorker's dance critic, in 1973, I knew the hour was late: Balanchine was sixty-nine, Graham had left the stage, and any number of important careers were winding down. Still, there was enough activity to keep anybody interested, and what with Baryshnikov's defection in 1974 and Suzanne Farrell's return from exile that same year, there was more than I could keep up with. I was in the theatre nightly and sometimes, between Friday night and Sunday evening, I saw five performances. Companies often played side by side, and it was nothing to dart from one theatre to another and back in the course of a single performance.
The dance season had always been a congested affair. In my time, it reached such levels that I invented something called Ballet Alert, a fictitious telephone service for hyperactive balletomanes, and was taken seriously. This was probably because "Ballet Alert" was printed in "Dancing," my regular space in The New Yorker, and not in the front of the book where the "casuals" were. I should have warned my editors that I was perpetrating a hoax. William Shawn was not amused. I had broken an inflexible New Yorker rule: critics do not write humor.
But of course "Ballet Alert" was also a joke on The NewYorkermy parody of a Talk of the Town piece. To me it was so obviously parodic, and so patently silly (Cynthia Gregory's shredder?), I never thought it would be believed. But perhaps I underestimated the special idiocy which outsiders attached to the "ballet boom," a term invented by the media to cover their own delayed recognition of the ballet scene. In actuality, the boom had been going on since the thirties; by the late sixties, ballet was an accepted part of American culturea covertly accepted part. You'd go to a party; if someone's eyes lit up at the mention of Balanchine's name, you'd made a friend. The excitement of balletgoing in New York was an undercover excitement. The outside world seemed to have no inkling of what was going on; it still thought that the balletgoing public consisted of little girls, mothers, homosexuals, foreigners, and outright nuts like my invention Carmel Capehart. A glance at the audience on an average night at the New York City, the Royal, or the Bolshoi Ballet would disprove the truth of this. Even Martha Graham drew a normal Broadway-theatre-going audience. Today, of course, as many kinds of people go to dance performances as play tennis, another "aristocratic" pastime of my youth. As for the ballet boom, the reader can judge the reality of it by the number of boomlets it inspired in the seventies aloneBournonville, regional ballet, drag ballet, and that unique product of the times, the postmodern ballet.
The term "post-modernism" has an extra semantic layer in dance: it means not only after modernism but after the modern dance. Post-modern ballet is a hybrid that came about when the ballet and the modern dance ceased to be hostile campsideology was dying out along with creativityand began embracing each other. The ballet companies, with their rising popularity and longer seasons, needed choreographers, and because choreographers had yet to come forth from the academy in sufficient numbers, they came from the modern and post-modern dance. To Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Mark Morris, and a host of other young nonclassical choreographers, a ballet-company commission meant prestige, which meant bigger grants for their own companies from a new government agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. To ballet dancers like Nureyev and Baryshnikov who knew nothing of the ideological warfare in American dance, fraternizing with the moderns meant a chance to learn new techniques, which enabled them to extend their careers. A fair number of the premières I reviewed were of post-modern ballets, a development I took for granted at the time but now see as symptomatic of the forces that were struggling against depletion in the seventies and eighties. They are still struggling; the energy of the American dance renaissance that began in the thirties is not completely spent, but that postmodern ballet is a twilight (I almost wrote "Twylight") phenomenon I have no doubt.
Another thing that has changed, of course, is The New Yorker; its whole style was different in Shawn's day. The amount of freedom a writer enjoyed there may have been unique in American journalism. I never wrote on assignment, was never asked to cover this or that event"coverage" as a conception did not exist. Once it was conceded that dance was a topic acceptable on a regular basis to New Yorker readers, my choices of subject and deadline were never even queried. When I thought I had to write, I would reserve space, then file at the last minute. When, as frequently happened, I overran the space, more space was found. And The New Yorker's editing procedures were a model of courtesy and scrupulosity.
But even though my options as a practicing critic were practically limitless, my capacities still weren't enough for my subject. It seemed that in those days I could never write as much as I had seenI mean in depth as well as diversityand every deadline was an opportunity missed. I realized that what I wrote was always going to be at a certain remove from the actual experienceI believe it was Merce Cunningham who said that speaking about dance is like nailing Jell-O to the wallbut getting comfortable with that distance took some doing. It required accepting a possibility of success based on an inevitability of diminution. In the course of writing about a dance, you invariably diminish it; you change its nature. It becomes, or aspects of it become, utterable, therefore false. It is a real temptation to a dance critic to prolong the illusion of utterability; art is, after all, a world of semblanceseven dance tolerates falsity to an extent. However, if you get to where the reader is saying to himself, "I guess you had to have been there," you have gone past the point of toleration.
Did I take notes? Yes and no. Mostly I took them if I felt my attention wandering, but I found it better, if I possibly could, to force my concentration in the hope of finding an afterimage later. It is the afterimage of the dance rather than the dance itself which is the true subject of the review. To let an afterimage form, one has to give the stage one's full attention, without the distraction of note-taking. This, the greatest lesson I absorbed from the master, Edwin Denby, was too strict to adhere to if it happened to be the weekend, I had to file on Tuesday, and I was not in my freshest mind. I evolved a method of minimal, disciplined, and, I hoped, risk-free note-taking, using a small memo pad on which I could get no more than two or three notes a page. It was okay when it worked. A white label pasted on the front cover was supposed to guard against getting the pad upside down in the dark, and by moving my thumb down the page, covering what I'd just written, I could at least hope not to scrawl one note on top of another. After the performance, I would jot the title and date of the event on the white label. I filled whole shelves with such pads in the course of a season, and I doubt that I consulted more than two or three of them when it came time to write the reviews. Some image would by then have formed, not necessarily an afterimage, but a cumulative impression more suggestive than "Jumps like a seal" or "Off the music?" In the end, all note-taking was good for was recording visual facts, like the color of costumes and the sequence of events, which I had trouble remembering. It made New Yorker fact checking easier.
Mistakes got in just the same, and I hereby absolve the checkers of all responsibility; the mistakes are mine, and most of them remain uncorrected; knowing something is wrong is not the same as knowing how to make it right. This may also be the time to make a full disclosure which will not come as a surprise to some people: I am a dance illiterate. I have never formally studied dance, never taken a music lesson, never performed on any stage except as a youngster, in school plays. My career as a critic is proof that one can come to dance knowing nothing of how it is done and still understand it, or understand it well enough to spread the news. This has to be because even the most highly cultivated form of dance, classical ballet, speaks directly to the prenatal instinct for movement and for rhythm, the thing that makes sense of movement. My own unsuppressible need to try to make sense of what I'd seen led to my becoming a writer of dance criticism; the folly, for me, of that undertaking was offset by my belief in the power of dance to communicate itself to others as it had to me.
This faith of mine was upheld during my reviewing years by all three of my editors at The New YorkerShawn, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown. Without their support, I should not have known how to continue. Shawn loved the ballet. He never told me this for some reason; maybe he thought it would influence me. He never complimented me on anything I wrote except for the first couple of articles and one other, "The Dreamer of the Dream." Gottlieb, also a ballet lover, was volubly happy with my work even after he was fired by Peter Martins from the board of New York City Ballet because of a piece of mine, "Dimming the Lights."
It was under Tina Brown that I wrote my most notorious piece, "Discussing the Undiscussable." The idea was mine, and so was the rubric under which it ran, Critic at Bay. That and a few other traces of levity remain as vestiges of my first conception of the piece, which was as a Shouts & Murmurs, a one-pager complaining of trends in performance, some sinister, some absurd, which had the effect of limiting what a critic could decently say. (One of the things that bothered me was choreographers so loaded with antidepressants that you couldn't look at their work and distinguish their creative personalities from their medication.) It is amazing to me now to recall that my screed against victim art began in this semiserious way. I had been avoiding the subject, telling myself that victim art and its purveyors had been adequately covered by other writers, when suddenly I was faced with a direct challenge: the event called Still/Here. I have been asked whether, when I wrote the piece, I had any idea of the controversy it would arouse. I only knew it would make some people angry. Would I have written it differently? No, but I would have taken more time over it and weeded out the embryonic Shouts & Murmurs bits that embarrass me now. And I would have put in a sentence or two about the pornography of atrocity, which often goes hand in hand with victim art and by which we are insidiously seduced in such prestigious ventures as the movie Schindler's List.
As I said then, we live in hard times for critics. When I joined The New Yorker, the magazine was one of the loftiest critical platforms in the country, and I am enduringly grateful for the standards set by my colleagues in their writings about the artsPauline Kael mainly, and Andrew Porter and Harold Rosenberg and Whitney Balliett. There weren't as many cultural constraints on the critic as there are now, although I can recall even then having to defend in many a seminar or panel discussion the right of the critic to be "judgmental" in a democracy.
Although my reports tell a slightly different story, I think of 1989, the year Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Irving, and Suzanne Farrell retired and Mikhail Baryshnikov quit as director of American Ballet Theatre, as the last year of ballet, the end of the wondrously creative and progressive ballet I'd known all my life. What took its place was retrospective ballet: memorials, anniversary celebrations, tributes of one sort or another to the legacy of the past; as New York City Ballet once specialized in festivals of choreography, it now specializes in revival marathons. The retrospective spirit prevails even in Russia, our former adversary. Nineteen eighty-nine was also the last year of the Cold War and the beginning of the end of Communist Russia. One of the forgotten facts of recent history is the reality of the cultural Cold War and the way the United States and the Soviet Union were pitted against each otherseriouslyas dance superpowers. But the dance capital of the world wasn't Moscow or Leningrad; it was New Yorkwe addicts knew it then and the world knows it now. One cannot ask more of one's portion of history than to be there when it happens.
Most of the material in this book is from three previous collections of my work, now out of printAfterimages (1977), Going to the Dance (1982), and Sight Lines (1987). All the pieces were selected by Robert Cornfield, who also chose the format. For his initiative and judgment, and for his generous devotion to every phase of this book, I extend loving thanks.
Meet the Author
From 1973 to 1998, Arlene Croce explored the world of dance for readers of the New Yorker. She is the author of The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Afterimages, Sight Lines, and Going to the Dance.
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