In Practice: Later Alastair Macaulay

By Sima Belmar

February 21, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

This article is modeled after outgoing New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s January 10, 2019 letter to the Dance Magazine editor[1] about Emma Sandall’s January 7, 2019 piece, “The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher.” Macaulay held his post at the Times from 2007 to 2018.

Dear Editor,

I’ve just read Alastair Macaulay’s piece in the New York Times, “Hail, Dance, and Farewell to the Critic’s Life.”[2] It’s painful, troubling, perplexing. There are several problematic remarks. I can’t resist writing the following.

1. Alastair Macaulay writes:

“In 2007, I had no idea how much good dance I was going to see. My generation — this can scarcely be overstated — had been in cumulative mourning since the mid-1980s. We could not help lamenting the great choreographers whose premieres we had once attended: George Balanchine (1904-83), Antony Tudor (1908-1987), Frederick Ashton (1904-88), Martha Graham (1894-1991), Kenneth MacMillan (1929-92), Jerome Robbins (1918-98).”

Dear New York dancemakers circa 2007: evidently your work was being viewed through a mourner’s lens. That must have been hard. Never mind that at the very same time that Macaulay and his generation were grieving these luminaries, the dance world was experiencing unparalleled loss due to the AIDS crisis, facing it by continuing to dance and make dances—this is the mourning ground of your creative practice. Imagine all the dances that could have been made in the mid-1980s, all the way to 2007 and beyond, by choreographers whose lives were cut short. Witness the powerful ways dance artists continue to grieve, e.g. Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and Other Works by John Bernd, co-directed by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez, a work that captured the life within impending death, the love and joy of New York’s broader dance community then and now.[3]

How anyone could have been surprised to find good dance in New York, a if not the dance capital of the world (forgive me, Bay Area—rhetorical purposes only), is rather odd. And it’s upsetting to think that the chief dance critic of arguably the most esteemed daily publication in New York, if not the country, if not the world, came to his post expecting to see a lot of bad dance.

2. Macaulay chooses to frame his farewell, in part, as a tremulous glance towards an unknown future full of potential horrors:

“There have been breakthroughs and positive changes in the dance climate this century. They’ve made me happy; I’ll mention a few later. Yet, Cassandra-like, I foresee ills ahead. Have we now entered a lesser era for New York theatrical dance, and perhaps for theatrical dance worldwide?”

What’s most confusing about this foreboding is the fact that it follows on the heels of this little story:

“’Today people don’t dance, they jump; in my day, we danced,’ an old man tells his granddaughter in an 18th-century French gazette. She replies, ‘In your day, they didn’t dance, they walked; today is the true age of the dance.’”

I thought this story about an 18th century Frenchman and his granddaughter was there to show us that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a “lesser era” of dance. I thought Macaulay was supposed to emerge the enlightened grandpa here. Instead, like so many “prophetic” dance critics before him (Octavio Roca is coming to mind—remember those days Bay Area?), he seems to truly believe that he can see the future of dance. And, to secure his place in the pantheon of critics with the uncanny ability to know in advance who will be canonized, that future has to be bleak. But of course, by not believing that Macaulay can see the future, I am merely reinforcing his Cassandra status. Curses! Foiled again!

Except Cassandra was speaking truth to power, as a dear friend who knows more about Greek mythology pointed out to me. And it appears that what Macaulay is really saying is that this “lesser era” has already arrived. Macaulay lionizes and partially takes credit for discovering choreographers Justin Peck, Pam Tanowitz, Liz Gerring, and Alexei Ratmansky, all of whom are white (like the dead luminaries mentioned above). It has long been the strategy of critics like Macaulay to claim innate genius and pure originality for their favorites. It is the same strategy used by one Hollywood film after another, from Singin’ in the Rain to Saturday Night Fever to Step Up, to obscure, erase, or deny the black roots of all that fabulous dancing on the silver screen. I invite Macaulay to read Anthea Kraut’s Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance and Priya Srinivasan’s “The Bodies Beneath the Smoke or What’s Behind the Cigarette Poster: Unearthing Kinesthetic Connections in American Dance History” for a long overdue critical dope slap.

“I’ve reviewed world premieres by (to start with artists now dead) Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor as well as (to name some of the living) Richard Alston, David Gordon, Mark Morris, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, Pam Tanowitz, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon. That’s an awful lot of the history of Western theatrical dance—and I’m only mentioning world premieres by the more famous artists.” Why, Mr. Macaulay? Why are you only mentioning “the most famous artists”? And what thread of the history of Western theatrical dance are you talking about, because there’s certainly more to it than these folks?

3. Macaulay would be the first to admit he’s not a dancer. Heck, in an interview with Dance Magazine he admits that his only regret was having left his London theater critic job to write about dance because he’s actually more “responsive to vocal matters,” that “dance critics seldom get to laugh out loud in the theater,” and that, like theater’s inarticulate third cousin, dance’s only real complexity lies in its “choreographic musicality.” Given all of this, how can Macaulay speak to the historical and material realities of dance training? He writes:

“From the 1920s to 2009, New York was invaluable among the dance capitals of the world. Not only did a remarkable number of great choreographers make new dances here, but they also taught. Their classrooms were laboratories that kept reinventing the genre, opening minds as well as bodies. I name four in particular: Graham, Balanchine, Tudor and Merce Cunningham.”

Allow me an admission: This is where I start to get hot under the collar. First, Macaulay mentions “the genre.” What genre? “Dance” is not a genre. The choreographers he names point to two dance genres: ballet and modern dance. But there are “great” choreographers in every genre of dance. When you read his full article, it will become clear that when Macaulay writes “dance” he means ballet and master narrative modern dance. Though he cops to the fact that he didn’t spend enough time “exploring forms of hip-hop around America,” he quickly assures us that he “at least […] investigated both Memphis jookin and Detroit jit on their home terrain,” and visited “New York’s tango clubs around midnight as a spectator.” I find it so painful that these forms, which are so central to the dance landscape in the US become oversights in a 12-year career. He calls ballet “always the thorniest of art forms” without having tried very hard to wade through the bramble of “other” dance forms and taste their delicious fruit. It’s disappointing.

But what I’m most concerned about is this idea that there are no more “great” choreographers teaching. He continues:

“With the death of Cunningham in 2009, that kind of teaching creator may have died, too — not just in New York but across the world. Perhaps I underrate the teaching of Zvi Gotheiner and Mark Morris in this city, or Ohad Naharin in Tel Aviv and Richard Alston in London. Perhaps there are others I’m overlooking.”

[Sound of head exploding]. Mark Morris has an entire school of dance. Ohad Naharin has developed a “movement language” called Gaga. I can’t speak to Gotheiner’s or Alston’s teaching because I haven’t taken class with them, and it appears neither has Macaulay. So, yes, he may be underrating their teaching. This is not a good time to be making claims, however tentative (NB: two “perhaps” and one “may have” in one short graph), without evidence.

I think Macaulay is talking about dance techniques that are named after their creators: Graham technique, Cunningham technique, Horton, Hawkins, etc. He writes, “Where once choreographers forged their dance language, now they tweak within lexicons they have inherited from others.” Macaulay is wrong here. Choreographers have only ever been tweaking inherited lexicons. Cunningham danced for Graham. His “technique” is a tweak of Graham technique. This is no less true just because Cunningham dances look radically different from Graham dances. Dance is kinesthetic tradition passed down body to body. No one dances alone.

And Macaulay himself proves my point. In his discussion of his four favorites, we find each one of them tweaking inherited lexicons like mad: Peck “keeps experimenting with ballet’s raw materials, Tanowitz takes “liberally from the traditions of both ballet and Cunningham,” Gerring “uses Cunningham’s vocabulary,” and Ratmansky is “the first front-rank choreographer to make a serious study of period dance notation and reassemble the 19th-century St. Petersburg ballets of Marius Petipa.” I hope it’s clear I’m catching Macaulay out here, not the choreographers who are just doing what choreographers do.

The difference between a technique and a style, technique and movement principles is one conversation. One’s teaching prowess is another. Yet Macaulay makes specious and therefore dangerous assumptions about dance teaching in relation to choreography in order to further his agenda:

“New York will surely remain a hub of dance activity for years to come, thanks to the wealth of talent here today. ‘We’re always living in someone’s Golden Age, it turns out,’ A.E. Housman says in Tom Stoppard’s play ‘The Invention of Love.’ But if I’m right that the great teacher-choreographers are a species of the past, then we’ve now entered a Silver Age, in which theatrical dance is a less radically creative art than before.”

The great teacher-choreographers are not an extinct species and never will be unless we find a way to pay choreographers enough to make dances so they don’t have to teach. And even then, many choreographers love teaching—Bobbi Jene Smith just told me so!—and though they don’t often name their techniques after themselves, they are absolutely tweaking their inheritance for the benefit of generations of dancers to come, and proud to be doing so.

Macaulay can’t have it both ways—acknowledge that everyone has their own ideas about when the Golden Age occurred and claim that his Golden Age is actually the real one. So thank heavens Macaulay is wrong about teacher-choreographers, and theatrical dance can continue exerting its radicalism and creativity without worrying about what metal medal some future critic decides to hang around its neck.

4. For my last point, I’m going to jump around and share my favorite moments in Macaulay’s article, moments so delightfully diverse they don’t really constitute a single theme. Here goes:

4a. “While attending to ballet — always the thorniest of dance arts, as controversial as it is prestigious — I draw attention to two very unalike trends: one heartening, one dismaying. The first is the increasing penetration of George Balanchine’s choreography into national and international repertory.” I’m not a balletomane, but kudos to Macaulay for that radically apt word choice.

4b. It is not surprising that Macaulay quotes critic Arlene Croce, the great defender of indefensible comments about dance and dancers: “Who knows dancing who only dancing knows?” I’ve got to be honest—I’m not sure what that means. I read it in two ways: either you can’t know much about dance if all you do is dance, or you can’t know much about dance if dancing only knows you. I kind of like the latter because it doesn’t really clarify anything but rather adds a further sense of mystery.

4c. “Misty Copeland has become the company’s [American Ballet Theater] greatest audience magnet, while its Women’s Move-ment is commissioning female-choreographed premieres. Still, too much rests on Ms. Copeland’s shoulders (New York needs a choice of black ballerinas, not one black prima alone!), while certain female choreographers have suddenly been deluged with commissions. Let’s hope the next 10 years see more pervasive reform.” I feel like Macaulay is hinting that there are perhaps too many female choreographer commissions—I just don’t quite know what to make of the deluge comment—but I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of the sentiment.

Macaulay opens his article with, “Dance is about change. The body keeps altering its shape while we watch it move [as do the bodies of the watchers, but please, go on]. Many of the dances that were current yesterday will not do tomorrow.” Agreed. And the same goes for dance criticism. Many of the reviews that were acceptable yesterday will not do today. I’ve written some of those, so I know the shame. Here’s to a future dance criticism that follows dance’s lead, altering its shape in relation to the movement of (the) Time(s).

All best,
Sima Belmar

 


[1] https://www.dancemagazine.com/ballet-legs-2625634647.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/arts/dance/alastair-macaulay-dance-farewell.html

[3] I saw the work at American Realness in January 2018.

 

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of In Dance.


Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the ODC Writer in Residence. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.

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