Monday, November 12, 2007

Excuse me?

I was reading James Wolcott's blog, as I do from time to time when I feel that I can stomach the whole snide and arrogant persona, when I reached this post. After mentioning that Laura Jacobs is his wife, while making it seem as though this is a silly thing to have to do--which, as an aside, it most certainly is not--he quotes a long section of her latest review in the New Criterion.

Now, in my effort to learn more about ballet, I've been reading quite a bit of dance criticism lately, but I haven't read much of Jacobs's work beyond some criticism of Mark Morris with which I strongly disagreed, because I'm not a New Criterion subscriber. So I was quite interested in reading this excerpt from her review of ABT's Sleeping Beauty. She writes:
As always, Part's first appearance, her entrance in Act One, lifted the ballet to a higher and, because of her height, stranger place. She seemed born not of this king and queen but of vine-covered history. Her climactic port de bras in the Rose Adagio--dipping, reaching, rising over a turning spindle of bourrees (Petipa's brilliance: he's hinting at her fate just minutes away)--really was petaled, a long-stemmed rose ecstatically opening. And in the Vision Scene, no one performs that reaching pique arabesque which whorls 'round into an extension en avant with the centrifugal pull and plumb of Part, creating a wave, opening space. Notice how Petipa reverses this move in the Wedding Pas. Facing the Prince, holding his hand, Aurora unfurls a developpe en avant on pointe, arches her upper body backward from it, then flick, she pivots into an attitude that has them both facing the audience. It's a cantilevered strength move, very difficult, and where most dancers lay back stiffly, Part's arch sinks back into dream, revisiting the spell and giving us a glimpse of the curve, stress, and bevel that held her in that hundred-year sleep, and still holds in classical dancing. This is Part's power: radiant, radical imagining. In an era of allegro, she emerges--like something in a fairy tale--from the rhythms, the river, of adagio, with its rising inner life and ardor arrested, explored.

After Part has been in a ballet it can be difficult to see others come in. It isn't a question of interpretation, rather of dimension. Part has a way of opening the physical parameters of a role, not through conventional virtuosity, such as adding extra turns on a pirouette (her doubles are calla lilies; don't ask for triples), but by enlarging the measure of give within a phrase: deepening the plies; hitting the high note of a developpe with singingly perfect placement; bringing a blossom, a volumetric expansion, to a seemingly thin linearity. Part is a tautology: If you can't see what makes her great you're not really fit to judge her.
Now first we have the rather over-the-top and uninteresting purpleness of her prose. Because really, she seems to be born of "vine-covered history"? An arch that "sinks back into dream"? Those are descriptions I could really live without. And I could go into more detail on why, but I'll spare you that because I'm willing to look past that. For the most part, I find her descriptions of the actual movement evocative and clear and that's certainly the kind of criticism that helps me to learn.

But at the end of this excerpt we run into a statement that's neither purple nor evocative--and far more difficult to ignore than some violet-hued writing: "If you can't see what makes her great you're not really fit to judge her." I beg your pardon? To imply that someone who cannot see what you yourself see in an artist is not only patronizing but frankly rather ugly. Art is by its very nature subjective. And that very subjectivity is a large part of what makes it so important. How boring it would be if everyone agreed on who was great and who was not. Now, I have not yet been fortunate enough to see Part dance so I don't have an opinion on her one way or the other. But I don't think whether or not I like the dancer in question is particularly relative here. To try to shut off any debate like that, to say that anyone who doesn't agree with you is not fit to judge, to demand some sort of hegemonic understanding of a dancer, is a thoroughly distasteful thing.

What makes matters worse is the fact that Wolcott is using this decidedly suspect piece of writing, and his agreement with it, to attack another critic for his biases. I'm not sure that saying the pot is calling the kettle black is a strong enough term for this but it's certainly true.

*The picture used above was taken from Veronika Part's rather nice Web site*


Doug Fox said...

Hi Meg,

if you write reviews of dance you see in NYC, you can submit them here:

I would have emailed you but I couldn't find your email.

Meg said...

Thanks, Doug. I mostly just read reviews for dance in NYC as opposed to writing them. I mean, when I go to see something I write about it but nothing particularly organized as of yet. Hopefully as I become a better dance viewer I'll get better at writing about it.

What a great source of reading material that will be for me though. :)