In Defense of Alastair Macaulay

JK!

Come on! Did you really think your trusty Counter Critic would chicken out and join the dark side? Not a chance! (FYI – I’m just gonna jot down these notes as fast as I can, in hopes of coming back in later posts to focus on some specific ideas. I’m sure you can’t wait!)

I will tell you though, in person, Macaulay seemed an amiable, good hearted fellow. You know, the kind of guy you’d want at your barbecue to impress all your friends that you know someone really smart and kind of off-beat. Even Eva Yaa Asantewaa prefaced her question during the Q&A by saying that his character in person comes across way more human than his writing. True dat. But to be serious, Alastair Macaulay did offer a few nuggets of wisdom during the hour-long confab with Wendy Mindy Aloff.

What we learned:

  • Macaulay began his career as a critic at the ripe age of 22.
  • He spent 1994-2006 mainly writing theater criticism.
  • This is his first job as a Chief Dance Critic “on a regular basis.”
  • “The New York Times brings out people’s paranoia.” Macaulay said this while speaking about why he made the decision to ditch his cushy set-up in London to come live with us freaks in the Big Mac.
  • “You try not to get into a dialog with dance.” Macaulay was explaining how theater criticism and dance criticism are different. His claim is that because [most] theater has words, you can immediately engage in a conversation with it, but since [most] dance doesn’t have words, he tries to avoid putting literalness into it.
  • Macaulay writes at the office!
  • “Famously” is a palabra-non-grata in the publishing world. So stop using it!
  • “Barbed remark” is the term A.M. uses to describe his more acerbic tropes.
  • The New Yorker was heaven!”
  • Macualay described criticism as “a process of digestion.” I don’t altogether disagree that criticism is practiced in this way. What artist hasn’t felt that a critic has come into their performance, gobbled it all up and shat it out the other end completely unrecognizable? (I’ll post some thoughts later on this metaphor for criticism as consumption.)
  • Macaulay’s encounters with the legal system have included a conviction for murder and accusations of child pornography (he doled out the former and was on the receiving end of the latter).
  • He doesn’t have a TV and has apparently never seen any dance on film.

So, after all of that, which really avoided any of the big shoes (that’s actually short for “issues”), the Q&A opened up to the masses (it was a full house, mainly Barnard ladies, with a few of the dance literati peppered throughout). But, as these things go–and by “these things” I mean public discussions about art–people were generally nice and didn’t really go for the hard-hitting questions. It’s funny that main-stream media reluctance to risk social censure in order to procure information has trickled down to the world of the arts! (My Hungarian writer friend insists that when he speaks in America, no one asks about theory or aesthetics; they all want to know his personal history.)

When asked if he thought dance critics needed to take dance classes, Macaulay rightly pointed out that if that were true, he would have to take every genre of dance class in order to critique the array dance that is out there. It’s difficult to understand that people who have not practiced an art can make wonderful critics. He then went on to admit that he had given himself ballet lessons in his own home. What was most illuminating about this part of the discussion when Macaulay began to speak about how “Swan Lake” was the first ballet that “got into his body.” When that happens, the mimetic quality of dance flourishes; that is to say, that when we see a movement, we, as humans, can feel the need to mimic it, because just by observing, we can feel movement in our body as a mimetic response. This is why dance and music (as the most refined form of movement) can literally move us! It was brilliant, and I gotta give the man some cred.

Wendy Perron, editor of Dance Magazine (on an aside: it was totally Presidential press-conferency how Mindy Aloff would call out the recognizable dance writers by name!), asked about the critic’s task of balancing objectivity with subjectivity. Macaulay’s response was that he does try to balance the two, but that tapping into a “passionate subjectivity” was most important: “That’s what going to the arts is about.” From that point of subjective passion, Macaulay says that then a critic should be able to go forward and explain to the reader why the art matters. Can’t disagree with him there.

Then a lone Barnard lass asked if harsh dance critics had lead to diminishing dance audiences over the years. Macaulay was basically like, The New York Times doesn’t have that much sway. The example he gave was that the NYC Ballet is full no matter what you write about them, but that he can rave about ABT and no one will go. I can kind of see what he means, but this belies the main flaw of him as a Chief Dance Critic, and that is, the essential myopia with which he views the world. Most of the examples he gave about what he loved about dance and art were all classical examples, whether Mozart, Balanchine, Ashton or Cunningham (say what you will, Cunningham is a classicist). Panning other kinds of dance that have not yet developed a systematic base of supporters certainly seems to have an affect on audience attendance.

Macaulay went on to say that he gets bitchy (my word), and feels the right to be harsh with something, when it “deeply offends my aesthetic criteria.” Now, his aesthetic criteria is proving to be rather narrow. And it is this narrowness that makes his “barbed remarks” so off-putting, as they often seemed based on rigid aesthetic pre-qualifications that might not apply to the work at hand, as in his barb(ar)ous review of Doug Varone’s Dense Terrain. Why would you say that a dancer is “out of shape” in a company that has as its aesthetic objective to expand the representation of the body on-stage by incorporating a diversity of body types? It’s apparent that Macaulay isn’t a “to each his own” kind of guy, which I think you can’t be successfully in the fantastically stratified arts environment we inhabit today.

There were some other kind questions, about how Macaulay’s getting to know the variety of New York dance, what the differences between the London and NY scenes. But the final question of the night, the coup de Macaulay, came from your fearless Counter Critic. My question: Does dance need to be beautiful, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Boom! Because y’all know our main contention with Macaulay is the narrowness with which he determines aesthetic beauty and the frequency with which he uses that determination to value dance. Well, that’s our main contention, you know, aside from the general snootiness of his prose tone.

Grand Master M. was very careful to answer, or rather, not to answer at all. Instead, he said that there are choreographers who have challenged our notions of beauty. Among them, he included Twyla Tharp, Cunningham and Mark Morris. And that our ideas of beauty change as we go through life. Umm, is there a draft in the room? Cuz that bitch dodged like nobody’s business!

Listen. I don’t have anything against Macaulay personally. He seems like a really nice guy. And I can understand if he didn’t have the heart to look out at a roomful of aspiring dancers and tell them if they fell out of shape that he wouldn’t think they were beautiful. But to skirt the one question about aesthetics–a subject that he had already put on the table with his defense of rhetorical barbing as a reaction to transgressions of his “aesthetic criteria”–is just kind of lame. Why don’t people talk about things? What are we afraid of saying? What are we afraid of hearing?

I’ll try to throw some other responses together in more coherent fashion.

(Check here for Tanya Planks rundown of the affair. She has a picture!)

9 Comments

  1. Yeah, I agree. I wish that conversation would have gone a lot deeper. I was actually expecting most of the talk to center around the kind of question you asked (as well as the student), but I should have known I was being naive. He does seem like a really nice guy and someone you’d want to invite to your barbecue, but so? He’s the most powerful dance writer in the country…

  2. Very interesting write up. Thanks!
    Not sure how he would know that he could rave about ABT and no one would come or pan NYCB and people would still come since he never did either thing. He raved incessantly about NYCB and gave (with one exception) uniformly bad reviews to ABT. Hell, he’s already started panning their NEXT spring season (spring/summer 2008) in advance
    furthermore, ABTs house is considerably bigger. I would guess at least double state theater–so the fullness quotient is rather relative–its not saying one is more popular.

    The really odd thing is whenever I saw ABT this year it was actually quite quite full. Certainly more so than in the last few years.

  3. Try to get your facts straight. Mindy Aloff moderated the event, and she is a very established dance critic. The excess of exclamation points belittles your points, which are really great.

  4. Chilax, Sparky!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    My whole review and you find one factual error!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!??????????????????????????

    You know, I rely on good-hearted, kind, well-meaning readers such as yourself to keep my sweet ass in check!!!! !!!!!!! !!!! (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    And I use all the exclamations not only to vernacularize academic discourse, but also to prove that I’m always right, except for when I get the name wrong of a very established dance critic I’ve never heard of!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Hi, counter critic! You’ve misinterpreted what I said to Macaulay at the Barnard talk. In fact, although I was surprised to discover how charming and humble he could be in person, what I actually said was that I found his writing voice to be unusually expressive and human, and that that mattered to me. My concern–as I wrote in my report on the event–that the extent of his current power is out of proportion to the current limitations of his experience with the diversity and range of dance in New York.

    If readers are interested in checking out my actual thoughts on the Macaulay event, they can find my report on my InfiniteBody blog at http://infinitebody.blogspot.com. I’d appreciate your visit.

    Eva

  7. Thanks for the clarification, Eva!

    Macaulay comments on “aesthetic criteria” say a lot about why he writes the way he does about dance other than ballet. Basically, his criteria is narrowly balletic and hyper-formal. What’s “new” to him isn’t necessarily new to New York, which makes his difficulty in reviewing contemporary dance that isn’t rooted in classical aesthetics seem so out of touch.

  8. […] would have thought that just a few days after his nearly anticipated Barnard appearance, that AM would smack down this hilarious review of “Revolution,” which I’m sure […]

  9. I never read Alastair Macaulay reviews as I feel his comments are so completly off the rails it’s hardly worth the effort.


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