Ballet Critics Now & Then

Ballet Critics Now

Those of us in the UK with a keen interest in ballet and dance are very fortunate in having easy access to a number of specialist dance critics’ writing for newspapers, magazines and websites.  At the start of a run of performances by either British or international companies we have the luxury of consulting a range of expert opinions on what we have seen or plan to see.  Typically, reviews will offer background information on the ballet and specific production and give opinions on the components of the work and the effectiveness of the performers, as well as analyses and interpretations of the work and performance.  While reviews always offer different perspectives and insights, sometimes they can even be almost diametrically opposed in their account and assessment of a performance.

So we find that reading reviews often engenders animated and interesting discussions in the bar or on our WhatsApp group or at coffee after a ballet class.  You may also have noticed that we have frequently referred to the writing of critics in this blog, including Zoe Anderson, Ismene Brown, Sarah Crompton and Hannah Weibye.  And this is not only a matter of supplying interesting information or a particular point of view, but sometimes these experts are able to express their thoughts in such pithy, vivid or enticing language that it enriches both our own understanding and our writing and is a pleasure to integrate into our posts. Reviews are also crucial sources for our lectures in their connection to live current performances and in bringing to life dancers and performances of the past in a more immediate way than in a traditional narrative history.

The work of a critic is extremely skilled, a fact we perhaps forget, surrounded as we are by such an array of accomplished reviewers.  Candace Feck of Ohio State University expresses the complexity of writing about dance performance succinctly, but leaving the reader in no doubt as to the challenges of this kind of writing:

In lecture halls and dorm rooms, in library cubicles, newspaper offices and behind internet blog sites, laments are raised about the challenges of witnessing a fleeting and non-verbal art form and wresting from it the elements of verbal expression. Once likened to the act of placing a tattoo on a soap bubble, the task of writing about performance requires close attention to the unfolding event, a process of reflective engagement afterward and finally, the daunting business of choosing and organizing words that will convey an accurate and persuasive account of the experience to a reader once-removed. (412)

Luckily, if we want to write about a particular performance on this our Britishballetnowandthen blog, while we still experience a restless fishing for words and a struggle to get a written text to convey what we saw and our assessment of it, we only need to please ourselves and whomever we think might read our posts.  Not so for writers of established newspapers, magazines and websites, who have stringent deadlines to meet and are obliged to abide by editorial constraints, for example a specific word count and brief. Therefore, it is all the more astonishing that critics are able to convey choreography and dancers with such vividness.

Critics often publish books related to dance (more of this below), but some are also celebrated for their writing beyond the realms of ballet and dance.  Recently Luke Jennings of The Observer has been in the media frequently due to this year’s dramatisation of his novel Codename Villanelle by BBC America. Meanwhile, Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic for The Guardian since 1995, published her Unfinished Palazzo last year, portraying the lives of Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim, three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier at different points of the 20thcentury.  The spring of 2021 will see the release of her Going with the Boys, a group biography of six female war correspondents during World War II.  Perhaps it is this involvement in depicting other worlds and connecting with a variety of readerships that lends particular vibrancy and resonance to the writing of Jennings and Mackrell.

Recently Judith Mackrell announced that she will be leaving The Guardian.  Therefore, in recognition of her contribution to dance criticism through her 32 years of being a dance critic first at The Independent, then at The Guardian, we are now going to spend some time focussing on her reviews. Obviously, we can’t in a few paragraphs do justice to her work, so in order to keep it current, we are looking specifically at some of her reviews of the Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake over the last six years, including her write-up of the Company’s new production of Swan Lake, which premiered in May of this year.

Once a production is well established, critics tend to focus on the technical performance and interpretations of the dancers.  Therefore, Mackrell’s 2012 and 2015 reviews of Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production concentrate on the principal roles, in particular Odette/Odile, in both cases danced by a Russian guest – Natalia Osipova in 2012 and Evgenia Obraztsova three years later.  One of the points that Mackrell highlights is the atypical approach to aspects of the dual role from both ballerinas. Our reading of Mackrell’s words is that she has distinct reservations about these particular aspects.  The anger she perceives in Osipova’s Odette is deemed to create an “odd interpretation” at times, although “there are brilliant compensations” (“Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”).  Meanwhile, Obraztsova and Steven McRae’s portrayal of Odette and Siegfried’s love is “a beautifully intimate portrait of a love affair, but it lacks the high stakes of tragedy that normally define this ballet” (“Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”).

So far nothing unusual, you may think.  However, Mackrell’s use of language is so evocative, her manipulation of words so sophisticated that the reviews draw us in.  She builds up a vivid picture of Osipova’s Odette with carefully selected vocabulary: the words “defending”, “warrior”, “rage”, “urgent”, “disrupt” give the impression of an energetic Odette fighting for justice. On the other hand, when executing small steps, her speed produces “a magical, floating quality”. In her account of Obraztsova’s Odette, it’s not only the vocabulary, but the undulating rhythm that creates the image of the ballerina’s articulation of the choreography and McRae’s partnering: “With every delicate inflection of her foot, every ripple of her arm, she shows him how to read her; and with every touch, glance and breath he responds”.

The effect of this wonderfully expressive writing is that despite the author’s reservations, we are intrigued and see that the ballet has perhaps more possibilities for interpretation than we had imagined.  So through her perceptive viewing and eloquent writing that strikingly captures the ballerinas’ unusual renditions, we are suggesting that Swan Lake itself as a choreographic work could be said to evolve.

The review of the Royal Ballet’s new Swan Lake, produced by Liam Scarlett, has a different balance, in that it is much more focussed on the production itself.  Nonetheless, interwoven into the comments on the production are descriptions that give a clear impression of the interaction of the performers being tender and emotionally driven, while Marianela Núñez is singled out for her exquisite musicality (“Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”). Indeed, in all three reviews the way in which commentary on staging and dancers are integrated gives the reader a sense of the experience of watching the performance as a complete phenomenon. This means that whether you’re a ballet novice or a seasoned viewer, you will gain something from reading Mackrell’s reviews, particularly if you also appreciate the finer points of language.

In an age where anyone can write reviews online (and this democratisation is to be welcomed), it is crucial to appreciate the skill of expert ballet critics such as Judith Mackrell and recognise their contribution to our own understanding of ballet and the understanding of future audiences, students, dancers and scholars.

Ballet Critics Then

In order to maintain a sense of parity, we are focussing on Judith Mackrell’s predecessors at The Guardian and some of their Royal Ballet Swan Lake reviews.

In case some of you are unfamiliar with these critics, here is a bit about them.

Before becoming Director of the Royal Ballet School in 1977 James Kennedy (aka James Monahan) was dance critic of The Guardian. He also wrote books on ballet, for example Fonteyn: a study of the ballerina in her settingin 1957 and Nature of Ballet: a critic’s reflectionsin 1976.  Mary Clarke, who was already editor of The Dancing Times, followed him as Guardian critic while maintaining her role at The Dancing Times.  Clarke was also a known for her work with the eminent Clement Crisp on a number of historical and dance appreciation texts, such as Ballet, an Illustrated History (1973), Design for Ballet (1978), The Ballet Goer’s Guide (1981), The History of Dance (1981) and Ballerina: the art of women in classical ballet (1987).

Like Judith Mackrell, both James Kennedy and Mary Clarke focussed on guest artists and international stars in their reviews of Swan Lake as well as on the production.  Kennedy’s review of March 4th 1964, when Robert Helpmann’s production was but a few months old, is squarely focussed on the performance of Rudolf Nureyev, who had caused such a sensation on defecting from the Soviet Union in June 1961, but had been unable to dance the role of Siegfried during the first run of the production on account of injury.  While Kennedy comments on choreographic changes, costuming and his partner Margot Fonteyn, the whole performance is seen through the lens of Nureyev’s performance – his virtuosity and stage presence, his characterisation and partnering, his alterations to the choreographic text and selection of costume. By using phrases such as “not entirely for the better”, “it is a pity”, “certainly spoils the pictorial effect”, it is patently clear that Kennedy regarded some features of the performance with disapprobation.  However, such is the strength of Nureyev’s classical technique, commanding stage presence and uniqueness in characterisation that Kennedy nonetheless finds his performance “outstanding”.  Kennedy sets himself up as a judge of sorts, “pardoning” and “forgiving” aspects of Nureyev’s performance of which he disapproved. Consequently, when reading this review we gain an immensely strong sense of the critic’s opinion, indeed his judgement on what he sees, but not a very clear impression of the performance – either dancers, or production.  This is also the case in his review of Swan Lake with Nadia Nerina as Odette/Odile (“Swan Lake at Covent Garden”).

It is noticeable that of the reviews we researched, James Kennedy’s were the shortest, which may have had some impact on the style and focus of writing.  In contrast, when Dowell’s 1987 production was first staged, Mary Clarke devoted a whole review to the production itself, including the process and philosophy of the producers in their attempt to return to a more authentic version of the choreography than had previously been the case.  Less than two weeks later Clarke wrote another column including comments on audience reaction to the new production and with her opinions of two different casts.  While her writing is similar to Kennedy’s in her use of evaluative vocabulary such as “brilliance” (“Lake Lustre”), “scintillating” and “magnificently” (“Swan Lake”), she seems less dogmatic to us, paradoxically perhaps through making herself more openly visible in her writing by using the first person: the words “I think he’s right” (“Lake Lustre”) and “I marvelled at” (“Swan Lake”), while expressing approval and enthusiasm respectively,  seem to leave room for alternative views.

What is of most interest to us, however, is a common attitude that Kennedy and Clarke seem to share in relation to the performances with the Royal Ballet of international star dancers celebrated for their virtuosity and individuality, their non-conformism even.  Emblazoned across the page in huge letters, “The 6 o’clock star”, Clarke’s title to her review of Sylvie Guillem’s Royal Ballet debut as Odette/Odile in 1989, gives a clear indication of how she perceives the ballerina’s rendition of the choreography.  Nonetheless, with commentary on the dancing of the corps de ballet and Jonathan Cope as Prince Siegfried, the conducting of Mark Ermler, as well as the general atmosphere and audience reaction, we do gain an impression of the event as a whole, unlike from Kennedy’s write-up of Nureyev’s debut in Helpmann’s Swan Lake.  But rather than creating a vivid account of her movement style, Clarke accentuates Guillem’s technical prowess on the one hand and on the other hand pronounces that Guillem “needs to be shaped into that real ballerina mould where beauty of line and deeply expressive feeling take precedence over physical feats of virtuosity”.  And this is reminiscent of Kennedy’s extraordinary opinion that “a little more conformism would improve” Nureyev’s performance of Siegfried. Therefore, both of these critics leave us in no doubt that as remarkable as these two enormous talents are, their performances would improve if they would restrain themselves and comply with specific balletic ideals.

In our opinion this attitude is quite distinct from Judith Mackrell’s approach, where rich and detailed description stimulates our curiosity, and non-conformism can seem intriguing and liberating.  In researching ballet reviews from other eras, we found that they are fascinating to read as much for the opportunity to encounter different perspectives and ways of viewing as for discovering information about past performances.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… in recognition of the upcoming documentary on Rudolf Nureyev and important promotions at the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, we will be considering some male dancers who have made their mark on British ballet style and repertoire.

© Rosie Gerhard

References

Clarke, Mary. “Lake lustre”. The Guardian, 14 Mar. 1987.

—. “The 6 o’clock star”. The Guardian, 17 Apr. 1989.

—. “Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 27 Mar. 1987.

Feck, Candace. “What’s in a Dance? The complexity of information in writings about dance”. Dance on Its own Terms, edited by Melanie Bales and Karen Eliot, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 411-30.

Kennedy, James. “This Month in the Theatre: Nureyev in Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 4 Mar. 1964, p. 9.

—. “Swan Lake at Covent Garden”. The Guardian, 19 Jan. 1965, p. 7.

Mackrell, Judith. “Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”, The Guardian, 11 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/11/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”,The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/mar/17/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review-royal-opera-house. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”, The Guardian, 18 May 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/may/18/swan-lake-review-royal-ballet. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

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