So everyone in the dance world has had a chance to chime in about Alastair Macaulay’s appointment to the top dance critic spot at the New York Times. I haven’t said much because I prefer writing about dancers and dances to playing insider baseball, and because I’m not extensively familiar with Macaulay’s work, though I like what I’ve read (and used to read him in the Times Literary Supplement while an undergrad student in London). But a few words must be said about Apollinaire Scherr’s overheated reaction, which, if you haven’t read her hot-off-the-presses post, boils down to this: The Times should have hired a woman critic, even though no better qualified female candidate emerged.

Scherr’s reasoning runs thus: 1. Most players in the dance world–dancers, choreographers–are women. 2. Female critics need the affirmative action because women have a hard time being assertive enough to make it in journalism.

Her argumentation is especially specious. The headline of her post says it all: “Man leads ‘girls’ at the Times.” The real reference here, lest you be misled by Scherr’s methods, isn’t to Macaulay. It’s to outgoing chief critic John Rockwell who, Scherr reports, would refer to the female freelancers as his “girls.” To tar Macaulay by association for his mere maleness is outrageous.

As for her other points, number one seems equally sexist as the attitudes Scherr decries. Number two I think has far more substance to it. I do think women, for all kinds of cultural reasons, generally have a harder time being as opinionated as men–I see this every day in the lunchroom gender dynamic of the Writers Grotto, the office co-op where I work. But the way to correct this is coaching for female critics early in their careers, not through hiring less-qualified candidates into top positions. Also, I’ve seen younger female critics be quite opinionated indeed: Gia Kourlas clearly has no troubles stating her mind (which I thoroughly enjoy), and the female interns I had under my watch at the Examiner were so eager to slash and burn that I actually had to teach them judiciousness, not coax them out of meekness. Which leads to one final thought: Why assume good criticism ought to rely on the sterotypical male qualities of bombast and imperiousness? Deborah Jowitt’s work–and her career and reputation–have done very well without them. As much as I admire the intellectual energy behind Scherr’s writing, she might do well to shed a little bombast and imperiousness, too.

I’ve been hard-pressed to find dissenters who claim Macaulay is anything but wonderfully qualified. This is a controversy in search of a target. I look forward to seeing what he does at the Times.

UPDATE: Doug Fox at Great Dance widens the discussion beyond griping and insider cattiness, thank God. To quote Doug:

“The discussion about Alastair Macaulay’s qualifications to be the new New York Times chief dance critic and whether or not a woman should have been appointed instead, fails to address a much more pressing issue about the future of dance criticism.

Essentially from a business and practical perspective, dance criticism is a dying art form in the US. There are now fewer and fewer paying opportunities for dance writers because many newspapers have cut back (or eliminated) the number of articles devoted to dance. . . .

. . .It appears that dance writers would rather argue over the remaining handful of dance writing gigs that pay real money than join forces to explore new, more lucrative opportunities for a larger numbers of dance writers.”

I whole-heatedly agree, and share his vexation, even if I may count among the dancer writers who fail to fully explore how new media could change the profession. Doug goes on to detail how dance writers could be working with online video, and more tagging, and linking. Personally I’m not ready to trade in the notion of “dance critic” for “dance facilitator,” and to me producing quality thought and writing must remain utmost, but there’s a lot of useful technical information here and much to think about, and I thank Doug for his indefatiguable efforts.

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