So I?ve had a day to mull over John Rockwell?s reaction to the Ballet Talk crew. If you?re not a dance fanatic, let me get you up to speed. Rockwell, who in his long career has written about music and other arts, was recently appointed the new chief dance critic of the New York Times. His selection has caused anxiety among some dance lovers who worry he may not bring a breadth of dance knowledge befitting the country?s most important dance critic. To kick off his tenure two weeks ago, Rockwell wrote a column extolling (through somewhat hazy argumentation) the essential ?unity? of dance. The boards at Ballet Talk lit up quickly. Alexandra Tomalonis, the site?s founder, and Leigh Witchel, one of its leaders, wrote letters to Rockwell expressing their concern over the trend toward modern choreographers creating works for ballet companies, or ?crossover? dance. Rockwell responded in print?bitingly. An excerpt from his column is posted below.
My comments will be brief, in part because I?m swamped with work, in part because I?m not partial to creating tempests in teapots. But I have to say: Kudos to Rockwell for responding to the Ballet Talk criticisms in print and thereby providing a broader forum for debate. And kudos to Ballet Talk for sustaining a high level of critical discussion that deserves to be taken seriously by the Times? chief critic.
For the record, I?ve found Rockwell?s initial reviews well written and more than adequately informed, and I think his appointment may prove healthy for the state of both dance and dance coverage in this country. American dance criticism has been backing itself into an ever more specialized corner for some time now, emphasizing insider knowledge at the expense of communicating the joy of dance to a broad public. Rockwell?s early ballet reviews have shown that he knows his dance history, or at the very least that he?s willing to do his homework. His prose and his arguments are engaging. He?s aesthetically open-minded. I?m hopeful about his tenure.
I?m also sympathetic to his forward-looking impulse, and his disdain toward fretting over the loss of ballet?s past glories. At the same time, I think he does Witchel?s and Tomalonis?s arguments injustice. Tomalonis is right that performing works by a modern dance choreographer does not maintain a company?s classical technique in the way that dancing ?Paquita? or ?Symphonic Variations? does. And Witchel is not arguing against innovation, but for the importance of innovation within tradition, which ballet companies could do more to foster and critics more to support.
Then there is the tone of Rockwell?s response?outright condescension?and a handful of perplexing digressions. One paragraph that?s repeatedly confounded me responds to Tomalonis?s assertion that ballet dancers do not perform modern dance choreography with the same sense of weight that modern dancers achieve:
?Well, where to begin? Presumably, by “weight” Ms. Tomalonis means the earth-centered movement of some modern dancers, as opposed to the airiness of ballet. She has a point. But movement and bulk are related. The disconcertingly thin model for ballerinas is relatively new. Look at pictures of dancers in the 19th century, and even into the 20th.?
This is outright wrong: that sense of weightedness so associated with modern dance has much less to do with bulk than physical impulse. Ballet dancers emphasize looking ?pulled up? to create the illusion of defying gravity; modern dance embraces connection to the ground. Just as fleshier early 20th century dancers could look floating and ethereal, skinny modern dancers can look weighted?just check out the Mark Morris Dance Group?s Marjorie Folkman, a rather lank woman. It?s her technique, not her waist size, that makes her look rooted and strong.
There are other points to parse, as the posters at Ballet Talk already have. The tenor of the debate is still civil, and far from settling my views on the merits of ?crossover? dance, the discussion instead makes me optimistic about the possibilities for serious debate about dance in the New York Times.
UPDATE: Alexandra Tomalonis has called for formal commentary on the “crossover” debate to be submitted to her at comments at danceviewtimes.com. Select entries will be published on the DanceView Times site. She asks that correspondents stick to the dance issues in play.