Artists’ Bodies: How Not to Talk About How Performers Look

I’m a little late to the party, but since I wrote a piece on the issues involved in talking about how artists look a while back, I’m going to throw in my two cents’ worth. On November 28, the Times’ dance critic Alastair Macaulay invited a storm of criticism when he took issue with the weight of two of the performers in NYCB’s Nutcracker. On December 3, he wrote a response defending his decision to comment on the weight of performers, full of allusions to visual art, reference to gender, and so on.

Now, I’m probably not the first person to make this point, but in my own humble opinion, it’s not that Macaulay’s point is entirely invalid, it’s that what he actually wrote was completely asinine. Jenifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many”? Jared Angle “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm”? That’s what passes for serious criticism these days?

Look, the reality is that on one level, he’s right–the performer’s build in dance is important, and particularly in the high stakes world of professional ballet. It’s a reality, and it’s part of the cost of making art that we sometimes have a lot of trouble talking about, mostly because we like to think of art as good, versus more commerical pursuits as bad. We criticize fashion for creating negative body images in women, but art is supposed to be empowering, right? Never mind that dance is a terrible thing to do to your body, and ballet in particular. (I once asked a burlesque dancer about what it was like to perform complex choreography in six inch heels; her succinct response was that it wasn’t half as bad for her feet as performing in point shoes).

A while back I was talking to a widely noted choreographer about his reputation for being particularly hard on his female dancers. His response, and I’m paraphrasing here, was basically that, “Yeah, I’m hard on you. But that’s what you signed up for, because that’s what the work demands, so I don’t want to talk to the person who’s complaining right now, I want to talk to the person who auditioned and wanted to work with me.”

That may seem insensitive (and is probably blunter than he actually put it), but he’s right. If you want to achieve a certain art, a certain style, a certain aesthetic, there’s a cost. I won’t argue it’s necessary or better than ones more forgiving to the body (or different body types), but that’s just how it is. Art is perceived and judged by its finished product, and if something like the weight of a dancer affects that meaningfully, well then it does.

Criticism, however, is also judged on its finished product, and Macaulay’s defense on Friday was a lame example of trying to justify how he said what he said by arguing he was right. I don’t suppose I’m in any position to tell the Times’ dance critic how to write, but I do tend to think he said what he said because of the convenience of turning a phrase, allowing what he chose a week later to portray as high-minded criticism to become nothing more than snarky ridicule, and personally I think the accomplishment of being a lead NYCB dancer should probably earn someone sufficient respect to be above being mocked by one of the most influential dance critics in the country. It would be easier to appreciate his defense and response if it wasn’t just an intellectual justification for being flippant in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Artists’ Bodies: How Not to Talk About How Performers Look”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Well put. I missed the Macaulay article but reread it now. There's a big difference between simply noticing someone's appearance and making a snide comment about it.

  2. Christine Jowers says:

    Thank you for this article, very well said.

  3. jenabrams says:

    Andy, I'm curious – do you think Alastair is one of the most influential critics in the country? Perhaps in the realm of ballet. Perhaps most widely-read. But I wonder about what it means to be influential.

    I've sensed a shift in how downtown dancers respond to the Times in the last few years. Times reviews do not loom large in the conversation we are having with each other. I don't look to the Times to contextualize things for me the way I did the old Voice reviews.

    So perhaps influential in terms of audience, but less so to artists? Less so for smaller companies? I'm curious about your (and other readers') take on that.

  4. jray745 says:

    Andy didn't write this–Jeremy (me) did, and I agree with everything you're saying. What I meant was, that yes, his platform is extremely big, and obviously (and justifiably) pretty much anyone would be a bit happier to get a great review from him as opposed to, say, anyone here at Culturebot. But is he relevant? Part of a discourse? Important to the conversations artists are having? Engaged with contemporary dance rather than just ballet? The writer at the Times I'm most interested in reading? No on all counts.

  5. jenabrams says:

    Sorry to have overlooked your by-line Jeremy! Thanks for your thoughts.

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