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The plump dancer and the ‘New York Times’ criticBY: Jim Rutter 12.07.2010
The New York Times dance critic has been vilified for commenting on a dancer’s weight. Was he insensitive? Maybe. But that sort of sensitivity is the enemy of art— especially the art of dance.
Art and sensitivity: If a dancer’s
About a year ago, a Philadelphia dance company dismissed one of its better dancers because of her “thicker,” though by no means fat, physique. I’m told that the company’s artistic directors had admonished her to “slim up” several times during her tenure there.
From my seat in the audience, I could see how this dancer’s body type visually differentiated her from the company’s ensemble. But I thought her superior dancing more than compensated for this deficiency. The company, obviously, did not. So while I disagree with the troupe’s decision, at least I understand its concern.
I can’t say the same for critics of New York Times dance writer Alastair Macaulay, who’s currently weathering a storm of vicious opinion for his review of The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Macaulay’s crime: He wrote that dancer Jenifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.”
Struggles with anorexia
Two commentators charged Macaulay with insensitivity toward Ringer, a dancer who has courageously and openly acknowledged her struggles with anorexia. Huffington Post contributor Jennifer Edwards labeled Macaulay’s review “irresponsible” and degrading to dance and cultural criticism. Clyde Fitch Report editor Leonard Jacobs suggested that a bad critic is someone “unable or unwilling to distinguish between the performance given by an artist… and the physical characteristics of the performer himself or herself.”
Jacobs argued that if Macaulay knew of Ringer’s past, he should have treated her body with greater sensitivity. (That doing so might violate Jacobs’s own rule of “separating the qualities of the performer from the performance” didn’t occur to him.)
In any case, surely reasonable people can agree that there is such a thing as bad casting. I once criticized a director’s choice to cast a severely obese soprano as Mimi in La Bohème. She could sing well, but no one would ever believe Rudolfo singing about her “little hands,” and no audience member would believe that she’s dying of a tissue-wasting disease like tuberculosis (or that she lives in 19th-Century poverty, for that matter). Her voice failed to compensate for this deficiency.
Dancers are different
Theater and opera do offer performers more tools with which to overcome any physical shortcomings. But a dancer’s body is the only instrument she’s got. And she must use it not only to reveal character and tell story but to perform exacting and physically difficult movements codified by the art form.
At the Pennsylvania Ballet, no one exemplifies this requirement more than the company’s principal dancer, Arantxa Ochoa. She weaves her arms through the air with the perfect grace of a pair of verses in a sonnet. Whatever Ochoa needs to evoke in a character flows from the movement of those gorgeously long and spectacularly wielded limbs.
Ochoa could not, however, achieve these feats if her arms looked like door hinges built from marshmallows. Nor could she credibly play most of ballet’s popular principal roles— delicate swans (Swan Lake), nymph-like fairies (The Nutcracker) and skeletal corpses (Giselle). Dancers whose bodies cannot express or convey these qualities might want to choose another profession.
The better-sculpted body
In a follow-up piece in the Times, Macaulay mentions a few dancers who’ve overcome adverse physical proportions (such as obesity) to craft brilliant performances and careers even while playing fragile roles. But the demands of a role or the audience’s possibly sexist expectations are just part of the issue.
Ballet requires tremendous cardiovascular stamina, strength endurance and explosiveness. Like any other physical activity, it becomes easier the less body mass you carry. If a critic thinks a dancer could have given a more explosive or dynamic performance if she’d better sculpted her body to suit the demands of the part, why shouldn’t he say so?
Even if sympathy for a dancer like Ringer didn’t violate some groundless principle, why should audiences need to factor her physical ailments into her performance? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three Philadelphia actors who are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. If they looked worn out or hung-over on stage, should audiences and critics pretend not to notice, for the sake of empathy?
Let me offer a new principle for criticism: Everything that appears on stage is up for review. Just as we would fault a makeup director whose shoddy application detracted from a performance, so we should fault performers whose appearance doesn’t suit their roles (or directors who cast them in those roles). If we really care about art, we shouldn’t burden it with the baggage of sensitivity.
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