A vague night out for a trio of New York dance critics

Unlike London, where 10 dance critics might review a performance of any one production, New York is a city of few dance critics who write for major newspapers.

This small community is led by The New York Times’ Alistair Macaulay, former chief dance critic of The Times Literary Supplement and chief theatre critic of The Financial Times in London.

He is one of only three New York-based newspaper dance critics whose reviews of the June 12 performance of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Infinity, have appeared so far.

The others are Apollinaire Scherr, critic for The Financial Times, and Robert Johnson, critic at The Star-Ledger.

Scherr also runs her own blog, Foot in Mouth, where she once commented that Robert Johnson, was one of her “favourite dance people”.

They certainly shared a common view of the triple bill comprising five pas de deux, along with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, and Stephen Page’s Warumuk – in the dark night.

Both critics came to similar conclusions.

Their word-of-the-day was “vague”.

Johnson was unimpressed with the subject matter of Warumuk whose astronomical subjects he thought “remained vague”.

Scherr thought the stories told in Warumuk were “woefully vague evocations of wonderfully precise creation stories…”

Both Johnson and Scherr were disappointed with the five pas de deux with Scherr finding the dancers “stolid and vague”. Johnson, however, abandoned ‘vague’ in describing the pas de deux. He preferred “a bland mix”. One of the five, La Favorita, was “wan”.

So, two critics in alignment with much of the program and furthermore equally disappointed with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, a work that Johnson thought “revives memories of Australia as a British penal colony”.

Scherr found it “as lightweight as confetti in the wind”.

We could suspect a little interval chat between the two critics but then again, the third critic, Alistair Macaulay, also dismissed Warumuk. Its choreographer, Stephen Page, had merely taken “ideas from aboriginal culture and turned them into standard primitive formulas.

“Warumuk felt like a version of precolonial Australia served up for tourists, with everyone humorless, unenlightened, harmonious and earnestly in touch with the earth”.

Surely Macaulay wasn’t reading the mind of Scherr when he wrote that the score by Stephen Page’s brother, David, “kept turning aboriginal music into old-Hollywood atmosphere”.

Scherr had exactly same idea. In her view, it sounded like “an overblown movie-soundtrack score”.

The parallel tastes and views of the three critics, though, are not the most interesting aspect of the negative reviews of the first Australian Ballet season in New York since 1999.

For the 1999 season, the artistic director, Ross Stretton, programmed Stephen Page’s Rites.

Like Warumuk, Rites was also a collaboration between the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre, but it was danced to one of the most notable scores of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The score alone gave it gravitas and more impact than Warumuk, a soft-focus work with a dreamlike atmosphere and in my view, not the best piece to end a triple bill, as it did in both Australia and New York.*

A second difference between 1999 and 2012 is that press reviews are now much shorter and much punchier than in 1999. There’s no space to explore ideas. Scherr’s review, for example, was barely 400 words.

A third difference is the gradual disappearance of any protective circle around Indigenous dance.

Thirteen years ago, critics with little or no knowledge of an Indigenous culture, treaded more carefully and with more sensitivity. That circle was already breaking down in 2008 when the Australian Ballet and Bangarra took Rites to London, and now, American critics have no hesitation in suggesting that Warumuk might have been created for tourists if they wished to see Australia before white settlement.

Judging from the critics’ reviews, I doubt if they have done the most basic research into Aboriginal culture and dance.

Scherr admired the dancers in Warumuk but her sole contribution to the choreographic input was: “Waramuk consisted of swishy, swirly movement”.

Would Australian critics be similarly scornful or ‘vague’ if an American Indian dance company performed in Australia. Would one of the critics from the Australian national or metropolitan newspapers describe the company’s dance as “swishy and swirly”? I don’t think so.

Certainly there can be too much tiptoeing around Aboriginal theatre and dance in Australia, and I don’t think Warumuk is Page’s best work ever. But Australian critics do come to Bangarra’s performances as informed people, who know very well that if you wanted to depict a touristy, ‘precolonial’ view of Indigenous people for white people, you could go no further than various productions of Corroboree in the mid-20th century created by white-skinned choreographers and danced by white Australians.

Oddly, there is also a touch of colonial condescension in the recent New York reviews, with Johnson writing of Dyad 1929 that “the Australians are doubtless proud to dance a work by Wayne McGregor”. Johnson goes on to put McGregor in his place as “a contemporary artist who, for obscure reasons, was appointed resident choreographer of Britain’s Royal Ballet”.

Johnson found “Dyad 1929 soul-crushing in its anomie [it means ‘at loose ends’]”.

He summed up: “Despite body waves and tricky intersections between dance partners, movement impulses seem arrested with the dancers’ energy stopped up and confined in twisted poses rather than projecting itself. Whether performing singly or in pairs, the dancers seem alienated from their surroundings and grimly focused on the task at hand. Individuals wander in and out of an open, polka-dotted landscape where scenic elements and lighting define the space…instead of glorifying links to the motherland, McGregor’s ballet revives memories of Australia as a British penal colony”.

I’m pretty confident that McGregor and the Australian Ballet wouldn’t believe that commissioning Dyad 1929 was a way of glorifying “the motherland”.

In any case, the concept of Britain as the “motherland” died a long time ago.

The reviews were not all negative. Macaulay thought Dyad 1929 was “the best of the ballets of his [McGregor’s] I have seen”, and Johnson found “an ethereal pas de deux from [Stephen] Baynes’ Molto Vivace was a marvel of tender and inventive partnering, exquisitely danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull”.

Daniel Gaudiello received two favourable mentions, and Lana Jones and Rachel Rawlins were also praised.

The New York reviews mark a turning point in the way the national ballet company is seen overseas.

In 1999, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff praised the Australian Ballet a company “practically reborn”.

And in 1990, she wrote that “surely but not slowly, the Australian Ballet won the hearts of a supposedly jaded audience in New York during one brief and indisputably successful week at the Metropolitan Opera House”.

So, what’s happened this time – what’s changed? The critics, yes. The technique and style of the company’s dancers? I don’t think so.

Or maybe the programming is the main source of the critics’ frustration. As the Star-Ledger headline stated: “The Australian Ballet returns with bravura dancers but a bland repertoire”.

I’ll be very surprised if the critics don’t discard their vague dissatisfaction when it comes to reviewing the second program this New York season, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. It opened for four performances on June 15.

* Impatience with the length of Warumuk was evidently a factor for some in the audience who included many dance bloggers and online dance writers. One writer for a UK website and a dance blogger shared their thoughts on Twitter.

The blogger tweeted: “The final piece had an Aboriginal theme. Lots of pointless dancing in unison. Relied entirely on multiculturalism, exoticism. Half of my row left during the last piece. I was jealous”.

The writer replied: “I am ashamed to admit that I thought about bugging out after a while, too”.