Everyone likes to bask in accolades, but what can/should artists do to process criticism? How determine what to take to heart as fodder for growth, and what to shrug off as irrelevant or misguided?
Whim W’Him’s first performances as a company—of three works by artistic director/choreographer Olivier Wevers—took place in January 2010 at Seattle’s On the Boards. OtB is a venue where resolutely contemporary dance is expected, and some audience members took strenuous exception to (among other things) Olivier’s use of pointe shoes because of their association with 300 years of ethereal princess ballerinas. An interesting discussion of gender roles and women in dance ensued.
On August 12 and 13 of this year, Whim W’Him performed in Joyce Theater’s Ballet v6.0, a festival that presented “a range of ballet styles from neo classical to contemporary” by “some of the country’s most exciting young dancers and choreographers” who are “creating work outside the traditional large company setting.” Olivier was warned ahead of time that The New York Times wouldn’t like his work. And sure enough, that’s just what happened. Although Alastair Macaulay’s review of Whim W’Him garnered coverage on the front New York Times Arts page (and an inside page), along with two photos, his assessment ranged from tepid to disapproving. “Each piece, however, is limited in both dance and gesture” or (of The Sofa) “Watch and you find Mr. Wevers is interested in only the most superficial aspects of the music’s timing. Set against this score, his relationship games become like graffiti scrawled over a masterpiece.” (New Ways With Ballet Vocabulary Are Mirrored in Relationships, August 14, 2013)
As a sort of informal historian of Whim W’Him, I can’t just ignore negative critical evaluations. Yet how react to them fairly? After all, I only signed up for the (unpaid) job of creating and writing this blog, because I was already enthusiastic about Olivier’s ideas in forming his company and wanted to help describe and/or articulate its people, projects, and trajectory for others. It’s true that I observe rather than actively participate in Whim W’Him’s creative process, Yet many people would likely say I’m too committed to the company and too hopeful of its success to be “objective.” So do I have any hope of sifting through reviews and discerning which observations are truly valuable, which wrong-headed, and which it’s too soon to evaluate?
For that matter, does anyone?
Don’t worry, I’m not trying a reductio ad absurdem tactic, sidestepping real issues by blithely asserting that no one is unbiased so there’s no point in even pretending. In different ways, everybody—from choreographer to dancer to first-time dance-goer to veteran audience member to distinguished critic—faces the same questions about quality: How does one measure one’s own gut reactions (rooted in innate likings and personal transformative experiences) against contemporary fashion, the words of other viewers, marketing spin, and the cacophony of everyone along the way citing scripture for their own purposes? The problem of objectivity in the arts is always with us, especially in transitional moments like our own. Answers to it have to be found along a continuum.
In trying to tease out ways to think about these questions, it occurred to me to look at another transitional period in dance history and learn a bit more about how a not-yet-consecrated talent, like George Balanchine’s in the 1950s, was received by New York critics. Due to the wonders of the internet, a pertinent blog post by Ryan Wenzel popped up at once (Before They Were Masterpieces: 9 Negative Early Reviews of Balanchine Ballets—he found his references in “Nancy Reynolds’ invaluable book Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet,” 1977 ).
It is an enlightening (and amusing) exercise to compare Macaulay’s disgruntled statements about most of the Joyce v.6.0 choreographers to remarks by then pre-eminent critic John Martin on Balanchine in The New York Times of September 9, 1951: “Apollo never will, in all probability, be popular. For