Theatrical criticism is surely one of the most awkward, slippery, and transient of all observant crafts. Its ephemeral reference corresponds to the fragility of the performances it recalls. The artifact, the printed word, persists for judgment; staged action instantaneously becomes matter for ambiguous and fading memory. There is repertory, of course, but casts change. No two performances are ever the same. Dancing, in its cardinal evanescence, physicality, and intensity, is, perhaps even more than spectator sports, the least handy motion for a watcher to fix. And for whom is “dance criticism” written? For the small portion of an audience who may have both seen the identical performance and read the corresponding notice? For an “informed public,” which is a smaller, opinionated segment of the “dance public”? For “the record”—or to satisfy the policy of popular coverage, however perfunctory?
There are a half-dozen writers whose commentaries seem to survive their subjects, by the grace of their gusto, and sometimes keep a life of their own, even superior to the occasion of their primary promptings. For drama, Shaw and Max Beerbohm; for music, Berlioz, Stravinsky (with Robert Craft); for film, Cocteau and James Agee. Their close attention, wide experience of seeing and hearing leave a residue of socio-aesthetic reports which can seem permanently relevant quite apart from their first immediacy. Memorable dance criticism is extremely rare. Apart from having anti-quarian interest, remains from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are largely curiosities, and can only be translated into something vaguely imaginable, with an erudition which can often overkill. In the nineteenth century, there were two French poets and three or four semi-professional balletomanes who still say something about the essence of performance, to us, here and now. At least Théophile Gautier and Stéphane Mallarmé, through the grace of their diction, offer vivid metaphors of the same vein as their great poetic gifts. One is led to believe something of the same of the Russians, still largely untranslated. These all give us furtive glimpses of what dancing may have been like had we been there to see it.
Matters aren’t much easier for our own time; workaday journalism, read even a couple of years after the event, seems as brittle and faded as the newsprint upon which it is printed, although Jacques Rivière and Cocteau in Paris, Cyril Beaumont and Richard Buckle in London; Carl van Vechten and John Martin in New York have left vivid impressions of commitment and practical analysis. On the old Herald-Tribune, Edwin Denby, an ex-dancer and poet, combined expertness and sympathy, and matched the brilliance, wit, and charm of Virgil Thomson. In a few pieces, notably on Martha Graham, Stark Young showed a highly cultivated sense of visual and moral factors.
John Pope-Hennessey wrote of Berenson:
…his published works on art history were dedicated to things seen. The appeal of the visual arts was in his view not to the intellect but to the eye, and the eye therefore was the organ by which they must be …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.