Going to the Dance
Among those who regularly review the arts in America today, Arlene Croce is without peer. The present collection of eighty-three pieces originally published in The New Yorker, January 1977 to August 1981 and here slightly amended, includes at least one essay of enduring value, “News from the Muses” (on Apollo), and forty or fifty of exceptional interest. Ms. Croce’s criticism is distinguished by penetration and understanding of the subject, a large and novel scope of reference, and a creative imagination. Never “superior,” she does not display her erudition, though she has plenty of it, and to spare. An exception to Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction…,” she possesses a justified confidence in her own vision, powers of analysis, and judgments. She refers to someone as an “in-touch” person, and is one herself, which helps to account for her lively and enjoyable blend of the literary and the vernacular: plotzed, schlockier, glitzy, laid-back, ticklability, sleaze (as a noun), jocular-jock, and—surely with no double entendre—crotch-happy.
Dance, in this its heyday, is America’s most exportable artistic commodity, the one in which we have the most favorable balance of trade. No dance company in the world can hold a spotlight to our best, nor can any country rival the fecundity, variety, and abundance of our dancing ensembles. Britain may have the edge in sending us plays, Russia certainly has it in defecting performers, and the Far East is at least a match in breeding musical prodigies. But in the dance we are far ahead, the demand for it increases, and critical standards become ever higher. This phenomenon has given birth in Arlene Croce to a spokesperson well able to take its measure in every manifestation: ballet, modern and postmodern, experimental, tap, acrobatic, mime, ballroom, figure-skating, not to mention “the pitiless verve of contemporary Broadway.” Ms. Croce is a born theater critic, one who could easily move into the drama and movie reviewers’ chairs, as well as manage a column on the graphic arts, to judge from the way that she tweaks Rouben Ter-Arutunian for the most aureate of his set designs. And while not a musician, she reveals a sensitivity to music that must unsettle those equally untutored critics who have not for this reason been deterred from writing about it.
Only a decade ago, ballet reviewing was entrusted to the music departments of the press, but the expansion of the dance world has required specialization. What, then, are the tasks of its particular criticism? A symposium on the subject of writing about the dance, held at PEN headquarters in New York, December 6, 1978, elicited the following view from the choreographer Carolyn Brown:
I don’t believe the written word can recreate the experience of seeing any dancing. Should it try, is the question. It seems to me dance writing has to do something else.1
But the written word cannot convey the experience of any of the arts except the verbal. That none of the panelists, of whom Ms. Croce…
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