writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Henning Rübsam
Shifting Ears

The Baruch Performing Arts Center, on West 25th Street, is set below ground, like a number of other new theaters in New York. This solution to the problem of finding suitable real estate for theaters in Manhattan isn’t ideal for theatergoers: it’s claustrophobic and a little discouraging to have to take one’s seat in what feels like a wartime bunker. And the Baruch facility is an austerely appointed theater, which intensifies those feelings. Still, it’s also spacious and comfortable, with good sight lines and a stage adequately sized for dance.

This past week, I visited the Baruch to see Henning Rübsam and his Sensedance company, which has produced annual New York seasons since 1992. Company personnel change frequently, and this version of the group comprises dancers who have worked with Rübsam for a while and some new additions—including several former members of the now-disbanded Dance Theatre of Harlem—in a program of Rübsam’s recent choreography. I wanted to see “Django,” Rübsam’s new suite to the music of unparalleled jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), for a cast of four women (on point) and three men. Some months ago, I’d seen the suite at a studio showing, where it had featured remarkable, strongly classical dancing by Shawn Stewart—the artist whom ABT mystifyingly ignored and who now, alas, is also gone from Sensedance. Yet “Django”’s choreography remains of interest: it is a real dance, with a vocabulary of steps derived from classical ballet, Jazz Age social dancing, and acrobatics; a theme-and-variations format; textural variety (solos, duet, trios, ensemble); and dry humor. The Reinhardt numbers are from the late 1930’s and 40’s (“Echoes of Spain,” “Vette,” “My Serenade,” “Rhytme Futur”), “Nuages,” “Belleville,” “Dinette,” “Pour Vous”); however, the vocabulary of the dances is slightly earlier in origin—the Charleston and cabaret acrobatics of the 20’s; even so, the classical underpinnings of the dancemaking resolve what might otherwise seem like stylistic discrepancies. My favorite moment in “Django” was when the Flamenco-tinged double solo for Melissa Morrissey and Ramon Thielen, both formerly of D.T.H., concluded with both dancers locked up in fifth position, one facing upstage, arms en haut and the other facing us, arms en bas: their isolation at opposite sides of the stage, and their contrary orientations, captured Flamenco, and yet their mutual fifths married them to classicism. Very nice.

One problem for the entire program, though, was that the choreography didn’t always serve its executants: we saw dancers doing their best to put over CHOREOGRAPHY, rather than individuals whose dancing suggested patterns and plans by a choreographer. For me, this is a major flaw: much of the evening had the look of having been conceived either for other people or abstractly, without the participation of dancers at all. Although Rübsam works with good dancers and a couple of very fine ones, his dances are oddly detached from them, which conveys an uncomfortably artificial effect. At first I thought that this might have been a question of insufficient rehearsal or of the independent choreographer’s perpetual misery of losing dancers (perhaps to better-paying gigs), but by the end of the two hours, I began to think it was something else—something inherently rigid in the choreographer’s imagination.


Over the weekend, Columbia University’s Department of Music and the National Arts Journalism Program, which is housed in the Columbia University School of Journalism, hosted a conference for music critics called “Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism.” Alas, work at Barnard, across the street, meant that I had to miss the address on “Serious Music Today” by the new Chief Dance Critic of The New York Times, John Rockwell (From the program: “Rockwell argues that ‘classical’ and ‘serious’ are no long synonymous”); and copies of Mr. Rockwell’s address were depleted. However, I was able to hear music historian Joseph Horowitz deliver an essay called “Criticism at the Crossroads” as well as a panel on how music criticism has changed in the past 100 years: Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times; Tim Page, The Washington Post; Greg Sandow,; Barbara Zuck, The Columbus Dispatch. Moderator: Alan Rich, Los Angeles Weekly. Apart from Mr. Tommasini’s work, which is readily available, and Ms. Zuck’s work, which I never see, the criticism of most of these individuals is familiar to me from their previous outlets—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine. The happiest surprise, for this listener, was the appearance of Mr. Rich, whose impromptu conversation, like his writing, contained not one perseverating “um” or “uh,” much less any foolish words.

During the course of the two hours or so that I was at the conference, it was clear that the music critics feel their field to be in something this side of a major transition of values, standards, and audience appetites, and that side of a cultural crisis. The following points caught my attention. As the speakers would sometimes turn away from or mumble into the mics, and I was sitting in the last row at the very back of the room, I apologize if the transcription of my notes misquotes anyone:

==The writing of Henry Krehbiel—music critic for The Tribune during the 19th-century and characterized by Mr. Horowitz as “the acknowledged dean of American music critics”—cannot be quoted in today’s New York Times. Mr. Horowitz related how, in a 1990’s assignment for Arts & Leisure, he tried to quote something from Krehbiel but was told that it didn’t make its journalistic points with sufficient speed and “slowed down the piece for the reader.”

==Joseph Horowitz: “After WWI, American music degenerated into a culture of performance [rather than of compositional creation]. The symbol of classical music was an Italian conductor, Toscannini. As a result, classical music ceded leadership in American cultural life to pop music. . . .The 20th-century culture of performance sidelined critics as it did composers. . . .It was healthier when the composer was [here, Mr. Horowitz turned away from the mic, but I believe he meant something on the order of, “pre-eminent.”]

==Joseph Horowitz: “You can target-market a thematic program [for an orchestra] and get people to come. What’s harder is to get them to subscribe. [At the Brooklyn Philharmonic, where Mr. Horowitz once did the programming] we sold out a Flamenco weekend, but those people never came back.”

==Alan Rich: “The guys [critics] who get it right don’t make saleable reading.”

==Barbara Zuck: “America has been anti-high art, anti-intellectual culture since Thomas Jefferson, and he called music ‘the dearest passion of my life.’”

==Alan Rich: [Relating that, when the composer and critic Virgil Thomson was hired as music editor of The Herald Tribune, he picked other composers to serve as critics:] “What better person to go to a Bellini opera than Lou Harrison?”

==Tim Page [listing previous music critics who had an influence on him]: “Virgil [Thomson] took a lot of interest in me when I was writing at the Times. For me, writing was something paramount. [I remember] two lines by writers: Philip Haseltine, on Vaughn Williams’ ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, compared it to ‘a cow looking at you over a fence. It’s very beautiful, but so what?’ [Name inaudible] on “The Swan of Tuonela” [by Sibelius]: ‘It starts off sounding like a small animal in pain and goes on to sound like a much larger animal in pain.’ [Other critics who influenced Page:] James Gibbons Huneker—very flowery, effusive. . . it was once said of him that everything reminded him of everything else; W.J. Henderson—“on the sound of the human voice”; B.H. Haggin and Harold Schonberg—“I would find they were a true inspiration for me, because I would slug it out in my head with them.” The American diarist George Templeton Strong. [Page also mentioned Alan Rich, “who, at 80, still has a passion for what’s next.”]

==Greg Sandow: “Critics who stand out tend to be those with deeply articulated sensibilities, such as George Bernard Shaw. . .The times when critics can be influential are when history is changing. . . .The crisis of classical music now gives critics a chance to be influential. . .People in the [music] business talk about how bad things really are. . . .I think that it’s the job of critics to actually report what’s going on. . . .It’s not enough to say that Brahms’ tempi were too slow. You have to convey, in a world of Björk and Radiohead, why Brahms matters. . . .[Must-read critical essay of the year on music:] “Alex Ross’s dramatically exciting piece in the February 12, 2004 New Yorker on the future of classical music.”

==Greg Sandow: “Writing about music as an artist and writing about the business of classical music as a hard-edged reporter might not be the same skill set.”

==Anthony Tommasini: “The very fact that we’re still fighting the same battles [Virgil Thomson] saw may show that he wasn’t so influential. . . .Do we need major orchestras? Can we do without them?. . . .Kurt Masur [former conductor of the New York Philharmonic] felt that it was a sacred duty for the New York Philharmonic to preserve Brahms and Beethoven at a very high level. That’s backward thinking. . .I notice that you can now hear classical music on cell phones. And Judge Judy [on television] is now being brought on by the Beethoven Fifth. . . . “New Music=Young People. You’d think that’s a natural. Not really.”

==Alan Rich: “I went last night to a program of George Crumb at Symphony Space. The place was packed—and young. If this city can produce an audience like that for concert like that, there is some hope.”

==Anthony Tommasini: “I write for the Times [so] I’m optimistic. . . .I think the problems orchestras are facing are a lot less than the problems newspapers are facing.”

==Barbara Zuck: “Newspapers are reluctant, I hope, to lose the arts audience, because that’s the literate audience.”

At the end of the session, there was a reference to Mr. Rockwell’s speech earlier, which apparently contained the suggestion that critics shouldn’t specialize but rather that “everyone [should be] writing about everything.” There was allusion to “crossover reviews,” and to “the hybridization of critics.” To this, Alan Rich responded thusly:

“I once started writing about jazz and dance in my early days at New York Magazine. When I saw I was making a fool of myself, I knew it was time to stop.”

A tip of the hat to Mr. Rockwell? Mr. Rich wasn’t saying.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 39
October 11, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



What's On This Week
Index of Reviews
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Gia Kourlas
Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan


This site is the online supplement to DanceView, a quarterly review of dance published since 1979.

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!
last updated on October 4, 2004