Interview to Karen Anne Webb, dance critic

30th September 2005

How did you start dance criticism?

I got into it by a combination of a great love for the art and a lot of sheer, bloody-minded persistence. Except for the little “Dolly Dimple” instruction many little girls over here receive, I didn’t really start serious dance training until I was 21 and in college working on a second degree. I took an introductory ballet technique class to alleviate the stress of studying many hours a day. Ballet became ballet plus modern, then ballet plus modern plus jazz. The University had a great arts program that brought in companies like ABT. I immersed myself there; later, when we moved to New York for my husband to go to music conservatory, I spent most of my time at places like Lincoln Center immersing myself further.

I had never thought of trying to break into writing, as I didn’t have a journalism degree, though I always had a natural facility for it. When we moved to the Salt Lake City area, there were a number of small arts-oriented newspapers who were willing to hire the literate but inexperienced. I ended up filling a small but odd niche as someone who knew a lot about dance and could write intelligently about it, as most dancers around here don’t write and most writers don’t know dance. I think a problem with our big newspapers (but I hear this is also true in New York) is that they don’t truly care if they have someone who knows his subject well writing about any of the serious arts. On the other hand, I think people in the know in the arts fields go to the smaller venues if they want serious feedback on their efforts. But anyway, that’s how I started — small, till I’d built a portfolio and could approach the larger venues.

Who are your favourite choreographers?

Boy, I have a number that I’m fond of. Of the previous generation, George Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton head the list, which may seem odd because they were very different choreographers! Jerome Robbins and Glen Tetley are also big favorites. Ballet West’s artistic director Jonas Kåge has brought in some wonderful work by Billy Forsythe and Hans van Manen, and I simply adore everything I’ve ever seen by Jiri Kylian. In modern dance, I lean a little more toward the old guard like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Paul Taylor because of the way they typically make dance an expression of their music. Many post-modernists I’ve spoken with put in the music almost as an afterthought, and I think dance loses some of its power when you do that. (My process when I choreograph tends to involve taking inspiration from the music.) On the other hand, I’ve seen some great stuff done in silence or to spoken-word text, and I love the mathematical approach I’ve seen Forsythe and choreos like Sara Rudner use, so it’s difficult to generalize. (I know I’m probably slighting somebody here by leaving him or her out!)

Which male ballet stars do you particularly admire? And which ballerinas?

I’m dating myself a little here, but my all-time favorite dance-goddess-who-could-do-no-wrong was Martine van Hamel. She was just everything I could ever want to see in a ballerina: womanly and feminine, a nice technician and a superior dramatic ballerina. You could just feel her soul dancing whenever she stepped onstage. I have to admit that I’m a little more dazzled by clean, thrilling technique when it comes to the men. The competition for women to get into the dance field is, even in this day and age, much worse than for men, so while you generally expect nice feet and a good line and clean positions among the women in a company, a man who closes a turn or a double tour cleanly or who has a good line or a clean, tight fifth position stands out a little more. So I like great technicians like Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella. I was sad to learn that Jonathan Cope is retiring, as from what I know of his work, he combined elegance and sterling technique with a wonderful sense of dramatic weight.

Your best experience as a dance critic.

It’s odd, but I am probably getting to meet a lot more people writing in a smaller venue like Salt Lake City (probably because it was easier to make a name for myself in a less populated area) than I would have as a new kid on the block in New York. I’m always amazed at how gracious these people I’ve idolized since I was a child can be. I got the opportunity to interview Ronald Hynd and to speak briefly with his wife Annette Page, and they got a big kick out of hearing how I had gone through a phase in childhood where I named all of my Barbie dolls after Royal Ballet dancers following a performance of the Royal Swan Lake with Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudoph Nureyev. The program became like my Bible. I think my two favorite interviews, though, have been a recent one with Glen Tetley, whose work I idolize (we seem to have an abiding respect for Martine van Hamel in common) and one from a while ago with Cynthia Gregory, who was another one of my idols. Some years ago, my work stayed with someone who later went to work for the National Endowment for the Arts and recommended me as a contract researcher for a big project they did some years ago about how we archive dance in this country, and that was certainly one of my most memorable jobs ever.

In Italy there are not rosy prospects about the future of ballet (cutting down of funds, risk of increasing the retirement age, etc). Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of ballet and dance in your country?

Tough call. I think artistically the talent is certainly here, and people are producing some very wonderful work on these little shoestring budgets. Economically, this is a difficult time. It’s a little like the big newspapers valuing sports and sensation over literate reporting of the arts: I’m not sure how much our federal government truly values the serious performing arts. I think dance will survive because artists (as a broad generalization) produce because they’re driven to produce, and they will find a way. That way may not be easy: dancers in the full-time companies around here have, for instance, had their contract weeks shortened, and a lot of smaller companies survive because their dancers are committed people who keep day jobs and dance in their spare time. One thing you have to admit the old Communist regimes had in their favor was state support of the arts! In a country like ours that is supposedly enlightened, I think if the government truly wanted to find a way to support the arts like it was doing 20 years ago, it would. I weep for the day we’ve put so much money into defense that we find ourselves living in a country that is no longer worth defending.

Last year they asked Christopher Wheeldon's opinion about the ballet into the 21st century. He answered: "I guess modern dance and a lot of contemporary ballet feels a little soulless, a little cold. It's been stripped down so much to this angry physicality that it almost feels as if the poetry is being drained out of dance." And, referring to his Polyphonia: "My aim with Polyphonia was to […] accentuate the strong physical presence in dance today, but then infuse it with a little bit of poetry, a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of human connection." Karen, do you agree with the consideration that today's ballet is lacking in theatrical qualities?

I’m not sure I would have put it in quite those terms, as a lot of what is being produced today (at least, over here) integrates dance and theatre, so in terms of props and technical production values, it has `theatrical qualities.’ But I do agree with Wheeldon’s `soulless’ assessment. Although I think the approach of allowing art to hold the mirror up to life has validity (and, face it, it can be a cold, soulless world out there depending on your perspective about where the world is headed these days), for me, the arts are at their best when they are trying to exalt the human spirit. Too often, I think the “holding the mirror up to life” thing goes overboard in showing us at our dismal worst when it might at least be saying, “Are we to let this sorry state of affairs continue?” I think an older piece like Joos’ “The Green Table” or even Christopher Bruce’s more recent “Ghost Dances” work because there’s a poignancy to them. Something about them makes you say, “There’s terrible injustice in war — now let’s go make things better” rather than, “Oh, my God, that was dismal. I think I’ll go kill myself because there’s nothing to be done.”

We are all a product of our times, so I think as the world grows colder and crazier, it becomes easier for an artist to let that influence his work unless he has a very firm philosophy about the role of the arts in life. But I think artists of any sort have always been visionaries, and I think the best art has always been produced by people who understand what a tremendous impact the arts (especially dance and music) can have on a person’s psyche. You can choose to use your art to ennoble or to debase, and I think some of the soullessness or lack of human connection Wheeldon is suggesting here (and I agree completely that it exists) stems from artists who have not made the conscious choice either to exalt the human spirit or to provoke noble sentiments like wanting to right the injustices a piece describes. For me, that’s the difference between a “Ghost Dances” and something like Doug Varrone’s “Smashed Landscapes.”

As a dance critic, are you more interested in pure or narrative dance? Are you for the new and different or for the old and classical?

In a word, yes. Seriously, I love the old classics, but I think an art that stifles new work is setting itself up for extinction. As I’ve described above, I see art as having an important mission when it comes to uplifting the human spirit. But there are a lot of ways to do that. The beauty and technical brilliance of an old Petipa warhorse like Don Quixote has one sort of vitality. The cleverness and mathematics of something like Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” has another. Balanchine’s completely abstract musical interpretations had yet another, as did Ashton’s dramatic ballets. There’s a very small company out here that I love called Dr. Schaeffer and Mr. Stern that deals almost exclusively in what some call “new vaudeville” that are generally very funny and campy but have also set Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as a serious piece (they also do an elementary-aged stage show called “Two Guys Dancing About Math” that uses choreographic concepts to teach math to children). I think the connecting thread in all this is that sense of vibrance or vitality that leads to one feeling uplifted or edified or like he’s participated in something beautiful. Also, I know that movement that looks more random or aimless is popular right now; I’m still of the opinion that works of art should take you on a journey of some sort, although that journey can take many different forms. I think the one thing we need to guard against as an artistic community, though, is doing something new and different for the sake of iconoclasm and nothing else. As in life, I feel like we shouldn’t be tearing things down for fun, but certainly should be challenging them if we have something better to offer.

What do you think of reinterpretations of the classical ballets? Just a pair of examples, but you can add others: Coralli‑Perrot's and Mats Ek's Giselle; Roland Petit's and Amedeo Amodio's Carmen.

This is probably a wimpy answer, but I think it depends entirely on the vision of the person doing the reinterpretation. I was not fond of the reinterpretation of Swan Lake that Erik Bruhn did some years ago because for me it was a departure in all the wrong places. Although I didn’t find his idea of having the Queen Mother also portray Von Rothbart (or Von Rothbart-ette) intrusive (actually, that was kind of an interesting idea), the miserable ending and the way he tinkered with the Black Swan didn’t work for me. Everyone I know who has seen Ek’s Giselle has been completely swept away by it, and I find the premise fascinating. I know companies over here are forced to contend with audiences whose attention spans are not long, but I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see both a traditional Giselle and something like Ek’s done in one evening (or perhaps on tandem nights as part of a package with a longer work like The Sleeping Beauty).

Artistically, I’m very much in favor of innovation, but I understand that the economic survival of a company can depend on innovative works being integrated more conservatively than might be artistically desirable. Over here, the big, traditional classics tend to bring in the audiences (I’ve heard rep bills are also a tough sell in parts of Europe). There are crazy people like me who see everything multiple times and find our souls fed by any dance group making a creative effort, but we’re in the minority. The bulk of ticket sales (and, unfortunately, the big contributions) come by and large from people who enjoy dance but are not impassioned about it or attend either to be seen or as part of a perceived social obligation. I’d love to see a milieu develop where a company could take artistic chances based on a need to bring innovation to the community or help its dancers to grow artistically without worrying that the company would have to fold if the evening fell flat on its face financially. Something like Ek’s Giselle would represent a humongous gamble in this area, though the truly impassioned balletomanes would kill to see it brought here. (This is overall a very conservative area where the Mormon church has an awful lot of influence over the popular culture, and I’m trying to envision a statement by the Church’s General Authorities regarding the use of nudity and the setting of an asylum!)

Do you agree with the prima ballerina of the Teatro alla Scala, Gilda Gelati, who thinks that either you do the classics properly or you totally change them (she was referring to Ek's splendid Giselle, in particular)?

I’d say generally I agree, and yet you do have to ask the question, what constitutes “doing them properly?” Over here, for instance, a lot of companies (including Ballet West) have trimmed a lot from the third act of Swan Lake on the theory that the national dances are just fluff that puts the audience to sleep while they wait for the “Black Swan” pas de deux. I can see that, but I have to admit two of my favorite third acts are the Bolshoi’s (my copy of it, at least, adds variations for Von Rothbart and a little entourage of swans and has the fiancees dancing with their own national groups) and the Royal Ballet’s (don’t know if they’ve switched, but my copy and the way I‘ve seen it live has a great pas de quatre done to music that I think was originally the Grand Pas des Fiancees) — so they effectively add more material. Baryshnikov timmed his Giselle and his Don Quixote when he directed ABT. There’s some justification for eliminating the Peasant Pas de Deux if you want to be very, very historically correct, but it’s become a part of so many productions that it feels traditional. My understanding of the last act of Makarova’s La Bayadere is that John Lanchberry composed the music and she did most of the choreography (I’ve never seen a tape of a Russian company that concludes with anything but the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene), but the ballet makes tons more dramatic sense with this act than without it. With this huge qualification about “what counts as doing them properly,” I would agree. But just as I feel an art that stifles innovation is inviting extinction, I think one that is innovating to the extent of eliminating its classical base is shooting itself in the (pointe-shoe-clad) foot. We need to keep our heritage alive.

Amedeo Amodio's Carmen: can you tell me your opinion of this re‑interpretation? In your review of a recent Ballet West’s Carmen you write that the ballet "is an interesting approach to the story of the fiery, independent Gypsy girl and the straight‑laced soldier who falls for her." Then you explain: "Amodio begins the ballet by taking us backstage after a stylized performance of the opera Carmen. […] The one thing I found weak in this clever approach is that this is the last hint we have that anything has subsumed anyone. Unlike a production like Man of La Mancha, where we are reminded from time to time that we are watching real people play fictional characters, Carmen drops this dramatic ploy after its initial use."

I said pretty much what I had to say in the review. I think from the way it was introduced to me, I was looking for something analogous to the “soliloquies” in Spartacus where all four of the main characters had a similar depth of character exploration, and this was definitely stronger with Carmen and Don Jose. The weak point for me choreographically was the music that’s typically the “bedroom” or “morning after” scene: I didn’t feel it benefitted from the second duet. But I did like the overall idea of a scaled-down version that focused on the four main characters as the dramatic pivots. There was some true tour de force staging and dancing, as in the scene where Don Jose has been jailed and the walls are closing in (I really liked the use of the minimalist, multi-functional set — I enjoy innovative tech work!)

Speaking of narrative dance and of non‑reinterpreted classical ballets, how do you think is the best way to approach dramatic roles such as Giselle and Albrecht for a dancer?

I’ve talked with Jonas Kåge a lot about this, as his (very valid) approach to updating a classical ballet includes looking at the dramatic intent and helping the dancers kind of get into the moment in terms of understanding their characters and their motivations. This allows what could be a very dated, effete-looking mime gesture to assume new life.

I think it’s similar to building a character if you’re an actor. My favorite dramatic ballerina from Ballet West, Maggie Wright, takes such care with developing her character that I joke with her that she knows what size shoe the character wore when she was six. But I think it’s similar to acting in a play in that you should know your character well enough to establish an ongoing internal monologue. Especially in the classics that involve a lot of mime to move the story along, I think this approach really revitalizes a role and brings it to life better for an audience. I think Jonas brings another interesting and valid point to dramatic interpretation when he suggests that to look at the Swan Lakes and the Giselles as the woman’s ballet is a mistake. He said to me once that for every ballerina you think of as having been a truly great Odette or Giselle or whoever, there was an equally strong danseur portraying her counterpart and giving dramatic weight to his role. So, although a Siegfried may only get his one variation and tote the ballerina around the stage for 3/4 of the ballet, having him strongly establish his character will work miracles for the quality of the overall production.

I’ve seen a big change in this area since I started writing in that 20 years ago, a lot of the dancers hadn’t necessarily seen the ballets they’d been dancing in and did not go out of their way to see other productions either live or on tape. (“Gee, I heard I got a good part in our upcoming Sleeping Beauty — someone named Aurora?”) Now, to their credit, I see a lot more dancers of dramatic ballets actively seeking out tapes of great ballerinas and danseurs of the past, not to copy what they did to make them great, but to analyze why their approach worked in those specific roles and to see how they can apply that to their own performances. I think this is also an excellent (and important) tool.

Every company performs both early 20th century works and classics every season. I have noticed that for many reasons in Italy audiences are accustomed to the old more than to the new; then there are people who consider it a must to go and see Swan Lakes, Nutcrackers or Giselles performed by famous dancers. Do you consider audiences' education in coming into contact with modern works as a "compulsory" task?

Yes. I was surprised to learn that this was not an exclusively American problem! When I worked for the NEA that one summer, I spent a certain amount of time speculating why this might be. For this area, where the influence of the Mormon church is so strong, I feel there’s a pervasive feeling that to know something about culture is good — it’s acceptable and even worthwhile for you to know who Bach was or to see a classical ballet like Swan Lake. But there’s something that seems too impassioned about seeing every work of dance that comes up the pike or actually being able to cite K. numbers for all of Mozart’s work. People look at you funny when you do this, as if being truly impassioned about something artistic is somehow not “nice.”

In this area, we have the one large ballet company, Ballet West, and two professional modern dance companies, Repertory Dance Theatre and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Their audiences are as close to mutually exclusive (meaning the modern dance audience vs. the ballet audience) as makes no odds, and I find that tragic. Likewise, it seems to be a different sort of dancegoer that will go to all of Ballet West’s productions, rep evenings as well as full-lengths, as opposed to buying isolated tickets for the full-lengths. (And not even the full-lengths are consistent; John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew did not do extremely well, but Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream did, I think mainly because of the number of kids in the cast — people out here have huge families!) The one modern dance thing that sold to the rafters was White Oak, because, of course, Baryshnikov was with them. Sigh.

How to bust through that mentality? I wish I had an answer; I’d be a millionaire! Ballet is so much more than Nutcracker (and dance is so much more than strictly classical ballet)!

Do you think that a lukewarm critical reception of a new ballet may disappoint the choreographer more than the dancers?

I think it depends on who is doing the writing. It takes a good critic to be able to sort out the vision of the choreographer from the performances of the dancers and to quantify intelligently what is not working. My conscious choice as a critic is to emphasize the good stuff, even if the good stuff in relation to the stuff that doesn’t work is relatively small, and always to try to quantify (as opposed to just ragging). No one likes to read bad things about his work, of course! But there are so many critics out there who were thrust into the role and haven’t a clue what they’re seeing or who confuse frank criticism with critique that I think a lot of reviews need to be taken with the “consider the source” attitude by both dancers and choreographers. Also, I know I’m in the minority as a critic because I go out of my way to mention specific dancers (and because the dancers do seem to think I know what I’m seeing when I write about them). Because of this, I tend to think it’s a little harder on the choreographer because criticism that doesn’t mention dancers by name will look like it’s reflecting on the choreographer’s vision rather than on the execution of the piece. (But all artists are sensitive and tend to reference things, myself included!) Unfortunately, even what I’ve heard called the “hairball” critics can have an impact because not all readers (and, obviously, not all editors) can sort out the critics who know what they’re seeing and can discuss it intelligently from the ones who don’t have a clue.