Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: Alastair Macaulay's "Consequences of Going to Tape"

As i posted below, a few days ago this article by Alastair Macaulay appeared in the New York Times. As it's one of my goals for this year to become more well read in terms of the dance world, i've switched my homepage over to the Times's page of dance reviews, and so was greeted by this one as i pulled myself out of bed. I read it, and had to read it again to make sure i wasn't misreading or misinterpreting it - one of those situations where you go "he said WHAT?!?!?!.......No.....that can't be right......oh."

In the article, Macaulay discuses the decline of using live music at dance performances (he seems to be talking about ballets, Ailey, and other "uptown" performances, although he doesn't clarify those specifically, nor does he limit himself to a discussion of solely those companies). He points out that, specific to Ailey's last season (although, the reader wonders by the end of the article if he doesn't feel this way about all dance) that "there are moments when it’s almost as good to look at the singers as it is to watch the dancing" and later, "the musicians are the main event".

Now, don't get me wrong, I think Macaulay's heart is in the right place, and i understand and agree with the just of his arguments:
there's a certain power and seduction of seeing a performance with live music, it allows for a different relationship between the dancer and the music, one that allows spontaneous and often exciting musicality on the part of the dancer, that, if the company uses taped music, it's often most effective (which i understood as easiest to watch) when it's used to achieve a nostalgic, artefactual, or kitsch effect, and that companies even such as Ailey, amidst our breathing it's last lifeless breath economy, are canceling shows and "turning to tape" (a phrase which perhaps further indicates the extent with which Macaulay is out of touch with modern technology, among other things). He even spends a paragraph or two illuminating how financially unfeasible it is for companies to support live music, based on a previous article by Joan Acocella. He writes:
"In 2005 the Graham company was able to give a two-week season with a live orchestra of 28 players, but the cost - Joan Acocella, reviewing in The New Yorker, reported at the time — was $184,000. The same month a Mark Morris season with six instrumentalists and eight singers cost, for four performances, $35,000. Ms. Acocella (also reviewing the excellent Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which had three instrumentalists and a vocalist) remarked: “In these days of near-zero public funding for dance, one assumes that the companies more or less killed themselves to raise that money, and the result made all the difference in the world. Dance audiences, I believe, have now got used to taped music, and you can get used to it, the same way you can learn to eat Spam instead of ham, or breathe smog instead of air. Your life is just diminished, and you don’t realize it until you see concerts such as we saw last month.”
He also looks at the Miami City Ballet's predicament:
“Live music for programs this season would cost the company $480,000, and as of Dec. 4, 2008, $188,281.83 had been raised,” the release says. The company’s board, it says, determined that “the goal would not be met.” Such stories have occurred elsewhere; more will follow."
Reading this, my first reaction was a positive one to the article - glad that a reviewer was doing his part to look at an important and negative trend that's happening as a result of the dance economy, and also glad for a dance article that wasn't just about what the reviewer had seen and what they personally thought about it. Macaulay had laid out all the information, and as i followed the link to the second page, i was ready for his pointed yet poignant conclusion, perhaps with a suggestion about how the dance world could utilize this power of live music to gain enough money to afford it.

Oh, but that second page.

In the conclusion of the article, Macaulay makes a few statements that i find to be completely flatly inexcusable for someone who acts as the leading dance critic for the New York Times to be making.
Macaulay goes on to lament the "turn to tape" (meaning use of non-live music) in the dance world (here meaning Ailey and other uptown, well funded, lyrical modern and ballet companies) or as he also deems it, "indifference to musicians", and expresses distress over choreographers choosing specific recordings of arias or symphonies that are not (he seems to think) the 'best' or 'most interesting' versions. He also expresses a fair amount of distress over companies not listing the music in their programs (which, for the record, irks me as well) admitting "I was much more interested in trying to identify that recording than I was in watching the choreography." But that's not the worst. Macaulay then closes the article with this which, because there's really no way for me to sum it up or make it worse than what he actually wrote, i'll just give to you here:
"I’d rather see smaller companies in smaller theaters, where dance still feels like music making...

A flamenco dancer at a Dance Critics Association conference once stated this rule: If you see flamenco to taped music, it’s not real flamenco. The rule should apply outside flamenco, too. When you’re hearing taped music, don’t be too sure you’re seeing real dance. As we enter dark financial days, this battle must be fought and fought again."

Really? This strikes me, as a choreographer, as...well...wrong. And i'm pretty sure that i'm one of the people in the position to point that out. Let's analyze this for a moment so we can pick out what's wrong with this statement:

1.) "I’d rather see smaller companies in smaller theaters, where dance still feels like music making" - While that may be true, and Mr. Macaulay is certainly entitled to his opinion, let me remind him that those dance companies may not have an interest in smaller theaters, or for that matter (hold on Alastair, this may come as an unwelcome shock to you) making dances that feel like music making. They may in fact be interested in making dances that feel like visual artwork, storytelling, abstraction or (are you ready for it?) dancemaking. Movement. Aesthetics of the moving body in time and space. That's why dance is a different art form from music. Because it's not music, and doesn't have the goal of being music. Now, tell me if i'm overreacting. Is it wrong that it alarms me that the lead NYT dance critic is upset when dance fails to "feel like music making"?

Don't get me wrong. I do understand that Macualay's argument is mainly for companies, such as the New York City Ballet and Alivn Ailey where the spectacle and presentation of the baroque aesthetics of the company seem to be in the forefront. I do understand that, for a company interested in such musically-driven work, that after the decision is made to give the music that large a role in the piece, one must then at least consider the implications of not delivering a quality of sound as important and immediate as the role of the music is professed to be.
However. Dance. Is. Not. Music. Making. Dance. Is. Dance. Making. It doesn't matter the genre, the aria, or how much the dance longs for the power of live accompaniment. It is it's own art form. Let me say it again: Dance has no obligation to be or support music. Dance is dance.

2.) "The rule should apply outside flamenco, too." Maybe i'm wrong to imply this, but dance styles are different precisely because they each hold a set of different values, aesthetics, and rules, all of which can then be followed, evolved, or broken by each piece/choreographer/company. The role of line and upright carriage is what makes ballet not modern dance. Agreeing to the seduction of gravity rather than remaining upright against it is what makes contact improv a form. It follows then that the dance's relation to music might be different per genre. Yes, live music is vital to flamenco (although would it surprise me to find a company that argued otherwise? No. Would I agree with them? Maybe.), but it is not for a number of other dance forms. Even understanding that Macaulay is (although he doesn't clarify) speaking of Ailey and ballet, forms to which music is clearly vastly important, the implication that one genre's rule is again, coming from the NYT lead critic, is deeply troubling.

3.) "When you’re hearing taped music, don’t be too sure you’re seeing real dance." Really, Mr. Macaulay? Really? Because i'm pretty sure that i've seen some damn good dance that been to recorded music. Or no music, even. He's not talking about postmodern dance, clearly, but the fact that he doesn't find an analysis of why it matters to which forms necessary to his argument is troubling at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. Dance, believe it or not, is, as we've stated, it's own art form.

4.) His conclusion is perhaps the most troubling to me.
"As we enter dark financial days, this battle must be fought and fought again." Rather than suggesting alternatives for fundraising, rather than thinking about how we could turn the deficit of music funds into a suportive relationship between these arts (for, while the music world is clearly in the same econmy we are, musicians are getting by famously compared to the dance world), Macualay suggests that we just keep on trucking. Don't pay the dancers what they're worth, or even at all. Don't pay for healthcare or insurance, don't work towards sustainability. Don't invest in new media or technologies that will take us into the future. Don't work on dancers not having to have "real jobs", but by all means, have live music. That's what's really important.

It is disappointing and frustrating that Alastair Macualay is the head dance critic for the New York Times. Moreover, it is unfair and unhelpful to the dance world, both the artists within it and the potential audiences without.

Mr. Macaulay, I declare war.


Eva YaaAsantewaa said...

Macaulay is very, very interested in music and has threaded this opinion through numerous reviews. (I've been keeping track of this.) Sometimes I think he missed his calling and should be the chief classical music critic of the Times. :-)

Sarah A.O. Rosner/The AOMC said...

yes, the more i look through previous reviews or other critics's takes on his work, the less comfortable i am with him being our lead critic.