DANCE CRITICISM can be something of a perform-
ance itself, Arlene Croce says in her introduction to Going to the Dance, and this new collection of Croce's reviews from The New Yorker (1977-81) is a virtuosic example of the critic's craft.
Croce is the star of the intellectual dance elite that finds its inspiration in the New York City Ballet-- writers, artists, and devotees who see George Balanchine and his company as the center of the universe. As chief raisonneur for the NYCB esthetic, Croce has written some of the most careful, detailed, and enlightening analyses of its dancers and choreography ever published. She goes to performances often enough to know the dancers intimately, to steep herself in the repertory. When she writes about them, she seems to have arrived at the Elysian state that every critic longs for but most of us only snatch at, where the dance becomes a retrospective world you can inhabit with your own mind, probe at will, explore, extend, and experience with a pleasure that increases rather than fades with time.
Croce can transmute performances from memory into vital word images: Suzanne Farrell in Chaconne making a "sly sforzando attack . . . brightening each step like sunlight behind a cloud." The enduring quality of Patricia McBride's Columbine, "made of ovenproof porcelain." A whirling passage by Merrill Ashley in Ballo della Regina that "cuts like flying glass."
Her discussions of historical and musical matters in such classics as Apollo and Don Quixote testify to a scholar's thoroughness and a leisurely deadline. When she surveys the repertory she sees beyond any individual ballet. Of Balanchine's one-act Swan Lake she says: "I am caught up in it as in no other version of the ballet, because, although it isn't the Swan Lake, it's the essence of what attracts me in Swan Lake." And for audiences who want more than an essence, she recommends his equally plotless Tschaikovsky Concerto No. 2, "a secret-cabinet, stifled-melodrama ballet. Somewhere deep inside the ballerina-danseur relationship we sense the dagger, the tea rose, the chain-mail glove: all the fun, in short, that Swan Lake should be."
Croce's writing, like the world she describes, may be exemplary but it is not inclusive. Its boundaries can stretch back into history--to Bournonville, Petipa and Fokine--and encompass the other classical companies as well as the perversities of modern ballet. But for Croce a significant range of other things aren't even on the map, like non-Western dance forms and contemporary experimentation. Taking the dynastic view that all dancing evolves upward toward Balanchinian classicism, she seems uncomfortable where academic standards might not apply.
American dance in the 20th century has been in large part an effort to find alternatives to the balletic solution. To discuss modern dance choreography using balletic vacabulary, as Croce does repeatedly, or to set it aside as mime, acrobatics, drama, anything but dance, is to deny that people from Martha Graham to Laura Dean have been trying to develop movement systems independent of balletic precedent. Croce tells of modern dance's musical correspondences, narrative developments, poetic qualities (Merle Marsicano's "simultaneous delicacy and deliberation"), without giving the reader a viual image of the particular physicality which gave rise to these allusions.
In her introduction, Croce explains that she doesn't find much "postmodern dance" interesting, and doesn't look at it very often. But her occasional forays into this field show a dismaying lack of insight. She's had the grace to include in this collection the controversial piece on the avant-garde that she wrote in the summer of 1980. On that occasion she divided all experimental dancers into the "Mercists," an unfortunate term she invented for followers or sympathizers of Merce Cunningham; and the "Myserians," a group related only, as far as I can tell, by their own intuition and the pre-verbal, their use of "ritualistic repetition," their adoption of a "contrived primitivism" which Croce seems to dislike or fear inordinately in the theater. Croce's mistaken assumptions and hostility brought forth a sheaf of outraged letters from dancers, and she has added an unrepentant, still uncomprehending postscript to the scandal.
There's a difference between brilliant analysis and categorizing snobbery. A critic's taste is one thing, but Croce often resorts to labeling people as unworthy when she really means she's not in sympathy with their terms. She drops the names of artists she hasn't ever dignified with a full review, insults others under the impression she's complimenting them. Sara Rudner, for instance, she considers a great dancer but not a true choreographer. Rudner takes herself for a choreographer. Why doesn't Croce? Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown are reducing dance from a theater art to a scientific exercise. Laura Dean's dance is "folk art," for participants, not spectators.
I think a critic has to take even mavericks and crackpots at their word. In not doing so, Arlene Croce places herself above the artists. She implies she knows better than they do what's right for dance. To my mind, that's the one thing a critic isn't allowed.