A dancer on critics on dancers

December 2000

I'd like to say a few words in support of critics. This has nothing to do with the fact that while you're reading this, I'm dancing Swan Lake. This is because, despite a dancer's inevitable ambivalence about critics and criticism, I'm getting fed up of hearing we could easily do without them. At a recent lunch with all sorts of Very Important Arts People, for instance, the idea was mooted – with specific reference to BBC 2's Sunday night Review - that it was time the pundits shut up about the arts and left the stage clear for artists to criticise themselves. A few days later, on Radio 4's Today Programme, Elvis Costello laid into Mark Lawson, presenter of Review, describing the programme as 'World Federation Wrestling for middle-class people'. Costello's outburst echoed the views of several colleagues after my own appearances on the show ('and in the red corner...'), that it was a relief to hear artists rather than critics discussing the arts. Now, I have to be a bit careful here. I'm fully expecting to be invited back on Review and don't want to talk myself out of a job, but speaking as an artist, I rather enjoy the mix of opinions from both sides of the proscenium arch. I would hate to see the critical analysis of an artform left entirely to the practitioners. I'm not talking about criticism in its day to day form, the odd five hundred words slipped in across the page from the Obituaries extolling the trumpet player's embouchure or the ballerina's embonpoint. I'm talking about the considered critical appraisal of current developments in the context of an artform's history. Artists can – and do – talk eloquently, passionately and fascinatingly about their work, but we are not always in a position to offer the sort of overview that develops from a lifetime's impartial examination.

I'm not suggesting we should never hear from artists. As a dancer who has more than once been recognised by the sound of my voice rather than the shape of my own embonpoint, it would be odd if I were to champion the idea that artists should be seen and never heard. Artists can offer a unique perspective on the process of making art and the life that entails and there are times when an artist's voice carries far more weight than a commentator's. Take, for instance, last week's BBC1 Omnibus on the first English ballerina, Dame Alicia Markova. Predictably like every other ballerina profile we've ever seen on television, it boasted wonderful archive footage, charming interviews and a few odd shots of ballerina performing mundane tasks – in this case, washing tights in the basin and shopping at a Knightsbridge megastore. Talking critical heads offered a knowledgeable insight into Markova's contribution to what was at the time, outside Russia, France and Denmark, a fledgling art. So far, so good. I had no problem accepting Clive Barnes, the New York Post's critic, on the impact Markova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo had on 1940's small town America. But why ask Barnes to describe a dancer's life? And why give any credence to his answer, especially when it runs like this: 'It's not a life for a person, it's a life for a nun or a monk. Not that most of them live like nuns and monks, I've noticed' - here a little nod and a wink to indicate that we have the moral standards of a rabbit colony – 'but it's certainly not a life for a human being'? I couldn't help thinking that television would simply not get away with describing any other minority in the same terms. The documentary, leaping shamelessly on the post-Diana bandwagon, was titled 'The People's Ballerina'. It might just as well have been called 'Does she take sugar?'. But then of course she wouldn't. As every Clive Barnes knows, dancers don't eat either.