Commentary Magazine

Dance Criticism

To the Editor:

The operative phrase in B.H. Haggin’s review of Arlene Croce’s Afterimages [Books in Review, August] . . . is “expressive precision.” This phrase encapsulates the differences between the two critics, as registered in Miss Croce’s comment on an unnamed (by Mr. Haggin) critic, as paraphrased by Mr. Haggin: “. . . it works for someone who sees what that critic sees, but not for someone who doesn’t see it,” and Mr. Haggin’s response to the comment. According to Mr. Haggin, “the fact is precisely that the critic reports not the truth about a work of art, but the truth for him, which becomes true for those others who find it confirmed by their experience of the work.”

[But] . . . Arlene Croce is . . . no more concerned with “the” truth about a work of art . . . than is anyone past the undergraduate level of, say, 1923. Miss Croce’s explicit concern, manifest . . . throughout both her dance and earlier film critiques, is with the critic’s obligation to express . . . the actuality which he or she sees and hears; yes, perhaps one might say “the truth,” indeed, as it impinges on the critic; the obligation, prior even to the critic’s judgment on it, to transmit the event with what Nabokov once called “the precision of the artist, and the passion of the scientist”; with that reverence for the concrete experience and the world in which it occurs, its total context. And, if the critic succeeds, this act of identification elucidates a scale of relationships, and a corresponding structure of perspectives, which may actually enlarge, illuminate, others’ “experience of the work,” by elucidating for them the processes being observed and considered. Prior to the (indispensable) magisterial decisions, the sheep-goat divisions involved, criticism . . . is an endless assessing of locations, of which the central, ultimate location is the critic’s; relative to the universe of whatever artwork is being appraised, and . . . relative to the world at large. Criticism is the critic’s self-testing against the world, and, through expressive precision, defining himself or herself, albeit indirectly, even as every creative artist does. All this is attested for me by the work of Conrad Aiken, Guy Davenport, George Bernard Shaw, Manny Farber, James Agee, Stark Young, Eric Bentley, and . . . Arlene Croce. . . . The vitality of her critical writing, on movies no less than on the dance, abides in her fluid and precise sustaining for the reader, not merely a succession of isolate works, but the total context in which they occur, meaning the organic situation of every work, and performance, which she discusses. . . .

Mr. Haggin’s “review” . . . is crowned by the grotesque assertion that Miss Croce, for all her “critic’s perceptive eye” . . . is lacking in “personal” (whatever can that mean?) and “intellectual discipline.” Mr. Haggin’s dress parade of these virtues relies almost totally on examples of opinions expressed by Miss Croce with which Mr. Haggin differs; at times, to be sure, in degree only (as in the comment on Patricia McBride. . .). In the case of the comment on Suzanne Farrell’s successors, which Mr. Haggin quotes, the difference lies plainly between Miss Croce’s attempt to formulate, perceptively and imaginatively, the nature of the dancers’ inadequacies; while Mr. Haggin settles for the flat, judgmental dictum that they are inadequate. . . .

Even a minimal attempt at analysis is lacking [in the review], as is any effort to locate these alleged errors and lapses in an overall pattern. . . . I find, indeed, a total indifference . . . to the critic, Arlene Croce, as a human being, possibly amenable to instruction and correction by a man many years her senior, and of appreciable reputation in his and her field. . . . The only detectable unifying tone throughout most of the piece is the sort of peevish hostility aroused in diehard royalists by an act or work of lèse majesé.

But whose majesty? The question . . . brings up Mr. Haggin’s extensive comment, in the review’s concluding section, on some remarks by Miss Croce, supposedly directed at Edward Villella’s praise of Violette Verdy. I say “supposedly,” because checking the original passage in Afterimages has confirmed for me what vagrant memory had hinted: both the brief opening and lengthy concluding comments were abstracted by Mr. Haggin from an extended critique by Arlene Croce—of B. H. Haggin. The remarks addressed to Villella’s words are actually directed at Mr. Haggin’s employment of those words. . . . I doubt that Mr. Haggin intended to deceive anyone. Rather, he assumes his pronouncements to be so inviolable, so much a premise of the universe, . . . that any attack on them as mere local opinions may be automatically discounted. . . .

Donald Phelps
New York City



B. H. Haggin writes:

Any reader, it seems to me, must note in Donald Phelps’s letter Arlene Croce’s being “no more concerned with ‘the’ truth about a work of art . . . than is anyone past the undergraduate level of, say, 1923,” and her “explicit concern,” in the very next sentence, “with the critic’s obligation to express . . . the actuality which he or she sees and hears; yes, perhaps one might say ‘the truth,’ indeed, as it impinges on the critic”—must note, that is, this distinction without a difference. And as for the soaring prose of Mr. Phelps’s further description of the critic’s operation, the reader might prefer Balanchine’s description of that operation in 1940, after I had written about ballet for the first time and expressed doubt whether I had any business writing about it without technical knowledge. “You look; you see; you write what you see,” said Balanchine, “and that is good.” He might also have said in 1923—when I had begun to write about music without any ideas on criticism acquired from the aesthetics courses I had not taken or books I had not read in my earlier undergraduate years—“You listen; you hear; you write what you hear; and that is good.”

Moreover, any reader who rereads my review of Arlene Croce’s book and then reads Mr. Phelps’s letter can perceive that he misanswers his misreading and misstatement of what I wrote about her performance. There is, then, no need of my wasting time and COMMENTARY’s space on a point-by-point demonstration of that fact. But since I did not, in my review, speak of Croce’s criticism of me for quoting Villella, but discussed only her comments on the statement of his that I quoted, I must correct Mr. Phelps’s erroneous assertion that her comments “supposedly” (in my review) “directed at Edward Villella’s praise of Violette Verdy . . . are actually directed at Mr. Haggin’s employment [i.e., quotation] of [Villella’s] words.” Mr. Phelps read Croce as inaccurately as he read me, failing to recognize that she did two different things, which were to criticize me for quoting Villella and to criticize the statements of his that I quoted; and that the words in which she criticized me were different from the words in which she criticized Villella’s statements.

Her criticism of me was that I “resorted to extended quotations of other dancers’ remarks about Violette Verdy to back up” my statements about her, instead of supporting my statements with my own analyses of the qualities and powers I attributed to her. This, like everything else in her extensive criticism of my comments on dancers, misstated what it referred to. That is, after concluding my report on the New York City Ballet in the Fall 1965 issue of the Hudson Review, I began a new paragraph with this explicit statement: “Wondering what the dancer’s eye was aware of in Verdy’s dancing, in addition to the elegance and style that enchanted the non-dancer’s eye, I asked members of the company.” And Villella, in the statements I quoted, did in fact speak only of some of the things he had perceived in Verdy’s dancing that I had not perceived, and said nothing about what I had written. Croce’s misrepresentation of my explicitly stated reason for quoting Villella revealed the same lack of intellectual discipline that I pointed out, in my review, in her manner of dealing with Villella’s statements. And her allowing personal considerations to influence critical judgment in her absurdly effusive statement about McBride as “the shyest, most tenderly true, bravest, and least corruptible of classical dancers,” and her disdainful “interesting, if you are interested in Verdy,” revealed a lack of personal discipline.

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