NY Times Critic Alastair Macaulay: Judging Bodies in Ballet and Beyond

12/08/2010 05:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Regarding the issue that is drawing most attention in Mr. Macaulay's original article on NYC Ballet's production of the Nutcracker and in his subsequent piece, "Judging the Bodies of Ballet" -- his comments on the dancers' physical appearance -- I am compelled to ask that we put this into perspective. When we speak of 'plump', 'fat', or 'chubby' ballet dancers, particularly those working for professional companies, we are referring to men and women who are most certainly below the medically recommended weight for their height. They are just not thin enough to meet the critics ideals. These individuals, under any other circumstance, are considered 'skinny' to 'dangerously thin'.

Additionally, let us not forget that we have a responsibility, if not to the dancers we're discussing in the context of this subject, then to the vast number of young dancers watching and reading about dance.

"A new report [featured on CBS News] from the American Academy of Pediatric published in the journal Pediatrics,
[found that] eating disorders in young children are rising at an alarming rate. Hospitalizations for kids younger than 12 were up 119 percent between 1999 and 2006. Males now represent 10 percent of the eating disorder population, according to the report, which also warned that young athletes of both genders, including gymnasts, wrestlers, and dancers, are at risk"

Before you reject the notion that kids read the New York Times dance reviews, I'll clarify my point. Even pop-culture connoisseur, Perez Hilton, whose name I invoked when discussing the original piece, is blogging about the incident. And, while this highlights what a good investment Mr. Macaulay is for the New York Times website analytics, it also points to the depth of cultural outrage and hurt a tacky, gossip-girl-type quip can illicit. Yet Macaulay's follow-up opens with an even more sweeping and portentous statement.

"Go to any gallery and you see how painters and sculptors for centuries have made fat an issue. The nudes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Renoir show women with curves that are no longer part of any fashionable idea of beauty... Ballet demands sacrifice in its pursuit of widely accepted ideals of beauty."

This brings us to the second point in question; Macaulay's use of history as justification for his perpetuation of a potentially harmful practice. Much of his defense balances on a piecemeal scaffold of precedent. In a dynamic conversation with theater critic and editor of the the Clyde Fitch Report, Leonard Jacobs posited, "Does mankind never evolve to a better, higher, more ethical standard for judging art?" Furthermore, Macaulay's incorporation of personal hardships and challenges, regarding childhood asthma, thoracic surgery, and his doctor's recommendation that he lose 20 pounds, signals a defensiveness and possible lack of confidence in the argument. Jacobs concluded, "The truly great critics don't put you on the analyst's couch to make a point."

And finally, from my colleague, Hannah Krafcik, (MA in Performance Studies, NYU):

"Ballet is ever-morphing, and perhaps Alastair Macaulay's comment is actually a symptom of a greater problem pervading the dance world at large -- that is, clinging to old, ephemeral ideals of what dance 'was' and what it 'should be' and not accurately and appropriately drawing it into our current cultural context. If this is not the point of dance criticism, I don't know what is."