Pina and the King of Pop

Pina and the King of Pop: A Review of a Review Aug 5, 2009

by Jennifer Buscher

In the span of one week, the dance community lost two legendary dance artists who have greatly influenced dance in the 20th and 21st centuries – Michael Jackson (June 25, 2009) and Pina Bausch (June 30, 2009).

photo credit: associated press

photo credit: associated press

To commemorate these losses, the New York Times featured a “tribute” article devoted to each artist written by their chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay.  But these articles do not pay tribute to the artists or their immense contributions to dance.  Instead, Macaulay insulted the memory of both Jackson and Bausch and discredited their choreographic integrity.

There are many disturbing moments throughout “His Moves Expressed as Much as His Music,” Macaulay’s article on Michael Jackson.  Macaulay never acknowledges the impact Jackson has had on dance across multiple genres.  Nor does he recognize how Jackson revolutionized the music video and created memorable dance films through that medium.  But what I find to be the most offensive element of this piece is the recurring racist overtones of the article.  Macaulay insinuates that Jackson’s dancing and choreography were merely derivative of white artists such as John Travolta, Bob Fosse, Judy Garland, and Audrey Hepburn.  He considers the “pelvic pulsations” of Travolta, the jazz choreography of Fosse, and the “urban tensions” of West Side Story (choreographed by Jerome Robbins) as the primary sources for Jackson’s choreography and dance performances.  Macaulay also includes Fred Astaire’s praise of Jackson’s skills as a dancer and suggests that this praise was undeserved.  Rather than referencing African American dancers and choreographers, Macaulay situates Jackson in a long line of white men who are credited with making black dance forms (tap, jazz, disco) popular and acceptable in mainstream American culture.  By crediting only white artists as the influences for Jackson, Macaulay reaffirms a racist construction of dance history that ignores the significant contributions of the African diaspora that ultimately provide the foundation for American cultural and dance practices.  While the media coverage of Jackson’s death has been extensive to the point of overwhelming and excessive, as the chief dance critic for the New York Times, Macaulay’s article represents the primary response from the dance community.  The inherent racism of his “tribute” is insulting, not only to the memory of Jackson, but also to American dance history.

Macaulay’s article on Pina Bausch, “A Stage for Social Ego to Battle Anguished Id”, is not a tribute, but an “appraisal.”  It does not honor the choreographer, but is a harsh critique of her work.  And ultimately, he is not just critiquing Bausch, the dancer or choreographer, but an entire style of dance.  While his article on Jackson reveals Macaulay’s racist views of dance, his article on Bausch reveals the incredibly limited and narrow scope through which he judges all concert dance.  He opens the article by invoking the Holy Trinity of New York City dance – Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Merce Cunningham, whom he considers to be the “greatest choreographers of recent decades.”  It is obvious that these three choreographers represent the framework or criteria through which Macaulay assesses all dance.  His bias towards classical ballet, and more specifically the Balanchine aesthetic, is evident.  He reduces the work of Bausch to “bad ballet.”  According to Macaulay, “There were good dance moments in her work, but they were usually of secondary interest and choreographically of no lasting import.”  This insulting and belittling comment negates Bausch’s significant contribution to modern and postmodern dance throughout her long and distinguished career as a choreographer and artistic director of Wuppertal Tanztheater.  It ignores her position within the history of German expressionism and tanztheatre.  He completely misses the value of Bausch’s work and its profound and lasting influence.  Despite Macaulay’s condescending and disrespectful appraisal of Bausch in this article, her choreography will have a lasting import and impact on dance history.

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Photo Credit: Ursula Kaufmann/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just prior to the deaths of these two artists, I attended the Society for Dance History Scholars (SDHS) annual conference which was held in conjunction with the Dance Critics Association at Stanford University.  At this conference, Macaulay spoke during a panel discussion following a choreography showcase in San Francisco, Ca (June 21, 2009) and his prejudices as a critic were clearly displayed.  Discussing his attendance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival being held the same weekend, Macaulay evaluated the various dance forms he had seen at the Ethnic Dance festival in relation to ballet.  He said that he just could not understand the hip movements and pelvic thrusting of African and classical Indian dance because it is too different from the verticality and hip stability of ballet.  I am obviously no expert in Indian dance, but I do know, from a brief 10-week course in Bharata Natyam, that my pelvis and hips remained as stationary and vertical in that classical Indian dance technique as they were in my 20-some years of ballet training.  Obviously, my experience of Bharata Natyam was informed by my previous dance training and muscle memories.  And I acknowledge that our personal experiences always already inform our understanding of the world around us and of course, dance is no exception.

Regardless of the accuracy or lack thereof for the nuances of these dance techniques and practices, however, neither Indian nor African dance should be evaluated in terms of ballet. And if that is the only dance genre that the critic understands or more importantly, values, then perhaps he should not be considered the authority or the expert for all dance forms or allowed to critique and review all dance forms.  Of course, I am not suggesting that any one person can hold the corporeal and/or intellectual knowledge for all dance forms within one body or one head and I understand that no critic can speak authoritatively on each and every dance genre, but I take issue with someone as racist, prejudiced, and biased as Macaulay pronouncing judgement as the official authority on dance as the chief dance critic for the New York Times.  From listening to Macaulay at the SDHS conference to reading his articles on Jackson and Bausch, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between dance criticism and dance scholarship as well as the role of the dance critic.  What should be the balance between the critic’s personal experiences and relationship to the work and a responsible and informed review?  How can dance scholarship inform dance criticism?

*Thank you to Ariel Osterweis Scott for posting the Michael Jackson article to facebook and the fabulous conversation it generated. I would like to acknowledge how the dialogue that occurred on facebook about both of these articles influenced my thinking and writing.

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