Choreographer Meets Critic Over Coffee

On a rainy Friday in October, I met Claudia La Rocco in the Lower East Side La Rocco for a coffee to talk about about a few things on my mind. I ordered a cappuccino, politely asked the barista to turn down the music, and sat down to an interesting conversation with a 70s rock soundtrack.

What was your first profound dance viewing experience and what did it mean?. Rolling Stone's "Start Me Up" playing loudly in coffee shop :

Claudia La Rocco: Gosh! I'm not sure if I can say what the very first thing was. I'll sometimes see five or six things a week; at this point, my chronology of what came when is somewhat jumbled…

Troy Schumacher: Did you go to dance before you started reviewing?

CLR I did. But I grew up in rural Maine and so there wasn't a lot to see when I was little. I would go with friends to things or go in college but I wasn't a serious fan of dance. I would say critics are pretty much split between the people like Wendy Perron who have had a serious career as a dancer or a choreographer and moved into criticism, and those who come from a tradition of writing, which is where I come from. One of the ways that I often connect to dance is looking at it as a certain kind of poetry. I think that the structures of poetry and the structures of dance are often so similar: both try to get at experience without narrative. I think that's why, in general, I relate to [New York] City Ballet's repertory more than ABT's [American Ballet Theater].

But let's see…one of my early, exciting experiences was seeing Trisha Brown 's work - I don't really remember what year it was, but it was early on. When I first started reviewing I was going to a lot of the more mainstream places and fell sort of quickly into despair about some of the more conservative stuff, you know, people sort of being beautiful for the sake of being beautiful with no sense of anything beyond that, sort of like language just showing off to show off. There should be more than that!

I remember seeing Trisha Brown and it was just her liquid intelligence. The early work or maybe when she was just starting to get into collaborating with [Robert] Rauschenberg; it wasn't her really early pedestrian experimentation but maybe 70's and 80's… just how smart it was and how beautiful, and this idea of virtuosity in service of intelligence, and how much more beautiful something like that is than something that's just trying to be beautiful… The [conservative] stuff's pretty but it doesn't have more than that. So she's someone who really comes to mind .

TS I had just turned thirteen when I took my first real ballet class, but as a dance goer I didn't really care. I was a ballet student, really far behind for my age, and just wanting to be really good.

CLR It's funny: So many boys say that.

TS Yeah. I just couldn't deal with being bad at ballet. And I was the type of person who would go home after class, before Youtube, and accumulate bootleg copies of performances. I think I had one tape that had 12 versions of the Don Quixote male variation and I just never got sick of watching it. At all. Because that athletic aspect of it really appealed to me. When I was 15, I moved up to New York and I was a huge advocate of classical ballets. I got into intense arguments with my dorm mates at the School of American Ballet. At first, I started going to NYCB performances because SAB students get free tickets every night. But still, I wasn't sold. I think something subconsciously was there... but only I really wanted to see Angel Corella do a hundred turns. That's what I would wait for in any ballet: a trick, or something really impressive.

CLR Was it because you were marking yourself against it, like 'That's what I want to get to?' Were you watching it in that way?

TS I just wanted to see some "male dancing." I'm from Atlanta and when you're a kid, you're seeing these videos and thinking, oh my gosh, all dancers in New York are these incredible athletes and it's all going to be so amazing! I was so excited to see that. But, after the winter season I found myself thinking about City Ballet during their break. I was very reluctant to admit it to my friends, but I was desperately missing it.

And then spring season came along. [At SAB] we got seats all over the theater. I happened to be in the fourth ring this one evening and it wasBalanchine's Robert Schuman's Davidsbundlertanze, a ballet that 16 year old boys generally don't like, to say the least, and even a lot of people don't like. I found myself crying during it. I think that was the first time I ever experienced art and it was the furthest thing from the Don Quixote variation in the ballet repertoire. From that moment on I started looking for and valuing different things as a dancer and that's when my education about "ballet as art" started. So that was my first profound experience.

CLR I remember being in the studio and sitting cross legged on the floor, watching and trying to understand how it's possible to get these bodies moving in these formations, something about the way Trisha Brown structures her partnering. She would always talk about running, and she grew up living in the countryside in the Pacific Northwest, and how running through the woods in Washington, how much that is in her work. And I grew up in the countryside and spent all my time in the woods by the ocean. And you could see that! You could see that in her work and that to me was so thrilling. It was completely abstract but it's absolutely in there. I remember the first time I saw the opening of Balanchine's Serenade and seeing those girls snap into dancers -that's thrilling.

Gaining Perspective. Creedence Clearwater Revival "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"

TS Something I want to talk about is perspective. Because for me, ballet can be one of the hardest things to just enjoy because… I know so much about it, not to sound arrogant or anything!

CLR No! I'd be a terrible critic of poetry because one comma that's wrong, that's it, the whole thing is annihilated for me. And I'm sure it's the same for you. You know the physical workings so intimately that there must be little things that just drive you mad.

TS Ballet is based on these little details that are almost imperceptible, but if they're missing, people notice. I have my own ways of how I want things to look and how I like things. I'm in what I think is the best company in the world, but I don't get to see them as a spectator anymore. Everything changes on the day that you get into the company; you look at everything differently. So as a dancer I try to gain perspective by going to see anything that's not ballet, whether it's new music, classical music, visual art... I find myself being able to enjoy modern dance and look at what's being done and just enjoy it. Not judge anything.

So as a critic, how do you try to look at something from a fresher place when you're sort of overloaded?

CLR Some of it is taking breaks, resting your eyes or getting out of town or going to movies. It's actually important sometimes to skip the dance performance so you can go see "The Matrix" or whatever. There are some critics who think you have to plunge into, not only the form but one particular type of form. I'm not a balletomane, and I'm also just not that kind of writer. I get sort of stir crazy if I do that with anything, I get claustrophobic. I like to be exposed to a range.

But I also think that critics have pretty limited shelf-lives. It's hard to keep your eyes fresh. Some of that is just inevitability. When you go into something thinking "yeah, I know what this is" or "yeah, I've seen this before." You have to figure out how to recharge yourself or if you can't recharge yourself, to figure out how to not do it anymore. I hope I'm not at that place yet. I still pretty regularly fall in love with a show when I'm watching it.

Negative Reviews. Fleetwood Mac "Gold Dust Woman"

CLR It isn't a question of wanting to or not wanting to for me.

TS Well, maybe not necessarily wanting to write negatively personally but looking at the art form you serve.

CLR I would say that I'm serving a couple of art forms. I'm serving the art form that I'm writing about and I'm serving the art form of writing.

TS Right. That's a good point.

CLR And there's the art form in front of you and are you speaking and writing truthfully about that form- I mean truthfully about my experience because that's completely subjective. I'm not one of those critics who thinks that there are good artists and bad and we should all agree. That's crazy. But in terms of serving my own art form, writing, I'd feel like hell if I was not expressing my experience. I'd be really uncomfortable with that.

I had that experience very early on with the choreographer Paul Taylor, somebody incredibly established, and I went and I thought, "his work doesn't speak to me; I find it problematic," but I didn't feel that I could truthfully say that as a young writer. That's the review that I think about the most. I felt a great sense of relief when I could write about him later and to be more critical. All of that said, it is not typically a nice feeling, giving negative reviews, especially to younger artists; sometimes we'll choose not to review something if it just seems like this person is not ready.

I wrote the review for the first piece that Pina Bausch's company brought here after she died. Her early works are hugely inspiring for me but the later works I find really problematic. She settled into a pattern and there's this cultural imperialism, the way she would parachute into an "exotic" city and sum it up in a dance. I was trying to figure out a way to be critical about those issues while honoring her larger importance. It's good to try to respect where artists are coming from.

Relevance and Future. Elton John's "Daniel"

TS I've been wondering about our duty to dance as an art form. I think that there's a trend with people near my age who love ballet and love dance trying to do something to reinvigorate our art form. We're removed from the transitional period of Balanchine being dead and Forsythe coming and influencing everything, with the Ratmansky/Wheeldon/Millepied generation that is here now. We feel that we need to join them to take ballet and bring it into relevance again.

How can we grab this art form that we're so devoted to and shock it back into life? Why is dance irrelevant in many ways?

CLR Often the structures that you see on ballet stages don't resemble the structures you see in everyday life.

TS Male manipulating the female.

CLR Yes, as if the idea of modern sexuality doesn't exist. There's almost no homosexuality in ballet; too often there's nothing beyond this melodramatic world created between two people. I do think that a lot of the work being made today doesn't feel like it has a connection to what is out in the world and it feels really conservative. It feels really concerned with being pretty. And often the stuff that seems to be moving away from that seems just as silly. It's just, "Let's have stuff be dark and if I slam up or splice up some Goldberg Variations with some grating noises then 'That's contemporary! That's new!'" It's not. It's just a bad sound score.

I think that the idea that we have to make it new over and over again is a holdover from modernism and I think that it's a dangerous idea at this point, 2012. But this idea of an authentic voice that is living in the world today and pulling that in… The first time, seeing [Ratmansky's] Russian Seasons, it was electrifying. It was really speaking to our world. Looking at Balanchine's works, they seem historical, they don't seem of my time but they look particular to a time. It's that idea of a piece having integrity as it own thing. And it's also architecture. I think these big theaters, you go and it's a 2 1/2 hour performance and you pay a lot of money that many people don't have…

TS And you're sitting, 40, 60, 75 feet away from the performers…

CLR I think that's a big problem. Brooklyn Academy of Music, what did it do? It just built this small space because they realized a lot of artists aren't working in this old way. You talk about that in your own work, about moving away from that. And that's what's happening in ballet companies everywhere: these smaller studio things happening.

TS It's hard to make a connection from far away. I feel like I was able to have that profound experience from the fourth ring because of the amount of time I spent up close in a dance studio. But a lot of us agree with you about this need to be relevant and the need to have dancers relate in a way that people actually do in life. The formality of ballet is so ingrained, even in our bodies. I find myself trying so much to remove the royal aspect from my choreography.

CLR It's more the princely thing. Because the formal elements are fabulous.

TS The bowing and the subservient and the-

CLR But I think that the fact that ballet is formalized is continually exciting. It's more the idea of the symmetry of the couple that's a problem. It's all the unquestioned things. I just don't ever again need to see a ballet that has a love duet as the central theme. Think about something else! It can't be the central metaphor for everything. I don't understand why that persists.

TS It's such a hard thing to break out of because most stories are situations that borrow two people. In our lives, in many ways, the most profound interactions occur with one other person. It's a very easy thing to relate to.

CLR Yes, we often do have experiences with one other person. But not all of them! Not by far. And you also can use multiple bodies to evoke those same things, but it can happen on a structural level in different ways. And then there's all those clichés where the men and women are separated from each other and then they see each other and then… just, stop doing that! Unless it absolutely needs to happen in this work, not just because it's received wisdom. It's the same thing as the rom-com formula in movies; a total lack of imagination.

Scale continued: Ratmansky and Cunningham. Fleetwood Mac "Landslide"

TS What I love about ballet dancers is how incredibly sculpted they are from the hours and hours they spend working on this technique. Once we do anything on stage, we instantly look like dancers. I'm making a ballet for the New York Choreographic Institute right now, which I'm using as an opportunity to make a large-scale work. But I keep telling my dancers that they don't have to keep presenting to themselves in the studio mirror. There's no audience. I think for many years it was important to make it really apparent that we were putting on a "show." Many ballets still require that. Now, I think the opposite is much more interesting: watching something occurring as opposed to being pandered to.

CLR And I don't want to give the impression that these large-scale works should go away.

TS You love [Ratmanksy's Concerto]DSCH but that's a complete example of… I mean there's still such an important place for large scale.

CLR But that's because his voice creates this complete imaginative, inventive world. Particulars don't matter. Watching his work is like peering into another person's consciousness, one that relates to my consciousness in certain ways, and in other ways it's foreign. It's like sinking into a great novel.

TS Like a great Russian novel.

CLR Yes.

TS I think that's interesting in such a multicultural way because he's able to make people relate to each other. It's very Russian, so not American-the way people gesture toward each other-but at the same time the dancing has a lot of the authenticity that is important in his works.

CLR I think also another person that comes to mind as a good model for ballet getting to keep all the things that are incredible is Merce Cunningham. I mean he was dealing with form. In order to do Cunningham you have to have form… the technique is crazy hard!

TS But at the same time, he kind of dismissed everything that ballet values.

CLR I wouldn't say everything. But also I don't mean necessarily that ballet should look to Cunningham stylistically. You can take in the sweep of a Cunningham piece, but you can also look at individual movements and you can see people relating in so many different ways. And it's just so fluid, the human experience and the complexity, and yet is incredibly formal and incredibly structured. It does not look anything like how people move in everyday life. It's totally alien but also… isn't. And I think in that way, I would love to see more of that texture in ballets.

TS At least with everyone I've talked to, Cunningham is one of the most polarizing choreographers. What I really value in watching his work is the way that he was able to abstract the human body in a really fascinating way. Balanchine began this abstraction and Cunningham completely realized it. It almost… irks me how transformed his dancers are. But I find value watching it.

CLR But I would also say that they're deeply human because of the effort to do what they're doing, and the audience sees it. That's something you've talked about a lot in the ballets you're making now - wanting people to see the effort. With Cunningham, the audience sees absolutely what it costs the dancers to hold their balance when they're tilted 45 degrees off their axis, and they're in a crazy demi-plie lunge… all the impossibilities.

TS I feel such an effortlessness in Cunningham but you've probably seen so much more than I have.

CLR Well I think that you see-and especially in some of the smaller events like at Dia Beacon-you see what it costs. And it's the same reason that I love the corps de ballet. Something like Giselle, I mean you see those legs working so hard; they're completely human. And you think, this is a vision that is otherworldly but at the same time these are some very young women who are working damn hard to try to make something and that condition, that juxtaposition, is so exciting. I love that about ballet.

Art in the middle: creator on one side, critic on the other. Led Zeppelin "Stairway to Heaven"

CLR I guess I would hope that the critic is also seeing herself as a creator, who is responding to a creation. That changes things. Sometimes seeing myself as an artist brings a certain kind of humility. There's the idea that there's the world, and we the critics are sitting outside it, which is as problematic as an art form that is removed from the world. I'm a few years older than you, I just turned 35, halfway to 70, and I'm still pretty young in the traditions of my form, which is writing in a larger sense.

TS You've got 50 more years!

CLR I can write until dementia sets in! Maybe past that. Many people do. I'm trying to do something as well. To keep this in mind somehow brings a gentleness or a generosity, where it's not just seeing this finished thing that you made. I can just say, "that's awful," or, "I hate it," or "that's beautiful;" but I can also say "a lot went into that." I can try to honor that even if I just say, "it doesn't get there but it's trying."

TS I feel that Yes or No criticism exists so much more in dance than in any other of the highbrow arts.

CLR I think it's a really big problem. I mean we're all pre-judging everything all the time. If people walk by, we're making judgments. Judgments come into it, but if just builds up to a Yes or No verdict… it's also tedious.

TS It also doesn't provide the artist with any type of critical value. I don't necessarily think that critics and artists should be in agreement with each other, or be in cahoots. But at the same time, I feel like more of a dialogue…

CLR And there should be ideas right? You can talk about the ideas. That's what I'm trying to do, in a small, humble way with regards to The Performance Club, is have a good network of writers, who are all trying to get at more aspects of things so you can be really critical but to also keep in mind that we're talking about ideas. So it's not just about the finished product, and whether it succeeded or failed. That's one of the things that I felt so excited about, seeing in your pictures of ballerina's feet the incredible effort and physical toll that goes into making something impossible look easy; that's all a part of it too.

I think criticism could be and should be as opinionated as it wants to be but where I agree with you is where it's just saying "Oh, this is no good." "Oh, the dancers were fat." "Oh, the costumes were ugly." "Oh, this was bad and I was unhappy." Then, all you know is that this person didn't like it. But if I can talk about the ideas, then we can get somewhere. Then it doesn't matter and you and I can have completely different opinions but if we're talking about ideas, then we can talk about something.

TS That's a great thing about a live performance. You can be sitting three feet away from someone and have a profoundly different experience than they will. I always find that to be the most baffling but greatest little thing about art. At the same time I don't know if you're serving your art form or the art form that you write about by telling people not to go see Agon.

CLR But are you reading reviews that say "Don't go see Agon?"

TS Well, not "Don't go see this," but I've read some sad reviews of amazing ballets. Theatergoers read reviews to decide whether they're going to see something. And as we all know dance companies are generally really not doing well at all. And City Ballet is really the repository of these insanely good works of art on par with anything and it's hard to accept something like "The dancing was bad on this one night." Does that make the work lose value for coming to see?

CLR Okay, so what's the way to talk about that? I'm sure you can call to mind seeing great ballets and you just had an unsatisfying experience in the theater because it wasn't good that night?

TS Yeah, you were tired or you-

CLR But not even that you were tired, but sometimes what's happening on stage is not working. That just happens. We all have off nights. What's the way to write about that and to acknowledge that in a way that becomes constructive? And that makes for interesting reading, how do you do that?

I also think that these ballets exist in time and it's possible that a ballet made 20 years ago, doesn't have the same resonance. This idea of timelessness drives me crazy.

TS A friend of mine and I got in an argument about Balanchine's Orpheus. Which I think is this really amazing, timed work with large amounts of value that someone just wrote off as incredibly dated. It's like going to see Duchamp at MoMA and saying, "What is that? Oh. That's a bicycle wheel on a chair."

CLR I guess the way I think to talk about it is, you can talk about something being historically important but that it doesn't have the same resonance. I also think that something that happens to City Ballet, and this kind of drives me crazy, are that the reviews often sum things up by saying, "These pieces are great, the dancers are terrible, which is why these pieces have no resonance. This piece was great back then and now, because these dancers are terrible it's not working anymore." I mean, you guys get hit for everything. I think this is not always the case.

I think sometimes dancers can reinvigorate a work and make it live in an incredible way and sometimes they can make it fall flat and sometimes there's not so much that they can do. And we have to be able to talk about a work that doesn't electrify and doesn't work on our nerve endings like it did years ago because of nostalgia or because where we were then and where we are now. Even now when I see [Ratmansky's] Russian Seasons it doesn't do the same thing for me as it did just a few years ago, and I always think about that. Is it because I've changed, the person who saw that the first time it was ever seen, is it because it's settled into a complacency because you guys know it and it's familiar to you, or is it neither of those reasons? Or there will be works that I've seen and it won't work for me and it won't work for me and then all of a sudden, it's like "Ah, ok. I get something about it."

TS I think we all, dance goers, will see 25 performances for that one, fleeting experience. And we're constantly waiting for that one moment where you're like "Oh, my god!" Those small moments.

CLR I also think that's why it's important to get away from the idea of saying this is a great work and this is the truth, but getting back to "I felt this way, and here is why." This one-size-fits all and litmus test stuff in criticism is irritating.

TS Is there any value in being objective?

CLR I don't think that it's possible. I think it's more dangerous when people think that they're objective. It's kind of scary. Not kind of: Those people do scare me.

TS Art is not based on objectivity. But there are definitely certain things that you can see value in. Those things are not plentiful.

CLR But you also grow into things.

Claudia La Rocco is a poet and critic. She is the founder and artistic director of, which won a 2011 Creative Capitol/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. She writes about performance for the New York Times, is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts' graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing, and has taught and lectured at a variety of universities, festivals and institutes. She is an editor-at-large at the Brooklyn Rail, a founding editor of Hyperallergic Weekend, a contributing editor at Emergency INDEX and a member of the Off The Park poetry press. Her poetry and arts writing have appeared in such outlets and publications as Artforum,, Slate, WNYC New York Public Radio and the anthology "Viva la Difference: Poetry Inspired by the Painting of Peter Saul." She lives in Brooklyn. She can be reached at

Troy Schumacher , Resident Choreographer and Ballet Director founded the Satellite Ballet with Kevin Draper in 2010. Schumacher began dancing with New York City Ballet in 2004 after training at the School of American Ballet and Atlanta Ballet.