April 21, 2014

R Is for Reviewing

I grew up reading the great (and often nasty) critics like Brooks Atkinson, Walter Kerr, Martin Bernheimer, and Arlene Croce. When I was 18, it struck me: "I can do that." But there was no blogging, and it's a universe with limited opportunities.

A few years ago, however, I was given the opportunity to promote and review the classical performing arts for the widely distributed alternative weekly in Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Weekly.

(Insert trite and hackneyed jokes about the arts and Las Vegas here. We've heard them all.)

For the record, Las Vegas has a pretty good symphony and one of the longest-running ballet companies in the U.S. (40 years for Nevada Ballet Theatre); additionally, Las Vegas boasts a steadily improving youth ballet, Las Vegas Ballet Youth Company. There are also some "real deals" in the modern/contemporary dance scene, including Alvin Ailey alum Bernard Gaddis, dancer/choreographer Marko Westwood, and Kelly Roth, who worked intensively with Nikolai/Louis. Live theater struggles, but plugs away, with occasional stellar results. (Read Jacob Coakley at the Las Vegas Weekly for theater happenings.) Opera is underrepresented and still is dependent on the live-stream broadcasts from the Met. Nevertheless, the city has a thriving performing arts community. So there!

Marko Westwood
But back to the topic.

Over the five years I wrote for the magazine and the two years I wrote for the online publication, California Literary Review, I was able to cover the usual suspects and also bring to notice some performance groups usually ignored (small dance companies, avant-garde theater venues, etc.) Very proud of that last bit. Along with my voice, I also developed some rules for myself. Some were suggested by others; some were things I had believed all along.

From Scott Dickensheets, then editor of the Weekly and now with Desert Companion, I was given two instructions: no gratuitous sniping and always have a wart. If you don't like something, have good reasons and back it up. And even if you like a performance, always find something that bugs you. Otherwise you come off looking like a booster, rather than a reviewer. (Previews can be a bit booster-ish, though, as the purpose is to interest the readership in the upcoming performance.)

From my husband, writer K. W. Jeter, I was given two other useful bits: Drop as many -ly words as possible and lose most of the "to be" words/passive constructions.

My own rules evolved over a longer period. The most important one for me: Treat the performers with respect. And don't take obvious pot-shots — great dancers fall sometimes, musicians may play a bad note, opera stars can miss the high ones, and even great actors muff lines. See enough live performances and you experience it all. Not worth mentioning. Also, don't blame performers for decisions made by choreographers and artistic directors.

Additionally, lay off the obvious. All dance companies want to perform to live music. Live music costs a lot of money. Small arts organizations lack money and can't always afford it. Reviewers: Shut up on this one. Same with theater. All theater companies would like endless tech and costume budgets. They don't have these. So craft your review around the question: Did they do the best they could with their resources?

What if I don't like a choreography or the program construction? Directors, librettists, playwrights, and choreographers are in charge and are fair game. Still, no one sets out to make a bad ballet or write a bad play. Treat the art with respect. Say why you don't like it, and back it up with examples.

    Faces of Frida, by Javier Gonzalez
Photo by K. W. Jeter
And if you love something? Even if I do, I can always find a wart. I'm a critic; it's what I do. For example, there is a version of the Nutcracker I love — except for one small detail. In the Act I Party Scene, the father gets pretty nasty with the little maid. It might have been historically accurate, but it seemed a bit harsh to me. Also to many in the audience, as I could see them visibly squirming. Did mention that one. For one thing, it could be fixed — and with limited cost.

It's important to remember: Nasty reviews tell the reader more about the reviewer and less about the work being reviewed. Your readers want to know about the ballet, play, opera, symphony. Give them that, and they might even care about you. Or not. But at least you have done your job.

When finding my voice as a performing arts writer, I had to decide whether to hit an academic tone (possible, but a little stuffy for me) or take my normal light approach to serious subjects. As you can tell if you have been reading my blog, I went with the last one.

It helped that I wrote for an alternative paper; too stuffy, and who in that audience would give a crap? Fortunately for me, I enjoy The Hunger Games and NASCAR as much as I love Giselle or La Traviata so pop culture and sports references in my writing comes naturally. It also fit the tone of the publication. But that's my voice; other reviewers take a far different approach. As long as the reviewer stays respectful — works for me.

When I switched to the California Literary Review, I added in more technical background stuff as that seemed to fit the publication. However, I still tried to avoid getting all poncy and stuff.

That's pretty much it. No real mystery. Moving on.

And now I'm caught up with the A to Z Challenge — for today.


A lot of people have wonderful structured themes for this challenge. Me, I'm going with Random Girl. Hey, my life doesn't have a theme, so why should my blog?

And make sure you check out Blogging from A to Z . There are over 2,000 participants in this years's challenge. Whatever your particular enthusiasm, you are sure to find something to pique your interest.

For more information, follow the A to Z Facebook page or go to @AprilA2Z on Twitter and give them a Follow.


  1. Very interesting, Geri, and useful information. As a writer, I write reviews, mostly for friends, and offer feedback. Good to see what you say here about having a reason to not liking something. I always do, I hope. But most importantly, I try to be honest and that's not always easy when the writer is known to me. I find most people are looking for praise (myself included, I suppose), yet praise can only take a writer so far.
    Thank you for the very informative post.
    Silvia @

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Silvia. Another thing I have found useful is if I really hate something, I read it or try to see it a bit later. Just on the chance that I could have been in a bad mood that day.