Theater archives

Clive Barnes, 1927–2008


I first met Clive Barnes (in print, that is) when a friend gave me a stack of issues of the British magazine Dance and Dancers from the early 1960s. I had only recently begun to write for The Village Voice, and I poured over them. When a major production opened in London, Dance and Dancers often published a tripartite review: Editor Peter Williams might write about the décor and the overall shape of the work, Noel Goodwin would handle the musical aspect, and Barnes (the associate editor) would deal with the dancing. In his early thirties, Barnes was already an expert. While at Oxford (1948–1951), after completing two years of National Service, he and John Percival had revived the university’s Ballet Club publication. Recently, he estimated that he’d been voraciously attending dance performances for almost 13 years before he ever wrote professionally about them.

His erudition was certainly evident in his articles for Dance and Dancers. But so also were his zesty writing and his tolerance for almost all kinds of dancing, as long as it was good. At random, I open the August 1960 issue of the magazine. It contains Barnes’s long, in-depth history of La Sylphide, as well as his reviews of works by five young choreographers on the Sunday Ballet Club’s seventh program. One of these, Ray Powell’s One in Five, he salutes as the Club’s first hit and goes on to say: “An unashamed product of ballet’s corn-belt, it proves (if any of us have been misguided enough to forget it) that there is nothing wrong with corn served in the right way and at the right temperature.”

His knowledge of the field, his lack of snobbism, and his way of aligning himself with the reader led to a stint as an arts reviewer for the Daily Express, then to the job he held for a dozen years: In 1965, he became the New York Times’s dance critic, and in 1967, took on theater as well (at first he was reluctant to accept the additional assignment; the love of his life, after all, was dance). In 1977, he left the Times and assumed the same dual role at the New York Post. He also wrote several books over the years (including Frederick Ashton and His Ballets and a biography of Rudolf Nureyev) and edited or contributed introductions to numerous others. As a critic, he was Herculean. In a busy week, he might attend more than seven performances and write about them all. He was punctilious about reviewing cast changes in major ballet seasons. His last review (of American Ballet Theatre) for the Post was published at the very end of last month, when he was beginning to lose his battle with the liver cancer that killed him on Wednesday morning, November 19.

He ran afoul of a number of important people in the theater, and some (notably Joseph Papp and David Merrick) vented their anger to the press in less than polite terms. The dance world, too, could take exception to his harsher opinions. But there was something immensely invigorating about his writing. He could be sharply witty, whimsical, utterly love-struck, and very wise about dancing and dancers. He hadn’t come from a wealthy family (his father had been an ambulance driver), and while he made his writing appealing to the non-expert, he never adopted a condescending tone.

It was a pleasure for colleagues to run into him and his fourth wife, former Royal Ballet soloist Valerie Taylor—whether at a theater, a gathering of some kind, or on the streets of Copenhagen, where he attended all three of the Royal Danish ballet’s Bournonville Festivals. He was almost invariably cheerful in public, even when a serious fall had impaired his mobility. Clive would hobble into the theater with Valerie in attendance—both of them smiling, vigorous in spirit, enthusiastic to hear others’ good news, and eager to talk about some performance or other. He could disagree with a grin or, eyes shining, adopt a confidential tone that could almost make you feel that the two of you shared an insight that maybe nobody else had.

Since 1989, he had been contributing a lively column, “Attitudes,” to Dance Magazine, every month ruminating on a topic that interested him. The essay that appears in the December issue is called “Criticism: The Unholy Craft.” In it, he remarks that “Unreadable critics are like harps without strings and will soon lose their place in the celestial choir. . . .” No danger of that for him—his voice still sings out.