Clive Barnes, Critic, Dies at 81

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  1. Principessa

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    Clive Barnes, Critic, Dies at 81

    By WILLIAM GRIMES

    Clive Barnes, who as an influential critic in Britain and later for The New York Times helped bring dance to a broad audience with an exuberant, highly personal style and who for many years was a theater critic for The Times and then The New York Post, died early Wednesday. He was 81 and lived in Manhattan.

    His death, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, was caused by complications of cancer, his wife, Valerie Taylor Barnes, said. Until a few weeks before his death, he continued filing reviews for The Post, as he had for the last 30 years.

    Mr. Barnes, a buoyant, energetic Londoner who once described himself as “your typical working-class overachiever,” made his mark by waging a sustained assault on British dance criticism as it was then practiced just after World War II. It was, he argued, provincial and ill-informed scribbling usually by music critics.

    Writing for several publications simultaneously, primarily The Spectator and The Times of London, which hired him as its first full-time dance critic in 1961, he exposed his readers to foreign dance companies and choreographers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham when most British critics were ignoring them.

    His 13 years as dance critic at The Times, from 1965 to 1977, coincided with a rapid expansion of the dance world and an explosion of new talent. As chief theater critic, a position he held for nearly a decade, he championed plays by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, wrote appreciatively of the young David Mamet and embraced, initially with some reservations and later with none, the musical “Hair.”

    It was as a dance critic, however, that he made his strongest impact. He witnessed and described, as he later observed in Dance magazine, “dance’s finest hours in all its brief history,” a period in which Jerome Robbins and Balanchine were at their peak, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor moved from strength to strength, and new choreographers like Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp were beginning to make a stir.

    At The Times, Mr. Barnes made dance an art for all, taking both dance criticism and American dance out of its specialized niche. His erudition, distilled into shrewdly pithy analysis, prompted not just readers but also choreographers and dancers to sit up and learn something new.

    “He was literate, knowledgeable and passionate,” said Lynn Garafola, a professor of dance at Barnard College. “When it came to a challenging work, he would review not just the first performance, but the second performance and third performance, and then write an analytic piece, too. He also had a remarkable visual memory. He wasn’t just seeing the ballet in front of him. He had a bank of memories that went back half a century.”

    Clive Alexander Barnes was born in London. His father, an ambulance driver, deserted the family when Clive was 7. His mother, a secretary for a theatrical press agent, passed along free tickets to her son, who began attending theater and ballet at an early age.

    After attending a boarding school on scholarship, he enrolled at the University of London’s medical school. That did not work out. “He wanted to be a psychiatrist, but that was 10 years away, and he couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” his second wife, the former Patricia Winckley, told Dance magazine.

    After spending two years with the Royal Air Force, he earned a scholarship to Oxford, where he joined the Ballet Club and became an editor of Arabesque, its quarterly journal. He also began writing for the journal Dance and Dancers, eventually becoming its executive editor.

    He and a coterie of like-minded dance writers mounted a kind of cultural takeover bid, taking deliberate aim at the dance establishment and pushing themselves forward as the voices of the rising generation.

    “We all began freelancing, and we were all terribly mean to the established dance critics, who were all music critics, really, and didn’t know a thing about dance,” Mr. Barnes told McCall’s magazine in 1969. “We were kind of young Turks, obnoxious as hell, but it worked. We wanted every paper in London to have a specialist dance critic, and we won. Now they all do.”

    Mr. Barnes began writing on dance for New Statesman and published his first book, “Ballet in Britain Since the War” (Watts) in 1953. In 1956, after toiling as a planner for the London County Council for several years, he was hired by The Daily Express, a tabloid newspaper, to review dance, theater, film and television. With his left hand he turned out dance criticism for several other newspapers under pseudonyms.

    An early marriage ended in divorce, as did subsequent marriages to Ms. Winckley and Amy Pagnozzi. In addition to his fourth wife, Ms. Barnes, he is survived by a son, Christopher, of London; a daughter, Maya Johansen, of Woodstock, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.

    In 1965 editors at The New York Times, which was reorganizing its cultural news coverage, asked Mr. Barnes, who had been contributing reviews from London for several years, to become the newspaper’s dance critic. Although undecided, Mr. Barnes jumped at the offer of a free airplane ticket to New York, where Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” was about to receive its premiere. Once in New York, he decided to stay.

    He could be scathing. He once called the Bolshoi “Swan Lake” “a national catastrophe.” Yet he was unafraid of extravagant prose. Reviewing a performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the principal roles, he wrote, “it is the image of Dame Margot and Mr. Nureyev that remains, like the blood-red shape of an instant left on a sun-lit retina when the eyes are closed.”
     
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