Separating the Dancers From the Dance : SIGHT LINES by Arlene Croce (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 364 pp.)

This third collection of her dance criticism confirms the qualities that make Croce influential beyond the circulation of the New Yorker magazine, where most of these pieces first appeared.

At a time when some dance reviewers still ignore or minimize the kinetic and visual essence of the art, Croce continues to use her remarkable powers of description to affirm choreography and the act of dancing as the primary subjects for critical analysis.

Other dance-related issues may be easier to write about, but they count as evasions. "The test of a critic is not how many points he can clinch but how transparent he is, " she writes in an appreciation of the great American dance critic Edwin Denby. "Unless we can see through him to the way it was, it won't help to know what he thinks it means."

Thus some of the greatest pleasures in reading Croce involve probing the work of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, David Gordon, Mark Morris and others for clues to methodology, inspiration, points of reference, patterns of thought. And, far from amounting to clinical dissection of dancing, Croce's concentration upon movement perception often yields both an experiential sense of the original event and a visionary grasp of its deepest implications.

Consider the blend of reportage and evaluation, exact recall and poetic impression in Croce's account of the "Symphony in C" performance by New York City Ballet just after Balanchine's death:

"In the finale of this ballet--surely the most exhilarating finale ever devised by Balanchine--there comes a moment when the profuse invention of the choreography clears away like mist and the stage turns into a classroom, its three sides lined with young women doing battements tendus while the four principal ballerinas compete like dervishes in the center. In this moment, at once the simplest and the most complex moment in the ballet, Balanchine seems to be outlining both his dream for American ballet and the foundation necessary to achieve it . . . "

Happily, Croce's focus on choreographic design never reduces the dancer to a mere executor or peripheral personality. Indeed,Croce several times faults Jerome Robbins for exalting The Dance over the dancer--for "exercising the talents of various NYCB dancers without giving them roles in which they may transcend their circumstances and take their place in the world--the world, I mean, of art and the imagination."

In contrast, Suzanne Farrell and Mikhail Baryshnikov are declared full-fledged "national treasures" in one essay and "dancing--to distinguish it a moment from choreography--is the great theatre art we in America know today largely because of their contributions to it."

Farrell's physical decline prompts Croce's most insightful writing: "In two back-to-back 'Chaconnes' she gave two different performances, one separating and dramatizing the components of the role, the other emphasizing their structural continuity. And she's still very strong, although her presence has become sweet and light, almost mothlike. She has always been the wittiest dancer alive, but in this new condition of impalpable strength spirituality enters in; wit becomes a beatitude."

Baryshnikov's career in the mid-to-late '80s, however, finds Croce increasingly adopting the role of apologist, alternately loading or ignoring the evidence.

In discussing Baryshnikov's crude, misogynist version of "Cinderella" (co-choreographed by Peter Anastos), she is not above show-biz press-agentry: "The most expensive production in the history of American Ballet Theatre, 'Cinderella' has already recouped its costs four times over." And, as she all but dismisses the ballet's most glaring blunders, her arguments grow increasingly bizarre: "If anything, Baryshnikov and Anastos have been too intelligent, too tasteful."

Moreover, in a season when Baryshnikov choreographies and restagings of "The Nutcracker," "Don Quixote," "Raymonda" divertissements and "Giselle" dominate the ABT repertory, it is startling to learn from Croce (in another essay, commissioned by Baryshnikov for French Vogue) that "he abjures almost entirely the role of choreographer." It's as if, this once, Croce had made too great an emotional investment in her subject and is writing for his eyes, not ours or her own.

If so, this is an anomaly--her rigor about her profession normally qualifies as flinty. A footnote to the 1982 collection, "Going to the Dance," advanced the theory that "performers can tolerate only as much criticism as can be converted to the uses of publicity." Hard words to live by.

Five years later, in the essay that originally ended "Sight Lines," she expanded the issue into a matter of viewpoint: "Performers see one way, critics another. We can be wrong about them; they are never right about us."

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