by June D. Bell
A self-taught dance critic whose first article on the subject was a piece for Barnard Magazine snared an impressive honor this spring when she was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Tobi Bernstein Tobias was lauded for nearly a decade of work on ArtsJournal.com “that reveals passion as well as deep historical knowledge of dance, her well-expressed arguments coming from the heart as well as the head,” the Pulitzer board wrote.
The accolade was much appreciated but not dramatically life changing. “You write the way you write and you try to do your best and you try to grow,” she says. “It’s the day-to-day plugging away at it that makes for so-called success.” For Tobias, that meant spending more than two decades as New York magazine’s dance critic and writing regularly for Dance Magazine and The Village Voice.
Tobias’s Pulitzer honor was recognition of her keen insights about dancers, choreographers, and dance, says ArtsJournal founder and editor Douglas McLennan, who urged her to submit an entry in the criticism category. (McLennan was a Pulitzer Prize juror in 2011 and 2012, but recused himself from the deliberations for the 2012 criticism selection.) “Being a good critic is a very difficult mix of skills,” McLennan says. “Tobi is what I’d call a professional watcher. She has a great depth of experience and knows the art form very well. She has the historical context and perspective, and the ability to relate it to where the field has been.”
Enchanted as a youngster by a LIFE magazine photo of Diana Adams, a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, Tobias asked her mother to take her to a performance. The company, then led by choreographer George Balanchine, was at its peak of artistic creativity. Tobias was hooked.
At Barnard, she studied English with a concentration in writing, and loitered in the hazy basement halls of the French department, where the professors smoked Gauloises cigarettes, “for the ostensible glamour.” Tobias earned a master’s degree from New York University in 1962, married, and had two children.
She became a professional dance writer in the early 1970s with a piece for Barnard about choreographer Twyla Tharp ’63. The article inspired Tobias to seek work from dance publications. Several gave her assignments; her new career blossomed. Her criticism and profiles of dancers and choreographers began appearing in New York magazine, where she became the dance critic for 22 years. In the 1980s, Tobias led a Barnard seminar on dance writing— “an unteachable thing, but I taught it,” she says.
An effective critic, Tobias says, “has to be good at seeing.” Critics must respond emotionally to art and decipher what an artist is trying to communicate. “Usually a dance critic goes to look at a dance and then tells readers, ‘this is what I saw,’” she says. “But what about what you thought or what you felt, or both? What was really going on? There’s a kind of dance criticism that is just a kind of note-taking about what went on, and that doesn’t fly.”
Throughout her career, her favorite interview subjects have included American Ballet Theatre dancer William Carter, whom she profiled for Dance. “He was just magical, a very, very pure soul,” Tobias says. The article took six months to write, “and it was worth every moment.” Another favorite was the Royal Danish Ballet’s Sorella Englund, who has “an amazing ability to reach into herself and be really thoughtful about her life” Tobias produced a massive oral history on the Royal Danish Ballet in 1979, one of the oldest and foremost ballet companies in the world; In 1992, Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II honored Tobias with knighthood for her efforts.
Tobias has also written more than 20 children’s books, which she began doing when she was a young mother reading to her children A few years ago, she branched out into writing what she calls “Personal Indulgences,” personal essays she writes for her ArtsJournal blog. One of her favorites is about how the spools of colored thread at Woolworth’s inspired her passion for the visual arts and, ultimately, her career. “A dozen shades of pink lined up in order of color saturation from the faintest blush to an almost psychedelic strawberry. A riot of reds, now veering toward a stinging orange… now surreptitiously creeping up on purple….” she wrote in 2007. “As with Diana Adams in the swan’s arabesque, that glorious, hardly believable image of the spools of thread stayed with me, shaping me as I grew.”