Critic Clive Barnes dies at 81

Covered the N.Y. theater scene for 40 years

Clive Barnes, the influential legit and dance critic who had covered performing arts in Gotham for more than 40 years, died Wednesday in New York of complications from cancer. He was 81.

Barnes had continued to file reviews to the New York Post, for which he had written since 1978, until a few weeks before his death. Subjects of his final articles included the current Broadway revival of “All My Sons” and programs by American Ballet Theater.

Prior to his tenure at the Post, Barnes cultivated a high profile as a theater and dance critic for the New York Times. He was a powerful enough figure on Broadway that he earned a notable attack in “The Season,” William Goldman’s book about the 1967-68 Rialto season.

Remembered for his lively and enthusiastic approach to criticism, he is generally credited with an open-minded approach to dance that helped nurture the explosion of the form in Gotham in the 1970s.

He also was known for his pithy assessments of artistic success or failure. He praised the “teddy-bear athleticism” of choreographer Paul Taylor but memorably described a Bolshoi “Swan Lake” as “a national catastrophe.”

Regarding a recent Broadway production of “To Be or Not to Be,” he wrote, “Not. Definitely not.”

Barnes was born in London and raised primarily by his mother after his father, an ambulance driver, left when Barnes was a child. He was exposed to theater and dance at a young age by his mother, who worked for a theatrical press agent.

Barnes began writing about the performing arts during his studies at Oxford.

Eventually he joined with a group of other young critics to assail the incumbent dance writers at the London papers, whose approach they deemed outmoded and too music-centric. During this time he wrote for a number of the city’s publications, including the New Statesman and the Daily Express.

Barnes crossed the Atlantic in 1965 to join the New York Times, where he continued to champion choreographers such as George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham.

“Of all the dance critics writing during the second half of the 20th century, Clive Barnes is the best known and has been the most influential,” said Richard Philp, the former editor-in-chief of Dance magazine, for which Barnes also wrote. “Through his expansive, enthusiastic and voluminous writing, Barnes helped to create an informed, appreciative public.”

He began penning theater reviews in addition to his dance criticism in 1967, and his tenure yielded occasionally combative exchanges with such producing giants as David Merrick and Joseph Papp.

The Times editors eventually decided one writer could not cover both beats. Instead of giving one up, Barnes jumped to the Post in 1978.

In addition to criticism in newspapers, Barnes also wrote books including “Ballet in Britain Since the War” (1953), “Frederick Ashton and His Ballets” (1961), “Dance Scene U.S.A.” (1967) and “Nureyev” (1982).

Barnes was married four times. He is survived by his fourth wife, Valerie Taylor Barnes, as well as a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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