Clive Barnes, longtime N.Y. dance, theater critic

Clive Barnes, peering over a rail from behind the last row at the Majestic Theater to watch the musical ''The Wiz'' in Manhattan. Clive Barnes, peering over a rail from behind the last row at the Majestic Theater to watch the musical ''The Wiz'' in Manhattan. (new york times/file 1976)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / November 21, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Clive Barnes, a witty and powerful arts critic whose voracious interest in theater of all forms led him from ballet to discotheques, died of cancer Wednesday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 81.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Mr. Barnes had some of the most prestigious jobs in arts journalism. In 1961, he became the Times of London's first full-time dance reviewer. He was recruited by The New York Times four years later, partly at the urging of dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein.

Mr. Barnes doubled as The New York Times chief theater critic.

Because of his multiple roles, he gained recognition as a prolific writer who seemingly covered every nook of New York's cultural life. "If you dimmed the lights in a car," a fellow critic quipped to Time magazine, "Clive would have tried to review it."

After the Times divided the theater and dance jobs and, in essence, demoted him, Mr. Barnes left in 1978 for the New York Post. He spent the past 30 years at the Post, which gave him freedom as an arts critic. He also contributed to dance publications and wrote books.

A ballet enthusiast since his childhood in London, Mr. Barnes once said his primary mission was to elevate dancing from "America's cultural ghetto." He championed dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and Jerome Robbins.

He once singled out Rebecca Wright, a featured dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, for "a performance of gossamer and thistledown."

But Mr. Barnes could be memorably devastating. He famously damned Kenneth Tynan's 1969 all-nude revue "Oh, Calcutta!" as "the kind of show to give pornography a dirty name."

He reduced his consideration of one play called "The Cupboard" to a single word: "Bare."

Mr. Barnes told Time in 1969: "My ideal criticism is to write a notice about a play that I didn't like and yet send people to the theater to see it."

Those on the receiving end of his typewriter did not always see it that way.

Producer David Merrick wrote in Esquire that his only interest in bringing new shows to Broadway was "for the pleasure of throwing his [Mr. Barnes's] fat Limey posterior out in the street."

Mr. Barnes gave a laudatory review to Joseph Papp's production of "A Chorus Line," but the producer was never entirely satisfied with the critic and routinely sent demeaning notes about his understanding of theater.

The relationship reached a low when Papp began throwing peanut shells at Mr. Barnes during a televised debate over "Hamlet," according to Papp biographer Helen Epstein.

Clive Alexander Barnes was 7 when his father, an ambulance driver, deserted the family. He was raised by his mother, a theatrical press agent, whose access to free tickets provided him his first glimpses of ballet.

He won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he helped revive a nearly defunct ballet club.

He also began a long affiliation as editor and writer for professional dance publications, including Dance and Dancers, before graduating in 1951.

Years later, Mr. Barnes told McCall's magazine that his first wife, Joyce Tolman, insisted he find "an honest job," which led to work as a municipal planner. In 1956, a day after being hired as a critic for the Daily Express, he ended their marriage.

Subsequent marriages to Patricia Winckley and Amy Pagnozzi also ended in divorce.

Mr. Barnes leaves his fourth wife, Valerie Taylor-Barnes, a former soloist with Britain's Royal Ballet; two children from his second marriage, Christopher of London and Maya Johansen of Woodstock, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.

With the encouragement of his second wife, a ballet aficionado, he became widely known in England. Starting in the early 1960s, he began contributing dance articles from London to The New York Times.

Once on staff, he was a daily arts commentator on the Times's classical radio station, WQXR.

Although he was best known for his coverage of theater, Mr. Barnes's cultural reach extended to television. He wrote in 1969 that the populist medium "is the first truly democratic culture, the first culture available to everyone and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want."

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