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The last of the gentlemen critics. (Attitudes).

RICHARD BUCKLE, WHO DIED RECENTLY AT THE AGE OF 85, WAS VERY POSSIBLY THE LAST OF THE GENTLEMEN BALLET CRITICS. BUT THEN, HE WAS ALSO VERY POSSIBLY THE FIRST. AND HE HAD FAR MORE INFLUENCE ON THE WORLD OF dance than most people might have noticed.

Slightly mad, excessively flamboyant--in London, although he usually dressed like a prosperous lawyer, he flaunted his homosexuality like a banner when it was still a criminal offense, and there were quite a few times when his drinking caused comment--he pranced and whirled through the dance scene after World War II like a wayward comet. Then, settling down at least somewhat, he became a dance scholar and historian.

Last month I wrote a brief obituary of the man (see Transitions, Dance Magazine, January, page 108)--but the facts of a person's life never really tell you the whole story. Buckle, born in 1916 of an upper-class English family, was educated at Marlborough and later, very briefly, at Balliol College, Oxford. A child of minor privilege and in many ways a social snob, he toyed with art in a dilettante fashion, until in 1939 (he always claimed the idea came to him on the top deck of a London bus) he envisaged a magazine called, very simply, Ballet.

He managed to get two copies of his magazine out in the summer of 1939, before the outbreak of war. Then he enlisted as an officer in the Scots Guards--where his family had connections--and served with great gallantry and distinction in the Italian campaign, ending up as a major. Returning to civilian life, he with some difficulty started his magazine once more, and kept it going until 1952. It was a wonderful and infuriating magazine, full of brilliant action photographs, drawings by artists, articles of scholarship, learned but dry reviews by Cyril Beaumont, and dance history articles by the man who was to be Beaumont's successor as a dance historian, the young Ivor Guest. And it was also full of Buckle.

Few magazines have ever represented, even embodied, the personality of their editors so much as Buckle's Ballet. It is not that he wrote so much in it. But Buckle and his choices were infused throughout all the pages of the magazine, almost as a watermark, just as Aubrey Beardsley had infused the pages of The Yellow Book some fifty years earlier. Above all, Buckle was naughty, provocative, perverse, fresh, and new.

His criticism, both in Ballet and in his weekly Sunday newspaper columns, first in London's The Observer and later in its rival, The Sunday Times, was unlike any dance criticism written up until then. In the early days of mass public dance criticism, such critics as Arnold Haskell and Cyril Beaumont in England and John Martin and Walter Terry in America wrote in large part as enthusiasts and pedagogues. They were trying to teach this new dance audience about the wonders and mystique of dance. They were proselytizers and were always, if subconsciously, deeply aware of their responsibilities toward a little-known art, always careful not to saw away the branch upon which their own livelihood was precariously, if tenaciously, hanging. The gadfly dandy Buckle had no such worthy inclinations. He wanted to tell the truth as he saw it (and he often saw it in a somewhat twisted fashion); he wanted to entertain his readers, to be personal and irreverent; and he wanted to make friends and enemies and influence both in the dance world. And he did.

The impact he had first on the British dance world, then on the European dance world, and eventually on the entire dance world is incalculable, yet surely considerable. He found the British dance public and its companies devitalized after the war and complacently parochial. He battered them relentlessly for this, comparing them to the French--he instantly recognized the importance of Roland Petit and Jean Babilee, but he was soon idolizing such Spanish dancers as Antonio and Carmen Amaya, and was among the first champions of the Royal Danish Ballet--and then American dance, notably Katherine Dunham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Martha Graham.

His first importance was as a critical stylist. Whether reviewers in the English-speaking world recognize it or not, many of them are the children of Edwin Denby's methodology and Richard Buckle's impertinence. As an editor, he was generous to untested talent--in 1950 he gave me my first chance to write a serious professional review, a piece on New York City Ballet, and although I immediately after went my own way, he developed a small school of new dance writers, including Alexander Bland and, from America, Francis Mason. He also gave a platform to Denby, who wrote some of his best work for him, and Lincoln Kirstein.

But Buckle was much, much more than a writer. He was a backstage gossip and a front-of-house goad. He, together with Francis Mason (by then installed as cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy in London) and a few others, was a powerful influence in winning European acceptance for both Balanchine and Graham, an acceptance that exerted its own influence on the standing of American dance at home. In many untold ways he affected the kind of dance we see even today. His taste, especially as refashioned by Denby and Kirstein, was trailblazing.

Buckle had yet another couple of arrows in his always-quivering quiver. He was a great exhibition creator, as well as exhibitionist, notably with his Diaghilev Exhibition in Edinburgh and London in 1954. He was also, most unexpectedly, a considerable scholar, writing the definitive biographies of both Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

A strange man, Dicky Buckle, a gentleman critic with modest private means, perhaps underfulfilled, perhaps underappreciated, yet--in more ways than Dr. Johnson writing of David Garrick could have realized--he added "to the gaiety of nations." I know it was a pleasure, and I feel it was a privilege, to have been his contemporary.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Richard Buckle
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1007
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