Alan M. Kriegsman
February 28, 1928 – August 31, 2012
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright Alexandra Tomalonis
September 9, 2012
The thought of writing an appreciation of Alan M. Kriegsman, Critic Emeritus of the Washington Post who died last week at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is very daunting, for Mike, as he was known to most in the dance world, was the master of that type of piece, writing some of the most beautiful appreciations of great artists imaginable. He always gave the subject his or her due, detailing their accomplishments and adding his own observations and memories. If you had loved the artist, you’d be in tears by the end of the piece; if you couldn’t stand the artist, you’d still cry, and probably feel a bit guilty that you hadn't discovered what Kriegsman's eloquent writing celebrated on your own. What was so astounding about these appreciations, besides their beautifully calm and measured prose, was the perfect combination of objectivity and personal observation that was one of the glories of Kriegsman's writing, as well as his total lack of sentimentality.
Kriegsman became interested in dance while at Columbia (where he studied with Curt Sachs), and began to attend dance, as well as theater and music performances, witnessing numerous new works by ballet giants George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Frederick Ashton, as well as the giants of modern dance. He saw the New York City Ballet grow up, and the careers of Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham take flight. After writing articles and reviews for a variety of publications in New York and a nearly six-year stint as music, drama and dance critic for the San Diego Union, he came to Washington to work at the Post in 1966. At first he was music critic, although he wrote about a variety of the arts, and was named dance critic in 1974 (the Post’s first). The Pulitzer came only two years later.
Kriegsman’s career coincided with the last crest of the mid-20th century dance boom and he was in great part responsible for giving Washington a place in that boom. The Kennedy Center was new in town, and Martin Feinstein was beginning to build a dance audience there. Extensive and thoughtful newspaper coverage in the Post helped immeasurably. Mike, with his wife, Sali Ann, herself a formidable part of the Washington arts scene, persuaded Patrick Hayes to add a modern dance program to his Washington Performing Arts Society. Smaller, mostly modern, dance companies were beginning to make their mark here; in the late 1970s, there were 75 dance companies of all stripes in D.C. -- modern, postmodern, ethnic (especially Spanish and African, but Indian and Asian companies were beginning to blossom as well) and Mike made every effort to cover their performances. He had a deep love of tap as well. The only piece he wrote for DanceView Times was a review of Savion Glover.
Unfortunately, there are few other reviews of his on line at present. Kriegsman retired from the Post in 1996, just as the internet boom was taking off. But in his day, the Post had a tremendous amount of dance coverage, thanks in part to two of the Post's Style editors, Mary Hadar and Ellen Edwards. Mike brought several stringers on board, and some Mondays there were eight dance reviews in the Post's Style section. He covered every opening, and cast changes as well. I was told by one of the press representatives at the Kennedy Center that dance companies were partly attracted to perform at the Center because they knew they would receive knowledgeable coverage in a major newspaper here. Mike also wrote pieces about issues in dance and other arts in his Cross Currents column and his Dance Notes column covered news about the local dance community.
Mike's enthusiasm for dance was boundless and he was open to a variety of opinions. I remember so many discussions where he'd ask what I thought of a new piece, and his response would invariably be, "That's what Sali Ann thought. I couldn't see it, though." Or, "Sali Ann said the same thing." "Sali Ann," his wife of 55 years, was his lifelong companion and friend. She was also his caregiver, for Mike's heart problems began with a heart attack in 1979 and he was often ill, sometimes quite ill, thereafter. Sali Ann was his rock, and managed to be so while, among other things, serving as artistic adviser to the Digital Dance Library planning project, president of the Dance Heritage Coalition, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and director of the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Program. Mike-and-Sali-Ann/Sali-Ann-and-Mike, depending on the topic under discussion at the time, were quite a force in the Washington arts scene. Mike also developed several Washington writers, one of whom, Sarah Kaufman, herself received a Pulitzer Prize (in 2010).
When I was a freshman in college, a girl from the other end of the hall came running in one Saturday afternoon saying that her roommate was a gypsy (7th daughter of a 7th daughter, really) who was learning palmistry and wanted to practice reading palms. Of course, we all went to see her. She said my palm wasn’t particularly interesting, except for one “rather odd” thing: “In about ten years you will meet a man whom you know, but do not know, and he will change your life,” she told me. Ten years later, I took a course in criticism from Alan M. Kriegsman at George Washington University. He was a man I knew (from his writing) but did not know (because we’d never met). At the end of the course, he asked me if I’d like to write for the Washington Post as a stringer, which did, indeed, change my life. It was typical of Mike's generosity, and of his interest and faith in the young. He could not have been more nurturing of young writers. He knew what performances were right for us to cover, always called with an encouraging word the next day (“Thank you for another very fine review….”), and treated us as though we were actually colleagues until we almost were. Working with young writers was but one of the ways he tried to make sure that interest in dancing, and love of the art and of writing, would outlive him. He was one of the very few people I've known who had a Renaissance man's view of art: that it enriched one's life and bettered one's soul.
The last time I saw Mike Kriegsman was at a matinee performance of the Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle” in July. He looked a bit frail, but not worrisomely so. He seemed very excited by the performance and pleased to see the company dance so beautifully. I later learned this was the last performance he saw, and thought how fitting that was. “Giselle,” is, of course, about the ability of love to transcend death, an idea in which the many people who loved Mike Kriegsman can perhaps take comfort.
Top, by Bill Snead for the Washington Post.
Middle and Bottom, from www.farrockawaysmemories.com