Writing With Grace

There is a certain rhythm to becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic.

For Sarah Kaufman, dance critic of The Washington Post, leaping to the beat of her own drum gracefully landed her on top.

“There’s a strong streak of independence involved,” Kaufman said. “It’s not just about writing the obvious or stating the obvious in the best way possible. It’s about thinking outside of the box.”

However, as a lover of dance and a seasoned expert of the performing art, journalism was not always her number one goal in life. It was not until her senior year at the University of Maryland that the English major discovered her passion of becoming a journalist, which led the writer to study the discipline at the graduate level at Northwestern University.

Here, she naturally decided to combine her interest and knowledge of dance with her discovery of wanting to become a distinguished writer.

Kaufman could not have made a better decision.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, the writer prides herself in constantly bringing a unique viewpoint and voice to each thoughtful piece she writes by following the road less traveled by other critiques.

Her famous piece on choreographer, George Balanchine, as well as her book “The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life” serve as merely two primary examples of the writers forward, out-of-the-box thinking.


As for her book, the idea came from an essay that was part of her Pulitzer package, an essay focusing on the elegant and deminair actor, Cary Grant, and his art of movement. Kaufman’s fascination with the movement and grace of dancers provoked her to write this piece looking at the movement of someone other than a dancer.

“I looked at the actor from a different angle, as someone who built their character like a dancer, from the outside,” Kaufman said. “Grace popped up in my head. I wanted to look at the idea of grace in general and explore that word … I wanted to look at it from an everyday setting.”

“Grace” became Kaufman’s primary focus as well as another example of the critic’s great success, as she studied the ancient and theological roots of the word as well as the science of grace and how it is looked at through everyday experiences.

In “Burdened by Balanchine: Ballet Must Make Room Onstage For More Than One Genius,” Kaufman painted a rather stifling and oppressive portrait of Balanchine, who was considered as the “savior of ballet” and one of the best choreographers of the 20th century, something most critics failed to do.

“I looked at the influences that shaped Balanchine’s image and thought, ‘Where were the young voices that had something completely different to say? Where were the flame throwers?’ There was a time in which this wasn’t happening,” Kaufman said. “He was considered the “IBM blue chip,” known on the marketplace as a guaranteed crowd pleaser … However, I thought, ‘Is there maybe something a bit stifling and overzealous about one style of art and is this squashing other ideas that could be coming out?'”

What resulted, was a deeply reported and investigative piece coming from the position of great observation and a new angle that no one had written about before. The critic was praised for over two years, receiving letters and emails from other artists, thanking her for writing the controversial piece as they themselves were trying to get other work recognized under the constraints of Balanchine.

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The Washington Post

This is what separates Kaufman from the rest.

Though Kaufman has become the distinguished critic she once set out to be, the writer never fails to consider the weight of her critiques without letting that affect her task.

“Every critic has to bare in mind that every critic has a far louder voice than an artist does. They have to be mindful that they are dealing with a human being, an artist who has opened their sole to make art,” Kaufman said. “It’s a very unequal equation and we have to take a lot of responsibility for that. But, we are also paid to weigh in and analyze, and in that analysis that helpfulness can arise. If I’m finding fault in a work, I try to put it in a way that is ultimately going to be helpful because I want to see creative art made, I want to see artists create.”

It is with this mindset that the critic serves as an inspiration for many others, one who is so passionate about her discipline that rather than merely watching the art form fail, she attempts to elevate each work with her unique point of view.

There are many lessons to be learned from Kaufman. Perhaps, writing with grace is the most significant.


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