Tobi Tobias, longtime dance critic, dies at 81

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Tobi Tobias, longtime dance critic, dies at 81
A photo provided by the Tobias family shows Tobi Tobias, whose dance criticism for New York magazine and other outlets made her an influential voice in the genre for decades, died on Feb. 13, 2020 at her home in New York. She was 81. Tobias family via The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tobi Tobias, whose dance criticism for New York magazine and other outlets made her an influential voice in the genre for decades, died Feb. 13 at her home in Manhattan. She was 81.

Her husband, Irwin Tobias, confirmed the death. He said she had been in declining health for some time.

Tobi Tobias, who was also the author of a number of children’s books, began writing about dance in the early 1970s, starting with an article about Twyla Tharp for the alumni magazine of Barnard College, both women’s alma mater. Armed with that and another article about Tharp for a different publication — the sum total of her dance writing at that point — she offered her services to Dance Magazine.

To her surprise, William Como, the editor-in-chief, called her in for an interview. Although they differed about a lot of things — “Just for instance, he was a Béjart guy; I was a Balanchine gal,” she wrote on her blog some 40 years later — he enlisted her as a writer and, later in the decade, as an editor of other critics.

She became the dance critic at New York magazine in 1980 and held that post for 22 years. She also wrote for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Bloomberg News and the website Arts Journal, among other outlets.

Her articles for Arts Journal made her a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in criticism. The Pulitzer judges singled her out for “work that reveals passion as well as deep historical knowledge of dance, her well-expressed arguments coming from the heart as well as the head.”

As a critic Tobias did not pull punches. In the early 1980s, for instance, when other critics were tiptoeing around the decline in the dance skills of Rudolf Nureyev, who was then in his 40s, she declared, “His groupies refuse to believe it, but Nureyev really can’t dance anymore.”

“Sometimes I felt that she was uncomfortably brutal,” dance writer Mindy Aloff said by email, “but she provided a beacon of integrity to the field. She was open to elements of darkness, even ugliness, as well as to beauty, as long as the choreography and performance met her standards of craft and accuracy.”

Tobi Carol Bernstein was born Sept. 12, 1938, in Brooklyn. Her father, William, was a physician, and her mother, Esther Meshel Bernstein, was a teacher. In a 2007 entry in her blog, Seeing Things, on, Tobias wrote that her interest in dance began when she saw a striking picture in Life magazine as a child.

“It was a small black-and-white photograph of Diana Adams in arabesque, as I later learned to call it, in George Balanchine’s compact version of the sublime ‘white’ acts of ‘Swan Lake,’” she wrote. “As far as I was concerned, the image was a bolt from Heaven.”

She asked her mother, “What’s this?” Her mother told her it was ballet.

“'What’s ballet?’ I asked,” the blog entry continued. “I can’t remember her reply, but I do recall understanding, on the instant, that ballet was for me.”

After graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn in 1955, Tobias earned a bachelor’s degree in French at Barnard in 1959; she added a master’s at New York University in 1962. She married Irwin Tobias in 1960. “She would say, ‘I married him for his name,’” he said by email.

Aloff, who was one of the writers Tobias worked with at Dance Magazine, said that one of Tobias’ proudest professional achievements was an oral history she compiled in the 1980s and ’90s of the classical dance technique and training system known as Bournonville, a hallmark of the Royal Danish Ballet, which August Bournonville led in the 1800s. She learned Danish so she could interview its leading practitioners, driven partly by concern that the style was falling out of fashion among younger dancers.

“Tobi was passionate about the Bournonville school of classical dancing to the point of obsession,” Aloff, said. “It summed up everything she valued about theatrical dance: liveliness, deep knowledge of tradition, respect between women and men, spiritual humility, meticulous attention to nuance of character and language.”

Tobias donated the oral history to Harvard University. In 1992 she was knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by two children, John and Anne Tobias, and four grandchildren.

Tobias found time to write children’s books throughout her dance-writing career. Some were biographies for students, like “Marian Anderson” (1972), about the singer, and “Arthur Mitchell” (1975), about the founding director of Dance Theater of Harlem. Others were aimed at younger children. One was “Serendipity” (2000, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds), a catalog of life’s pleasant surprises.

“Serendipity,” she wrote, “is getting to the zoo just when it’s feeding time for the seals.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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