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Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays

by Joan Acocella

reviewed by Leland Windreich

April 2007

Arlene Croce, who served as essayist in the field of Dancing at The New Yorker from 1973 to 1998, was a hard act to follow.  Croce had been given carte blanche to write on whatever subject she pleased, at any length that suited her, and as frequently as she desired.  Perceptive and dazzlingly articulate, she was adored and pampered by her editors and had developed a faithful following of readers and acolytes.  When a replacement was required, some of New York’s most savant and capable dance critics applied for the job.

Joan Acocella had some splendid credentials.  Author of a biography of Mark Morris, editor of the unexpurgated diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, and a passionate advocate of the dance arts in her critical writings for several noted journals, she has a significantly broader interest base than Croce possessed.  Joining The New Yorker as a staff writer, she was able to express her parallel interests in literature, psychology, art and history in astute writings on a variety of other subjects.

Of the 30 essays collected for this engaging volume, all but three were originally published in The New Yorker.  Most were inspired by current books and films.  The two saints—Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene—are discussed in the context of new works currently in vogue: Luc Besson’s motion picture The Messenger and the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code respectively. Nine of Acocella’s subjects are from the world of dance.  She offers insights into the lives and careers of Vaslav Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, and Twyla Tharp.

 In examining a selection of recent biographies of Nijinsky, she laments the fact that in none of them does the writer deal significantly with his creativity.  Fascination with his state of schizophrenia seems to preoccupy most investigations, and there is a common tendency to look for a cause. Acocella sees Romola, his unlikely wife, as a potential culprit.  They were married after a brief, awkward courtship, and neither could speak the other’s language.  Romola, a chronic groupie, thrived on her association with his celebrity and continued to manipulate and exploit her stricken husband with a vain hope for a recovery, subjecting him to dangerous medical treatments which, in all likelihood, brought about his death at age 62.  

 Acocella’s study of Jerome Robbins was done in response to Gregg Lawrence’s biography of the American dancer, Dancing with Demons, which was published in 2002, three years following Robbins’ death.  Acocella chides the author for dwelling so heavily on his subject’s character flaws and comments that “the Robbins story remains to be told.”  Her prayers were soon answered, and over the next few years more sympathetic biographies were written by dance critic Deborah Jowitt, who offers a splendid exposition of Robbins’ work in ballet, on Broadway and in films, and by Amanda Vaill, who concentrates largely on his personal life and relationships.  Acocella, however, becomes fascinated in her essay with the ambiguity, both artistic and personal, in the relationship of Robbins with his associate George Balanchine.  She also assumes the prerogative of a critic when she declares that Robbins’ real contribution was the body of work he made for the popular theatre and views him as a chronic outsider at New York City Ballet.

In her essay on Martha Graham, Acocella dwells largely on the dancer’s last years and gives a full account of the tribulations between Ron Protas, Graham’s heir, and the surviving members of the Graham Company over the rights and ownership of her impressive body of work.  The author’s account of an interview she conducted with Protas is particularly poignant.

Acocella deals with Balanchine and Baryshnikov as survivors of early lives full of adversity—loss of parents and family, severe illness (tuberculosis in the case of Balanchine, caused most likely by malnutrition during the Russian Revolution), cultural alienation (Baryshnikov grew up as an ethnic Russian in an inhospitable Latvia), defection from a repressive artistic establishment, followed by exile and uncertainty.  The author’s personal association with both subjects gives her a strong sense of authority in dealing with them as persons as well as artists.

Subject to the biases that most good critics have and continue to extol, Joan Acocella is a friendly writer who can effortlessly engage her reader’s confidence.  From her studies of dancers through the spectrum of literary subjects she takes on in this collection, one is aware of her extraordinary vision and ability to reveal truths.  She loves irony and enjoys a bit of gossip as much as we do, serving her readers with well-placed tidbits.

According to reliable sources, she was offered the coveted position of chief dance critic at the New York Times recently and managed to get The New Yorker to match the Times’ salary offer. Now she won’t have to deal with the exigencies of deadlines and local dance politics, and we can continue to enjoy the leisurely-paced, insightful studies she writes for The New Yorker.

Pantheon Books, 2007.   524 pp.  illus. ISBN-13: 978-0-375-42416-8.  $30.00

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