“Ballet taught me to stay close to style and tone. Literature taught me to be concerned about the moral life.” — Joan Acocella

Joan Acocella, longtime dance critic for The New Yorker, and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books died earlier this year at the age of 78, and I did not mark her passing. It’s her birthday today. Acocella brought a lot of great things into my life. I love dance, but I’m not at all learned in the subject. I would check out her columns to see what was going on. She was also a very elegant and pleasing writer. Her prose flows, and it’s filled with information, spiky with criticism (beautifully phrased). I come out of any Acocella essay better-informed. I am so glad I discovered her work.

I read a couple of things of hers before I put it together who she was. She wrote an enormous profile of Mikhail Baryshnikov for The New Yorker called “The Soloist”, where she accompanied him on his first trip back to the Soviet Union. I inhaled it.

Years later, I read an article about a biography of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. I read the biography and believe I bitched about it here somewhere. This would be back in the early 2000s. Acocella went after the very concept of this biography, validating my own feelings about it. I don’t think I put together that “Joan Acocella” was the same one who also wrote the huge piece on Baryshnikov.

But then, somehow, I put it all together. Joan Acocella is a dance writer, primarily, and has written about almost every major figure in American dance in the 20th century, but she also has written many in-depth essays and book reviews, as well as introductions to re-issues of novels (like Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of all these articles, is essential reading. I give it my highest recommendation possible. It gives the full picture of Acocella’s power as a writer and thinker.

Her focus overall seemeed to be on writers in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly Austrian writers writing from the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and others. Once the Empire was gone, the Jews were on the run, no longer protected. In Acocella’s work on artists in general, the same themes emerge: where does genius come from? What does context add to our understanding of someone like Jerome Robbins? What does it mean to be an innovator? Her taste is eclectic, but with a motivating principle behind all of it. Perhaps all of her work will be collected in one volume. There’s so much of it.

She wrote about M.F.K. Fisher. Balanchine. Bob Fosse. She wrote about famous cases of writer’s block. She wrote about Martha Graham, Mark Morris, Suzanne Farrell. Stefan Zweig. Primo Levi. She wrote a book on the Victorian phenomenon of “hysteria”. All beautifully written. I learned so much from her.

Some excerpts:

On Ralph Ellison’s writer’s block:

We will not hear from Ralph Ellison. Ellison’s first novel, Invisible Man (1952), was also a best-seller, and more than that. It was an “art” novel, a modernist novel, and it was by a black writer. It therefore raised hopes that literary segregation might be breachable. In its style the book combined the arts of black culture – above all, jazz – with white influences: Dostoevsky, Joyce, Faulkner. Its message was likewise integrationist – good news in the 1950s, at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Invisible Man became a fixture of American-literature curricula. Ellison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was not just a writer; he was a hero. And everyone had great hopes for his second novel.

So did he. It was to be a “symphonic” novel, combining voices from all parts of the culture. It grew and grew. Eventually, he thought it might require three volumes. He worked on it for forty years, until he died in 1994, at the age of eighty, leaving behind more than two thousand pages of manuscript and notes. His literary executor, John F. Callahan, tried at first to assemble the projected symphonic work. Finally, he threw up his hands and carved a simpler, one-volume novel out of the material. This book, entitled Juneteenth, was published in 1999. Some reviewers praised it, others cold-shouldered it, as non-Ellison.

On Rudolf Nureyev:

Almost everyone who describes Nureyev eventually compares him to an animal. They bore you to death with this, but it was true.

On Italo Svevo:

Beth Archer Brombert has produced a version of Senilita, called Emilio’s Carnival – Svevo’s working title – that is faithful in a way that de Zoete was not. Brombert’s language is very plain, and when she comes up against a knot in Svevo’s prose she does not try to untie it. (De Zoete did.) We have to puzzle through it, just like the Italians. The same rules seem to have guided the distinguished translator William Weaver in his new version of La conscienza di Zeno – Zeno’s Conscience. I do not like his title. The Italian conscienza, like its French cognate, means both “conscience” and “consciousness.” There is no good way to translate it, and de Zoete’s throwing up of hands, with Confessions of Zeno, was probably the best solution. But the title is the only thing wrong with Weaver’s boo. Its appearance is an event in modern publishing. In it – for the first time, I believe, in English – we get the true, dark music, the pewter tints, of Svevo’s great last novel.

On Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren:

Beauvoir’s critics should read some history books. When The Second Sex was published, in 1949, Frenchwomen had had the vote for only five years. If Beauvoir’s mind, as her detractors claim, was swamped with “masculinist” ideas, those were the only ideas around at the time. If she omitted to tell her public about her lesbian experiences, to do otherwise would have been fatal to the reputation of any woman writer of the period. (Beauvoir’s critics should also take another look at her defense of lesbianism – a whole chapter – in The Second Sex. For 1949, that was brave.) It is possible that the best writers on social injustice – certainly the most moving – are those who grew up when the injustice in question was not viewed as a problem, and who therefore say things that get them in trouble, later, with holders of more correct views, views that the earlier writers gave birth to. I am thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s pre-Civil War statements on the inferiority of Negroes, so decried by recent historians. It is one thing to free a people whom you regard as equal. But what does it take to free a people whom you have been trained to regard as inferior, and who, by your standards, are inferior? It takes something else, a kind of imagination and courage that we do not understand.

On Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian:

Yourcenar regarded the average historical novel as “merely a more or less successful costume ball”. Truly to recapture an earlier time, she said, required years of research, together with a mystical act of identification. She performed both, and wrought a kind of transhistorical miracle. If you want to know what “ancient Rome” really means, in terms of war and religion and love and parties, read Memoirs of Hadrian. This doesn’t mean that Yourcenar, in her novels, conquered the problem of time. All she overcame was the idea that this was the special burden of the modern period. Human beings didn’t become history-haunted after the First World War, Yourcenar says. They were always that way.

A scathing review of Carol Angier’s biography of Primo Levi:

As for his life, the position she takes is roughly that of a psychotherapist of the seventies. She’s okay. We’re okay. Why wasn’t he okay? Why did he have to work all the time? Why didn’t he take more vacations? And how about getting laid once in a while? She records that as a teenager he mooned over various girls, but whenever he got near one he blushed and fell silent. “What was this?” Angier asks. “Can anyone ever say?” I can say. Has Angier never heard of geeks? They are born every day, and they grow up to do much of the world’s intellectual and artistic work. One wonders, at times, why Angier chose Levi as a subject – she seems to find him so peculiar. And does she imagine that if he had been more “normal” – less reserved, less scrupulous – he would have written those books she so admires?

On Joseph Roth:

One of the remarkable things about Roth’s early writing is its political foresight. He was the first person to inscribe the name of Adolf Hitler in European fiction, and that was in 1923, ten years before Hitler took over Germany. But what makes his portrait of the Nazi brand of anti-Semitism so interesting is that it was done before the Holocaust, which he did not live to see. His treatment of the Jews therefore lacks the pious edgelessness of most post-Holocaust writing on the subject…As for German nationalism, he regarded it, at least in the twenties, mainly as a stink up the nose, a matter of lies and nature hikes and losers trying to gain power. He was frightened of it, but he also found it ridiculous.

On the legendary collaboration between Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, who created the New York City Ballet.

In truth, the two men who together founded New York City Ballet had very different notions of dance. Balanchine took his inspiration from music; Kirstein cared little about music. Balanchine’s idea of ballet was lyrical and visionary; Kirstein’s was visual and narrative. (Once, Kirstein recalls, he invited Balanchine to go to a museum. “No, thanks,” Balanchine replied. “I’ve been to a museum.”) As Balanchine went ahead with his idea, Kirstein was able to participate less and less in the making of the ballets. Soon, as he put it bluntly in his New Yorker interview, “There was nothing except what [George] wished.”

On the collaboration between Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, but mostly about Farrell:

But when Farrell arrived Balanchine didn’t just change his style; he seemed to change his content. Before, in what might be called his classic years – from 1928 (Apollo) to about 1962 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – his ballets had addressed sex and religion, grief and fate, but those matters, for the most part, were bound in by classicism: tempered, formalized. Now they became pressing and specific. Many of the works that Balanchine made for Farrell in the so-called “Farrell years,” the 1960s, had a sort of jazz-baby sexiness. In these pieces, her costumes tended to be fringed; she tended to be partnered by Arthur Mitchell, the company’s one black man, a pairing that in the sixties had sexual implications. Some observers were taken aback by such directness. In time, the profane yielded to the sacred, and that was even more surprising. Now the supposed abstractionist was filling his stage with angels and gypsies, visions and confessions. Balanchine had embarked upon a “late period”, and it was Farrell who led him there.

On Mikhail Baryshnikov called “The Soloist”:

I asked Baryshnikov recently whether, after his mother’s death, ballet might have been a way for him to return to her. He paused for a long time and then said, “In Russia, dancing is part of happiness in groups. Groups at parties, people dancing in circle, and they push child to center, to dance. Child soon works up little routine. Can do a little this” – hand at the back of the neck – “a little this” – arms joined horizontally across the chest – “and soon make up some special steps and learn to save them for end, to make big finale. This way, child gets attention from adults.” In the case of a child artist, and particularly one who has suffered a terrible loss, it is tempting to read artistic decisions as psychological decisions, because we assume that a child cannot really be an artist. But, as many people have said, children are probably more artistic than adults, bolder in imagination, more unashamedly fascinated with shape, line, detail. In Baryshnikov’s case, the mother’s devotion and then the loss of her can help to explain one thing: the work he put into ballet. For the rest – the physical gift, the fusion of steps with fantasy, the interest in making something true and complete (“Toys become boys”), all of which are as much a part of him today as they were when he was twelve – we must look to him alone.

On Martha Graham:

Early Graham dances such as Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931) are remarkable, first of all, for their abstractions. They are an enactment, not a narrative. Other choreographers were experimenting with abstractions at that time, but what is striking about Graham’s early work is its severity, what people then would have called its ugliness. (“She looks as though she were about to give birth to a cube,” the theater critic Stark Young wrote.) Graham was part of the New York avant-garde of the twenties and thirties. In Blood Memory, she tells of sitting with Alfred Stieglitz and reading with him Georgia O’Keeffe’s “glorious letters” from New Mexico, including one “about her waking just before dawn to bake bread in her adobe oven.” The Southwest, the dawn, bread, adobe, by now it’s a cliche, modernism’s embrace of the “primitive”, the non-European. But it wasn’t a cliche then, and Graham turned it into something tremendous. Heretic was about society’s persecution of the nonconformist. Any would-be artist in downtown Manhattan could have made a piece about that, but who except Graham could have imagined the ensemble groupings she ranged against the heretic: great slabs and walls of dancers, wedges and arcs and parabolas?

On Bob Fosse:

If, today, you go to see a dance act in a night club, it may well start with a single light trained on the stage, a single white-gloved hand jutting out, a single rear end gyrating meaningfully, and, then, as the lights go up, a pair of eyes staring at you as if to say, “I know what you’re thinking.” If you switch on MTV, chances are you’ll see the same thing: the glove (Michael Jackson), the cold sex, the person eyeballing you as if this were all your idea. There is an imp of the perverse at loose in mass-culture dance, a spirit that has little to do with the blowsy cheer of old-time night-club numbers, not to speak of the innocent jitterbugging we used to see on television. One could say that this is just part of postmodern culture – its toughness, its knowingness. But it is also something more specific: the heritage of Bob Fosse, who was Broadway’s foremost choreographer-director during the late sixties and the seventies.

On H.L. Mencken:

But the key to Mencken’s popularity was his prose. His writing crackled with “blue sparks”, as Joseph Conrad put it. His diction was something fantastic, a combination of American slang and a high, Latinate vocabulary that sounds as if it came from Dr. Johnson. That mix, of course, was part of his polemic, his belief that Americans should get smarter and dirtier, go high, go low. Often, he pushed the formula too hard. In my opinion, the long passage quoted above is overwrought. It is from one of Mencken’s many volumes of collected essays, in which he habitually jacked up what he had put more plainly in his daily writing. I like his daily writing better.

On Dorothy Parker:

Even after women began to make their way economically in twentieth-century culture, they were still left with an ages-old inheritance of emotional dependency, the thing that marriage and the family, having created, once ministered to and now did not. If in the old days women were enslaved by men, they nevertheless had legal claim on them. Now they had no legal claims, so all the force of their dependency was shifted to an emotional claim – love, a matter that men viewed differently from women. Hence Parker’s heroines, waiting by the phone, weeping, begging, hating themselves for begging. This is a story that is not over yet. Parker was one of the first writers to deal with it, and she addressed it in a new way. Because, it seems, she identified with the man as well as the woman, she saw these women from the outside as well as from within, heard the tiresome repetitiousness of their complaints, saw how their eyelids got pink and sticky when they cried. She did not feel sorry for them. They made her wince, and we wince as read the stories – for, burning with resentment though they are, they are even more emphatically a record of shame. Female shame is a big subject, and for its sake Parker should have been bigger, but she is what we have, and it’s not nothing.

On M.F.K. Fisher:

Then came an experience, seemingly benign, that did almost break her. In 1949, her mother died. Her father now needed someone to run his house, and Fisher, his oldest child, decided she should do it. For four years, she remained in Whittier – a conservative town where she no longer felt comfortable – cooking, cleaning, running around after her daughters, and watching her father, who was dying of pulmonary fibrosis, hawk up phlegm and spit it into the fireplace. She had no one to talk to. She began having spells of depression and, if I read her correctly, severe anxiety attacks. She began seeing a psychiatrist. During this whole period, she wrote next to nothing, apart from columns, including her father’s, for the Whittier News. (This was part of the deal. As long as she was there to help with the paper, he didn’t have to sell it, though he was far too old and sick to run it.) She stopped thinking of herself as a writer. Rather, as she wrote to Norah, she was “a genteel has-been now and then asked to speak ten minutes at an arty tea.” This state of mind continued long past her father’s death, in 1953. She who had published nine books in twelve years brought out not a single new book in the twelve years after she moved into her father’s house. Those who lament the dissolution of the American family – kids with no way to get to Girl Scouts, aging parents put into nursing homes – should remember what it was that kept the American family together: women’s blood.

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