Joan Acocella is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her most recent book is Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints. She is writing a biography of Mikhail Baryshnikov. (June 2016)


A Ghost Story

Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov, New York City, 1985
Many emotions are entwined in the theater piece Brodsky/Baryshnikov, which had its premiere at the New Riga Theater in October and will open at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York in March. Its subject is Joseph Brodsky, who was born in Leningrad in 1940 and died in Brooklyn in 1996.

The Elmore Leonard Story

John Travolta, Rene Russo, and Danny DeVito in the film version of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty
Elmore Leonard became famous as a crime novelist, but he didn’t like being grouped with most of the big names in that genre, people such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett or, indeed, any of the noir writers. He disapproved of their melodrama, their pessimism, their psychos and nymphos and fancy writing. He saw in crime no glamour or sexiness but, on the contrary, long hours and sore feet.

The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic

In her youth Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) more or less created what we now call American modern dance, and she soon became famous for it. She was also a beauty, leaving behind her a trail of glamorous lovers. But by 1927, when she was fifty, all that was over. Duncan was living in a rented studio in Nice. She was barely performing any longer, and years of hard living—above all, heavy drinking—had coarsened her looks. She had no money. She went to parties in order to eat the canapés. Partly, no doubt, to improve her financial situation, she decided to do something that she had talked about for years: write her memoirs.

Pure Gold

Brian Brooks as Saint Stephen, at top, in the recessional from Christopher Williams's The Golden Legend
The Golden Legend, a compilation of lives of the saints made in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa, is not something that would spring to mind as a likely basis for a work of “downtown” dance. That is not because it is a holy book.

‘Beware of Pity’

In the 1920s and 1930s Stefan Zweig was an immensely popular writer, a man who had to barricade himself in his house in Salzburg in order to avoid the fans lurking around his property in the hope of waylaying him. According to his publisher, he was the most widely translated …

Between Comedy and Horror

Donald Antrim, as we know from his novels, has a way with openers. Here are the first two sentences of his new book, which is not a novel, but a memoir, entitled The Afterlife: My mother, Louanne Antrim, died on a fine Saturday morning in the month of August, in …

‘A Note of the Miraculous’

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, was a very big hit. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; it won the PEN/ Faulkner Award. The reviewers loved it and, seemingly, were also grateful to it, for while Housekeeping had all of modernism’s painful knowledge, it showed none of …

No Bloody Toe Shoes

Sometimes it seems as though Robert Altman makes every movie that comes into his mind. A picture about the health food industry? Jazz? Haute couture? Weddings? Sure, let’s do it. And with the “parachuting” method that he worked out almost thirty years ago in Nashville—whereby you drop down into a …

The Neapolitan Finger

I had heard about this book for years. The person who put the word out, at least in lay circles, was probably Luigi Barzini, in The Italians (1964). Praising his countrymen’s gift for talking with their hands, Barzini lamented that so little had been written on this subject. To his …

Secrets of Nijinsky

In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, at that time the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, moved into a villa in St. Moritz with his wife, Romola, and their three-year-old daughter. His relations with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company in which he had made his name, were now …

‘Sweet as a Fig’

The secret muses of the book’s title are the boyfriends. Like so many others of the honored dead, Frederick Ashton, great choreographer, creator of the English style of ballet, has now been made the subject of a biography that fills in the love life—a story that, because he was homosexual, …

On Tap

For years you couldn’t go to a tap-dance revue in New York without seeing a skinny little boy named Savion Glover brought on at the end to do improvisation. Maybe Glover didn’t have time to work up a regular number, for he was a busy child, a star on Broadway …

Heroes and Hero Worship

One day in 1929, in a coincidence that he later took as a sign, the young Lincoln Kirstein walked into a church in Venice and stumbled on Serge Diaghilev’s funeral. Diaghilev had rescued Western ballet from near-extinction; without him, as Kirstein understood, the future of the art was in doubt.

The Long Goodbye

“When I was a child, I heard about a kind of enormous water lily—it was called Victoria Regina—that opens only once every hundred years. It’s like wax, and everything is in there, everything lives…by itself, and it doesn’t tell anybody anything. It goes to sleep and then comes back again.

Dancing for Balanchine

George Balanchine once told the dance historian Nancy Reynolds that when he set out to choreograph The Nutcracker in 1954 the one thing he insisted on to the money people was that he had to have a big, expensive Christmas tree, a tree like the one he remembered from childhood, …