For over three decades Joan Acocella has written about dance and literature for The New York Review of Books. In a two-part piece published in our May 25 and June 8 issues, she reviews Mr. B., Jennifer Homans’s biography of George Balanchine—the most significant to date, tackling “the life, the death, the art, the mother.” Balanchine “occasionally said that dancers were angels, and at times he said that he too was an angel,” Acocella writes. “By which he didn’t mean that he was a person nicer than other people, but a being caught between earth and heaven, masculine and feminine, with a message of love.”
Though she wrote a doctoral dissertation on Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Acocella has spent most of her life as a writer outside of the academy, including twenty-one years as The New Yorker’s dance critic. Her subjects in the Review have included Marilynne Robinson, Donald Antrim, Isadora Duncan, and Bob Fosse, who “didn’t really have many steps at his command,” she wrote, “or, in the end, many emotions”—qualities she looks for in ballet and books, as she told me over the phone last week.
Sam Needleman: You begin your Balanchine piece with a warning that anyone who orders the biography “might want to tell the delivery man to bring a hand truck.” What is it about Balanchine that demands such sustained attention from his biographers, his critics, and, as you note in the piece, his dancers?
Joan Acocella: In his time, which was most of the twentieth century, he was not just the most important choreographer in the United States—he essentially created American ballet—but in some measure worldwide. The Russians are now trying to catch up. But I should say: not everybody worships Balanchine. Not everybody likes modernism. A lot of people still don’t like art that doesn’t have a story. I think it could be said that modernism is the first art style, at least in the West, that became dominant without the endorsement of the public. When Michelangelo was working, the public really loved the things he made. I don’t think the vox populi is behind modernism, and Balanchine was certainly an inheritor of that situation. The emotional meanings of his work have to be inferred. He made some story ballets that are immensely popular, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, God knows, The Nutcracker. But still, in Balanchine’s main line, it’s abstraction that’s the critical thing.
You write that Balanchine, like Mozart, “often gladdens your heart in order, then, to break it, whereupon, in the next movement, he tells us that we have to go on living anyway.” Could you describe a particular moment from a Balanchine ballet when your heart was gladdened, then broken?
Well, take the first movement of Concerto Barocco: the hips sway, it’s very fast, it’s syncopated, it’s fun, it’s virtuosic. Two marvelous women lead their battalions. Then, in the second movement, suddenly the music slows down and the second woman is replaced by a man. In ballet there’s always a certain message when a male–female couple is featured, and that’s the case here. We get slow walks and sweeping lifts. Describing a lift during the crescendo, the critic Edwin Denby called the woman’s landing on one pointed foot a “plunge into a wound.” Bach’s music, I think, is very much telling you the same story—something heavy. And then in the third movement, everything speeds up again. The man disappears, so no more love story. The second woman comes back, and there’s fantastic ensemble choreography—once again, very syncopated, very fast. That’s when Balanchine’s telling you that you have to live, and that it could be worse.
Your first piece for The New York Review of Books appeared in the October 11, 1990, issue, and it was also, in part, about Balanchine. It was a review of Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography, Holding On to the Air. You wrote that ballet “is not permanent; it must always be given new life, with new performances, born of their own day.” And by dancing in the way she did, “Farrell revivified the Balanchine repertory.” Whether in dance or in the other arts, have you encountered an equivalent of that extraordinary relationship between choreographer and dancer?
How about Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton? Fonteyn’s refinement, her classicism, her modesty, and the bloom and fullness that was contained within that modesty—that’s all very much Ashton. In some measure, he taught her all of that, and she taught it back to him. I’ll tell you another good one: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp. She made pieces that were about him as a dancer. The more she did that, the more he worked on those gifts, and she then carried that style—a combination of a kind of skepticism and thoughtfulness, extreme virtuosity combined with a certain declining modesty—over to other dancers, and indeed to her ensemble. You could say they were destined to find each other, and each brought a great deal that was fresh to the other.
Has writing about two forms, dance and literature, ever created a conflict for you, or is it simple to switch from one to the other?
No problem! In a sense they’ve fed each other. I was trained to be a literary critic, and in literature we generally do have stories. I’ve written most about nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature, and boy, did those people have stories. But ballet, because it is fundamentally abstract, taught me to stay close to style and tone, and not always to be so intent on the story. Conversely, literature taught me to be concerned about the moral life, in dance, too—how people behave toward one another, and what they take from and give to one another. In Balanchine, you see how the choreography tells the dancers to treat one another. This adds a great deal of emotional power to the dance. And not just in Balanchine, and not just in ballet, but also, for example, in flamenco—how the singer and the dancer respect each other, confide in each other. Look at tap dance, too: the way the dancers trade the spotlight. Their happy pride, their sweet vanity.
Did leaving the academy for the public sphere come naturally to you?
I think I always wanted to. I’m grateful that I did not become an academic. It would have been hard for me to navigate the culture wars in the university. But more than that, the university didn’t fit my style. I’m not sure I know exactly what my style is—your style is like your face, after a while you don’t really know what it is anymore—but editors make you think about it. I often give a paragraph or two of context for an artist. I don’t want readers to have to listen to a lot of stuff about Suzanne Farrell’s footwork if they don’t know who she was, and what a miracle she was, and how Balanchine spotted her very quickly and began collaborating with her.
Readers of dance criticism hear less frequently about newcomers on the scene than do readers of, say, art and literary criticism. Are there any young choreographers who excite you? Any young dancers?
I believe that at the moment there is a dearth of good young ballet choreographers. I won’t say that’s true of dance in general, because there are some very bright lights in tap, like Michelle Dorrance, and in modern dance, like Pam Tanowitz. But ballet is in a bit of a trough. Most of the great old guys died in the 1980s and 1990s, not just Balanchine, but also Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins. And I must say of the greatest old guy, Balanchine, that, like Mozart, he was hard to imitate. Young ballet choreographers took inspiration from him, but they weren’t able to achieve moral or emotional fullness in abstraction.
The one utterly remarkable ballet choreographer in the United States right now is Alexei Ratmansky. He was the director of the Bolshoi for five years, and he has been the artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre for thirteen years. Starting in August he will move over to New York City Ballet, where he’ll occupy the same post. But he’s fifty-four—midcareer. As for beginners, a lot of daily reviewers do give themselves the job of picking young hopefuls, and they should. It’s an essential function of critics. I’m not sure I was great at it. I always said to myself, wait and see, which is wrong. Give them their dinner when they’re hungry. But I have a few early spottings I’m proud of. And I do think I know a hot dog from a real artist.