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"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

106 posts in this topic

The problem with Holmans's book may be that it is a survey text, much like "Art through the Ages," and suffers from all the limitations of that that genre - of having to skim history like a glass bottom boat (borrowing James Woods's metaphor).

I love the glass bottom boat analogy. I agree that his problem is inherent in the "History of (Fill in the Blank)" format.

I found that this bothered me not at all in the earlier part of the book, which covers material most readers will not be familiar with. Homans' themes, details, and story-telling there are very well-researched, skillfully crafted, and quite fascinating..

When we get to the 20th century, however, things might very well change, depending on the individual reader. Here, many though not all readers will bring more knowledge, first-hand experience, and emotionally involvement to the table. That means that these readers will be more likely to disagree about what is included, excluded, and concluded. Almost half the book is devoted to the 20th century. Almost all the criticism has been based on that half.

Take the long over-view of Jerome Robbins. Homans begins with the sentence: "Everyone knows Jerome Robbins." But the, just in case some of her readers don't know all that much, she feels obliged to give us a short, potted biography (required by the format) before going on to talking about the work that interests her most. West Side Story gets quite a lot of space. 13 pages into the Robbins section, she gets around to his work after returning to NYCB in 1969. It's worth reading. But there is much more might want to quibble with than in, for example, an earlier section on Noverre, or the long sub-chapter on Russian classiscism..

I found that the book worked best when I was willing to adjust my attention span and reading speed as I moved along. If you are prepared to skim over certain sections but keep your attention alive enough that you can POUNCE (and focus) when things starts getting interesting again, you'll probably enjoy the book. And find much there to think about.

To save Balanchine (which seems to be Homans's charge) and ballet, I think dance criticism has to be turned on its head in much the way art criticism was in the eighties with publications of the work of Robert Herbert on Impressionism as a harsh account of social changes, T J Clark's "The Painter of Modern Life" on Manet, and Picasso studies by Leo Steinberg, John Richardson, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Kraus and Elizabeth Cowling.

Richardson and Cowling, who consider "Parade," "Mercure" and "Pulcinella" to be highly significant works, seem to have more to say on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, both critical and entertainingly anecdotal, than most dance critics other than Richard Buckle.

Only Arlene Croce (hopefully soon), and Alastair Macaulay (though limited by the tools of daily journalism), Tim Scholl, and Joan Acocella - in her trial-ballon seminar on "Balanchine and the Crotch" - seem to be working in some new direction.

With Balanchine perhaps there should be a temporary embargo on anything about "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son" and a reevaluatioon of everything that went before and just afterwards, such as Ballets 1933 which the 102 year old composer Eliott Carter thinks are among Balanchine's most audaciously experimental works. I would add that WPA mural of existentialism, "The Four Temperaments."

I appreciate these thoughts, Quiggin. I especially appreciate your including "dance criticism" in the same league as "art criticism." Growing up in the 1960s, there was no question about this: ballet was a major art, producing brilliant, challenging, beautiful, and relevant work. As such, it was worthy of careful attention and evaluation by culture critics and intellectuals. How marvelous to think of this happening again. Perhaps a renaissance in criticism can have a positive effect on what choreographers, dancers, artistic directors, and audiences think and want to see. We are ALL "Apollo's Angels," after all, which is something to live up to, not just fret about losing.

P.S. Regarding the physical book itself. My copy of Apollo's Angels came with the printing on the book's spine upside down. In a book from a major publisher like Random House, this kind of problem with quality control astonished and depressed me. I kept the book anyway, rather than go through the hassle of returning it to Amazon. But it made me look with extra care at other production details, especially the proofreading and the footnote apparatus. Both of which, by the way, seem to be in good shape.

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What I thought inmediately after reading the infamous epiloge was "Homans obviously hasn't traveled enough". "I haven't seen..", "I find performances...", "I have dedicated my life..." Really?! Well, I have news, "I" have also seen, and seen good stuff. "I KNOW" there's a vibrant company/audience on the other side of the ocean from where I live. There are VERY exciting performers out there..."I" have seen them. And so on. I think she suffers a bit from the "NY state of mind". Go out, girl and SEE a little more... !! You'll be surprised...

There's nothing dead. There's just a lack of excitement from performances/audiences, but while the schools are filled with people willing to do ballet as a profession, teachers to keep passing on technique and the Valdeses and Osipovas or the Somovas and Cojocarus of the world to keep the heated debate over "circus vs. ballet" or "artistry vs. vulgarity" alive audiences roaring or booing them, then we're fine. Trust me.

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One thing I found odd about the chapter on Robbins and Balanchine was the inordinate amount of time she devoted to discussing both mens' religions. She in my opinion carried the Russian Orthodox metaphor way too far with Balanchine, and I'll go out on a limb and say she devoted too much time to Jerome Robbins' Jewish roots as well. And then a check-off of Balanchine's favorite dancers included their religious backgrounds. The book overall becomes less, not more satisfying as it progresses.

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One thing I found odd about the chapter on Robbins and Balanchine was the inordinate amount of time she devoted to discussing both mens' religions. She in my opinion carried the Russian Orthodox metaphor way too far with Balanchine, and I'll go out on a limb and say she devoted too much time to Jerome Robbins' Jewish roots as well.

I wondered about this as well.

I do think that she makes a case for both being important, though she goes on a bit too long on the matter.

Generally, I appreciate her effort to provide a larger cultural context throughout the work. Sometimes this is quite persuasive; sometimes less so.

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Generally, I appreciate her effort to provide a larger cultural context throughout the work. Sometimes this is quite persuasive; sometimes less so.

Yes, I've noticed that too and found it a plus. Aside from the fine research and a convincing way of explaining it she places in in the political/social/cultural context of the era. This makes for rewarding reading.

But the transitions are sometimes a problem. She moves from one topic to the next and sometimes there is a noticeable "bump" , almost as if the parts were all constructed in their own universe and then arranged in a smooth or not so smooth sequence.

This is were I think an editor should have been more active. The overall flow is not always fluid and the juxtaposition of sections not always really meaningful.

I'm curious to see if my reactions change. I'm just up to the rise of romanticism and Taglioni's rise to fame.

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Only Arlene Croce (hopefully soon), and Alastair Macaulay (though limited by the tools of daily journalism), Tim Scholl, and Joan Acocella - in her trial-ballon seminar on “Balanchine and the Crotch” - seem to be working in some new direction.

Quiggin, please --- elaborate on this juicy-sounding seminar!

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I, too, would love to hear more about Acocella's seminar. A "trial balloon" for what?

Also: about Tim Scholl, whose work I don't know. I checked Amazon for From Petipa to Balanchine. It's listed, new, at $110.00 and at $58.00 and up for used. The ebook price is $99. (Clearlyi, this calls for our dependably puzzled/outraged :smilie_mondieu: icon.)

There is a line mentioning that more are on the way. But ... at what price?

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The Acocella talk to which Quiggin refers took place some time ago. BT had a discussion and the thread is here.

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ViolinConcerto

please --- elaborate on this juicy-sounding seminar!

The 2005 seminar was ultimately titled "Ballet and Sex" but Joan Acoccela provocatively said the B & the crotch had been something of a working title. It used to be available online as a podcast. Townsend Center in Berkeley has a good critical studies series with speakers like Jay Bernstein (of "Against Voluptuous Bodies") and Terry Eagleton ("Death of Criticism" podcast below).

My impression was that JA's talk would lead to a longer essay. I remember it being about extreme turnout and included a clip of Kent and Mitchell in "Agon" (rather than the one with Diana Adams which seems more dangerous to me).

Bart

Also: about Tim Scholl...

I wouldn't pay $125 but the book defintinely should be part of a public library collection on dance. Scholl reads a lot of original Russian language material and tries to link Balanchine's experiments with Acmeism and Akhmatova and Osip Mandestam's experiments (the precious stones of "Symphony in C" and "Jewels"). He deals with the structures of ballets more than themes - and compares Nijinksy's Faun to Balanchine's Apollo:

Nijinsky replaced the graceful movement of the old ballet with stamping motions, shaking and trembling ... Turned-in stooped dancing, the antithesis of ballet's lofty verticality, connoted evil in the old ballet. Carabosse's pages in Sleeping Beauty furnish a prime example ... Nijinsky effectively choreographed the academy's demise and forced the experiments of the new ballet to their logical end.
Balanchine's very dissimilar realization of the basic plot represents a visceral, conscious response to the Nijinsky work. His revisiions of Apollo over the next fifty years suggest a life-long dialog with Nijinsky's ballet and the aesthetic it came to represent ... Apollo supplants the dionysian sensuality of Nijinksy's work ... & its explicit contrasts of two and three dimensional movement in space emend Nijinsky's experiment.

I don't think Scholl ever goes far enough - he overflies all Diaghilev collaborations with Picasso and Satie in order to link Petipa with Balanchine - and doesn't acknowledge the way War World I drew a jagged schism line across history. As T J Clark points out, the comfortable middle class interior/interiority disappeared, which the avant garde - the fauves and the cubists - used to rebel against: Enter Dada and monstrous surrealism. Against that background "Apollo" may be a slightly conservative ballet, like Picasso's Ingres-like drawings.

Also regarding Picasso's bilingual neoclassical / cubist-surrealism period: What's interesting to me about "the Dance" is that the Picasso-like profile of death is like Balanchine's Davidsbündlertänze periferal death figures and the glove of death in the background of "The Dance" is perhaps the glove that Kochno put in "Cotillon." Kochno was on the scene at the time the painting was done (which includes the figure of Olga Khokhlova).

As Richardson notes in “Life of Picasso": 1921-

A month later, a nice-looking, seventeen-year-old refugee from Moscow arrived unannounced in Diaghilev’s suite at the Continental. He turned out to be a precocious balletomane called Boris Kochno, who was immediately taken on – much to his disappointment – as a secretary rather than a lover. (Diaghilev had supposedly asked Kochno to undress. “Put your clothes back on,” the impresario said — “too hairy.") Nonetheless, their relationship worked extremely well ... Picasso liked him well enough to do a couple of drawing of him but claimed he was an amusing rogue, one you had to keep an eye on; drawings had a way of walking out the door with him.

That's what ballet history should really be - half critical theory, half old scandalous anecdotes.

Picasso - The Dance

Three Dancers

Avenali Lectures: Joan Acocella

Townsend Center Webcasts

Added: Thanks Bart & dirac for reposting the excellent original discussion - which I had lost track of. (And for some reason I remember the Kent version of Agon being shown.)

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bart said:

Also: about Tim Scholl, whose work I don't know. I checked Amazon for From Petipa to Balanchine. It's listed, new, at $110.00 and at $58.00 and up for used. The ebook price is $99. (Clearlyi, this calls for our dependably puzzled/outraged :smilie_mondieu: icon.)

As far as From Petipa to Balanchine is concerned, it is published by Routledge, and unfortunately a lot of their books run for prices comparable with this. I actually haven't seen it at $58 until I looked just now - that is a recent development and it was at $100 used for a long time. But the book is great. I also really enjoyed his book on Sleeping Beauty, which generally sells online for less than $25 since it is published domestically by Yale if I remember correctly. They are both worth a read, although the first I just have chronically checked out of the library. They are both (clearly) narrower than the Homans, but I find that Scholl's general historical knowledge is better (or at least he ties it in better to his writing) than many dance historians, especially those working on the 20th century. Although I agree with many of the previous posters that the historical context and mastery especially in the early portions of Apollo's Angels is excellent.

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bart said:

Also: about Tim Scholl, whose work I don't know. I checked Amazon for From Petipa to Balanchine. It's listed, new, at $110.00 and at $58.00 and up for used. The ebook price is $99. (Clearlyi, this calls for our dependably puzzled/outraged :smilie_mondieu: icon.)

As far as From Petipa to Balanchine is concerned, it is published by Routledge, and unfortunately a lot of their books run for prices comparable with this.

Ohhhhh, Routledge. That explains the price. They are primarily a publisher of textbooks, research books, and other academic type publications. That market has it's own price structure and it's not at all like the consumer market.

I work in a college library and see all the books that come in and what they cost . And all the Routledge titles are pricey.

But then a lot of what they publish is within their own niche. Gale Cengage is similar but I don't think they publish too many titles that would show up on consumer lists.

At least Routledge publishes quality titles, the stuff is expensive but there is at least some value there. There are some other outfits that publish titles designed for different school levels and some of them are complete ripoffs. But this is going OT so I'll stop.

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I finally finished this book. It provided a good historical background for someone who needed to read a primer on ballet. I agree with much of the criticism discussed in this forum, but as someone just beginning to learn about ballet, I can overlook the book's shortcomings and feel grateful to have been able to learn from it. I am curious regarding instruction about dance history in ballet academies. Are academic, historical courses given in dance schools, or do dancers learn about the history and development of the dance solely by learning about individual dance steps, rehearsals, attending performances, and personal reading?

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I finally finished this book. It provided a good historical background for someone who needed to read a primer on ballet. I agree with much of the criticism discussed in this forum, but as someone just beginning to learn about ballet, I can overlook the book's shortcomings and feel grateful to have been able to learn from it. I am curious regarding instruction about dance history in ballet academies. Are academic, historical courses given in dance schools, or do dancers learn about the history and development of the dance solely by learning about individual dance steps, rehearsals, attending performances, and personal reading?

All the dance training I received was distinctly anti-intellectual: don't think, DO. Everything I learned about dance history and criticism I did on my own. I wonder if that's changed now at all?

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All the dance training I received was distinctly anti-intellectual: don't think, DO. Everything I learned about dance history and criticism I did on my own. I wonder if that's changed now at all?

I don't think that studio training is any broader than it was in earlier times, when the emphasis was indeed on doing. The difference is in what they're doing -- as it was previously, students are generally taught to do what their teachers know of the art form, and that's drawn from what they themselves were performing when they were on stage. So that I learned random bits of the Ballet Russe repertory when I sought out teachers from the diaspora, and students today learn chunks of early dance video work. In a few years, ballet students will have a hybridized version of ballet and modern as their lingua franca from their time in the studio -- anything else will have been learned specifically as a separate item.

I was talking with several young dance writers at the recent Dance Critics Association conference and they were pretty much unanimous -- they don't remember getting any historical information about the field until they got to college. But that's the point where things really have changed -- I can't think of a college dance program that doesn't require dance history courses for its degree students, and in the past 25 years there has been a significant increase in the number of texts available for history teachers to use in these classes.

When I first became interested in dance, you could read your way through most of what had been published in English over the course of a summer (and that included the full run of American Dancer/Dance Magazine). I know, because that's what I did. And when I first took an organized dance history course, a couple of years later, there wasn't a standard history survey text -- my teacher used Selma Jeanne Cohen's primary source reader (Dance as a Theater Art -- still an excellent resource) and some stitched-together sections of other texts. This was in the late 70s -- Jack Anderson's very useful Ballet and Modern Dance came out not long after (I used it myself in a couple of classes) and then Susan Au's Ballet and Modern Dance appeared (a little less American-centric). The titles may be as plebeian as they are repetitive, but the texts were a big improvement.

Since then, several other writers have added to the collection of survey texts, but general readers get mostly photo books, biographies and the occasional anthology. No Fixed Points was something of an anomaly -- a dance history for the general public. In music and theater, there have been more 'general histories' published over a longer period, distinct from textbooks. In dance, we're resourceful folk, and use whatever we can get our hands on for whatever we need, so that I've seen what are primarily coffee table books, or general readership books (think Time-Life) used for academic purposes. It's ironic that the blossoming of dance scholarship (which should come along with an increase in publication) is happening at a time when publishing in all fields is changing rapidly and drastically. One of the reasons that Routledge books are so very expensive is that they're trying to keep their press open in a dying market. (of course, one of the reasons it's dying is that publishers like Routledge are charging so much...)

I think it's a mistake to look at Jennifer Homan's book as a textbook kind of history, which implies both impartiality and inclusiveness -- we want to think that the author doesn't have a singular agenda and that they consider multiple points of view in their work. Apollo's Angels is a personal look at history -- in a way, it's like Margot Fonteyn's Magic of Dance (which was also used as a textbook by a few schools). It tells us almost as much about Jennifer Homans as it does about the history of ballet.

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I think it's a mistake to look at Jennifer Homan's book as a textbook kind of history, which implies both impartiality and inclusiveness -- we want to think that the author doesn't have a singular agenda and that they consider multiple points of view in their work. Apollo's Angels is a personal look at history -- in a way, it's like Margot Fonteyn's Magic of Dance (which was also used as a textbook by a few schools). It tells us almost as much about Jennifer Homans as it does about the history of ballet.

I think that's a great point. The author has given us a tremendous gift, and if her history is biased and incomplete, well, whose isn't? We can hope it will inspire others to write their own.

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Re: Ray's question concerning teaching dance history to dance students.

Sandik, that is fascinating. It seems to me that Homans' book is the kind of historical "survey" that you can't get much out of unless you already know quite a lot. And have experienced quite a lot. It would be interesting to see what young ballet students might actually think of it.

As someone with a background in history, though not dance history, I am skeptical about how much is actually absorbed by young people from textbooks or classes based on a survey approach.

In my experience, learning often works best -- in the sense that the lightbulb turns on :lightbulb: -- when presented as fairly well-detailed case studies rather than broad overviews. It's the case study that makes the lesson "stick."

For example, if students were being prepared for a production of Nutcracker or a competition pas de deux, that would be the optimal time to talk about historical context: music, discussion of various versions, classic performances, even the meaning and development of individual dances or passages which the students have either learned or are observing closely. You don't need a prefab textbook. Videos, photo copied material, etc., can be compiled easily by a good teacher.

To take an example from instrumental music, I learned far more by working on a few specific pieces of Mozart's easier chamber music with my classmates, and from a well-prepared class trip to see Cosi fan tutte at the Met, than from any lecture or book discussing, broadly, the works of Mozart.

Students who have obtained this kind of detailed knowledge -- learning directly related to doing -- are more likely, I've found, to seek out the larger context themselves. They can fill in the blanks. As they move into the larger world, and encounter people who DO know about Mozart, Petipa, Balanchine, Fokine, or whatever, they have personal experience that will motivate and enable them to absorb, retain, and benefit from this new knowledge.

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Students who have obtained this kind of detailed knowledge -- learning directly related to doing -- are more likely, I've found, to seek out the larger context themselves.

I agree -- this is the optimal way to manage it. Unfortunately, the pragmatic nature of much dance studio instruction means that there is little time or support for this kind of enriched experience.

A few of my colleagues do combine performance training with a more intellectual approach to the material, but this kind of teaching is still in the developmental stages, and is mostly found in college/university settings. But it's much further along than it was even a few years ago!

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But it's much further along than it was even a few years ago!
Great to hear this !:thumbsup:

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puppytreats, on 22 June 2011 - 11:23 AM, said:

I finally finished this book. It provided a good historical background for someone who needed to read a primer on ballet. I agree with much of the criticism discussed in this forum, but as someone just beginning to learn about ballet, I can overlook the book's shortcomings and feel grateful to have been able to learn from it. I am curious regarding instruction about dance history in ballet academies. Are academic, historical courses given in dance schools, or do dancers learn about the history and development of the dance solely by learning about individual dance steps, rehearsals, attending performances, and personal reading?

I was speaking recently to one of the directors of Kaatsbaan, which has several summer intensive courses in ballet for young people from all over the country. He is a former dancer, and when I asked him a similar question about dance students studying history, he said that in general, when they are young, all they want to do is dance, and be in the moment. Usually, after the major part of their career is over, they realize the importance of the history, BECAUSE THEY REALIZE THAT THEY ARE A PART OF IT!!!

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I was speaking recently to one of the directors of Kaatsbaan, which has several summer intensive courses in ballet for young people from all over the country.

I'm not sure how the Kaatsbaan curriculum is organized, but I do know that several major summer workshops include some dance history sessions in their program. I gave a couple of talks at Pacific Northwest Ballet's summer school a few years ago -- they've got other people on staff now who fill that role. It's not an exhaustive survey, but it's a start.

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I don't see that we've discussed Mark Franko's scathing review in TDR (Vol. 56.2, Summer 2012) of Homans's book. From the opening graph:

"although impressive for its vast coverage, the book tends to be unreliable in its analysis and contradictory in its methodology. From the geometrical dances of 1581 in Le Ballet Comique de la Reine to Nijinsky’s American tour in 1916, many claims are compromised by the findings of recent scholarship, which the author has apparently not consulted. An agenda drives this chronicle. Jennifer Homans separates the wheat from the chaff of history by distinguishing what she considers to be “pure” ballet. This leads to value judgments, not social history. It is revealing to understand what Homans means by pure: ballet that does not tell a story, but evokes an essence or a feeling; ballet that exudes a godlike nobility; ballet that is rooted in highly conservative ideologies."

And that's just for starters. He notes many odd things about her approach, such as the fact that while she often waxes autobiographically, she never refers to her professional activities as a dancer--referring to herself only as a dance student. More significant is that he excoriates her perfunctory treatment of the 18th century; all is blamed on what he sees as her almost total blindness to the dance scholarship (archival as well as theory-driven) of the past 30 years.

He calls her now-infamous epilogue a "nasty and self-indulgent little diatribe that contains the key to so much that is erratically incomprehensible in her historiography"; and here's how he ends (the penultimate sentences):
"This is not just a confused and a-disciplinary treatment of ballet history, it is just another pro-Balanchine tract masquerading as history, perhaps the last gasp in the Balanchine-as-the-be-all-and-end-all version of ballet history. It brings with it a peculiar amalgam of nostalgia, mourning, and arrogance."

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I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

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I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place. But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think). For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone from a few years back--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack.

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I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place. But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think). For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack.

I don't know how we can separate attitudes in the writing from attitudes of the writer. In my opinion, right or wrong, clearheaded or fuzzy minded, etc. are appropriate categories. Where it gets tricky, I guess, for both critics and reviewers and readers, is that because art and writing about art are personal, attacking them can look like attacking their creators.

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