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"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

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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.

I think, too, that this points to part of the problem for Franko: JH doesn't do a good enough job separating her personal agenda from the demands of the topic.

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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.

Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings. Sometimes distortions or agendas enter. Farrell certainly protected people in her book. Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills. Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.

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Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings. Sometimes distortions or agendas enter. Farrell certainly protected people in her book. Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills. Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.

What I was trying to say is that when we say a piece of writing has certain qualities, we are effectively saying that in writing it the writer was displaying those qualities. For example, when a critic gets off a unkind crack at the expense of a dancer, we don’t just fault his turn of phrase, we fault him.

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Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings. Sometimes distortions or agendas enter. Farrell certainly protected people in her book. Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills. Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.

What I was trying to say is that when we say a piece of writing has certain qualities, we are effectively saying that in writing it the writer was displaying those qualities. For example, when a critic gets off a unkind crack at the expense of a dancer, we don’t just fault his turn of phrase, we fault him.

Fair enough, then. I think that JH's epilogue doesn't come from a place of intellectual generosity. If one, like Franko, doesn't think its harsh tone is substantiated by the evidence of the text--a text that in its quasi-academic form promises to offer substantiation--one has to wonder where it comes from. I think very few writers can get away with writing both an objective account and a screed.

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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.

"It tells us almost as much about Jennifer Homans as it does about the history of ballet."

Precisely. And I don't actually have a problem with that myself because Homans does explain something of her personal approach/viewpoint in the Introduction. But is that enough? Perhaps not, given the amount of "blowback" that has appeared, especially regarding the closing section of the book. This is a stylistic issue to me, that is certainly fixable in a re-write.

For me, if a book is ultimately successful, it is because I am inspired to learn much more on all the various subjects touched upon. And that in fact happened for me with Homans's book. So I can't say the book was a failure by any means. There is a tremendous amount of information inside, and it is always the reader's job to try to figure out what is plausible and useful, and what is problematic, and open to interpretation (or even factually incorrect). I don't think I understood, for many years, that most people regard whatever non-fiction they happen to be reading (or watching) as a compendium of actual facts. We seem to give these things the benefit of the doubt and assume that all is "true" until we come across something that really rubs our values the wrong way. Then we might start to question matters. In graduate school, I was finally introduced to the notion of a 'critical reader', who plays detective and pieces together some sort of 'truth' from the textual evidence - never assuming the writer to be all knowing and completely trustworthy (or even competent) on all levels. But it is a life's work to get good at playing text detective: you've got to learn about stylistics, grammar, as well as the real world characters and events being referenced.

Mark Franco's criticisms are valid (even though he can sound rather nasty himself in making his points), but the Homans book is still worthy reading, and that's the truly important point.

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Having now read and enjoyed Franko's article, I better understand his anger (not that I share it). Here are several things that struck me. Minor points. 1) Based on Balanchine’s Adagio Lamentoso and Homans' description of the dancers in the Four Temperaments as having “a cold rigor and precision – an angelic detachment,” Franko writes that for Homans, “apparently, Balanchine spoke of dancers as angels because of what he perceived as their emotional detachment.” I don’t follow his logic. 2) Franko is mistaken that Homans doesn’t cite Tim Scholl’s earlier ballet history, “From Petipa to Balanchine” in her bibliography. She cites the book in her secondary bibliographies for chapters 7 and 8.

More major: Franko writes that for Homans “ballet by its very nature is ‘unconstrained by tradition and the past,’” as if she likes it that way, and goes on to reprove her for complaining, contradictorily, in the epilogue that lack of constraint is causing decline. But in the introduction where he takes that quote she goes on to write that “it does have texts, even if these are not written down . . . when an older dancer shows a step or variation to a younger dancer, the ethics of the profession mandate strict obedience and respect; both parties rightly believe that a form of superior knowledge is passing between them" [emphasis mine]. When she writes that “Ballet, then, is an art of memory, not history,” she seems not to be discounting its history but to be saying that the muscle memory to be handed down is its history, rather than, as Franko paraphrases her, “dance exists primarily in the present.”

There is so much more in Franko’s critique, which I hope others will discuss, much of it concerning the intersection of ballet history with politics and theology (political and religious opinion are verboten on BA, but history is something else again). Thanks, Ray, for alerting us to the article. Does TDR publish letters to the editor? Let us know if she responds!

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