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Ray

J. Homans in New York Review of Books

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Homans pieces really do get people talking, and that is something assignment editors look for.

I'll get to Homans later, first on the book. I agree with Homans that Joseph does a bit better on the music portions of the book than the ballet. Not that he doesn't have any knowledge of ballet, he does, but he doesn't have the skill that other writers, such as Greskovic or McDonagh have in their books, or Croce has in her essays, to let you see the ballets.

However, Joseph's book is an excellent edition to the canon explorng Stravinsky and Balanchine. I read his book "Stravinsky; Inside and Out" that sets out, in his words, to debunk the myths about Stravinsky, many started by the maestro himself. In that book, he has an entire chapter on Stravinsky's work on TV, especially his collaboration with Balanchine on "The Flood." Balanchine figured heavily in that book and, perhaps, how the second book came to being (although Joseph wrote the chapter on Agon that was used in the companion book for the NY Historical Society's show on NYCB. Naturally, as a musician, Joseph is better at explaining the music than the dance and rightly points to Leigh's article in Ballet Review for a more extensive dance-related look at Agon. But there are many things "discussion-worthy" in the Stravinsky-Balanchine book.

On Homans, I think Dirac had a very good point. When a little-known writer (I don't mean that in a bad way) suddenly appears in some very well-known, prestigeous journals, magazines and newspapers, there is going to be talk. Some of it not nice. I don't think it is because she was a former dancer, or she's young (although by my calculations she's probably nearing 40, not a prodigy). Is it because she hasn't appeared to have to work her way up? I guess it might be different if she was nurtured from the pages of Ballet Review, Dance View or Dance Now, or a smaller press. But there she was, taking over Aloff's column in TNR, writing commentary for the New York Times, and reviewing for the NYBR. She and others should expect a few arrows.

And I understand the eyebrows raised when you take into account her husband, But.. I'll only quote Chris Rock - Who in this room didn't get a job because a friend recommended them?

However, I had the same feeling about Homans' review of the Joseph book that I had in her other writing. She's done her research, and actually tries to come up with a theory, but it doesn't hold. It doesn't hang together, doesn't sit right. It is not surprising she just got her phd, she still writes for her professors. If she wants to raise her writing from that of a clever student to something else, she's got to write for us. I also don't get the impression that she's seen a lot. It is nice to know history, but when I read Homans, I don't get that she can put a performance in perspective that others can. She's not the only one. For example, I saw Roland John Wiley's lecture on Petipa at the NYCB Choreographic Institue (His books are very valuable and interesting) this summer. During the Q&A, Wiley was asked about something to do with the Kirov's reconstructed Sleeping Beauty. He couldn't answer because, he confessed, he had not seen it. I couldn't believe that a man who devoted his life's work to Tchiakovsky's ballets and Petipas etc... couldn't make it out of Michigan to either New York or Washington D.C. to see that ballet. I think you need to meld the history of ballet with the performance of it.

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i wrote this post before i had seen that we are on to page 2, therefore it is a bit of a 'throwback'. NOT intended to change the subject, yet again. sorry!:-

i've never seen it (the seven stories) written down in vaganova's translated writings, but i'm sure vrsfanatic could enlighten us. obviously some people who were trained in this way DO regard it as a vaganova 'thing' - judging from those bulgarian conversations.

i HAVE used this imagery, of course - but never 'from' vaganova. i would have imagined i got it from much more modern kinesiology, or even from someone like laban - not that it matters where i got it!

:)

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I don't think that's true here. The critics I know don't have journalism degrees -- although the critics now coming up do, and I think newspapers are more comfortable hiring them.

Anna Kisselgoff is an alum of Columbia's Journalism School, as is at least one frequent contributor here.

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Manhattnik, I think that you're correct in that many people hired now by newspapers have journalism degrees. But a long time ago, you could work yourself up from copy boy to become an editor/staff writer etc... and most of the old timers did it that way. But with the competition now, a lot of newspapers won't even interview someone without a j-school degree, or at least a masters degree in something.

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Yes, I agree -- the newer ones do. The Post had a writer who was the assistant to their fashion editor for YEARS. At least a decade. And when the fashion editor died, they put the writer through their regular internship program before letting her write (and she was already a good writer). I think you need journalism training.

Grace, I think the 7 stories discussion is hopeless here -- perhaps you should try to start a new thread in Teachers? It would be nice to know where it comes from. On reflection, my Bulgarian friend was taught that everything was Vaganova; his training took place before glasnost. :) It also could be one of those "after-Vaganova" things. Volkova never wrote anything down, and much of what dancers say is "Volkova" is an explanation by one of her pupils. So it's Volkova, but it's not, if that makes sense. (The next version of this software, which is now in beta, will have this same kind of long, one-sheet per thread list of replies, but also what is called "threaded view," which means you can go up a few posts and reply to a specific post; it should help keep things in order while letting us ramble. Both are valuable, but it is hard to find things sometimes, much less keep a conversation straight.)

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This may not be an important point, but when Homans first appeared someone said she had a Ph.D. from NYU, and I was curious to see what it was on. As a librarian, I can easily check, and I didn't find her dissertation listed. It may be a married name/single name issue, but as far as I can tell, she does not have one, which means she doesn't have a Ph.D. I must say I am among those who finds her writing irritating. She seems to come up with half-baked ideas, propound at length and not back them up. Just a small instance, but what on earth does she mean by Petipa's cut and slice legs? It sounds fancy, but how can she justify it. Certainly, we do know that devlopes never went above the waist, which doesn't sound very slicing.

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About Homans's degree — the Spring 2002 issue of the SAB newsletter says that she is "completing a doctorate at NYU in modern European history, focusing on the history of the origins of classical ballet in France." So apparently she hasn't finished the dissertation yet.

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I don't care whether Homans has completed her dissertation or not, to be blunt. If the writing was distinguished, it's unlikely that the rest of this stuff would be coming up for discussion, or let's say as much discussion. As Dale observes, someone who's getting into places like The New Republic, the Times, and the Review can obviously fend for herself.

As noted, journalism has become professionalized in recent generations. A few decades ago it would have been unusual for reporters to have advanced degrees, and now it's the norm. (This has its good and bad aspects, IMO.)

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I like Homans, I haven't read the book, so I can't really comment on her review in that respect, but as Dale pointed out, Homans starts conversations. She seems to spark the fire and let everyone else fan it.

She also seems to tackle topics that, given the guesstimate of her age, are almost beyond her "experience" at a time when many of her peers have lived through it. I don't mean that in a negative context, but she seems to be forming very "young" opinions, and like many other people, just speaking out on what she sees, from her limited experience.

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As Calliope pointed out, Homas is tackling tough issues. And although I have major quibbles with the articles (things such as Cargill pointed out), at least she's out there writing. Where are all the other columnists? For example, I respect Joan Acocella a lot, but she doesn't write about ballet at all these days. Other than the Tharp piece, the only article on ballet Acocella has done in the New Yorker was a review/preview of Kirov's Jewels. That was about the performances in Washington D.C. She didn't want to write on the Kirov's new La Bayadere? ABT's Ashton programs? Didn't want to trash the Diamond Festival? There wasn't one dancer or ballet or something that interested her in ballet/dance in the last year? I think she did write about something in modern dance, but it is not enough. Aloff turned up once in the Nation to write on Jewels, Tobias was booted, and Greskovic and Johnson have been fightning the good fight, but where are the other columnists? By not writing, Acocella and others are leaving the field open for Homans.

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It's probably not a question of their not writing, but of their not getting published (Accocella excepted).

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Or perhaps they don't think there is a problem (as with Clive Barnes response to the NYCB article)

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I'm still trying to come to terms with the Petipa-top/bottom vs Balanchine-left/right business. It's just such an awfully clever idea, isn't it? I can't get past the image of that old Monty Python skit of the quarterfinals of the one-man professional wrestling championship, where a man's left and right sides were locked in a battle to the death, until he managed to defeat himself and move on to the semifinals where he would face, of course, himself.

Obviously Cleese et. al. were students of Balanchine....

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Thank you, Manhattnik :) My thoughts exactly (although I wasn't clever enough to think of Cleese). I think the difference is that the comment was made in connection with teaching more than dancing. Either that or Balanchine is being quoted way out of context. In the 16th century, they used the right and left sides of the body in counterpoint. This is not a new idea!

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The Ministry of Silly Walks was clearly Balanchine-inspired, as well. :)

I agree with Dale, it's really too bad about The New Yorker. If Acocella wants to do book reviews, that's great – they're a pleasure to read. But it's very disappointing to look in issue after issue and see little or no dance coverage. Maybe they could send Anthony Lane to "The Nutcracker"?

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Just as Dancers sometimes turn to the knee and flick their wrists -- Writers can make an intellectual splash by advancing a bold generality in audacious terms. It's close to Diaghilev's eternal "Etonne Moi." It would not be the first time such had appeared in the NYRB.

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Some writers still land quietly in fifth, eyes and arms lowered :) But it's a very good analogy, Michael -- and editors push for it, too. But that just deals with tone, not content.

I also think that Dale's point, seconded by several others, that there aren't many people writing about dance and we need people writing about dance, is a good one. And we need new writers and new voices.

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i wish i could be as FUNNY as 'you guys'...

sometimes you really make me feel inadequate.

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It could be argued that it's the content as well as the tone that is involved as often it is with the content that the writer tries to make the splash -- The problem arises when the disjunction between the intellectual claim and the actual content, scrutinized closely, is too great. Re Balanchine though -- I suppose he is simply entering the intellectual lexicon in some new symbolic way at this point, nearly 20 years after his demise. He is now being advanced, not so much in his own terms, but as standing for something else, a trend etc. in western History, art history, ballet history, depending on what standpoint you take. The more the rings spread outward on the pond the more you will be misquoted, misunderstood, misrepresented. There is nothing new about that.

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I'm all for Balanchine--or any other dance creators or performers--becoming part of larger cultural histories and discussions. (As the circle widens, it will interact with other circles--I find that interesting not depressing.) Historically, dance discussion has had a tendency to be restricted to conoisseurs; and it's often the case that when "outsiders" discuss it they either show ignorance, undue reverence, or both. In terms of Homans, the larger exposure she garners through the Times, TNR, etc., means that her claims can be scrutinized on grounds other than simply "Madame X danced NEVER danced ballet Y in 1946" (or, pace Barnes's ad feminem dismissal, "who does she think she is?"). So what Homans doesn't do, to my satisfaction, is take seriously arguments, claims, or opinions that counter her own. But, to be provocative, does a critic like Joan Acocella--or even saint Croce--do any better?

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I think someone writing a review is just presenting a personal opinion, and it's not necessary (it actually runs against the rules of the genre) to write "I hated it, but the audience loved it, and so did Critic X, Y and Z, although Critic A and B agree with me about this choreographer's work." But historical commentary is different, I think. The reader has to be able to trust that the writer understands the big picture, and is not just grabbing a fact here and a fact there; it has to be digested. And yes, I think they do have to take into account other's views, in the sense that if you're an opinion that's out of line with accepted thinking, you should indicate that. (I don't mean that this is the case in this instance; just making a general comment.)

An example. In 1986, I had a student who wrote a paper that said, "Erik Bruhn is the finest James dancing today." And went on to say why. Well, Bruhn had stopped dancing the role in 1972 and, in 1986, wasn't dancing anything because he was dead. The student kept saying, "What's one little word? Okay! I made a mistake, but it's just one little word!" Well, to me, it's a big deal. Say Bruhn was the finest James of his day, or generation, or in the history of time, or whatever you want to say, and back it up (not, as he did, with copying what a reviewer wrote and forgetting to put in the quotation marks, but that's another problem). But check the date on the book you're copying from before you copy from it.

And that's what I mean by digesting facts and having a context in which to put them. And if he were writing a paper on Great Jameses, I'd want him to have read more than one book, and not base his opinion on one video, and consider that the first James was Bournonville. Not in an 8-inch newspaper review. But in an 8000 word commentary, context helps.

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Originally posted by Ray

 So what Homans doesn't do, to my satisfaction, is take seriously arguments, claims, or opinions that counter her own.  But, to be provocative, does a critic like Joan Acocella--or even saint Croce--do any better?

Or for that matter, Lincoln Kirstein, although I think his affiliations were taken into account by readers.

I'm not sure entirely when that Olympian tone became standard in dance criticism. Croce certainly had it, and she was a good enough writer that one often forgot one when disagreed with her basic premises. Re-reading her compendiums recently was a very surprising experience for me. I still liked them as much as always, but for the first time, I found myself disagreeing with a surprising amount of basic impressions.

To bring this back to the general, when you read a critic, what sort of voice or tone is most convincing to you? Someone with a more energetic viewpoint, even if the viewpoint is narrower - or someone who examines all sides of the issue, even if that makes their writing less energetic? (Before you answer that question, I'd ask you to look at what you really read, not at what you think you ought to like!)

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...and consider that the first James was Bournonville.

Or that the first James was Joseph Mazilier?

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Gautier, too :) Ballet history textbooks present his opinion as Truth. How many of us learned that there was a day, suddenly, when all neoclassical ballets disappeared and the repertory was completely Romantic ballet? I believed that.

The facts don't bear it out. Read the rep; there's a mix for quite awhile. It was a gradual replacement. Read the other critics -- not as entertaining as Gautier, not as poetic. But with decidedly other opinions. And, strangeyl, reviewing things like "Alfred le Grand" which supposedly had died.

Is Gautier lying? No, just using a big, sweeping metaphor. He was, in one way, right -- neoclassical ballet was dead. It just hadn't died yet. It was still on institutional life support. Romanticism did sweep in and catch -- well, not everyone, but all the people in Gautier's ccrcle, or who wanted to be in that circle.

When someone is writing a commentary on the period, though, s/he has a responsibility to take these factors into account, and not just babble them, and reproduce the errors.

I think people with strong opinions will always sound Olympian -- and probably be surprised that their writing is taken that way. They're just expressing an opinion. It's the imitators who TRY to sound Olympian, but it's not from the heart, or the brain, that are bothersome, and there are some like that.

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This reminds me of a class I took on American history and the professor made us write a paper on the Civil War and what caused it. You could part the papers along the Mason Dixon line.

But, back to the historical commentary. Wasn't at some point, that essentially someone's review (or a few people's)

And to answer your question Leigh, I don't know which voice is most convincing for me. I think I like all of them, it helps me figure out my own opinion :)

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