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Joan Acocella's new book


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Joel Lobenthal reviewed Joan Acocella’s new collection in today’s New York Sun. Much food for comment here.

http://www.nysun.com/article/47738

She's able to respond to the work of deceased or distant authors with judicious detachment, but when profiling a proximate, living icon she seems too eager to please her subject. This is particularly true of dancers. Her profiles of Suzanne Farrell and Mikhail Baryshnikov are based primarily on conversations with the subjects. They read as "authorized" profiles that perpetuate a reductive dogma laid down by Arlene Croce, who was Ms. Acocella's predecessor as dance critic at the New Yorker from 1973 until 1998. In Ms. Croce's and Ms. Acocella's work, we are sometimes confronted with statements of praise or dismissal that could be enjoyed if qualified as pure subjectivity but become problematic when the authors use them to simplify the historical record. Writing about Ms. Farrell and Mr. Baryshnikov in 1986, Ms. Croce went so far as to state that "Dancing .. .. is the great theatre art we in America know today largely because of their contributions to it."
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Whether or not you agree with Croce and Acocella, you have to admire Lobenthal's spot-on analysis--they both do have a tendency to tie up their verdicts in neat packages--sometimes *pretty* packages, to be sure--which can sometimes have the effect of "simplify[ing] the historical record," as Lobenthal reports.

Joel Lobenthal reviewed Joan Acocella’s new collection in today’s New York Sun. Much food for comment here.

http://www.nysun.com/article/47738

She's able to respond to the work of deceased or distant authors with judicious detachment, but when profiling a proximate, living icon she seems too eager to please her subject. This is particularly true of dancers. Her profiles of Suzanne Farrell and Mikhail Baryshnikov are based primarily on conversations with the subjects. They read as "authorized" profiles that perpetuate a reductive dogma laid down by Arlene Croce, who was Ms. Acocella's predecessor as dance critic at the New Yorker from 1973 until 1998. In Ms. Croce's and Ms. Acocella's work, we are sometimes confronted with statements of praise or dismissal that could be enjoyed if qualified as pure subjectivity but become problematic when the authors use them to simplify the historical record. Writing about Ms. Farrell and Mr. Baryshnikov in 1986, Ms. Croce went so far as to state that "Dancing .. .. is the great theatre art we in America know today largely because of their contributions to it."

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I completly agree with Arlene Croce's quote, but certainly not with Mr. Lobenthal's problematic historical simplyfication of it:

... become problematic when the authors use them to simplify the historical record. Writing about Ms. Farrell and Mr. Baryshnikov in 1986, Ms. Croce went so far as to state that "Dancing .. .. is the great theatre art we in America know today largely because of their contributions to it."

From Ms. Croce's Sightlines [italics mine]:

Farrell and Baryshnikov are national treasures; dancing--to distinguish it for a moment from choreography--is the great theatre art we in America know today largely because of their contributions to it.

There is context. According to Ms. Croce: Baryshnikov had not performed in ABT's Fall 1985 season and was facing a barrage of unfair press coverage, her point being that insufficient consideration was being given to the unpredictable effects of his knee surgery. NYCB was being silent regarding Farrell's injury to her right hip joint, which naturally had an effect on her performing and had lead to relinquishing some roles.

It is difficult to imagine dance being as great a theater art in America sans the greatest male and female dancers ever.

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It is difficult to imagine dance being as great a theater art in America sans the greatest male and female dancers ever.

Seems to me the superlative pronouncement is what Lobenthal is trying to warn against. Both Croce and Acocella are great writers who adopt Olympian tones that are intelligent, seductive and tend to dismiss all disagreement even when disagreement would be possible. It's good that someone is mentioning that on the record.

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It is difficult to imagine dance being as great a theater art in America sans the greatest male and female dancers ever.

Seems to me the superlative pronouncement is what Lobenthal is trying to warn against. Both Croce and Acocella are great writers who adopt Olympian tones that are intelligent, seductive and tend to dismiss all disagreement even when disagreement would be possible. It's good that someone is mentioning that on the record.

I agree, as you illustrate so effectively. But when seen in full and in context, I really think this Croce quote was not an example of it. Perhaps it hinges on how one interprets Croce's use of the word largely. During their reigns, the two dancers in question probably inspired half or more of my ballet ticket purchases; so, for me, kinda big.

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I'm going to offer an unpopular opinion in that yes Croce and Acocella do this but the queen of dismissing dancers with a cheap shot and/or lavishing overbearing praise on a dancer is Laura Jacobs. If she doesn't like you, you often get a one-paragraph (or, in some cases, a one sentence) dismissal. If she likes you she can write a War-and-Peace length essay about the way you bourree across the stage. I respect her enthusiasm and her way with words, but I've read too many of her essays to really trust her judgement.

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It is difficult to imagine dance being as great a theater art in America sans the greatest male and female dancers ever.

Seems to me the superlative pronouncement is what Lobenthal is trying to warn against. Both Croce and Acocella are great writers who adopt Olympian tones that are intelligent, seductive and tend to dismiss all disagreement even when disagreement would be possible. It's good that someone is mentioning that on the record.

Lobenthal could actually have said more in that regard. Acocella's essay on Willa Cather, first published in The New Yorker and later expanded into a book, was wonderful reading but its treatment of other writers on Cather, some of whom had opinions with which Acocella did not wholly agree, was not in some respects entirely fair, and really you would have had to read the critics in question in context to understand why and how this was so.

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Here’s the quote I take issue with:

“Ms. Acocella has also written about psychiatry, and in most of her literary discussions cogently draws the intersecting vectors of psyche and creativity. But she either misses or chooses to overlook red flags that leap out from the chapter on Ms. Farrell, which was originally published in 2003. The ballerina was 9 years old when her parents separated; Ms. Acocella writes that Ms. Farrell "didn't mind much," because, the ballerina claims, "it was good not to hear their fights any more."

To begin with, any 9-year-old would miss the presence of a father. Second, her parents' fights must have been pretty terrible for her to be glad that her parents were separating. And third, and most important, her parents' breakup ( Ms. Farrell in her autobiography says that she rarely saw her father after this) had great relevance for her future career, since George Balanchine, who ensconced her as New York City Ballet's prima ballerina when she only 19, was attracted again and again to female dancers with father issues. Ms. Farrell's relationship with Balanchine bore all the earmarks of unfinished business with her own father.

Ms. Acocella evinces no interest in connecting these dots.”

Well I say, “Good for Acocella!” If Farrell says that she didn’t much mind her parents’ breakup, then do her the courtesy of taking her at her word. Armchair psychologizing of this particularly facile and clichéd variety does nothing to help one understand Farrell’s art nor does it give one any meaningful insight into her creative partnership with Balanchine. That special relationship only “[bears] the earmarks of unfinished business with her own father" if the daughter happens to be a great dancer and her father happens to be a great choreographer and there happens to be “unfinished business” in the first place. I say that Farrell's relationship with Balanchine bore all the earmarks of two remarkable artists colliding like charged particles.

Listening to Farrell describe her relationship with Balanchine in Elusive Muse, I was struck by her very moving narration of how powerful their connection was when they were working -- i.e., that the relationship was special -- that it happened -- because of the depth of their creative kinship (or whatever mystical thing you want to call it) and the private realm they were privileged to enter when they were practicing their art, not because of Farrell’s absent father. (Her very present mother -- now that's another story :wink: ...) Farrell’s description of what it was like to perform Don Q with Balanchine left me rapt with wonder. How would Farrell’s relationship with Balanchine – and here I mean the important one, the one that gave rise to that performance – have been any different had her father not been absent? The dynamics of this potent relationship are certainly of interest, but throwing it into the "she had unfinished business with her father" bucket seems reductive in the extreme. (I wasn’t aware, by the way, that Danilova, Tallchief, Leclerc, Adams, et al had “father issues” and that this was a meainingful component of Balanchine’s attraction to them – I had naively assumed it was their talent.) This kind of facile blather passing itself off as critical analysis just drives me around the bend -- it reduces art to a by-product of biography. There were lots of interesting things going on between Balanchine and his various muses --"intersecting vectors of psyche and creativity," if you will -- but "father issues" was certainly the least of them. (The potent combination of hard work and long hours together -- i.e., the mundane components of your typical office romance -- shouldn't be dismissed.) Yes, the facts of Balanchine’s life, including his relationship with Farrell, certainly lend themselves to lurid conjecture – a fabulously trashy novel is just laying there begging to be written (Eifman has already done the ballet) – but the facts of the miraculous art demand something more.

OK. Rant over.

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Well I say, “Good for Acocella!” If Farrell says that she didn’t much mind her parents’ breakup, then do her the courtesy of taking her at her word. Armchair psychologizing of this particularly facile and clichéd variety does nothing to help one understand Farrell’s art nor does it give one any meaningful insight into her creative partnership with Balanchine. That special relationship only “[bears] the earmarks of unfinished business with her own father" if the daughter happens to be a great dancer and her father happens to be a great choreographer and there happens to be “unfinished business” in the first place. I say that Farrell's relationship with Balanchine bore all the earmarks of two remarkable artists colliding like charged particles.

I think that if Farrell's father hadn't been absent, her relationship with Balanchine would have been different inasmuch as she would have been different, and as it happened, "unfinished business" may well have gone into her dancing and her collaboration with Balanchine. To say that isn't to say that unfinished business and not talent and hard work and spirituality produced the great dancing.

But Acocella was wise not to speculate if she couldn't get Farrell to talk. In any case, the psychological angle would have been interesting, but nowhere on the same level as the dancing was interesting, and it might diminish and detract in retrospect from the mystery that was part of her gift. If I had clear memories of Farrell's greatness, I'd be leery of having them tarnished by a psychological "explanation."

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Here is a generous portion of Acocella's 2003 New Yorker Farrell article. It will bring back precious memories of her final performance, including that unforgetable moment with Lincoln. And includes descriptions of her impossibly great dancing.

... What she performed was still classical ballet--she got out there with her hair in a bun and did glissade, assemble--but in her the classical style seemed to have sunk to the bones of the dancing. The flesh was something else, an awakened force. When she bent down into an arabesque penchee, you thought she would never stop. (She was the first dancer I ever saw touch her forehead to her knee in penchee.) When she executed a triple pirouette, and tilted as she did it, and then--without ever righting herself--plunged directly into the next jackknife or nosedive, you thought the walls were falling in....

For more:

http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summa...86-22301639_ITM

From New Yorker Online Only, an interview with Joan Acocella that gives some context to her article:

http://www.newyorker.com/printables/online...on_onlineonly01

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Yes, the facts of Balanchine’s life, including his relationship with Farrell, certainly lend themselves to lurid conjecture – a fabulously trashy novel is just laying there begging to be written (Eifman has already done the ballet) – but the facts of the miraculous art demand something more.

OK. Rant over.

I love Farrell as much as the next person here. And while I too appreciate the "mystery" of her art I learn nothing new by being told over and over again that her art is mysterious. So Lobenthal's point still stands: these people are not gods or saints who may not be critically analyzed, they're human beings, subject to the same laws of physics, psychology, and cultural forces as the rest of us. I'm not a big fan of armchair psychologizing of *anyone*, much less my favorite ballerina of all time (see, I can do it too!); but between the "trashy novel" and the book of saints there's a continuum of registers in which we can write about our cultural heros. Kathleen is right to say that "the facts...demand something more"; but more for me means that I want to hear from a wider range of approaches than are available to us now.

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Yes, the facts of Balanchine’s life, including his relationship with Farrell, certainly lend themselves to lurid conjecture – a fabulously trashy novel is just laying there begging to be written (Eifman has already done the ballet) – but the facts of the miraculous art demand something more.

OK. Rant over.

I love Farrell as much as the next person here. And while I too appreciate the "mystery" of her art I learn nothing new by being told over and over again that her art is mysterious. So Lobenthal's point still stands: these people are not gods or saints who may not be critically analyzed, they're human beings, subject to the same laws of physics, psychology, and cultural forces as the rest of us. I'm not a big fan of armchair psychologizing of *anyone*, much less my favorite ballerina of all time (see, I can do it too!); but between the "trashy novel" and the book of saints there's a continuum of registers in which we can write about our cultural heros. Kathleen is right to say that "the facts...demand something more"; but more for me means that I want to hear from a wider range of approaches than are available to us now.

Ray -- Let me clarify my comments, because I think what you're saying has merit. I'm not advocating any of the following:

That interpersonal dynamics, life events, pathologies, etc. do not play a role in the formation of our mind, behavior, character, abilities, or even talents;

That the discussion of any of the above are off limits;

That there are only two alternatives: hagiographic appreciations and trashy novels; or

That "art" and its production are irreducible mysteries that cannot be explained.

I'm especially not advocating the latter. I think art *can* be explained and that what makes an artist exemplary can and should be analyzed and expressed clearly enough for an interested person to understand. It's hard to do. I think Acocella generally tries to do it.

The heart of my objection -- and I should have made this clearer -- is Lobenthal's using Acoella's not connecting the dots that he wants to see connected to support his charge that her profiles are overly deferential. Furthermore, he appears to suggest that Farrell herself either lacks an appropriate degree of self-awareness or is being deliberately untruthful and that Acocella should have called her out on it. It's a serious charge to bring in the context of a reivew of a collection of magazine articles. (They're just magazine articles, for heaven's sake, not scholarly treatises.) Farrell's family history and the effect that this might have had on the dynamics of her relationship with Balanchine may be fruitful areas of investigation, but they should be handled with thoughtfulness and tact, not casually dropped into a 250 word review and left there without further support or explanation. What are "father issues"? What are the "earmarks" of Farrell's "unfinished business" with her father that Lobenthal sees in her relationship with Balanchine? I think one can reasonably infer that Lobenthal at the very least finds them problematic. Going down this path warrants careful treatment to avoid coming off as idle gossip or titillating speculation.

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Joel Lobenthal is an inciteful critic and a fine writer -- I am though uneasy about his tone in this. A critic reviewing a second critic who is more eminent and successful in his very field has to be very careful to be cool and balanced in tone. If you are not, if the tone comes off as a little bitter or personal, you lay yourself open to the charge that some level of professional jealousy of the "Olympian God" who is your target has entered into the attack. As the Ray Charles' song goes: "It should have been me driving that Cadillac."

Michael Popkin

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The heart of my objection -- and I should have made this clearer -- is Lobenthal's using Acoella's not connecting the dots that he wants to see connected to support his charge that her profiles are overly deferential. Furthermore, he appears to suggest that Farrell herself either lacks an appropriate degree of self-awareness or is being deliberately untruthful and that Acocella should have called her out on it. It's a serious charge to bring in the context of a reivew of a collection of magazine articles. (They're just magazine articles, for heaven's sake, not scholarly treatises.) Farrell's family history and the effect that this might have had on the dynamics of her relationship with Balanchine may be fruitful areas of investigation, but they should be handled with thoughtfulness and tact, not casually dropped into a 250 word review and left there without further support or explanation. What are "father issues"? What are the "earmarks" of Farrell's "unfinished business" with her father that Lobenthal sees in her relationship with Balanchine? I think one can reasonably infer that Lobenthal at the very least finds them problematic. Going down this path warrants careful treatment to avoid coming off as idle gossip or titillating speculation.

Kathleen, I want first to apologize for not distinguishing between those of us on the list expressing our admiration for artists in tones reverential or otherwise and professional writers like Acocella. I in no way meant to impugn you when I wrote that I was weary of reading that an artist is "mysterious." What I meant to emphasize--and I think you see this--was that I'm weary of reading that tone in articles and books that pretend to--or should--offer more.

In defense of Lobenthal, however, I think it's perfectly valid to criticize a writer for inconsistent methods of analysis, especially when the results are so patently, well, fawning. As Lobenthal allows, Acocella in her other work has shown us she can be careful and thoughtful and use evidence to support her assertions (though I actually take issue with a lot of her literary criticism on methodological grounds too, but that's another story...). Toeing a relatively uncritical line when discussing "living legends" is a choice she makes as a writer, and I don't always enjoy reading those discussions. I've come to regard Acocella as an "annointer" rather than a critical thinker, and I'm glad to see a smart writer like Lobenthal call her on it.

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Kathleen, I want first to apologize for not distinguishing between those of us on the list expressing our admiration for artists in tones reverential or otherwise and professional writers like Acocella. I in no way meant to impugn you when I wrote that I was weary of reading that an artist is "mysterious." What I meant to emphasize--and I think you see this--was that I'm weary of reading that tone in articles and books that pretend to--or should--offer more.

Ray -- No apology necessary! I wholeheartedly agree that professional writers owe their readers more than facile enthusing about an artist's "mystery" or unquestioning reverence in the face of deemed greatness. Enthusing about "mystery" is as lazy as clucking over biography as far as I'm concerned. I think it's lazy when I do it, too, frankly, although I'm obviously not as well equipped as Acocella, Croce, or Lobenthal to think and talk about the experience of watching dance. I look to good critics to show me the way.

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Gosh, there really was food for comment. :wink: Thanks, everybody.

kfw writes:

I think that if Farrell's father hadn't been absent, her relationship with Balanchine would have been different inasmuch as she would have been different, and as it happened, "unfinished business" may well have gone into her dancing and her collaboration with Balanchine. To say that isn't to say that unfinished business and not talent and hard work and spirituality produced the great dancing.

I agree (and I’d add that IMO the presence of an active and engaged father on the scene could have made a difference in the actual course of events, as well).

Kathleen O'Connell writes:

(They're just magazine articles, for heaven's sake, not scholarly treatises.) Farrell's family history and the effect that this might have had on the dynamics of her relationship with Balanchine may be fruitful areas of investigation, but they should be handled with thoughtfulness and tact, not casually dropped into a 250 word review and left there without further support or explanation.

Good point - but by the same token, Lobenthal is just writing a review, and I assume within space limits. He’s pointing out a potential path not taken. Seems legit, even if one doesn’t wholly agree.

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Joel Lobenthal is an inciteful critic and a fine writer -- I am though uneasy about his tone in this. A critic reviewing a second critic who is more eminent and successful in his very field has to be very careful to be cool and balanced in tone. If you are not, if the tone comes off as a little bitter or personal, you lay yourself open to the charge that some level of professional jealousy of the "Olympian God" who is your target has entered into the attack. As the Ray Charles' song goes: "It should have been me driving that Cadillac."

Michael Popkin

I forgot to address Michael's post in my last one. Interesting point, and I'd be interested to hear what other writers think about this aspect of the discussion.

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This kind of facile blather passing itself off as critical analysis just drives me around the bend -- it reduces art to a by-product of biography.
Amen to that! This is, I suppose, an example of the reverential tone some people complain of:
And what mastery it is--of continual off-center balances maintained with light support or no support at all, of divergently shaped steps unthinkably combined in the same phrase, of invisible transitions between steps and delicate shifts of weight in poses that reveal new and sweeter harmonies of proportion no matter how wide or how subtle the contrast. Your eye gorges on her variety, your heart stops at the brink of every precipice. She, however, sails calmly out into space and returns as if the danger did not exist. Farrell's style in Diamonds (and in the third act of Don Quixote) is based on risk; she is almost always off balanced and always secure. her confidence in moments of great risk gives her the leeway to suggest what no ballerina has suggested before her--that she can sustain herself, that she can go it alone. Unlike Cynthia Gregory, and many ballerinas less distinguished than Gregory, who perfect held balances, Farrell perfects the act of balance/imbalance as a constant feature of dancing. It is not equilibrium as stasis, it is equilibrium as continuity that she excels in. Although as in her Diamonds performance, she can take a piqué arabesque and stand unaided, she's capable of much more; her conquests are really up there where the richer hazards are. In the Scherzo, going at high speed, she several times takes piqué arabesque, swings into second position and back into arabesque, uncoiling a halfturn that, because of the sudden force of the swing, seems like a complete one. In the finale, her partner ... is only there to stop her. She slips like a fish through his hands. She doesn't stop, doesn't wait, doesn't depend, and she can't fall. She's like someone who has learned to breathe thin air.

Of course, the autonomy of the ballerina is an illusion, but Farrell's is the extremest form of this illusion we have yet seen, and it makes Diamonds a riveting spectacle about the freest woman alive.

What others call reverential, I call poetic. If somebody can show how Farrell's or Balanchine's personal psychological cracks, or any other biographical details, illuminate the metaphor of dance farther than this, fine. I think that's what certain writers feel they're doing when they get into hack psychological biography ("Looky what I can show you! Aren't I clever?"). But even if the technical details Croce has written about could be proved factually wrong, I will still passionately believe in her masterly analysis of it. The myth is what's meaningful, and I will embrace anything that enhances it for me. I don't give a hang about the rest.

I apologize that this has little to do with the review under discussion. It just depresses me that a reality TV mentality nowadays wants to dislodge the basic human need some of us have to waft great art up high, beyond reason even. Yes, I revere it. So shoot me.

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What others call reverential, I call poetic. If somebody can show how Farrell's or Balanchine's personal psychological cracks, or any other biographical details, illuminate the metaphor of dance farther than this, fine. I think that's what certain writers feel they're doing when they get into hack psychological biography ("Looky what I can show you! Aren't I clever?"). But even if the technical details Croce has written about could be proved factually wrong, I will still passionately believe in her masterly analysis of it. The myth is what's meaningful, and I will embrace anything that enhances it for me. I don't give a hang about the rest.

I apologize that this has little to do with the review under discussion. It just depresses me that a reality TV mentality nowadays wants to dislodge the basic human need some of us have to waft great art up high, beyond reason even. Yes, I revere it. So shoot me.

But why can't we have the poetry AND thoughtful analysis--without deriding the latter as "reality TV mentality"? Again, I'm looking for some middle ground here; it's not a zero-sum game (which is something reality TV practices, by the way, with it's one-winner-only ethos). I want to hear more voices, in all different registers, talking about, debating, dissecting, celebrating, criticizing, fictionalizing, gossiping about, mythologizing, historicizing, or otherwise paying attention to dance.

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Can we distinguish between two different genres here – one an analysis of an artist’s performance and the other a profile of that artist as a person? One could argue that the facts and circumstances of the artist’s personal history have little or perhaps only circumstantial relevance to the former, but more relevance to the latter. The Croce passage Anthony quoted is obviously of the first type, and indeed no appeals to biography are required for Croce to make her points. Acocella’s profile is more of the latter type – although she does touch on the Farrell’s manner of dancing and her manner of coaching (which is another type of “performance” if you will) she’s also presenting Farrell as specific person, a person different from the persona she created on stage via performance. I don’t think we need to know anything about Farrell’s or any other ballerina’s personal history to “get” the created persona – it is what she dances. To know more about Farrell the person -- the person who is of interest to us because she is an artist – personal history and its implications may (and I stress may) be more relevant.

Lobenthal’s charge against Acocella appears to be that her profiles of living artists read as uncritical recitations of received dogma because she doesn’t employ the necessary degree of detachment from her subjects – had she done so, she would have examined Farrell’s contention that she didn’t much mind her parents’ divorce – “connected the dots” -- and (I think this is what Lobenthal is arguing) would have come to a different conclusion and relayed it to her readers. I really do think Lobenthal is off the mark in his specifics here, but I agree with his (unremarkable) point that an objective assessment requires greater detachment than a mash note, and that one might expect something more than a mash note from a critic of Acocella's (or Croce's) stature -- if for no other reason than the fact that their mash notes may be hurled down form the heavens as thunderbolts of authority.

Well, I'm really out of my depth on this topic -- time to head off for an evening at the ballet!

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Can we distinguish between two different genres here – one an analysis of an artist’s performance and the other a profile of that artist as a person?
Thanks for making this distinction clear, Kathleen. The article Lobenthal is calling for is simply another genre of criticism from the one Acocella has chosen to write. If you take the Acocella piece on Farrell (thanks drb for the link) as an example of "analysis of ... performance," it's remarkably insightful and communicates very well both Acocella's own personal response to Farrell's dancing as well as making use of precise, superbly relevant descriptive phrases to help the rest of us understand why Acocella considers Farrell so unique.

Dance is a visual art. The ability to make us "see" what the writer has seen -- and also "see" why he or she considers it to be so important -- is something that Acocella and Croce bring to just about every piece.

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