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Jennifer Homans Succeeds Joan Acocella as Dance Critic of The New Yorker

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Alastair Macaulay tweeted that Jennifer Homans will succeed Joan Acocella, who is stepping down from her position of dance critic of the New Yorker; Homans was selected by David Remnick.  

Later in the thread Macaulay, in response to a question upthread, posted, "Joan felt she was in danger of repeating herself, a feeling I (ten years younger than her) certainly shared."

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Well, that's interesting. And it will give people something to argue about.

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That book she wrote should have "done her in"😅

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Acocella wrote so little on dance in the New Yorker—whether by choice or editorial policy— I am mildly surprised she said she was concerned about repeating herself.

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1 hour ago, California said:

Homans has founded a major center at NYU, to her credit. One interesting thing to watch: will she cover all genres in dance with the kind of interest and expertise she has in ballet?

Well, that's what I'm wondering. In addition, Homans can seem overtly hostile to the works, styles, and choreographers that aren't to her taste, dismissing them in terms that are redolent of moral judgment. So, judgmental rather than evaluative, I guess — the polar opposite of the great Deborah Jowitt, who can tell you that something isn't well made without wrinkling up her nose like somebody made a bad smell.

I will spare you my rant about "ballet is an etiquette."

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5 hours ago, Drew said:

Acocella wrote so little on dance in the New Yorker—whether by choice or editorial policy— I am mildly surprised she said she was concerned about repeating herself.

I had the same thought. I could understand the comment if she was writing and reviewing as frequently as Croce did, but often as not  when you saw Acocella's byline the piece was about something else. I did not begrudge Acocella the opportunity to write on other topics but I wanted to read about dancing. Pretty depressing if you can write as little as that on your special subject and still not avoid repeating yourself.

It really is too bad because I always enjoyed reading Acocella even when I didn't agree with her. I do understand that during her tenure there were long stretches when the dance scene was less than inspiriting, shall we say, and I sympathize, but I still wanted to read about what was out there.

I will say for Homans that she has improved since her stuff started appearing out of the blue in The New Republic many moons ago, although she will never be a go-to writer for me. Not a particularly venturesome choice on Remnick's part, but if it means we see more reviews and features on dance in The New Yorker, then I just might consider renewing my subscription, which I dropped some time ago.

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Didn't Homans basically declared that ballet is dying...in that infamous epilogue...? 

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Just relying on memory for the moment, I think that Homans expressed the worry that ballet might die.  I interpreted this to mean that the ballet she cared for, cared about, might die; the sort of music-inspired ballet Balanchine especially, and some of his predecessors, had made.  Macaulay promptly answered, as I remember, that "there will always be ballet"; and I thought and still think, for what it's worth, that they're both right, because they're talking about different things.  (Not that Macaulay is musically insensitive or unappreciative of Balanchine's art, far from it.)  

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Posted (edited)
On 3/7/2019 at 12:16 PM, Drew said:

Acocella wrote so little on dance in the New Yorker—whether by choice or editorial policy— I am mildly surprised she said she was concerned about repeating herself.

Maybe it was her concern about repetition that inhibited her from writing - "I haven't anything new to say."  Her last New Yorker article - "What Went Wrong at New York City Ballet" (February 18 & 25, 2019) - had little new in it, and several of us have been trying to figure out - one friend with an enviable way with words said kremlinizing - why it appeared when it did, what was the hidden significance of that?  Living in Chicago, farther from the center of things dance, I found it a useful summing up, as its title implied, and we came to think that it was as much for the more generally-cultured public who reads The New Yorker as for the dance specialists, though I agree with those here who would have like more dance writing from her.  She has had a lot to offer lots of people with a range of sophistication.

Edited by Jack Reed

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1 hour ago, Jack Reed said:

Just relying on memory for the moment, I think that Homans expressed the worry that ballet might die.  I interpreted this to mean that the ballet she cared for, cared about, might die; the sort of music-inspired ballet Balanchine especially, and some of his predecessors, had made.  Macaulay promptly answered, as I remember, that "there will always be ballet"; and I thought and still think, for what it's worth, that they're both right, because they're talking about different things.  (Not that Macaulay is musically insensitive or unappreciative of Balanchine's art, far from it.)  

As I recall Homans was pretty definite and pretty broad, although she expressed a hope that she might be wrong. The odd thing, of course, was that she wrote that at a time when several promising choreographers were reviving the scene, so her commentary already seemed out of date.

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Posted (edited)

I don't think one needs to assume Homans believes exactly what she published in 2010. But  I will say that I agree with @dirac that she seems to have made broader claims than that the era of Balanchine and his musically inspired ballets was over -- though she does deploy the occasional subjunctive: "The old ballets look flat and depressed because the new ones do. If today's ballets are mere shells, the lesson may be that we no longer fully believe in them. We linger and hark back, shrouding ourselves in tradition and the past for good reason. Something important really is over. We are in mourning" (page 547).   

I agree that for her (at least at the time she wrote this book) that that "something important" was primarily centered on Balanchine. And of course Balanchine belongs to the past in one important sense (though not in all senses). But she does seem to me to have drawn broader conclusions and to make broader cultural claims:

"Today we no longer believe in ballet's ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill....Ballet's fine manners and implicitly aristocratic airs, its white swans, regal splendor, and beautiful women on pointe (pedestals), seem woefully outmoded, the province of dead white men and society ladies in long ago places..." (548) She also talks about lacks in today's ballet dancers in similarly broad fashion on page 541.

Additionally and perhaps more decisively:

"...in recent years I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting. With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality...after years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying........Could the decline be reversed? It is hard to see how. In Western Europe and America ballet no longer holds a prominent place [nb nothing about its growing place elsewhere in the world] The world of dance, moreover, is increasingly polarized: ballet is becoming ever more conservative and conventional, while contemporary experimental dance is retreating to the fringes of an inaccessible avant-garde. The middle ground, where I first encountered ballet, is small and shrinking." (549)

Here, too, one might infer that middle ground was dominated by Balanchine for Homans--experimental yet traditional, conservative yet avant-garde etc.-- but she still seems to be making a broader claim about what this means. And she goes on to say that unless we as a society ("we" is her term) recover "ethical" ideals that she believes have been lost (decorum, manners, discipline--genuine belief in our ideals, etc.) ballet has no chance of making a comeback.

She also concludes by acknowledging that she could be wrong and that we might merely be in a transitional period.

Reading the chapter as a whole at the time it was published, many of her remarks seemed to me astute and valuable but I too found it somewhat ironic that she wrote this chapter, "The Masters are Dead and Gone"-- just as ballet, to me (in my admittedly narrow sphere of experience) seemed to be becoming much more creatively exciting than it had been in some time and on numerous fronts from controversial historical revivals to new choreography to intriguingly distinctive new ballet dancers who were also "stars." And one might add to that (though, unfortunately, largely outside my experience except for a few dancers): the development of companies and dancers and new fans coming from parts of the world other than North America, Russia, and Europe. We discussed these or similar points on this board at the time her argument first appeared.

But there is no reason to hold Homans today to exactly her views of nearly a decade ago. And, if they are still her views, then I suppose, if nothing else, they offer a framework for her writing on ballet and dance. I could wish there were MORE venues for serious dance criticism and thus a greater variety of perspectives on offer.

I adore ballet but in particular am not convinced that the high minded language of ethics and beliefs doesn't risk becoming rather misleading as a lens onto art-forms of any kind, even those with aristocratic roots like Ballet. @Kathleen O'Connell  wrote something related above.  And the social/cultural changes Homans seems to deplore were already being deplored, sometimes in identical language, in the nineteenth century.

Presumably Homans' aim at the end of her book was as polemical as it was analytic/historical. And she would hardly have founded the Center for Ballet and the Arts if she didn't want to do something for ballet and dance that was part of its life. Unfortunately, I do worry the latter is a potential conflict of interest for her as critic of the New Yorker since the Center funds choreographers and dancers that she might be reviewing.

Edited by Drew

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19 hours ago, dirac said:

As I recall Homans was pretty definite and pretty broad, although she expressed a hope that she might be wrong. The odd thing, of course, was that she wrote that at a time when several promising choreographers were reviving the scene, so her commentary already seemed out of date.

I remembered it like that too. It was a straight up bummer. Not that anybody needs to believe ANY of what this sacrosanct newspaper employees have to say, but still. I remember not caring to much for that, given that it is now when Giselle is being danced non stopped in the five continents, and not 50 years ago. And Asia is quite a booming producing factory of highly technical dancers, and again....that wasn't the case 50 years ago.

Nah....Homans is not the shrine of balletic ultimate world predictions. She writes very good-(I REALLY enjoyed Apollo's angels)- but that's it.

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I did a little googling and came across a 2011review of Apollo's Angels by Marina Harss for The Nation. Among other things, Harss points out that by making Apollo her touchstone for all that is both right and proper in both Balanchine and ballet in general, Homans loses sight of (or perhaps refuses to see) the corresponding throughline exemplified by Prodigal Son. Read the whole thing, as they say, but here are some representative quotes:

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For Homans, Balanchine is the purest embodiment of Apollonian classicism and the heritage of Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. His ballet Apollo (or Apollon Musagète, as it was originally called), from 1928, is her touchstone, not only for her interpretation of his life’s work but also for her understanding of all ballet. It is the silver thread that connects the French seventeenth-century ballet de cour (Louis XIV was an excellent dancer, who enjoyed dressing up as the young god); the uplifting spirituality of Marie Taglioni’s dancing en pointe in the first real romantic ballet, La Sylphide, in 1832; the refined, courtly classicism of The Sleeping Beauty (in Homans’s words, Petipa’s “greatest work,” from 1890); and Balanchine’s most experimental creations like The Four Temperaments and Agon.

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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With Apollo, she writes, the choreographer had “‘eliminated’ the hard edge of Soviet modernism, its erotic and gymnastic movements and mystical and millennial overtones,” while retaining its “extreme plasticity and taste for spontaneity and freedom.”

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

 

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Note the use of “acrobatic,” “erotic” and “gymnastic.” Those words recur regularly in Apollo’s Angels, along with “vulgar,” “extreme” and “kitsch,” all of them labels for artists whose work Homans does not approve of and who lie outside the margins of elegance, refinement and idealization that she holds to be ballet’s rightful realm.

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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As Homans sees it, Balanchine’s early Russian choreography (“his dancers split their legs, bent into back-breaking bridges, and opened their mouths in Munch-like screams”) was eclipsed by the rigorous, ennobling Apollo.

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

 

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It’s revealing too that Homans passes over Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s only other surviving work from the Ballets Russes period. Created in 1929, one year after Apollo, it nonetheless drew upon the experimentation that occurred in Russia in the wake of the Revolution, when innovators like Kasyan Goleizovsky expanded the vocabulary of ballet by using extreme poses (splits, acrobatic lifts, interlocking limbs), popular dance forms like the tango and openly erotic imagery.

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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Prodigal Son drew freely from this ferment, employing expressionistic gestures, mime, extremes of emotion, acrobatic feats (including a mock wrestling match, a human caterpillar and backbends) and brazen eroticism, in a wonderful pas de deux that is comically grotesque and explicitly sexual (the ballerina wraps her leg tightly around her partner’s waist and holds him there as he arches his back with pleasure).

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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Because of its vivid theatricality and sentimentality—in the final two sections, the Prodigal does not dance at all but rather drags himself across the stage and into his father’s arms—Prodigal Son is in some ways the antithesis of Apollo. But as with Apollo, its presence is palpable in Balanchine’s later works. Experimentation with nonclassical movement reappears in Modernist masterpieces like Agon; the use of interlocking bodies in partnering is a prominent feature of The Four Temperaments; the totemic presence of a powerful, almost frightening female figure is notable in The Unanswered Question and La Sonnambula; and the evocative use of gesture recurs often, as in the second pas de deux in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, from 1972, which quotes a hand gesture from Prodigal Son. 

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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Balanchine was known to enjoy earthly pleasures like showy virtuosity, sentimentality and kitsch, and appreciated their usefulness in spicing up the rarefied atmosphere of classical dance. He encouraged his ballerinas to move with unseemly abandon—splitting their legs immodestly, raising their hips, against classical form, in order to get their feet up in the air into a 180-degree arabesque, eschewing “proper” form. Many found this immodest way of dancing displeasing, and Balanchine thumbed his nose at such priggishness; when a British critic fussed about his abuses of ballet decorum, he responded that in England, “if you are awake, it is already vulgar.” 

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

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I don’t necessarily disagree with Homans’s core assertions about the nature of ballet. It is inarguably an elevated form, based on a highly refined and codified technique, and aspires to an ideal (at least most of the time) that is impossible to achieve and beyond expression in words. As the luminous former ballerina Violette Verdy said recently, “We have a responsibility to the audience to give them something transcendent.” But within this framework, variety and even transgression are possible. I can’t help wondering whether Homans’s portrait of ballet’s rise and development could have been richer if her view of ballet’s history wasn’t so rigid. There should be space for more variety, greater contradiction and a healthy clash of contrasts. 

Marina Harss, "The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans," The Nation, 2/10/2011

I for one would not have been unhappy if The New Yorker had given Acocella's slot to Marina Harss.

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You would not be alone.

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On 3/7/2019 at 10:16 AM, Drew said:

Acocella wrote so little on dance in the New Yorker—whether by choice or editorial policy— I am mildly surprised she said she was concerned about repeating herself.

But she had been writing before her New Yorker gig, and I think she considers all of her work in one large cohort.

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On 3/8/2019 at 2:52 PM, Drew said:

Presumably Homans' aim at the end of her book was as polemical as it was analytic/historical. And she would hardly have founded the Center for Ballet and the Arts if she didn't want to do something for ballet and dance that was part of its life. Unfortunately, I do worry the latter is a potential conflict of interest for her as critic of the New Yorker since the Center funds choreographers and dancers that she might be reviewing.

And this is a difficulty for many people writing about dance.  It's a small world we work in -- most of us wear a number of hats, and sometimes it's hard to keep our headgear organized.  As I understand it, the Center at NYU is focused on supporting a wide range of research (including dance making) on ballet and "related arts" -- that will indeed put her in the midst of the community she is going to comment on.  She certainly wouldn't be the first critic that had a complex relationship to the dance world (Deborah Jowitt was a choreographer and performer for quite a while after she started to write, and was a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop), but she will have to keep that in mind as she goes forward.

Honestly, as we see outlet after outlet fade away, I'm happy the New Yorker appointed someone as dance critic.  They could very easily have let it go.

On 3/9/2019 at 11:23 AM, Kathleen O'Connell said:

I did a little googling and came across a 2011review of Apollo's Angels by Marina Harss for The Nation.

...

I for one would not have been unhappy if The New Yorker had given Acocella's slot to Marina Harss.

Thanks Kathleen for posting this link -- the article had slipped my mind.

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1 hour ago, sandik said:

 

Honestly, as we see outlet after outlet fade away, I'm happy the New Yorker appointed someone as dance critic.  They could very easily have let it go.

Absolutely!

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17 hours ago, sandik said:

But she had been writing before her New Yorker gig, and I think she considers all of her work in one large cohort.

Even taking her body of work into account, it's still a bit hard for me to see. I ever thought, "Oh, here's Acocella with that again," (which has been happening regularly for me with Macaulay). 

Quote

Honestly, as we see outlet after outlet fade away, I'm happy the New Yorker appointed someone as dance critic.  They could very easily have let it go.

I guess it's true that these days we must be grateful for small favors. It is good that Remnick understands that The New Yorker is obliged to cover the dance world, and  if Homans writes more than Acocella did, that in itself will be a change for the better.

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3 hours ago, dirac said:

Even taking her body of work into account, it's still a bit hard for me to see. I ever thought, "Oh, here's Acocella with that again," (which has been happening regularly for me with Macaulay). 

My lord, how much longer was he going to bang on about same-sex partnering.

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On 3/10/2019 at 8:02 PM, Drew said:

Absolutely!

I agree. Let's hope that we start seeing regular columns on dance again.

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On 3/9/2019 at 2:23 PM, Kathleen O'Connell said:

I did a little googling and came across a 2011review of Apollo's Angels by Marina Harss for The Nation. Among other things, Harss points out that by making Apollo her touchstone for all that is both right and proper in both Balanchine and ballet in general, Homans loses sight of (or perhaps refuses to see) the corresponding throughline exemplified by Prodigal Son. Read the whole thing, as they say, but here are some representative quotes:

I for one would not have been unhappy if The New Yorker had given Acocella's slot to Marina Harss.

 

On 3/9/2019 at 5:15 PM, Rock said:

You would not be alone.

I third that motion.

Do we still not know who Macaulay's successor is or have I missed something?

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On 3/8/2019 at 3:21 PM, Jack Reed said:
  On 3/7/2019 at 1:16 PM, Drew said:

Acocella wrote so little on dance in the New Yorker—whether by choice or editorial policy— I am mildly surprised she said she was concerned about repeating herself.

My impression is that she wrote more frequent columns years ago when she first became the dance critic. There 's been a significant reduction in both the dance  and music reviews or articles over the last several years.  I assumed it was editorial policy.

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10 hours ago, Marta said:

Do we still not know who Macaulay's successor is or have I missed something?

I wonder if he will have a successor in the sense that there will be a (salaried) chief dance critic?

Also, just a reminder that Macaulay was for a time (the late 80s) the guest dance critic at The New Yorker. 

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