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J. Homans in New York Review of Books


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The piece by Jennifer Homans, while purporting to be a review of Charles M. Joseph's book, gives it short shrift. "Joseph is good on the music," she allows. "When he turns to the dances, however, Joseph seems lost."

So, in the next nine-and-a-half columns, Homans strives to illuminate the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaboration, whose roots she traces back to 1890 and the premiere of Tchaikovsky and Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty.

She has unusual insights. In Apollon Musagete, "in effect, Balanchine shifted the axis of classical technique. In a Petipa variation, the body is divided horizontally, tutu style, between 'cut and slice' legs and lyrical arms and torso. What matters is the contrast between the two. But Balanchine created movement that made dancers split the body vertically, down the spine, the right side moving with or against the left."

In her analysis of Agon, she briefly returns to the book (remember the book?) to mention Joseph's "detailed and stimulating discussion" of the seventeenth-century dance treatise employed by Stravinsky. It doesn't appear to me that he "seems lost' when it comes to the dances.

At any rate, this is an excellent article, although it fails as a book review. Nevertheless, I think Clive Barnes and others who have denigrated Ms. Homans' qualifications in the past will now have to grant her a certain degree of respect.

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I think there could be a lot of quibbles about the division of the body statements. How are we judging Petipa and his cut and slice legs? From today's performances? The whole body was used earlier in this century, at least. And which Apollo? The original or the one shown last season? And why would we want to pit the left side of the body against the right? Sorry, but I think this sounds like a lot of words. :(

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this kind of brilliant notion of Balanchine's didiving the body vertically is Dickie Buckle's -- at least, I first met it in HIS book about Balanchine, which I must have read 5-10 years ago; I've been wondering about it ever sinceand most days think he's onto something --

Buckle was the first critic I read who got me excited, I have a lot of respect and affection for him, and feel I owe him a debt personally.

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I hope Leigh will post on this -- we were just discussing it -- but it's my understanding that Balanchine made the comment about right versus left sides of the body to a meeting of teachers, discussing pedagogy, not about choreography, which is how the remark seems to be taken in the quote posted above.

I'd also question, no matter who said it, the idea of upper vs lower body in the 19th century. It's often said about Bournonville, but if you watch Bournonville dancers, the upper body is not still -- as is sometimes written in American and English criticism. The upper body moves, and it moves in counterpoint to the legs but IN HARMONY, not in contrast. And the classical line as we know it that's descended through Petipa is all about counterpoint of upper to lower body as well as right and left. It's a continuous flow of line, not divided in any way. (Of course, there are divisions -- like Vaganova's Seven Stories -- but again, that's a teaching thing, a private way for a dancer to imagine the alignment of the body, and it varies from school to school, but it's not a performance or choreographic issue.)

I think this is an example of someone reading something and not examining the context (not Paul, of course, but the review).

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I'm not going to comment on the review; salient points have been well covered by the responses. Homans's review, however, brings up the whole issue of standards for dance writers. Part of me wants to cheer her on; I always thought dance writing could--and should--be enriched by the perspective of practitioners. Contra Barnes, her experience as a dancer is a good thing, not something to be held against her. But another part of me wonders, along with Barnes, how she got so far so fast. Bracketing *that* question, I'm interested in sticking with exploring the status of practice in dance writing. Are former dancers looked down upon in the profession? Why? One gets a sense that the "outside" world values that experience, perhaps unquestioningly, while "insiders," such as Barnes, distrust it, perhaps for the wrong reasons. What qualifies those who do write about dance, aside from obvious academic credentials (or not so obvious--for instance, is it widely known that Joan Acocella has an advanced degree from Rutgers? Does *she* value that experience? Is academic experience seen negatively by the dance-critical profession?). It might be useful to consider critical professions other than dance writing:

Film critics: normally they are not filmmakers, and filmmakers don't often write about film. How would Martin Scorsese (sp?) be greeted if he wrote about film on a regular basis? Have most film critics been to film school?

Art critics: I guess this profession has the longest history of critics who are professional art writers and not practitioners; some artists do write--e.g., David Hockney. The profession seems hostile to artists writing, though--perhaps I am wrong on this?

Literary Critics: perhaps the biggest contrast to dance. Working writers often review other writers; writing book reviews is not seen as "not practicing"--after all, you're always writing when you're writing!

Music: Another contrast to dance writing. Most music critics are instrumentalists--they can at least pick their way through a musical score on the piano. Many noted musicians write about music, no?

Theater critics: I notice playwrights in bylines often enough. This profession seems pretty flexible in their attitudes towards in/outsiders.

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I wish more dancers would write about dance. One of the best reviews I've ever read was in a criticism seminar (I was a guest lecturer and got there early and was invited to listen to the "read and talk about your piece" segment") written by Holly Willilams, a former dancer with Laura Dean. The assignment had been to write about the performance the preceding night...which happened to be by Laura Dean. AND one of the works on the program was a dance that Williams had been in, in the original cast. Now, that alone didn't make it a good review, of course. She had to have insight (which she did) and she had to be a good writer (which I think she is). But put all that together and you have a review that was interesting, and invaluably informative.

I don't think the criticism leveled against Ms. Homans, or any of the grumblings among dance people about her sudden appearance in major publications, have anything to do with her having been a dancer -- although being a student at SAB does not automatically qualify one to make statements about Petipa. Nancy Reynolds, who is tremendously respected within the field, is also a former SAB student. She writes brilliantly about dance and has a rich historical background and the ability to place things in context -- meaning the instinct to know when someone makes a statement that he will contradict the next day, or that is specific to one purpose, and not seize on it as though it is Revealed Truth and build a New Important Theory on it.

The dance backgrounds of critics I know varies. A few have studied -- not seriously, but taken classes. I don't know of any newspaper/magazine critic with a serious dance background -- but I may just not know about it. I also don't think academic training is an issue. Most of us don't know what the others do "in real life" or know the backgrounds, until you get to know the person, of course. You're judged on your writing -- I've found that critics are very good at sniffing out fakes. Maybe not after the first review/article or two, but it's hard to sustain a body of work if you have only a superficial knowledge.

It's quite possible to judge dance, like painting or films, by eye from the outside, matching pictures, as it were, of this performance against that one. One can train the eye -- it helps to observe classes, which isn't easy to do.

Dance history has been written by amateurs -- like Cyril W. Beaumont, a bookseller, or Lincoln Kirsten, a Kirstein. (I have no idea into which DOL category he would fit!) Or Marian Hannah Winter, who spent her entire adult life going from manuscript to manuscript, and traipsing through the graveyards of Europe to trace the dance families of pre-19th century ballet. There isn't any training for dance critics/historians and, worse, because there is still NO comprehensive department comparable to music or art at any university in this country where you can study dance history with dance historians, people who want to study dance history do it on their own with tutors, the old-fashioned way, and people who want to get credentials go to a university and get a Ph.D. from another department -- often theater, sometimes music, but do not have the opportunity to study with anyone in their field. [And before I get 7 posts on "this or that department has a Ph.D. program" there are a couple, but they don't teach dance history. They skip that step and go right through to performance analysis and political issues in dance.] I've read a few dissertations in fields in which I'm knowledgeable, and they're full of -- not so much errors, but misconceptions, something that, had the person been studying in a university department, a professor would have corrected.

I did a master's thesis on ballet history guided by a Ph.D. in English with a keen interest in the arts, who taught several interdisciplinary seminars about the arts. He could suggest books about the arts in general, and could judge if I made a general historical misstep. But I had colleagues (other dance writers who I knew knew dance history) read my chapters for comments on the dance content. I did the same with my book. A book published by a university press must be peer reviewed. So it was sent out to readers -- but there is really only one other person in America who is primarily a Bournonville specialist. They had to turn to historians whose specialty was in other periods. On my own, I sent my manuscript to a panel of readers, some of whom were scholars in other fields but also very knowledgeable about dance and had at least seen the Danish ballets I was describing; some chapters were read by dancers who had lived through the times I was discussing. So if you're responsible, you vet your work on your own.

The problem with magazine writing today is an editorial one, I think, and tied to the death of the importance of a liberal arts education. A generation ago, editors had some personal connection to the arts. They knew what was going on and who was important. Today, that's not the case. One could write a piece "proving" that Gumpher De Grovis [not a real person] had really founded the New York City Ballet, and that, say, Tanaquil LeClercq had "really" choreographed everything credited to Balanchine and if you have connections, if people whom the editor knows personally speaks for you, you could get it published.

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Since that post was so long, I thought I'd address Ray's question about other art forms in a separate post. (And thank you, Ray, both for posting the link to the article and for your questions -- and good to see you again :o )

I think there are several problem with artists in writing about their own art, which may be why so few do. For one thing, to be an artist you have to have a point of view and believe in it, so it's hard to view others' work objectively. Reviews of dance by dancers are often of the "if I made this work I'd do this" variety, which says much more about the writer than what s/he's writing about. Secondly, artists are reluctant to write what they really think for fear of offending someone who may have control over their own careers. It's also almost impossible to write objectively about friends! And thirdly, artists are in the awkward position that if they criticize someone negatively, they'll be accused of "sour grapes" ("she didn't like my piece because I got the choreographic fellowship and she didn't"). I think those are the reasons -- aside from the fact that if you're a choreographer or dancer you'd probably rather be choreographing or dancing than writing.

Critics and commentators on dance, as in any other art form, are primarily writers, and I don't thnk we have to apologize for that. I've reviewed books for 15 years; I just wrote one. The next review I write is going to be no better or worse for that experience. I didn't learn anything about writing from writing a book -- although I've learned a hell of a lot about publishing! (I learned how to structure a chapter-length article -- learned by doing -- from writing an article for Ballet Review about a decade ago. That was agony. Somehow I internalized all the lessons I'd learned, and have never had a problem structuring a long piece since. That's just one personal example, of course, not a universal truth :P )

I also think that, whatever one's background, one has to look at the art form as a whole. I gave a video lecture to a class of dance students a few summers ago and was surprised to learn that they didn't look at anything except the dancing -- how would I do that step? How is she doing that step? -- They had no training whatsoever in watching choreography or analyzing a ballet. For my book, I interviewed more than 100 dancers who had grown up in the Bournonville tradition. Some of them certainly saw things that I hadn't seen. Many of them saw things that I had, which was comforting. And there were just as many who were absolutely clueless, who did not know anything about any role other than their own, or have any informed opinion about the ballet as a whole -- by that, I mean they didn't know what the changes had been, they didn't care. It was All About Me. So being a dancer doesn't insure that you have a critical viewpoint.

So no one has to look at the whole picture, and each writer comes to it from a different perspective. Which is why it is so important to have different voices writing!!

I hope the length of this will not discourage others from answering -- these are good questions, and just once, on a thread about writing, I would love to hear from people who are not working critics. Humor me! It's Christmas :(

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Thanks, Paul – I knew I had read something about the vertical/horizontal body divisions before, but couldn't recall where. The "looking forward to Petipa" stuff reminds me of Deborah Jowitt's section on Balanchine in "Time and the Dancing Image."

Perhaps I ought to note for the record that I don't know anything about Homans apart from the sentence or two that appears on the end of a given article. When her pieces first started showing up in TNR, I was just puzzled. There doesn't seem to be anything terribly new in what she writes, and the observations that are new are often a little, well, off-kilter. (I was thrown by a piece she wrote about the dance world's reaction to Sept. 11 –suddenly proffering definitions of terrorism, a subject I'd have thought other parts of the magazine dealt with rather thoroughly.) I thought she had some good points to make about "Movin' Out."

I'm used to seeing articles on dance in The New York Review of Books by Acocella, Croce, Robert Craft. Kirstein used to write for it. This just isn't writing on that level, and TNYRB is a publication with standards. It's not a place where you generally see writers who need "seasoning." Disconcerting.

Farrell Fan, the articles in TNYRB often wander far afield from reviews per se -- it's not at all uncommon for the writer to use the book as a takeoff point, as it were, to discuss larger issues. Maybe Robert Craft was busy, but he was the obvious person for this piece, someone able to address both the musical and dancing issues. Oh, well.

Thanks for starting an interesting thread, Ray.

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Pardon this aside in response to dirac's aside.

In recent times, my favorite reviews in NYRB have been by Russell Baker. They usually comprise a group of books, sometimes as many as a half dozen, on a related subject. He always gives every book its due and the result is a graceful essay that is unmistakably the work of Russell Baker. I'm grateful to NYRB for giving him this forum. Because as much as I relish reading Maureen Dowd in the Times, she is no Russell Baker.

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I was looking for other reactions to some of these articles on the web when I ran across a Blog that characterized one of Homan's articles (one that generated a lot of controversy here) as "superb" - and a lightbulb went off. The blogger wasn't much interested in ballet, he was much more interested in politics, and he said that Homan's article was the first that made him think about the sociocultural impact of ballet. Certainly not a bad thing, but I think there's more there.

The political journals (TNR, New Criterion and there was even that brief article by John Derbyshire in the National Review about a year ago) have a style to them that Homans (and other writers) use. The Olympian perspective, the sense of facts used as a blunt instrument, the use of detail less to enrich the topic than to persuade reminds me sometimes of a legal brief, and sometimes of current political writers like Andrew Sullivan. There's analysis in the pieces, and I think there's genuine research and work too, but at heart, it's a debater's style. It's not to say this is a new thing (it isn't) or a bad thing (it isn't) but I think it's a popular thing. I think it's also what makes Homans' (or Laura Jacob's piece on Movin' Out for that matter) pieces contentious.

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cannot comment on j.homans, but after reading this thread have 3 responses:

1. dance critics in australia - FOR NEWSPAPERS - are almost always journalists, perhaps with some connection to dance in their past/youth, but not a current connection (apart from reviewing).

2. a friend of mine, who i regard as the most interesting (i.e. the "best, in a way) dance reviewer i read regularly (her name is Naomi Millett), DOESN'T know much about dance at all - her background is in music (as a performer, and in communications in general: radio and so on). i find her descriptions, for example, far better than mine - which seems to be something to do with her UNfamiliarity with what she is seeing, and also something to do with how she sees things, and especially with her skill as a writer.

3. alexandra, i don't know about 'Vaganova's Seven Stories' - please tell? (maybe a new thread?)

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"Seven stories" is quick to tell, grace. There's a sort of urban legend about Vaganova teaching that the body was divided into seven stories (as in a building), some make it ten, and that they had to line up correctly or the structure would not stand long. I don't know the source of it, but it seems a pretty valid imagery for teaching about alignment, so I don't chafe at it.:)

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The seven stories is not an urban legend, Mel! It's one way, at least, of the way Vaganova-trained dancers talk about the alignment of the body.

Grace, I first heard it from a Bulgarian dancer from their National Ballet School, who was describing a young dancer and said she had as perfect a placement as he'd ever seen, "You know, the seven stories of Vaganova? Each one of them was in perfect alignment." I hadn't heard of it, and we talked about it. Since then it's come up in several interviews with dancers. (Obviously, I'm not a Vaganova-trained dancer or teacher.) It becomes a short-hand to correct one errant part of the body -- "Watch your 4th story?" "Pull in the 5th story," etc."

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Originally posted by Alexandra

The seven stories is not an urban legend, Mel!  It's one way, at least, of the way Vaganova-trained dancers talk about the alignment of the body.

OK, then let's up it one notch on the credibility scale and call it "oral history", because I've never seen it written down in any of Vaganova's writings that have so far been translated. I've heard it, too, in fact I agree with it, and use it, if a little differently from Vaganova-trained teachers, but it's a great and useful image, all the same.

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One word -- the final one, from me at least -- on Ms. Homans' biography, since it has been raised so often. Her husband is a contributing editor at The New Republic (where Ms. Homans is the dance critic) and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. I'm not posting this for discussion or speculation, just to complete the background that Mel posted above.

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Well, nepotism doesn't hurt anyone I suppose, except the person who originally had the job.


[i'm editing this post a few hours later because on re-reading, I think I ought to make it clear I don't have any first-hand knowledge as to why Homans replaced Aloff at TNR. It could have been for a myriad number of reasons, and I haven't talked to any of the parties about it.]

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We've been troubled by the whole Homans issue. It has been raised several times, and I've been contacted off-board by people who've sensed an undertone in the articles and wondered what was going on -- many think it's because Homans was a dancer. I posted what I did above -- and I'm sure Leigh's reasons are similar -- to stop speculation rather than further it. It's not to defend articles that have attacked Homans, but to give a possible explanation for them. Had her pieces been in, say, Ballet Review, I doubt there would have been so much comment. But when one jumps in at the deep end, it is likely TO cause comment.

Personally, I think the work should speak for itself. I agree with others who've said any article about dance that gets people talking is good for the cause. We certainly need new writers about dance, and Homans seems to genuinely love the subject. (Nobody goes into dance writing to get rich!)

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In the hopes of getting away from talking about one writer and back to Ray's original very interesting question, I'd like to comment on what Grace wrote several posts back:

. Dance critics in australia - FOR NEWSPAPERS - are almost always journalists, perhaps with some connection to dance in their past/youth, but not a current connection (apart from reviewing).

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. (Two generations ago, most of the major newspaper writers here had no journalism degrees, and many didn't even have college! It was more a trade, and one learned on the job.)

The former critic for the Washington Post, who hired me (Alan M. Kriegsman) had a background in music and mathematics, and had written music criticism for other papers primarily, although also some dance, before he became primarily a dance critic. The current WP dance critic, Sarah Kaufman, does have a degree in journalism, but she had written criticism, and had a dance background, before that degree.

In Europe, there seems to be a distinction between the arts journalist and the critic. The former does the previews, interviews and news stories, and the latter does only reviews and commentary. We have that kind of a division in news and politics, but not generally in the arts, especially not in dance. They'll barely hire a dance critic -- many, if not most, are part-time -- and they're certianly not going to hire two dance writers!

I'm all for this division, btw.

(And, Grace, btw, when I was a child, I would have spelled "stories" in this context "storeys," which would have avoided the confusion, but I've been told by editors that we've "simplified" that spelling here now.)

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