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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: J. Homans in New York Review

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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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Some further biographical detail on Jennifer Homans:


She performed at the 1980 and 81 SAB Workshop performances, and went on to Pacific Northwest Ballet. She holds a Ph.D. in European History from New York University. I knew there was a reason I liked her.;)

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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, a little nepotism never hurts. The only problem my writing career has had with it is that the only editorial relative I have works for American Chicken Breeder.;)

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Guest Leigh Witchel

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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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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Guest Manhattnik

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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