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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: J. Homans in New York Review


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Guest cargill

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

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

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

 

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

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Guest Calliope

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

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

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

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Guest Manhattnik

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Guest Michael

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

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

 

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

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Guest Michael

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

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

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