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'Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints'

Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints
(By Joan Acocella; Pantheon; 524 pages; $30 cloth)

It isn't easy following a legend, but dance critic Joan Acocella has acquitted herself admirably as the successor to the legendary Arlene Croce at The New Yorker (something no film critic after Pauline Kael has managed at the magazine). Acocella writes just as insightfully about books and authors as she does about dancers and choreographers. This collection provides an opportunity to enjoy again 30 profiles, and one essay about writer's block, from The New Yorker (with four exceptions). Acocella's subjects range from James Joyce's tortured daughter, Lucia, to Simone de Beauvoir, who loved Sartre but had an affair with American tough-guy writer Nelson Algren because he was better in the sack than the doyen of existentialism; to Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc (the saints); to quintessential American novelists Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Her attention is drawn to artists who had the "ego strength" necessary to sustain themselves through periods of bad luck, hard times and making do—although she admits to liking H.L. Mencken despite the fact that he suffered "no serious wounds" in his career. The best pieces, however, are about dance, from Nijinsky and Baryshnikov to Martha Graham and Bob Fosse. Even though he is not the subject of a single profile, George Balanchine's spirit surfaces again and again in the lives of balletophile Lincoln Kirstein, gay English choreographer Frederick Ashton and prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Acocella's observations about the man who embodied modern classical dance are always on the mark—Balanchine "did with dance what Pound wanted poets to do with language: make it not a story but an action"—and she astutely parses the collaboration between Balanchine and the leggy leaper Farrell, which lead to transcendent aesthetic and physical achievements: "Farrell's movement came in bolts, in waves, in tearing trajectories."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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