Still, Acocella was so shrewd and insightful on the writers that I figured I ought to give her a hearing on her home turf. I'm glad I did: here are nine essays which, taken together, must offer as good an introduction to the dance as you could possibly want--saving only, of course, the dance itelf.
I'm not sure what, precisely, it is that drew her to the dance, but I can see what it is about dance that so suits her talents. Dance is (I think even I understood this) about the most personal of art forms. We've got great paintings by Ignoto and some pretty good prose by Anon. But the dancer is the dance, so much so that they are only imperfectly taken apart. From Acocella I infer that almost any choreographer worthy of the name started off as, and remains, a dancer--they create dances so they will have something to do. Necessarily also, this requires a "company"--an instrument of sorts, through which the dancer/choreography comes to realize her (his?) vision.
Mainting a relationship with a company sounds at least as tricky as managing a polygamous marriage, yet with no promise of heavenly reward. Which brings us to the great tragedy of the dancer's life: it seems that virtually all of them outlive their physical prime, and have to find some way to continue to instrumentalize when the instrument is in liniment.
Which brings us to the point of why all this is so well suited to Acocella's talent. The thing is that--with dancers and writers and others--she is interested no so much in the work per se but in the interaction between work and life. In a superb essay on the life and novels of Hilary Mantel, she says:
[T]he books are extremely funny. This doesn't cancel out the horror. What we are left with is a picture of people--not necessarily good people--muddlingly trying to explain to themselves the pain and unknowability of their lives."The unknowability of our lives:" that is good. It is probably true for all of us, and if she concentrates on dancers and other artists, it would be only because their attempts to solve the puzzle are more vivid and on the whole better documented.
She is, thus, perhaps at her best with the "old ladies." That would include women like Suzanne Farrell or Twyla Tharp for whom (as dancers), "old" comes on earlier than it does for writers like Sybille Bedford or M.F.K. Fisher or Penelope Fitzgerald. Perhaps one of the most entertaining bits is an item on the sculptor Louise Bourgeois at 90, posed here with a two-foot crafted penis and a mischievous smile. By corollary, perhaps the one subject who seems to garner any disapproval is Dorothy Parker who did almost everything we remember before she was 35, then lumbered on in an alcoholic haze to past 70.
[Fun Fact: Fisher made it to 83, Fitzgerald to 84, Bedford to 95. Bourgeois, if Wiki is up to date, is still chugging at 97. Every one of them did some or all of their best work past retirement age. Tharp is 67 and Farrell is 63; by any measure their fame has to rest on the past.]
Necessarily perhaps, not everything here works. I never have got the point of Susan Sontag, and Acocella's gushy effusion (they went to the movies together) adds nothing to my understanding. And I'm still unsold on Frank O'Hara who remains, for me, still nothing more than a nostalgia trip for people who like to remember New York before David Dinkins. Fair enough; everyone has their blind spots [the two "saints" of the title are Mary Magdelene and Joan of Arc; each offers the occasion for a bit of cultural history, each interesting in its own way but suficiently distinctive to elude glib comment here]. I suppose my only regret is that I'm now curious to know more about Acocella herself. How did a nice girl from the Oakland hills become such a perceptive and appreciative an observer of the lives of others--and, bye the bye, such a great introduction to the dance?