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Joan Acocella, Dance Critic for The New Yorker, Dies at 78

Joan Acocella, a cultural critic whose erudite, elegant essays about dance and literature appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books over four decades, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 78.

Her son, Bartholomew Acocella, said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Acocella (pronounced ack-ah-CHELL-uh) wrote deftly and deeply about dancers and choreographers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine. She scrutinized the vicissitudes of the New York City Ballet as well as the feats of the ballroom-dancing pros and celebrity oafs of the popular TV series, “Dancing With the Stars.”

She was The New Yorker’s dance critic from 1998 to 2019 and freelanced for The Review for 33 years, including her final articles for the publication, a two-part commentary on “Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century,” by Jennifer Homans, her successor as The New Yorker’s dance critic.

“What she wrote for us,” Emily Greenhouse, the editor of The Review, said in an email, “was often mischievous and always delicious — on crotch shots and cuss words, on Neapolitan hand gestures and Isadora Duncan’s emphasis on the solar plexus — in addition to Nijinsky and Donald Antrim and Marilynne Robinson.”

Ms. Acocella accompanied Mr. Baryshnikov to his birthplace, Riga, Latvia, for his first performances anywhere in the former Soviet Union since his defection in 1974 while on tour in Canada.

Dancing Twyla Tharp’s “Pergolesi” at the Latvian National Opera, Mr. Baryshnikov “gave them double barrel turns, he gave them the triple pirouettes in attitude (and then he switched to the other leg and did two more),” Ms. Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 1998. “He rose like a piston; he landed like a lark. He took off like Jerry Lee Lewis; he finished like Jane Austen. From ledge to ledge of the dance he leapt, sure-footed, unmindful, a man in love.”

Ms. Acocella was often trying to determine what made artists like Mr. Baryshnikov so successful. It was a search that began when she moved to New York City with her husband, Nicholas Acocella, in 1968 and became friendly with a group of young artists who awed her.

Ms. Acocella speaking at the 2009 New Yorker Festival. She also wrote for The New York Review of Books for 33 years.Credit…Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for The New Yorker

What will they become?” she recalled thinking about their futures, when she wrote the introduction to her book “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints” (2007), a collection of essays and reviews.

“There are many brilliant artists — they are born every day — but those who end up having sustained artistic careers are not necessarily the most gifted,” she wrote, adding that they were “the ones who combined brilliance with more homely virtues: patience, resilience, courage.”

Reviewing Ms. Acocella’s book for The New York Times, the novelist Kathryn Harrison described the author as a “keen and sympathetic observer of the ways in which corrosive disappointment can strip away the veneer of culture and refinement that an immature artist typically acquires, revealing the more genuine sensitivity, the art, beneath.”

Ms. Acocella also wrote extensively about literature — often lengthy biographical dives blended with criticism for The New Yorker and The Review. The authors she wrote about ranged from Dante and Chaucer to Carlo Collodi, the pen name for Carlo Lorenzini who wrote “Adventures of Pinocchio” in 1883, and Agatha Christie.

After reading all of Dame Agatha’s detective novels, Ms. Acocella examined the modes of murder splattered across her 66 books.

“Now and then,” she wrote in 2010, “the victim is shot or stabbed, and poor Agnes, the one stored with the tennis racquets, had a skewer driven through her brain, but Christie favored a clean conking on the head or — her overwhelming preference — poison.”

But, she added, “Poison probably appealed to her also because it did not involve assault. Christie disliked violence.”

Joan Barbara Ross was born on April 13, 1945, in San Francisco, and grew up in nearby Oakland. Her father, Arnold, was an executive of a cement company. Her mother, Florence (Hartzell) Ross, was a homemaker. As a girl, Joan took ballet lessons.

She received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D in comparative literature in 1984 from Rutgers University. The subject of her dissertation was how artists and intellectuals in Paris and London reacted to Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during its first five years, from 1909 to 1914.

Soon after moving to New York City, she began attending performances of the New York City Ballet once a year. But in the late 1970s, she learned that if she paid $50 to join the ballet company’s guild — and worked in the gift shop during intermission — she could see as many shows as she wanted.

“Sometimes you hear people say that Balanchine changed their lives, and it sounds like hyperbole, but such a thing can happen,” she told the quarterly Ballet Review in 2016. “Within a few years, my husband and I had separated, and I had become a dance critic.”

Through most of the 1970s, Ms. Acocella was an editor and writer at Random House, where she and two other authors wrote what became a successful textbook about abnormal psychology, which produced income for her through several revised editions over the next two decades.

In the 1980s, she became a senior critic at Dance Magazine. One of her early articles was about her son Bart performing as Fritz in the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” She was later the book review editor at Dance Research Journal and the lead dance critic of 7 Days, the short-lived weekly magazine. Then, in the 1990s, she wrote dance criticism for The Daily News of New York, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Acocella, left, leading a panel with, from left, the filmmaker Matt Reeves, the screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, the author Stephen King and the philosopher Noël Carroll.Credit…Joe Kohen/Getty Images The New Yorker

She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1993 and two years later, she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker.

“There was no greater experience,” David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, said by phone, “than going to a dance performance with her and watching the occasional urgent note being taken, and then her mouth agape with wonder, but also the occasional eye roll.”

In addition to her essays, Ms. Acocella wrote several books, including “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism” (2000), which grew out of an essay in The New Yorker, and “Mark Morris” (1993), about the brash, self-assured dancer and choreographer.

Reviewing the Morris book in The New York Times, John Rockwell called it a “deft blend of biography, dance history, backstage detail and critical analysis.”

A new collection of Ms. Acocella’s literary writings, “The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays,” is to be published this year.

She said that her literature and dance writing fed each other.

“I’ve written most about 19th and early 20th century literature, and boy, did those people have stories,” she said in an interview with The Review. “But ballet, because it is fundamentally abstract, taught me to stay close to style and tone, and not always to be so intent on the story. Conversely, literature taught me to be concerned about the moral life, in dance, too — how people behave toward one another, and what they take from and give to one another.”

In addition to her son, Ms. Acocella is survived by her partner, Noël Carroll; two grandchildren; a sister, Victoria Aguilar, and a brother, Mark Ross. Her marriage to Mr. Acocella ended in divorce.

In 2008, Ms. Acocella took temporary leave of ballet, tap and modern dance to examine “Dancing With the Stars,” the hit ballroom dance competition that pairs professional dancers with non-dancer celebrities.

“I don’t know why they’re up there, dragging those klutzes around — the pay must be good — but when you watch them dancing with nonprofessionals, you will see what makes a person a dancer,” she wrote in The New Yorker. “Contrary to widespread belief, the main difference is not in the feet but in the upper body — the neck, the shoulders, the arms, which are stiff in the amateur and relaxed and eloquent in the professional.”

One of those nonprofessionals, the tennis player Monica Seles, caught her eye.

“Poor Monica Seles,” she wrote, “with every step she took, ended in a position that no human being has ever willingly assumed. She was eliminated in the first round.”

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