Joan Acocella

Throughout the semester, my focus and readings have been on writers, past and present, who have made an impact in the dance world, not only with their knowledge of the arts but how they write about them.  Joan Acocella of The New Yorker is no exception.  In fact, she might just be one of the best dance critics of our time (and my personal favorite.)

Joan Acocella

With an impressive background, Acocella graduated from the University of California Berkeley in 1966 with a cum laude-merited BA in English.  After earning her PhD. in comparative lit from Rutgers University in 1984, Acocella’s writing career took off.  She worked as the senior critic and reviewer for Dance Magazine as well as the dance critic for New York’s publication Financial Times before transferring to The New Yorker in 1992.  She became their main dance critic in 1998.

Joan Acocella is the author of a number of dance books and literature such as “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints”, a collection of essays published in 1997, but she is best known for her eclectic articles found in The New Yorker.  Such articles explore individual dancers, companies, genres, productions and the overall beauty that is dance.  Acocella also wrote articles for other dance publications such as Dance Magazine, the New York Times (theater section) and Dance Ink.

In 1992, Acocella wrote a short, but powerful piece for Dance Ink entitled “What Critics Do.”  She reveals that while every critic has biases and opinions based on life experience, they attempt to keep an open mind and therefore, set up their schedules according to which performances and people they think they will find most interesting.

Really, it’s childish to ask that a critic be without biases. Taste, some sense of judgment about the field, is a large part of what a magazine or newspaper is buying when hiring a critic. All one wants is that those tastes should not be unduly restricting. What people should worry about is not critics who have biases, but critics who have no biases, no fidelity to their own experience, and who therefore are willing to go with what the publicity machine tells them.

– Joan Acocella, “What Critics Do”

The article continues with a discussion of other considerations that critics must take into account while reviewing.  Examples of such considerations include political biases and psychological repercussions.  Psychologically, Acocella describes what she calls her “Rule of One”: “the unspoken rule that when a concert or a series of concerts is really bad through and through, the critic must nevertheless pick out one work to praise.”  By doing so, critics remain judicious and their whole piece, while primarily focus on what was not good about the concert or performance, will not be entirely negative.

The article is ended with a two particularly interesting questions.  First, whether critics are pressured into writing positive reviews and second, if they are harsher than regular members.  I found these two questions very important because as a writer and reviewer for dance and theater performances (especially this semester), I have been concerned with being too harsh or not critical enough.  Acocella answered my questions in this article.  Acocella points out that while the audience “pre-selected” and have paid for their night out, the critics have not.  The critics may not be as familiar with the performance as the audience members are and do not have to pay to see the production.  For this reason, the audience wants to enjoy themselves and get what they paid for.  They are not as focused on the choices of the director, choroegrapher, producers, etc. as the critic must be.  While a typical audience member will be in awe by the seemingly flawless movement of the prima ballerina, the critic may be closely eying her technique, her costume, make-up, maybe even what brand of pointe shoe she was wearing and how it affected her dancing.

“What Critics Do” was one of my favorite pieces written by Acocella, her brilliance does not stop at defending her craft.  Other articles worth mentioning that I found intriguing were “A Hero’s Welcome” (December 2009), “Russian Soul” (June 2009) and her most recent article published in The New Yorker this April, “High Hopes.”

Accredited with numerous book titles, magazine articles and awards such as t Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 1995, Joan Acocella may just be the most well-known dance critic and writer for her time.

Want to know more about this remarkable woman and read her work?  Visit

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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