Acocella, Joan 1945–

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Acocella, Joan 1945–

(Joan Ross Acocella)

* Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.

PERSONAL: Born April 13, 1945, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Arnold Marcus and Florence Ross; married Nicholas Acocella, 1966 (divorced, 1991); children: Bartholomew MacKinnon. Ethnicity: "Euro-American (white)." Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1966; Rutgers University, Ph.D., 1983.

ADDRESSES: Office—New Yorker, 4 Times Sq., New York, NY 10036.

CAREER: Dance (magazine), New York, NY, editor, 1983–85; State University of New York College at Purchase, Purchase, lecturer, 1986–87; 7 Days (periodicals), New York, NY, dance critic, 1988–90; New York Daily News, New York, NY, dance critic, 1991–93; Financial Times, London, England, dance critic, 1993–96; Wall Street Journal, New York, NY, dance critic, 1996–98; New Yorker, New York, NY, staff writer, 1998–. State University of New York College at Purchase, lecturer, 1983–84; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, 1994.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellow, 1993; Front Page Awards, Newswomen's Club of New York, 1996, for "Cather and the Academy," and 2003.


(As Joan Ross Acocella; with others) Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives, 2nd edition, CRM (Del Mar, CA), 1977, 8th edition (as Joan Acocella), McGraw-Hill (Boston, MA), 1999.

(As Joan Ross Acocella; with James F. Calhoun) Psychology of Adjustment and Human Relationships, Random House (New York, NY), 1978, 3rd edition, 1990.

(With Clifford J. Jolly and Fred Plog) Physical Anthropology and Archeology, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.

(Editor, with Lynn Garafola) André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1991.

Mark Morris, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1993.

Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, Jossey-Bass (San Francisco, CA), 1999.

(Editor) The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, unexpurgated edition, translated by Kyril FitzLyon, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1999.

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.

(Editor and contributor of biographical essay) Mission to Siam: The Memoirs of Jessie MacKinnon Hartzell, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu, HI), 2001.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2007.

Also coauthor of A Place for the Arts: The MacDowell Colony, 1907–2007, MacDowell Colony (Peterborough, NH), 2006. Contributor to books, including The Art of Enchantment: Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1909–1929, compiled by Nancy Van Norman Baer, 1988; Dancers, photographs by Philip Trager, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992; Mark Morris's L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato: A Celebration, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier and Matthew Lore, photographs by Stephen Black and others, Marlowe and Co. (New York, NY), 2001; Baryshnikov in Black and White (photographs), Blooms-bury (New York, NY), 2002; and author of foreword, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing, by Sally Banes, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Art in America, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books.

SIDELIGHTS: Joan Acocella's writings fall into several categories. Her interest in psychology led her to contribute several publications in this field, but Acocella is even better known for her work as a dance critic. With Lynn Garafola, for example, Acocella edited André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties. Levinson (1887–1933) was Europe's preeminent dance critic from 1924 to 1930. When he died at the age of forty-six, he had written over 800 articles, books, and reviews on film, art, literature, and dance. He contributed thirteen essays to the New York magazine Theatre Arts Monthly. The book contains several of these, including "The Negro Dance," "Javanese Dancing," "The Spirit of the Classic Dance," and "Stravinsky and the Dance." Joan Stahl wrote in Library Journal that "these essays will call attention to a seminal figure unknown to many dance lovers." Levinson influenced dance on both sides of the Atlantic. Harris Green noted in Dance magazine that Levinson's essays cover such subjects as Josephine Baker and silent movies. "Strictly speaking," said Stahl, "that last subject doesn't belong in a book with this title, but anyone interested in tightly reasoned writing about art should be in Acocella and Garafola's debt for including it."

Acocella contributed her analyses, called "perceptive" by Stahl in a Library Journal review, to photographer Philip Trager's Dancers. The book focuses on contemporary groups such as the Mark Morris Dance Group, Eiko and Koma, the Bebe Miller Company, Susan Marshall and Company, and Kazuo Ohno. The groups were photographed outdoors, allowing a freedom of expression beyond that permitted in a studio or on the stage. Stahl called Dancers "a beautifully designed volume." In a New York Times Book Review article, a critic described the book as "elegantly packaged."

In Mark Morris Acocella writes on the life and work of the man Nation reviewer Thea Singer said "has been variously described as the heir apparent to the great moderns and 'would-be enfant terrible,' the most musical choreographer since Balanchine and 'the darling of New York's dance avant-garde.'" Acocella also provides a history of modern dance from its founders, Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, to modernists Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor, to the postmodern Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union. Singer noted that Acocella's biography is of a man only in his mid-thirties. "How can one so young be so important as to merit a 306-page book?" asked Singer. "Yet because Acocella is so smart and lyrical a writer, so well informed about both dance and music theory, and so measured in her assessments … she convinces us to accept her invitation to the dance—and even to feel privileged, for having been asked."

Morris was born into an artistic family that encouraged his study of dance. When he was nine, Morris was inspired to be a flamenco dancer after watching Jose Greco's troupe perform. His mother enrolled him in dance classes, where he learned Spanish dance and ballet. He also studied Balkan and folk dance intensively. As a young teen, Morris choreographed dances for groups in Seattle. By the time he was twenty-two, eighteen of his dances had been performed, one by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. More than eighty of his works had been performed on stage by the time Morris was thirty-seven. His own Mark Morris Dance Group first performed in New York City in 1980, and later, throughout the United States and Europe. In 1990 Morris assisted in the development of Mikhail Baryshnik-ov's White Oak Project, for which he often provided choreography.

Morris set his dances to the music of composers that range from Bach, Vivaldi, Brahms, Handel, and Stravinsky to Gershwin, Lou Harrison, Michelle Shocked, and Thai and Indian artists. Marcia B. Siegel wrote in TDR that "as Acocella sees Morris, he is not only the last true inheritor of the modern dance tradition, he's also an innovator, a polymath, a classicist, and a crusader for the politically correct causes of our times. The ingredient that she doesn't inspect too closely is his gift for making a scandalous figure of himself, although this has had a great deal to do with his present visibility." Siegel said that "explicit homosexuality, vulgar behavior, and a celebration of the perverse are among Morris's favorite gambits, and Acocella accepts his blandly adolescent assertion that they're all just natural things, why not put them on a stage?"

"Acocella is certainly the voice of authority on the subject," wrote Mindy Aloff in the New Republic. "Aco-cella's book whets one's appetite to see the dances. As a guide to his work, the book is an unqualified triumph…. Acocella brings the choreographer's sensibility close to the reader, as if she were writing about a son whose posturing and defenses she acknowledges but also finally subordinates to what she sees as a basic intellectual and emotional generosity governing his art. One can't help liking Acocella's Mark Morris very much."

Acocella makes the case for why Morris should be considered a classical artist. Aloff wrote that she "contends that classicism in dance is not necessarily identical with ballet, or any other aristocratic technique, or with beauty, or with cheerful calm, or with allusions to ancient Greece, or with what we think of as classical music, or with stylistic refinement and the illusions of grace. She proposes, instead, that the term refers to the choreographer's attitude toward his aesthetic materials." Aloff said Acocella's definition of classical choreography "is clearly stated and immediately applicable, not only for the great choreographers of the past and the present, but also for the fledglings and the tyros who are struggling toward what they hope is a future. For a variety of reasons, we have entered a dark age of theatrical dancing, full of bewilderment and obscurity. In this context, Acocella's voice rings out as a standard-bearer from the age of reason." Christine Temin in the Boston Globe called Acocella's book "one of the great late-twentieth-century books on any choreographer—possibly the greatest."

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky is a translation of the journals of the Russian dancer and choreographer. Acocella edited and provided the introduction to the book, translated from the Russian by Kyril FitzLyon. Nijin-sky's fame is founded on three ballets, including The Afternoon of a Faun and The Rite of Spring, choreographed for the Ballets Russes between 1912 and 1913. The Rite of Spring, for which Stravinsky wrote his now-famous score, resulted in riots of protest upon its premiere in 1913. Nijinsky, who was born in 1889, danced professionally from 1907 to 1917. He abandoned his lover and mentor, Sergei Diaghilev, head of the Ballets Russes, to marry Romola de Pulszky. In his jealous rage, Diaghilev fired Nijinsky, who then found it impossible to sustain an independent career. The couple and their daughter moved to Switzerland to escape the war. Nijinsky was not yet thirty, but the schizophrenia that was to plague him for most of his life was pushing him over the edge into madness. Before insanity completely destroyed the artist, he spent six weeks, from January 19 to March 4, 1919, filling four notebooks with entries he intended to publish in order to present to the world the true picture of his life and observations. He had barely completed his journal when he was hospitalized, never again to be in control of his own life.

Nijinsky hid his diaries from Romola while he was writing them, but she eventually published them in English in 1936, editing her husband's words to omit uncomplimentary references to her and much of the sexual content. "For this new edition of the diary," wrote Anne Hollander in New Republic, "in order to guard the integrity of Nijinsky's writings during his breakdown, it was clearly necessary to preserve every last bit of incoherence and discontinuity in Nijinsky's text, every obsessive repetition, every vagrant association, and all the odd twitches of syntax or diction—each one well annotated—together with every personal account of defecation and masturbation, to say nothing of ingestion, and every uninhibited reference to public figures and family members." Hollander said Acocella's "long biographical and interpretive introduction is a boon to the reader of this difficult book. She sketches the world of art that was contemporary with Nijinsky's short career, along with the drastic historical events in progress that affected and helped to compromise both that world and Nijinsky's art, and the ways his madness may be seen as part of them all, inflected by the mythology of the mad artist. She sets Nijinsky's writings in the context of his recent conversion to Tolstoyanism, which helps to account for the dominant spiritual theme of the diary."

Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman said that "here the power of Nijinsky's prose flows uninterrupted, and it reads, in its most striking passages, like pages right out of Samuel Beckett or Gertrude Stein." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that this unexpurgated edition of Nijinsky's diaries, "which for the first time includes a fourth journal of letters and poems, gives readers a chance to read an autobiography of a great artist during his psychological decline." "The new edition restores previously squelched details of Nijinsky's candid rage with others in his life, such as Diaghilev, the dancer's wife, and his mother-in-law," wrote Molly McQuade in Yale Review. "Also unveiled in fuller view is Nijinsky's sexual history with female prostitutes and schoolboy comrades, his fantasies involving animals, and his insatiable interest, spiritual and erotic, in his own intestinal housekeeping. More than any facts or flights of morbid fancy, though, the new diary evokes the rhythmic grip and range of his futile struggle with his illness."

Acocella's interest in dance and psychology made The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky a natural for her. Another of her books that deals with psychopathology is Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, which was developed from an article Acocella wrote for the New Yorker. She reviews the history from the large numbers of hysteria diagnoses in the late nineteenth century to the increasing diagnoses of multiple personality disorder (MPD) diagnoses in the last several decades. The book covers therapies, scientific theories, and includes case studies and research. Acocella delves into the case that was the basis for the book Sybil, a 1974 bestseller about a young woman with sixteen alter egos. Antoinette Brinkman wrote in Library Journal that Creating Hysteria is "based on the premise that mental disorders go in and out of vogue." Acocella notes the impact made by the movement to protect children, the claims of women who have said they were abused as children, the occult, and feminist and antifeminist influences. A Publishers Weekly reviewer said Acocella makes a "convincing case against mental health professionals whom she portrays as exploiters who prompted the mass hysteria and witch hunts that have resulted from recovered memory syndrome and the MPD diagnosis."

Peter D. Kramer wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "the recovered memory movement is a case of a host of good intentions paving a precipitous road to hell." Kramer noted that the term "battered child syndrome" evolved in the 1960s, at about the same time the subject of sexual molestation came out into the open and feminism was seeing a revival. Psychotherapy was becoming more empathetic and moving toward patient advocacy. "Each of these changes was important and necessary," wrote Kramer. "But America has trouble with proportion, and by the 1980s the melding of child protection, politics, and clinical zeal had produced outsize claims." It was claimed that approximately one-third of girls had been sexually abused and that early sexual trauma shaped women's personalities. This resulted in a ten-year period of obsession with MPD and disassociative disorders. The decline of MPD diagnoses occurred after a patient, Elizabeth Carlson, and another patient with whom she compared notes, sued her psychiatrist. Ninety percent of those diagnosed with MPD have been women; many come from financially straitened families. Kramer wrote that for Acocella "the crucial target is not sexual abuse but poverty. Creating Hysteria should move psychiatrists, political activists, and journalists to examine how they contributed to this debacle, and the story it tells poses a particular challenge for psychotherapy: what if the empathetic stance is as risky in its own way as the clinical distance it replaced?"

In addition to her books on dance and psychology, Acocella also wrote a work of literary criticism titled Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, which began as Acocella's 1995 New Yorker essay "Cather and the Academy." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that Acocella "wittily charts decades of politically influenced Cather criticism and suggests an approach that balances politics with 'a sustained attention to what the artist is saying.'" In 1920, Cather, author of My Antonia, was acknowledged by H.L. Mencken to be a top American novelist. Cather's novels of rural America and prairie life fell out of favor with critics during the 1930s, although her readers remained loyal. In the years to follow, she won a Pulitzer Prize and was featured on the cover of Time.

Cather had the potential to become fashionable again in the age of feminist criticism. "But getting her back into the classroom wasn't quite as simple as it looked," wrote Terry Teachout in National Review. "For in addition to being a woman, she was also a New Deal-hating Republican, a fellow traveler of Roman Catholicism, a firm believer in the gospel of art for art's sake, and a testy antifeminist who dismissed most lady poets as wet-eyed halfwits and most lady novelists as simply incompetent." The politically incorrect novelist was made more palatable by Sharon O'Brien in 1984 when she published an essay purporting to offer evidence from Cather's letters that she was a lesbian and claiming that her homosexuality was the inspiration for her fiction.

Acocella writes that Cather was probably attracted to women, although there is no evidence she pursued this interest. She points out that Cather's writings span the range of human interests, crossing gender lines and including love as but one facet of the human experience. She shows that O'Brien's supposed evidence for Cather's lesbianism rests on a crucial misreading of one of Cather's letters. Other writings have sprung up around Cather's alleged lesbianism. Acocella notes a 1986 essay by Judith Fetterley in which she accused Jane Rule of homophobia for refusing to acknowledge the lesbian leanings of Cather's My Antonia. Current Cather criticism takes for granted that the author was a lesbian.

Teachout said Acocella's "devastatingly concise book isn't going to win its fearless author any prizes—she marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia—but anyone who has had it up to here with political correctness should buy a copy of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism and get ready to cheer, long and loudly." Teachout noted a section of Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, which he called Cather's "greatest novel" and "exquisitely written," in which the bishop faces death and looks at himself as a man and a human creature. Teachout said that to label Cather "with a single trendy adjective" is "an act of cultural vandalism…. Joan Acocella swells with righteous anger at those theory-mad pigeonholers who would dare to try it…. Out of that anger, she has made this eloquent, wholly admirable book."



Antioch Review, summer, 1994, review of Mark Morris, p. 530.

Booklist, November 1, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Mark Morris, p. 496; November 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 546; September 15, 1999, Mary Carroll, review of Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, p. 207.

Boston Globe, February 6, 1994, Christine Temin, review of Mark Morris.

Dance, December, 1991, Harris Green, review of André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, pp. 80, 82, 84-86; March, 1994, Harris Green, review of Mark Morris, p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1993, review of Mark Morris, p. 1235.

Library Journal, April 15, 1991, Joan Stahl, review of André Levinson on Dance, pp. 94, 96; October 15, 1992, Joan Stahl, review of Dancers, p. 70; October 1, 1999, Antoinette Brinkman, review of Creating Hysteria, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, review of Mark Morris, p. 1.

Nation, February 14, 1994, Thea Singer, review of Mark Morris, p. 205.

National Review, March 20, 2000, Terry Teachout, "No Way to Treat a Lady," p. 54.

New Republic, March 7, 1994, Mindy Aloff, review of Mark Morris, p. 37; May 31, 1999, Anne Hollander, "Gods and Bodies," p. 42.

New York, September 13, 1993, review of Mark Morris, p. 102; January 3, 1994, Tobi Tobias, review of Mark Morris, p. 57.

New Yorker, February 14, 1994, review of Mark Morris, p. 101.

New York Observer, February 8, 1999, Adam Phillips, review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky.

New York Times, January 5, 1994, review of Mark Morris, p. C21.

New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1992, Vicki Goldberg, review of Dancers, p. 49; January 23, 1994, John Rockwell, review of Mark Morris, p. 9; February 28, 1999, William Deresiewicz, review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 8; November 21, 1999, Peter D. Kramer, "I Contain Multitudes: Why Were So Many Women Thought to Have Multiple Personalities?," p. 82.

Opera News, July, 1994, Stephanie Von Buchau, review of Mark Morris, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1993, review of Mark Morris, p. 63; December 14, 1998, review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 65; August 9, 1999, review of Creating Hysteria, p. 331; January 31, 2000, review of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, p. 95.

TDR, fall, 1994, Ann Daly, review of Mark Morris, p. 206; summer, 1995, Marcia B. Siegel, review of Mark Morris, p. 189.

Washington Post Book World, April 16, 1995, review of Mark Morris, p. 12.

Wilson Quarterly, winter, 1994, review of Mark Morris, p. 93.

Yale Review, July, 1999, Molly McQuade, review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 153.