Kavanagh, Julie 1952-

views updated

Kavanagh, Julie 1952-


Born July 10, 1952, in Johannesburg, South Africa; daughter of Christopher (an editor) and Muriel (a writer) Kavanagh; married Ross Macgibbon, June, 1984; children: Joe, Alfie. Ethnicity: "British." Education: Oxford University, B.A. (first-class honors). Hobbies and other interests: Reading, good food and wine, travel, the arts.


Home—London, England. Office—New Yorker, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London S.W.1, England. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, 598 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.


Arts editor for the magazines Harper's & Queen, 1980-90; Vanity Fair, London editor, 1990-93; New Yorker, London editor, 1993—.


De la Torre Buono Prize, 1997, for Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton.



Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1997.

Nureyev: The Life, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including Town and Country, Harper's Bazaar, and Vanity Fair.


Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton by Julie Kavanagh is a biography of the choreographer Ashton. Born in 1904, Ashton passed away in 1988 and his funeral became an event in which "the public, peerage, and royalty itself gathered in Westminster Abbey to pay him tribute," according to David Daniel in the Wall Street Journal. Kavanagh, herself a Royal Ballet-trained dancer, "lavished exhaustive (but never exhausting) attention" on Ashton and "follows every thread of his existence with the thoroughness of an archaeologist—but always with the purpose of understanding his life and work," Daniel commented.

As Kavanagh recounts in Secret Muses, Ashton encountered his first muse, ballerina Anna Pavlova, as a boy in Lima, Peru. At age fourteen Ashton returned to London with his mother and English diplomat father. He studied ballet as a dancer, then began choreographing in 1930. In 1933, his first production in the United States, Four Saints in Three Acts, received critical acclaim when performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The opera was moved to Broadway and ran an additional six months.

Ashton eventually composed more than 150 ballets, "some of which … are among the masterpieces of twentieth century art," according to Daniel in the Wall Street Journal. Daniel credited Ashton with an "English style of ballet that evoked idyllic poetry, Edwardian manners, Restoration wit, and fairy-tale magic." In addition to Pavlova, Robert Greskovic—writing in the Times Literary Supplement—cited the influences of Isadora Duncan, Alicia Markova, "and most especially, Margot Fonteyn." "All these inspirational women make vivid appearances in Kavanagh's narrative," remarked Greskovic. "Kavanagh is as good on Ashton's ballets as she is on the individuals who sometimes inspired them. Her analyses of the semi-narrative Enigma Variations (1968) and the non-narrative Rhapsody (1980), to choose but two examples, set impressively high standards."

Ashton's achievements with the Royal Ballet brought him and the company a "worldwide reputation," pointed out Fiona MacCarthy in the Observer. Ashton's "own upward mobility became his most gleefully repetitive camp joke." MacCarthy observed that Secret Muses "should be read by anybody contemplating writing a contemporary life," and remarked that the book "will deepen understanding of Ashton's ebullient yet melancholy work." The critic explained that "in Ashton's post-war abstract ballets, there is a sense of personal as much as national desolation, the edginess of aspirations unresolved." "He was by nature the pursuer of male lovers," noted MacCarthy, who further commented that "Ashton's sexual fluidity was at the centre of his idiosyncratic talent."

Secret Muses also documents the parallels between Ashton and George Balanchine, Russian-born choreographer of the New York City Ballet. "American balletomanes will be unhappy with the image this book projects of their idol Georges Balanchine as a jealous troublemaker," wrote Jonathan Keates in the Spectator. Keates said that Kavanagh "is marvelously candid in dealing with the sequence of lovers … if only because the experience of these passions was such an essential inspiration to the choreographer." Keates described the pursuits of Ashton by wealthy women, such as Alice von Hofmannsthal (nee Astor), "who lured him to bed with the aid of silk shirts ‘in Gatsby-like quantities’ and frolics amid the let's-pretend-we're-surrealists world."

Ashton's muses included male lovers as well as men he sought but were unattainable, according to Kavanagh in Secret Muses. Keates noted that "without such details the book … would lose its point." Keates complimented the "zest and glamour" which Kavanagh injected into the work and called the biography "a triumph of design, expressiveness and commitment." Daniel noted in the Wall Street Journal that the collection of photographs contained in the book "adds an aptly Proustian touch."

Kavanagh examines the life and achievement of another twentieth-century dance icon in Nureyev: The Life. Rudolph Nureyev, born in a trans-Siberian train in 1938, endured a brutally poor childhood in the Russian hinterlands. Upon seeing his first ballet at age seven, he was so thrilled that he determined to make dance his life. Against great odds, he found a place at the Kirov Ballet School as a teenager, trained hard to overcome physical limitations, and found success. In 1961, he made history by defecting to the west while on tour with the Kirov Ballet in Paris. Soon afterward, he commenced studying with Danish dancer Erik Bruh, who became the love of his life. Nureyev then went on to become the dance partner of Margot Fonteyn at Britain's Royal Ballet. Their performances together became legendary for what Guardian writer Simon Callow described as "the overpowering sense of aliveness they created, the interplay, the intimacy, tenderness and mutual inspiration."

Nureyev's personal life was equally dramatic. He lived flamboyantly, threw tantrums, and indulged his huge sexual appetite—usually for men—with abandon. Afflicted with AIDS, he died in 1993. Despite ravages to his body since 1973, he continued to dance, in one instance performing just six days after major surgery and with a catheter still in place; his last performance took place in 1992. Nureyev was never considered a superlative dancer in terms of technique or elegance—indeed, the term "crude" was often used to describe his personality—yet he was acclaimed for the unequalled passion he brought to his work.

Some reviewers found Nureyev less satisfying that Kavanagh's earlier book. New Yorker contributor Joan Acocella, for one, observed that Nureyev fails to probe the connection "between Nureyev's lack of moral feeling and the general unintelligence of his work—both his performances and his productions." Similarly, Toni Bentley wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Nureyev "reads more like the biography of a celebrity than an artist, and they are not the same thing. An artist has, in addition to the expensive houses and the tantrums, an emanation that is his art." Dance magazine critic Laura Jacobs also expressed disappointment with the biography's lack of analysis, noting that Kavanagh raises questions about Nureyev's personality, artistic demands, and legacy that she does not fully address. And, writing in Culturekiosque, Patricia Boccadoro commented that Kavanagh "loses the dramatic thread of [Nureyev's] life in a mass of extravagant details which only leave her reader confused."

Nevertheless, several critics hailed Nureyev as a stellar achievement. Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Carlin Romano described the book as a "triumph of bravura tale-telling" and a "masterpiece." A writer for Atlantic Monthly deemed the book "among the most satisfying biographies of the year." Callow, in his Guardian review, wrote that "Kavanagh never apologises for [Nureyev], nor does she try to extenuate his frequently brutal behaviour. What she makes clear is that these were flaws in a titanic human being who never ceased to strain every fibre of his being to serve dance…. To be a dancer, he said, was ‘sacrificial work.’ Kavanagh's book … is an important wake-up call to the lily-livered rest of us: this is what performing can be, but only if we give it everything. Nothing less will do."



Atlantic Monthly, January 1, 2008, review of Nureyev: The Life, p. 132.

Biography, January 1, 2008, review of Nureyev, p. 194.

Booklist, October 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Nureyev, p. 14.

Dance, February, 1997, review of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, p. 122; January 1, 2008, Laura Jacobs, "The Prince of Desire: For Nureyev, Ballet Was the One True Love," p. 200.

Economist, March 15, 1997, review of Secret Muses, p. S15; October 13, 2007, "An Inheritance beyond Price; Ballet," p. 99.

Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, May 1, 2008, Richard Canning, "The Dancer and the Dance."

Guardian (London, England), September 29, 2007, Simon Callow, "James Dean in Tights."

Hollywood Reporter, August 23, 2007, review of Nureyev, p. 9.

London Review of Books, November 29, 2007, James Davidson, review of Nureyev, p. 3.

Nation, December 10, 2007, Marina Harss, review of Nureyev, p. 54.

New Republic, November 19, 2007, Jennifer Homans, review of Nureyev, p. 34.

New Yorker, May 19, 1997, review of Secret Muses, p. 78; October 8, 2007, Joan Acocella, "Wild Thing," p. 88.

New York Times Book Review, December 2, 2007, Toni Bentley, "The Brando of Ballet," p. 34.

Observer, November 24, 1996, Fiona MacCarthy, review of Secret Muses, p. 15.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 26, 2007, Carlin Romano, review of Nureyev.

Publishers Weekly, August 13, 2007, review of Nureyev, p. 58.

Seattle Times, October 10, 2007, Moira Macdonald, review of Nureyev.

Spectator, November 9, 1996, Jonathan Keates, review of Secret Muses, p. 53.

Times Literary Supplement, November 22, 1996, Robert Greskovic, review of Secret Muses, p. 19l; February 22, 2008, Sarah Churchwell, review of Nureyev.

Wall Street Journal, May 15, 1997, David Daniel, review of Secret Muses, p. A21.


Ballet,http://www.ballet.co.uk/ (July 24, 2008), Ian Palmer, review of Nureyev.

Culturekiosque,http://www.culturekiosque.com/ (July 24, 2008), Patricia Boccadoro, review of Nureyev.

Literary Review,http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/ (July 24, 2008), Richart Sennett, "Becoming Apollo."