Discipline: Literature – nonfiction

Joan Acocella

Discipline: Literature – nonfiction
Region: New York, NY
MacDowell Fellowships: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2014

Joan Acocella (1945-2024) was a cultural critic whose essays about dance and literature appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books over four decades

Acocella was often trying to determine what made certain artists so successful. She wrote deftly and deeply about dancers and choreographers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine. It was a search that began when she moved to New York City in 1968 and became friendly with a group of young artists who awed her.

Through most of the 1970s, Acocella was an editor and writer at Random House, where she and two other authors wrote what became a successful textbook about abnormal psychology. In the 1980s, she became a senior critic at Dance Magazine. 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. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1993 and two years later, she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. She was The New Yorker’s dance critic from 1998 to 2019 and freelanced for The Review for 33 years.

Acocella also wrote extensively about literature — often lengthy biographical dives blended with criticism for The New Yorker and The Review. In addition to her essays, she wrote several books, including Mark Morris (1993), a biography and critical study of the choreographer, and an analysis of the criticism of author and MacDowell Fellow Willa Cather’s work, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (2000). Her book, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of essays, was written in part at MacDowell. A new collection of Acocella’s literary writings, The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays, is to be published in 2024.



Joan Acocella worked in the Sprague-Smith studio.

In January of 1976, the original Sprague-Smith Studio — built in 1915–1916 and funded by music students of Mrs. Charles Sprague-Smith of the Veltin School — was destroyed by fire. Redesigned by William Gnade, Sr., a Peterborough builder, the fieldstone structure was rebuilt the same year from the foundation up, reusing the original fieldstone. A few…

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