Preeminent dance and literary critic Joan Acocella died Sunday. She was 78.
According to a report in the New York Times, the cause of death was cancer. For decades, Acocella served as one of the leading critics on the staff of the New Yorker, where she covered modern dance and ballet as well as books. In 2009 she received the Nona Balakian Citation from the National Book Critics Circle, an award given to an individual literary critic.
Acocella began her career as an editor at Random House before writing on the performing arts for Dance magazine and numerous daily newspapers. Shortly after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1993, she was hired by the New Yorker.
In addition to her role as New Yorker dance critic from 1998 to 2019, Acocella published numerous books, including an acclaimed 1993 biography of the dancer and choreographer Mark Morris, and Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, an assessment of how the My Ántonia author’s work has often been misinterpreted.
Next month marks the publication of her book The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays, a collection of her pieces on various literary works, from the Book of Job and Gilgamesh to novels by Marilynne Robinson and Elena Ferrante. In its starred review, Kirkus praised the book as “a top-notch collection full of information, elegance, and humor.”
On X, formerly Twitter, many admirers and colleagues praised Acocella’s work and critical voice. New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller wrote that she was “a critic of amazing grace, clarity and sanity. You studied her effortless-seeming stuff to see how it was done.” Richard Brody, a film critic at the magazine, called her criticism “strong, energetic, searching, and with the sharp edge comes some rough texture: contact with life.”
Miserable to learn of the passing of Joan Acocella, a dear and wonderful colleague, who often stopped by to talk movies; for me, her singular writing fused with her speaking voice: strong, energetic, searching, and with the sharp edge comes some rough texture: contact with life.— Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow) January 8, 2024
Mark Athitakis is a journalist in Phoenix.