The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life

  • By Sarah L. Kaufman
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
  • January 18, 2016

An earnest, though uneven, ode to poise.

The two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for dance criticism both write (or wrote) for the Washington Post: the late Alan (“Mike”) Kriegsman, in 1976, and, in 2010, Sarah Kaufman, who took over as the paper’s dance critic in 1996 when Kriegsman retired.

 Kriegsman’s views about dance — influenced by his training in musicology, philosophy, and science — tended to coincide with those of many of his contemporary colleagues. For him, Balanchine was pre-eminent as a choreographer and outstanding as a creator of any kind. That prodigious artist served Kriegsman as a kind of tent pole, a standard and a support whose achievements made sense of the entire field of theatrical dancing.

Kaufman’s views about dance are somewhat different: Her education (poetry in college, a master’s in journalism), her personal interests, and her reportorial experience at the Post — which, as documented in her new book, The Art of Grace, has included a considerable amount of sports and cultural reporting — led her away from any dance figure as a centerpiece for her taste. Her first chapter is entitled “Why Cary Grant Epitomizes Grace,” but she goes beyond elevating that gentleman as her hero, calling him “the man who taught me more about savoring grace than all the ballerinas in all the Swan Lakes [sic] I’ve ever seen.” 

To read this by a dance critic, no, by the dance critic of one of the last remaining dailies of international stature in the United States, may lead other readers besides me — readers who love dance while appreciating Grant as a non-dancing actor, too — to wonder why Kaufman felt the need to articulate her enthusiasm quite that way. It reminds this reader of a paean to Cole Porter that once appeared in the New Yorker by an author who felt that, to demonstrate the greatness of Porter, it was necessary to bash Irving Berlin.

But we live in an era when bashing is one of the major spectacles available to us. Our national politics and the blood sport provided by our three major branches of government surely overwhelm the niceties of how to distinguish a glissade from a précipité when editors are making cultural assignments in Washington, DC. 

The Art of Grace — a book that is part personal essay, part prospectus for a graduate thesis in art history, part long-form journalism, part “self-help” (as noted on the back cover and inside, where Kaufman describes how to improve one’s posture and gives, as a chapter on its own, “Tips for Moving Well Through Life”) — addresses not only grace as an element to be evaluated in the performing arts, but also in professional sports and cultural ensembles such as a kitchen staff working at the dinner hour.

It is a book that, somewhat through indirection yet without question, attempts to address the boorishness and incredible vulgarity of our political conversations and a portion of our daily life. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address — with her emphasis on the need to lower the decibel level of political debate — had perused Kaufman’s book.

The breezy style of writing, with its exacting and probably hard-earned verbs (the remnant of Kaufman’s poetry classes, perhaps), would also make this a tempting gift for a teenager or twentysomething who is moving into increasingly larger and more ambiguous social and work circumstances. It’s filled with truisms and self-satisfied presumptions, but the truisms are often true (as long as they concern topics other than theatrical dance) and the presumptions are often useful.

Its schoolmarmish tone notwithstanding, The Art of Grace is a more persuasive book by the end than it is at the beginning. I’d go so far as to say that some of it is not only as charming as a handmade gift from one’s child, but is also positively illuminating — given its earnest and relevant research (worn so lightly) on such subjects as Motown’s Maxine Powell, or Lord Chesterfield’s thoughts on what makes a gentleman, or the specifics of the coordination of tennis great Roger Federer in action.

However, one realizes at the end that here is a dance critic for whom dance may be an interesting, even magnetic subject of contemplation, but also for whom it is not a primary focus. It may be a lifelong love — or obsession — of Kaufman’s, but alas, it doesn’t inspire enough curiosity (or, perhaps, respect) for her to nail such details as those of The Sleeping Beauty’s “Rose Adagio,” one of the touchstones of classical dance, or to think through some basic premises, such as the balance between the body a dancer is born with and the body she or he crafts.

(Or, in a book that does purport to include dancing among its most important subjects, to mention the names of choreographers Antony Tudor and Marius Petipa and a dancing stripper named Ekaterina, but, conspicuously, as if to prove a point, never even once to include the name George Balanchine.)

Kaufman writes about Margot Fonteyn as if Fonteyn’s art were entirely a matter of discipline and training and not, to at least some extent, Fonteyn’s physical proportions — the luck of the genetic cards she was dealt. Of all the virtues of Edgar Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers, the author isolates the way he depicts hands.

These, though, are notes. A big problem with The Art of Grace is that we are inveigled more than once to agree that grace in professional endeavors involving physical energy is a matter of what we can choose to do, rather than what is, in fact, the truth: that most of us would never have danced like Fonteyn or Makarova, regardless of how neatly our hair had been styled or how obediently we followed the correct placement for our arabesques or how many tens of thousands of hours we practiced from the time we were 2 years old.

Since Kaufman’s art of grace goes far beyond dancing, it is both ridiculous and plain wrong to suggest that any reader could have been as great on the uneven parallel bars as Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci if she had only worked out as often and under the same almost abusively rigorous conditions. And, speaking of sports, for whom except that narrow audience of dancegoers does grace in action matter more than winning?

More problematic is the book’s confusion between physical grace, which can be analyzed and evaluated aesthetically, and grace as a spiritual quality, which can only be deduced from actions and must be evaluated morally. The fact that Cary Grant was a man of grace — someone greater than a merely graceful performer — is a difficult thing for Kaufman to demonstrate, much less prove. She tries to do it anecdotally, but she chooses an anecdote (about Grant’s kindness at a gala dinner to the son of his friend David Niven) on which she hangs too much weight to convince.

And, then, there is the problem of transparency and authenticity of motivation. Kaufman seems to equate interior grace with transparency, especially where Grant is concerned. Ironically, however, within a month of publication of her book, her publisher brought out the memoirs of the playwright David Hare (The Blue Touch Paper), in which Hare recounts the time that he and some chums at Cambridge invited Alfred Hitchcock to visit the university and speak to the students — and Hitchcock, whose career was on a downward swing, accepted. Hare was dazzled. He recounts a story that Hitch told:

“There was, Hitchcock said, only one actor in the world who was so formidably skilled that he could fake on screen a charm he didn’t have in real life. Could any of us guess who it was? Fearing the answer, I replied, ‘Cary Grant.’ Hitchcock smiled, satisfied. ‘Correct.’”

Mindy Aloff teaches dance history, film, and literary topics at Barnard College. She is the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and editor of Leaps in the Dark, Art and the World by Agnes de Mille.

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