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How to Look at Ballet
By Laura Jacobs
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As much as we may enjoy Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, for many of us ballet is a foreign language. It communicates through movement, not words, and its history lies almost entirely abroad — in Russia, Italy, and France. In Celestial Bodies, dance critic Laura Jacobs makes the foreign familiar, providing a lively, poetic, and uniquely accessible introduction to the world of classical dance. Combining history, interviews with dancers, technical definitions, descriptions of performances, and personal stories, Jacobs offers an intimate and passionate guide to watching ballet and understanding the central elements of choreography.
Beautifully written and elegantly illustrated with original drawings, Celestial Bodies is essential reading for all lovers of this magnificent art form.
HOW TO LOOK AT BALLET? WHILE WRITING THIS book, there were moments when I felt it could have been subtitled “How to Think About Ballet.” We assume that “how to look” and “how to think” are two different things. Yet when it comes to ballet—to all dance, actually—looking and thinking, separate faculties at first, eventually begin to work as one faculty. Looking becomes a form of thinking.
We know that dancers develop their bodies to a point of exquisite coordination. But we in the audience do the same with our seeing, so much so that the dance is actually happening on both sides of the footlights. We begin to place our trust in visual echoes, references, and metaphors—glimpses and images that we assume everyone sees but that, as we learn later when talking to others, sometimes only we have seen. That’s the way this art is. And while there is often consensus on what a gesture, a step, an entire ballet may mean, interpretations can also vary widely. We all bring our own history to the ballet, each of us with his or her own interpretative framework, and these too inform a performance.
Through aural memory, which is stored in the brain’s auditory cortex, humans have the capacity to retain whole songs, symphonies, and scores seemingly forever. Sight is different. We remember what we’ve seen in snapshots or, at best, in seconds of “live capture.” Most of us can’t replay in our mind’s eye long skeins of movement from past performances. And anyway, on a big stage there is no way to take in every inch of what’s happening. This means that no matter how many times we see a ballet there will always be something new to wonder at, to puzzle over, to see for the first time. With a change in cast, there will be dancers who emphasize different aspects of a role and bring different meanings to a work. Because we can’t ever completely possess a ballet, it continues to surprise.
This freedom from finality is why companies can keep the greatest ballets perpetually in repertory, where they circle around and back, year after year, bringing new insights and deepening discovery. Paradoxically, this rhythm of cyclical or eventual return, of ballets never gone for long, also brings a reassuring stability, a steady heartbeat, to the art form. Ballets can be delicious meringues, old friends, vintage wines, great loves, grand banquets, spiritual sustenance, long-standing enigmas. Some ballets (we each have our own list of these) are like difficult relatives at a family gathering: here they come again, oh well, can’t hurt to catch up and see how they are doing. Other ballets loom large. What would December be without The Nutcracker? It is as loved and leaned upon as Handel’s Messiah and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
As we become more comfortable with our own cognitive leaps and turns, our own wanderings within a work, we will bring new spins to a ballet we thought we knew. The greatest ballets reward endless looking. They are glass-bottom boats, Proust’s madeleine, C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, Bluebeard’s castle, Freud’s couch, Dr. Caligari’s cabinet, Kubrickian space odysseys, and superkinetic PlayStations. They take you places you never dreamed of going.
Ballet is energy and energy is life. As with any foreign territory, we can approach an evening at the ballet with a fear of the unknown or with an open heart, a belief that success is in the seeing. The way to go is with an open heart.
NOTE TO THE READER
THIS BOOK IS NOT A HISTORY OF BALLET AND DOESN’T need to be. There are many fine histories already published, and there will undoubtedly be many more. Still, I have organized my chapters so that themes emerge in a chronological way that roughly coincides with the art’s development through the last three-plus centuries. Along the way I have quoted from some of the fundamental books on classical dance, as well as more recent books on the subject. If I have quoted from a book, a critic, or an artist of the ballet, it is an implicit recommendation of a voice I respect. Certain names will turn up again and again. All quotes from the vivacious Théophile Gautier come from The Romantic Ballet as Seen by Théophile Gautier, 1837–1848, a collection of his reviews and articles translated by Cyril W. Beaumont. All quotes from Akim Volynsky come from Ballet’s Magic Kingdom, the first English translation of Volynsky’s work, including his shining treatise of 1925, “The Book of Exaltations: The ABCs of Classical Dance.” And all quotes from Agnes de Mille come from her terrific memoir of 1951, Dance to the Piper. The learned writing of both Cyril Beaumont and Lincoln Kirstein is pulled from many of their books. Gail Grant’s Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet is a classic, and I’ve quoted from this book liberally.
When it comes to the classical vocabulary, I have defined steps and terms wherever I think it is necessary, and as succinctly as possible. When I have chosen to mention a step without a definition, it’s because I think context will make things clear. I also trust that readers can jump onto the internet and pull up either a dictionary definition or a YouTube demonstration. Many of the ballets discussed in this book can be viewed for free on YouTube, but I’ve mostly refrained from making recommendations because what’s online today may, due to copyright laws, be gone tomorrow. Finally, when using the word pointe, I am referring to the pointed foot of a person wearing pointe shoes; when a dancer is “on pointe,” it means that they are dancing or balancing on the toe of the pointe shoe.
Regarding the ballets mentioned within these chapters, the works I have written about illustrate an issue in classical dance or embody an idea I am developing. I have chosen ballets that are performed regularly by most companies: the full-length classics and the shorter repertory pieces that have become staples around the world. While I have discussed the history of some core ballets—La Sylphide, Giselle, Swan Lake—I have not gone into the choreographic revisions triggered by evolving technique and the changing tastes of different eras. Again, many wonderful books already address these subjects, and my hope is that you will move from this book to those.
FIRST POSITION FIRST: THE FOUNDATIONS OF BALLET
BALLET BEGINS WITH A DARE.
Can you, standing with feet parallel and insteps touching, fan each foot outward by ninety degrees so that your toes are directed to the right and to the left—think Charlie Chaplin!—and can you do this without falling?
Try it now.
You probably felt a tug under the buttocks and down the back of your thighs, for you’ve engaged muscles that a normal bipedal stance—toes forward, like your nose—does not. Instead of the usual four-cornered footing of two feet aimed forward—north, let’s say—your feet, with heels touching, are aimed east and west on a single straight line. Perhaps it seemed as if a strong wind would blow you over and you compensated by stiffening backwards or teetering forward, as Lucille Ball does in episode nineteen of I Love Lucy, titled “The Ballet.” These are no-nos. Knees must be “stretched” (straight), the rear pulled in, the breastbone lifted, the neck long, and the head like a flower on its stem, drawing light and life from the sun high above.
This is first position.
Classical ballet is based on five positions of the feet. In “The Book of Exaltations: The ABCs of Classical Dance,” the great Russian dance critic Akim Volynsky calls them “the five embryos of all future movements,” and first, while seemingly simple and as easily drawn as an upside-down T, constitutes a radical departure from everyday deportment. It removes us from our evolutionary destiny, the hunter-gatherer locomotion of feet parallel, in line with our eyes and the path in front of us. And it resets the legs and feet for emancipation—limitless movement in limitless space. All of classical dance flows from first position. All ballet classes begin in first position. And the first lesson learned by all students of ballet is first position.1
“It is part of the inviolable ritual of ballet dancing,” writes the American choreographer Agnes de Mille in her memoir Dance to the Piper. “Every ballet student that has ever trained in the classic technique in any part of the world begins just this way.”2
We too have begun just this way. In this chapter we will look at the birth of ballet in the French court, where the spatial reorientation exacted by first position—and reiterated by the other four positions—is a conceptual Big Bang with spiritual, political, and theatrical ramifications. We will then, through first position, enter into the first great ballet made on American soil, George Balanchine’s Serenade. Created with the intention of lifting student dancers from the classroom to the stage, dramatizing the very positions they were diligently perfecting in daily class, Serenade has also taught and lifted generations of balletgoers. Free of meaning yet full of meaning, it draws us into the world of ballet a little deeper with every viewing.
“IN THE FIRST POSITION THE LEGS ARE STRAIGHT, THE TWO heels one against the other, and the feet turned out equally.” This description comes to us from Pierre Rameau, author of The Dancing Master, a seminal text published in Paris in 1725. Although the book is primarily focused on the social dancing of its time, such dancing shared the positions and precepts practiced and advanced by France’s Royal Academy of Dance, the West’s first dance institution. The academy was founded in 1661, marking the start of ballet as we know it today.
Rameau writes admiringly of Pierre Beauchamps, who was appointed director of the academy in 1671, for it was he who established as absolute the five positions and, in so doing, gave “a definite foundation to the art.” Rameau has even greater admiration for Beauchamps’s employer—Louis XIV, the king of France, who reigned from 1643 to 1715 and was the founder of the Royal Academy of Dance. “That prince,” Rameau writes of Louis XIV, “endowed by nature with a noble and majestic bearing, loved from his cradle all manner of bodily exercises, and to his natural gifts added all those that can be acquired. His passion for dancing induced him, during periods of peace, to give magnificent ballets, in which this sovereign himself did not disdain to appear with the princes and nobles of his realm.”3
So much is contained in these two sentences. Rameau’s reference to the king’s “noble and majestic bearing” reminds us that an aristocratic comportment is expected of every ballet dancer—never mind that young hopefuls would eventually come from all classes and races. And his mention of the king’s cradle is symbolic. Ballet traces back to the marriage, in 1533, of the Florentine noblewoman Catherine de Medici to the French king Henry II. Through this union Italy’s love of outrageous spectacle was joined to French ideas about the perfectibility of man, and court celebrations that included all manner of physical prowess—acrobatics, pantomime, magic, theatrical horse ballets—in time gained a cerebral underpinning. One hundred years and three French kings later, the court of Louis XIV was indeed the golden cradle of classical dance. During his reign the art form was coddled, codified, nourished, and nurtured by a king who danced for both pleasure and power.4
In this he followed in the footsteps of his father, Louis XIII, who not only had a hand in the creation of ballets but used these ballets as a kind of political public relations. It is important to remember that in seventeenth-century France the upper body and head were thought to be the site of nobility, while the body below the waist (and under skirts) was considered ignoble. Extreme verticality was built into the clothing of aristocrats, with padding in men’s jackets forcing a lift in the chest and the V-shaped corsets of women creating an erect posture so extreme that their shoulder blades sometimes crossed. The king was accepted as the embodiment of France, his own flesh as sacred as a saint’s (after death, as with the saints, pieces of his corpse were apportioned into reliquaries). How better to express the king’s supremacy than in movement that ennobled the legs and feet, thus drawing the lower half of the body into high-minded wholeness with the upper half? When Louis XIII danced the role of Apollo—the god who governs the hours of the day—it further enhanced his aura of godlike divine right.5
Louis XIV was even more adept at mixing dance and politics. He first performed at age thirteen. Two years later, in 1653, in a bolt of metaphorical—and somewhat Machiavellian—brilliance, he assumed the lead role in a thirteen-hour work called Le Ballet de la Nuit (The Ballet of the Night). Performed through the night, this ballet centered on themes of darkness and chaos—fetes, Fates, the Moon in love with the shepherd Endymion, and a flaming witches’ sabbath—all of which were dispelled by the approach of dawn, or rather, of young Louis, the people’s savior dressed in gold as the Rising Sun. It is this role that earned Louis XIV the sobriquet of Roi-Soleil, or “Sun King,” and it is to this sun that young dancers the world over, lined in rows at the ballet barre, lift their heads.
As befit the sun, the golden-haired Louis XIV reorganized his court so that it revolved around his person and his passions. When Rameau writes that “this sovereign himself did not disdain to appear with the princes and nobles of his realm,” he is alluding to the fact that female roles were at that time danced by men, and he is also putting a gracious spin on an ingenious power play. As a way of controlling and containing divisive nobles, Louis insisted on their continuing presence at his palaces, where strict protocols of etiquette—including a refined sense of movement and the ability to dance—governed all. To stay in the king’s good graces, the aristocracy itself had to practice grace. Classical dance was a man’s pursuit of real consequence. (Although noblewomen sometimes appeared in Louis’s ballets, professional female dancers did not officially take the stage until 1681.)6
As for the way Rameau links the king’s pursuit of classical dance to “periods of peace,” there is here the implication that ballet is the opposite of battle, which is, in a sense, true. Classical dance is grueling to master, and aspiring dancers often feel they are at war with their bodies. But the end result of daily training by endless rote, of technique pushed and perfected year after year, is the appearance of effortlessness, the banishment of strain—energy coherently and peacefully channeled. It is often said, “Ballet never becomes easy; it becomes possible.”
The possible in love with the impossible!
Finally, when Rameau writes of first position that “the feet [are] turned out equally,” he is not only showing us the symmetry that distinguishes this position—the strangely serene (or serenely strange) balance from which ballet begins—he is describing the hallowed threshold into ballet’s kingdom. For contained within first position is a concept that is indivisible from ballet: turnout.
“IN ORDER TO DANCE WELL, SIR,” WROTE THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ballet master Jean-George Noverre, who for a time taught Marie Antoinette, “nothing is so important as the turning outwards of the thigh, and nothing is so natural to men as the contrary position.” This is why first attempts at first position catch us under the buttock and leave us flailing like Lucille Ball. Turnout is not natural.7
Done correctly, turnout is generated in the pelvis—as is all human life—and specifically in the hips, where the ball at the top of the femur must rotate outward in its socket. This doozy of a sentence, found in Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester’s The Dance Encyclopedia, explains it anatomically: “If the leg is turned out, the big trochanter recedes and the brim of the acetabulum meets the flat side-surface of the hip-neck.” By extension, the top of the knee, ankle, and metatarsals also turn outward, resulting in a smooth linear channel that allows power to flow freely and elegantly all the way down through the toes. In Rameau’s time, the turned-out feet of first position looked like a V opened to 90 degrees. Today, dancers work toward the more extreme ideal of feet turned out to 180 degrees. Muscles in the hip, haunch, and groin must adjust to support this acute rotation of the femurs in their sockets, a process of years that can’t be forced or faked.
But why move in this artificial way?
We could ask the same question of the equestrians who practice dressage, which dates back to ancient Greece, became a classical art during the Renaissance, and has its own array of pirouettes and fancy footwork. The answer has to do with the concept of “collection.” When horses in the wild collect, whether for play, courtship, or competition, they lift in the chest, arch the neck (which draws in the head), and pull in their hindquarters. This concentration not only makes them appear larger, it allows them to move instantly in any direction, especially upward, in rears and bucks. In the art of dressage, horse and rider collect together, performing harmonious moves of poised precision and technical bravura. The mantra of dressage is “maximum performance with minimum effort.”
Turnout is the basis of theatrical dancing, and when it is employed, Rameau tells us, “the body appears more erect.” This means taller, but also, as John Milton put it in Book IV of Paradise Lost, more marvelously human. Describing Adam and Eve in Eden, he writes: “Two of far nobler shape, erect and tall, God-like erect… seemed lords of all.” Turnout’s symmetrical torque in the hips engages energy and concentrates it, so that the dancer is always collected.
Tadasana, the feet-parallel Mountain Pose of yoga, is a solemnly rooted position, a grounding that feels for the heart of the earth through the soles of the feet, drawing primal power up into the body. It is worshipful and weighted. Turnout, which finds five different expressions in the five positions, has more in common with the double helix—life dynamically coiled and ready to leap. In a split second the ballet dancer can shoot, skip, step, or slide in any direction. Turnout also meant that at court one could glide forward, backward, or sideways while continuing to face the king. Life in the stratosphere of Louis XIV was itself a form of theater.
It just so happens that turnout is also beautiful. During the reign of Louis XIV women’s legs were still hidden under long skirts, but for men, a shapely or “well-turned” leg was such a source of pride that men with thin calves might fill out their stockings with lamb’s wool. When the feet are turned outward into first position, the legs come suddenly into profile, the curves and volumes of the muscles are more fully dimensional, and the inner plane of the thigh, usually hidden from view, is presented with panache. The dancer’s body becomes an open book and his turned-out legs offer more for the audience to read. There’s the shape of the foot and the slimness of the ankle. There’s the silhouetted S line of the leg: the relationship of swell to swell as the line curves over the thigh and under the calf. We expect classical proportions from classical dancers, and turnout lets us see the sculpted musculature of our species displayed without self-consciousness.
“I wasn’t naked,” the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, arrested in a police raid at Minsky’s, once claimed. “I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.” Even in the scantiest costume the ballet dancer isn’t naked: he or she is completely covered by the classical technique, which means turnout.
So turnout is the key. When a dancer assumes first position, it’s as if two doors swing open on a kingdom with its own forms, symbols, and senses, an alternate universe where movement itself has been restructured. The feet, once blinkered like eyes, are now like ears, able to “hear” what is all around, a sweep of 360 degrees. Feet can’t hear, of course, but in assuming first position the toes, the feet, the legs—the whole body—become more listening, more responsive, more sensitive to space.
“Turnout makes the difference,” we read in Chujoy and Manchester, “between a limited number of steps on one plane and the possibility of control of all dance movements in space.” One plane versus all space! Where before turnout a person stands on a path, after turnout a dancer exists in a sphere. Within that sphere the dancer trains daily on curves and circuits. Like the legs of a compass, the supporting turned-out leg is stationary while the working turned-out leg reaches from the hip socket to draw circles and semicircles on the floor, ringlets and upwellings in the air. These are ronds de jambe, “rounds of the leg.”
Volynsky, eloquent on the subject, sees turnout in music, poetry, and painting. “The principle of turnout prevails where human creation is present,” he writes. “The creative act is by its very nature an act of turnout.” And so we turn to George Balanchine and his first creative act in America.8
“SERENADE WAS MY FIRST BALLET IN THE UNITED STATES,” Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century, tells us in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. “Soon after my arrival in America, Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M. M. Warburg, and I opened the School of American Ballet in New York. As part of the school curriculum, I started an evening ballet class in stage technique, to give students some idea of how dancing on stage differs from classwork. Serenade evolved from the lessons I gave.”
The year was 1934 and Balanchine was thirty. Born in St. Petersburg in 1904, a graduate of the czar’s Imperial Theater School, Balanchine left Russia in 1924. He soon joined Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary company, the Ballets Russes, and there he made his first masterpieces, Apollo in 1928 and The Prodigal Son in 1929. When Diaghilev died three months after the premiere of Prodigal, Balanchine began freelancing, moving between Paris, London, Copenhagen, and Monte Carlo. In 1933, a young American named Lincoln Kirstein—Harvard-educated, wealthy, and mad for ballet—made Balanchine an intriguing offer: come to America and start a ballet company. “Yes, but first a school,” Balanchine famously replied. He knew he was not just starting fresh in America, he was starting from scratch—from first position. In 1934, when Balanchine began work on Serenade, his American students were not yet artists; they were hardly dancers.9
The curtain comes up on a stage containing seventeen young women, because that’s how many girls were in class the day Balanchine began. They are wearing long tutus of palest blue—the lighting onstage is the milky blue of moonlight—and they are arranged in a pattern of two diamonds linked in the center by one girl. Perfectly symmetrical, this pattern suggests a pair of wings (the downstage edge forms a W, the upstage edge an M). Poems in which the line lengths take the form of their subject are called “pattern,” “shape,” or “concrete” poems, and there is something of pattern poetry in this opening image. In “Easter Wings,” George Herbert’s poem of 1633, words are arranged in line lengths that look like two wings on the page. Ballet is an art of pattern poetry, especially in the arrangements contrived for the corps de ballet.
The young women are standing normally, their feet parallel and close together, insteps touching. Their right arms are raised on an angle, and their right hands, fingers together, seem to salute the moon. One’s thoughts run back to 1653 and Le Ballet de la Nuit.
In unison, on a swell in the music—Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, op. 48—the women turn their faces away from the moon and pull the top of that raised hand in toward the right temple, a gesture that unites them in emotion. But what emotion? World-weariness? A lapse into dream? The right hand then lowers to meet the left, both arms curved downward to form parentheses around the hips, the site of turnout. On a cue in the music that only these women hear, their feet snap open into first position.
In this moment we realize that Balanchine’s floor pattern, his semblance of wings, is also an enlarged expression of first position: symmetrical, serene, yet ready to fly. Each girl slides her right foot out to the side, toes pointed—a step called tendu—and then slides it back so that it is fully in front of the left foot: fifth position. Opening their arms to the audience and letting their heads fall back in shared rapture, they look like gulls gliding into mist.
“You start in parallel,” says Deborah Wingert, a Balanchine dancer who has taught Serenade countless times, “and you’re standing as a human being. As you turn out into first position you’ve entered the world of ballet. Then you breathe and do the first, best tendu ever. And then close into fifth, which is home base for ballet. As you open the face, the arms, the chest, it’s like you’re saying, I’m ready to dance now, I’m beginning to dance. So that sense of opening in the arms and in the heart allows for the art to come through. All the mechanics, all of the vocabulary are there.”10
Serenade’s snap into first position is a lock springing on a secret society, a sylvan sorority whose members move in this special way. They whirl like the wind and flow forth in waves. They gather into groupings reminiscent of the sculptures that surround royal fountains; they form sisterly cliques and Old World allées. Everything they do has a point of reference in one of the five positions, for as the ballet teacher Muriel Stuart writes, “All leg movements proceed from these five basic positions and have their logical termination in them.” When Lincoln Kirstein writes that the five positions “are a kind of net or comb through which dance movement must accommodate itself in a ceaseless shift,” he could be describing the ceaseless ebb and flow of Serenade.11
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THESE FOUNDATIONAL FIVE
"Jacobs's book opens the door, offering a meticulous introduction to the art form and welcoming readers to have a seat and stay a while.... It's from this insider's perspective that Jacobs is able to offer an all-encompassing guided tour behind the curtain, then circling back to the auditorium where the balletomane, the occasional fan and the newcomer sit side by side as they interpret the performance according to their individual experiences and beliefs."
—Misty Copeland, New York Times Book Review
- "A lively guide, for the newcomer and enthusiast alike, to an art form that is meticulously controlled yet ever-changing."—Wall Street Journal
- "Our dance critic Laura Jacobs is the best writer on ballet there is. So you can bet that her new book, Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet, will be the best primer on ballet there is."—New Criterion
- "In 12 chapters Jacobs provides readers a whirlwind tour of ballet, effortlessly weaving together history, technique, music, choreography, drama."—Ballet Focus
- "Whether you are budding balletomane or a lifelong dancer, Celestial Bodies will inspire you to look more closely at our beloved art form-and fall more deeply in love with it."—Pointe Magazine
"This sparkling, eloquent book will make going to the ballet a richer experience for both the novice and the passionate."
- "Lyrical and accessible...Jacobs brings over two decades' worth of her experience as a dance critic to this elegant introduction to all aspects of the art form: its cultural history, the development of its aesthetics, its famous works and epic personalities."—Times Literary Supplement
- "Written like a true dancer...It's from this insider's perspective that Jacobs is able to offer an all-encompassing guided tour behind the curtain, then circling back to the auditorium where the balletomane, the occasional fan and the newcomer sit side by side as they interpret the performance according to their individual experiences and beliefs."—New York Times Book Review
- "According to the artist and critic Alexandre Benois, 'Ballet is perhaps the most eloquent of all spectacles.' This book is one of the most eloquent ever written about it."—Booklist
- "The author ably explains the technical aspects of ballet, as when she explains that turnout's 'symmetrical torque in the hips engages energy and concentrates it' and in her beautiful description of pas de deux: 'a form of close-up, the theatrical equivalent of the camera's lavish gaze.' 'They're doing choreography,' Danny Kaye sang in White Christmas. As Jacobs demonstrates, however, ballet is so much more."—KirkusReviews
"Laura Jacobs' Celestial Bodies is original, rich in discovery, and conceived in prose that is as agile and graceful as her subject matter."
—Sascha Radetsky, American Ballet Theatre
- "What makes ballet magical? With a brief recap of its origins and a poetic analysis of its positions, Laura Jacobs gives us the benefit of her perceptions over the course of a distinguished career in the audience. For those coming to ballet for the first time-and those of us who have been watching ballet for years-she offers a lesson in appreciation. The best way to watch, she tells us, is "with an open heart." This graceful book is the product of her own heart and her sprightly mind."
—Holly Brubach, award-winning dance historian and cultural critic
- On Sale
- May 8, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Basic Books