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Book Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Posted By Ed Voves On November 29, 2010 @ 11:43 am In Dance,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans
Random House, 672 pp.
CLR Rating:


Turning Points

When it comes to writing or speaking about ballet, words almost always fail.

Of all the expressions of human creative endeavor, ballet can lay a real claim to being the most inexpressibly beautiful. It is not more profound or more poignant, more heartfelt or more visionary than music, painting or poetry. But its beauty is beyond question. And so is the difficulty of properly describing its movements or expounding on the inner forces that propel its action.

Ballet, of course, has its own well-defined glossary of terms, words derived from its origins during the Italian Renaissance and its formal beginning at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. But this is a vocabulary for elite insiders. It is the language of experts, skilled in rhythmic, orchestrated movement, who perform for the benefit of admirers. But this is not the same as including the audience in ballet’s inner mysteries. To write about ballet, to open its heart and chronicle its complex and inspiring history requires a skill set which few authors have mastered.

Jennifer Homans is such an author. The fact that she is a professional dancer, trained at the American School of Ballet, with career credits that include performances with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, is an obvious asset. Homans has impressive academic and journalistic credentials, as well. Homans has a doctorate in modern European history from New York University and is the dance critic for The New Republic.

An affair of discipline and strategy as exacting as a military operation, ballet has no maps to show the traces of its maneuvers once the engagement is over. It lacks the musical score of a symphony and presents no finished picture to hang on a gallery wall. Even when its movements are filmed, Homans notes, ballet is presented in a deceptive, two-dimensional form.

The key to understanding ballet is to balance an appreciation of the broad themes of cultural history with a detailed study of the major figures from ballet’s past. The great dancers and choreographers, patrons and impresarios all made key contributions to the evolution of this most artful of dance forms. The story of ballet, in turn, provides fascinating insights and explanations for some of history’s major turning points. The French Revolution, the 19th century cult of Romanticism, the collapse of Imperial Russia and its replacement by the Soviet regime are but a few of the great events upon which ballet has left its mark.

A revealing example of the way that ballet slips into the mainstream of history, thereby affecting its course, can be found during the “Golden Age” of Russian ballet. Beginning with the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty on January 3, 1890, four celebrated ballets were presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Three of the ballets were performed to music by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker (1892) and Swan Lake (1895), which was presented with a revised score and new choreography from the 1877 original. Cinderella (1893) featured music by Boris Vietinghoff-Scheel, Tchaikovsky having died that year.

All four of these incomparable ballets featured Italian ballerinas in the leading role. This is one of the points where the “little events” of ballet intersect with the seismic forces of history. The fact that four Italian ballerinas starred in these Russian masterpieces might be viewed as an instance of the cultural decline of Tsarist Russia. The Italian ballerinas were indeed the outstanding performers of their day. Pierina Legnani, who danced in Cinderella and Swan Lake, executed the astonishing achievement of 32 turns, a technique known as fouetté en tournant. Standing on one foot in Cinderella, Legnani propelled her spins by flexing her “working” leg so as to make a turning movement. It was the “four-minute mile” of the age, sending the Russian court and public into raptures.

Legnani’s skill, like that of Carlotta Brianza in Swan Lake and Antoinetta dell’Era, the original Sugar Plum Fairy, was a testament to the cultural vitality of Tsarist Russia not its decadence. Ballet in the West had lapsed into formulaic revivals of old classics or tasteless extravaganzas, like the Italian spectacle Excelsior (1881) which featured 500 performers, 12 horses, 2 cows and an elephant! Pierina Legnani executed her 32 fouettés in St. Petersburg rather than Milan because ballet was still a living art form in Russia.

While the Italian ballerinas performed, a rising generation of young Russian dancers and choreographers watched and learned. Among the audience at The Sleeping Beauty was a frail nine-year old girl named Anna Pavlova. Accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in 1891, Pavlova, along with other dancers of her generation, Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, brought ballet to the center stage of the modern world. Followed in due course by one Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, known to history as George Balanchine, Russian ballet pioneered the great cultural awakening of the Twentieth Century.

There are a number of significant elements of the story of ballet in this brief recounting of Russia’s “Golden Age.” These factors re-occur in Homan’s narrative and the intelligence and verve with which she traces these timeless themes in the evolution of ballet is little short of masterful.

Ballet is a visual evocation of the grace, beauty and dynamic energy of the human body. It is also an affirmation of social order, of conforming the activity of individuals to the rule of law. That is why ballet flourishes under such outwardly dissimilar regimes as the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV or the “workers’ paradise” of the Soviet Union. The founders of the American republic, by contrast, viewed ballet with suspicion. Democratic societies, as a rule, do not display the “devotion to a conception of formal precision, proportion and human perfection” that is necessary for ballet to flourish.

A sense of grandeur and the discipline to create it are thus two of the key elements that hierarchic societies can readily provide. Ballet, however, achieves its greatest effect when its patrons and practitioners have something to prove. The early years of the reign of Louis XIV were marked by the revolt of the French nobility know as the Fronde (1648-53). When order was restored, Louis, a supremely gifted dancer, used ballet to make rebellious aristocrats literally “toe the mark.” Ballet was a central activity at the glittering court of Versailles, where Louis was the “sun” around which everyone else must obediently revolve.

A sense of challenge also marked American attitudes to ballet during the crisis atmosphere of the Cold War. Just as the 1957 launching of Sputnik sparked the U.S. space program, so the world-wide success of the Soviet ballet companies, the Bolshoi and the Kirov, led to an American response. The New York City Ballet, after existing on meager box office receipts and private donations from patrons like Lincoln Kirstein, now received generous financial support from the U.S. government and corporate grants from the Ford Foundation.

Lastly, and most importantly, ballet lives — or dies — on a “living line” of inspiration, instruction and performance. One generation of dancers and choreographers imparts their skill and devotion to a younger one, eagerly anticipating its turn on stage. When the culture of a nation or society fails to provide the proper creative atmosphere for ballet, as happened in Italy and France in the late 1800’s, an almost instinctual force drives ballet’s most gifted teachers to uncharted realms where their art can be nurtured and passed on. This is what impelled Marius Petipa, the French-born leader of Russia’s Imperial Ballet, and Italian ballerinas like Pierina Legnani to transmit their creative gifts to the “Golden Age” generation of Russia. And so, in time, would Anna Pavlova and other dancers of the Ballet Russe impart their skills to the West, after the Bolshevik Revolution brought this vibrant era to a close.

George Balanchine, born in 1904, was the last of this “Golden Age” generation. In the crowded canvas of brilliant biographical sketches that Homans provides, her portrait of Balanchine is a tour de force.

Balanchine was a man of fire and ice. Outwardly reserved, he was a passionate cultural revolutionary who resolved many of ballet’s problematic elements. For centuries, ballet had been unsettled by the didactic use of pantomime to impart a “message.” Ballet for Balanchine was not a “soapbox” on which to preach. His goal was to guide dancers to create a living embodiment of music and movement. In her perceptive analysis of Balanchine’s first great American ballet, Serenade in 1934, Homans notes that Balanchine found a “way of preventing words from seeping in,” to let dance speak for itself. Homans writes:

In the opening tableau each dancer is asked, through the simple gesture of turning out the feet, to enter the ballet –- to set aside the concerns of the real world and focus entirely on the music and dance. The choreography builds from small movements to more complicated and engrossing steps that are so full-bodied there is no time to think or reflect. The steps flow seamlessly: they feel like the music sounds and any dancer willing to give herself over to the music and choreography and trust its patterns and her own years of training will lose herself and … achieve a kind of transcendence (even when she is also sweaty and short of breath). This is what the ballet is about, and this is what the audience sees: it is about dancing, physical and metaphysical.

With his masterful articulation of “musical and physical precision,” Balanchine gave his dancers a thorough grounding in the “physical geometry of classical ballet.” But it was not a slavish system of regimentation, nor was Balanchine a drill instructor. A deeply religious man, Balanchine faithfully adhered to the Russian Orthodox creed and it showed in his work. “God creates,” Balanchine asserted with becoming modesty, “I assemble.”

Balanchine, with Kirstein’s decades-long partnership, guided the New York City Ballet to a degree of success during the post-World War II era that may well represent a summit of human creativity that we will never see again.

There is a deeply disturbing aspect to the post-Balanchine era, far greater than regret at the passing of another “Golden Age.” In the years since his death in 1983, ballet has entered a time of troubles that may actually witness the sundering of its “living line.” Ballet in the present age is experiencing unprecedented threats to the living traditions that extend from Balanchine back to Serge Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, to Marius Petipa and on to the pioneering dancers and choreographers of the distant past like Marie Taglioni and August Bournonville.

Surely, a gifted writer and dancer like Homans will be able to detect glimmers of hope in ballet’s bleak present. But that is just what she does not see. Homans’ concluding remarks, cogent and powerfully expressed like the rest of Apollo’s Angels, are going to send some powerful shock waves through an arts community content to let ballet companies limp along on the receipts of last year’s Nutcracker performances.

Hoping that she is wrong in her conclusions, Homans writes:

Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive…As for the people, they have been forgotten. Not only in boardrooms preoccupied with the next gala, but by scholars, critics and writers. Dance today has shrunk into a recondite world of hyper specialists and balletomanes, insiders who talk to each other (often in impenetrable theory-laden prose) and ignore the public. The result is a regrettable disconnect: most people today do not feel they “know enough” to judge a dance.

After reading Apollo’s Angels, no one can accuse Homans of these faults. Her book is an authoritative study of ballet, one that the general public and ballet enthusiasts can readily appreciate. With hardly a mention of a fouetté en tournant, Homans places her readers on the stage along with Pavlova, Nijinsky and the rest of her renowned protagonists. The greatest praise that can be given to Apollo’s Angels — and it is thoroughly deserved — is that Homans’ artfully-crafted narrative enables readers to take their place at the practice barre, with Balanchine at their side, urging them, “Don’t think, just dance.”

If today’s cultural elite can stir themselves from their plans for “the next gala,” long enough to consider Balanchine’s advice and Homans’ warning, then the “living line” of this most glorious of art forms may yet be preserved.


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