Brooke's Reviews > Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans
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Jul 29, 12

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bookshelves: history, dance, british, french, italian, russian, american, non-fiction
Read from July 12 to 28, 2012

This book had great potential, but fell flat. Homans isn't a very good writer, is long-winded, and idolizes Balanchine to the point of canonization for sainthood. She also contradicts her arguments, stating in the preface, for example, that in this work she "tried to avoid...the materialist idea that art is shaped primarily (or exclusively) by economics, politics, and social relations," yet devoting entire chapters to ballet's foundation in 17th and 18th century French court (talk about materialism and social hierarchies) and the changes to the dance and dancers (in many cases, defection) brought about by Soviet ideology.

Thankfully (at least for hardcore dance historians and dancers), when Homans subtitled the book "A History of Ballet", she meant it. Her chapters encompass the various schools of ballet: French, Italian, Danish, Russian, British, and American (which somehow merits 2 chapters, despite its youth and frequent forays into non-balletic dance). Homans also covers the dancers, choreographers, composers, impressarios, writers, politicians, and philosophers relevant to each era and their contributions to the art.

This volume would perhaps be better formatted as an anthology to be consulted regarding specific ballets, or dance traditions in certain countries or time periods, rather than an all-encompassing history. My inner historian appreciated many of the anecdotes regarding ballet's personalities and the dancer in me enjoyed descriptions of how technique changed over time. But if Homans truly believes that "over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language: Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture," she has done little to lure new believers to the magical world of ballet via this book -- I'm afraid that for many readers it's just as "long" and "boring" as ballet (unfortunately a common opinion among Americans).

As an extended response to the epilogue: if Homans would expand her view beyond America (she was trained at SAB and the bias shows), she might rethink her declaration that the art of ballet is "dying." Obviously we can't judge the future legacy of contemporary dances (let's face it, some of the ballets we now consider "classic" were deemed flops or inappropriate in the beginning). But as for dance itself, Homans admits that in the former Soviet bloc ballet continues to be somewhat important, then goes no further, as if it doesn't matter (perhaps because it contradicts her complaints). A personal aside: I was lucky to witness one of the graduation performances of the Vaganova Academy last year, and the quality of dance (these were teenagers) was better than most American ballet companies, and "not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set of ethical principles." The discipline and work ethic of the dancers was incredible. When I attended a Mariinsky (Kirov) company production of La Sylphide, the performance was not "dull", nor was the audience "blase" (on the contrary, they were more appreciative and involved than any audience of which I've been a part). As for the supposed lack of "greats" among young dancers (Americans -- perhaps yes), Natalia Ospiova (dancer at Moscow's Bolshoi) is one of the most dynamic ballerinas of today and along with Diana Vishneva (Kirov/Mariinsky) could probably give Homans' previous stars a run for their money, despite Homans calling the latest generations of dancers basically worthless (read pg. 541).
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