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Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,584 ratings  ·  275 reviews
One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year

For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements re
Hardcover, 643 pages
Published November 2nd 2010 by Random House
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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Feb 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The subtitle, "A History of Ballet," says it clearly, and this is very probably the most definitive, satisfying book of its kind I've come across in years by an observant and savvy insider. Succinct, almost exhaustively detailed (but not, because the details are so interesting), there are two parts, France and the Classical Origins of Ballet, and Light from the East: Russian Worlds of Art. Part 1 has 6 chapters: Kings of Dance; the Enlightenment; French Revolution; Romantic Illusions & Rise of t ...more
The history of ballet is presented as beautifully as you could hope. I expected to be bored by descriptions of 16th century court life or the Cecchetti method versus the Vaganova, but this is primarily an account of what ballet has meant to different people at different points in history, and it's fascinating. Some of it was unsurprising; for instance, ballet functioned as a code of mannerisms, to teach nobles how to be really good-looking while walking down the street. What I never knew is that ...more
Cassandra Kay Silva
Jul 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful! Beautiful writing, well compiled A+! This makes me want to dance, it makes me want to see all of the greatest ballets, it makes me want to live eat and breathe ballet. I loved the history, I loved that she explored the connections between ballet and music and I was blown away by the ending. I thought she put together a hard case and then just blasted you at the end with the conclusion. Ballet is a dying art! How many people would quickly jump to defend the great dancers of today, but ...more
Jan 27, 2020 rated it liked it
It has taken me a while to read 'Apollo's Angels' as there is a lot of it. It's heavy, both literally and figuratively. Quite a lot of effort, but worth it. Although I have a long standing fascination with ballet, my knowledge of its past was extremely sketchy and largely based on novels I read before I turned 13. Homans provides a thorough and erudite account of ballet's five hundred year history. The chapters are divided between different national ballet traditions, ranging across France, Ital ...more
Tanushree Baruah
Jul 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2014
A rather arduous read - Apollo's Angels starts off cumbersomely slow and can be quite dry. It is ironic for a book that has been written by a practitioner of the art, it is incredibly passionless. I love the ballet and I am very interested in its evolution - but this book to me read more as a barely skimming the surface history text. It seems detailed but in reality consists of a lot of space dedicated to two bit players and the political and cultural environments of the era. The book could have ...more
Aug 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★

This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated w
Apr 10, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: set-aside
This would be a great read for someone who doesn't know much about European history or culture but wants to read a 600-page book about ballet. (Whoever that may be.) As for me, I was frustrated by the chapters I read, passim, looking for as good an evocation of dance as I found in the introduction to the book. Instead I mostly found lengthy discussions of court politics, broad historical trends, and analyses of the music and literature of the day. All of which I'm interested in, but also suffici ...more
Jan 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: all-the-sparkles
"Ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastics exercises." - Jennifer Homans.

Ouch. Someone's not a fan of acro.

Sep 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This history of ballet is breathtaking in the scope of its research. More than the story of the dancers and choreographers, it places the dance form in the larger context of the times and societies in which it originated and evolved. From the French court to revolutionary Russia to modernist New York, the author takes a deep look at the meaning of ballet and what it reflects about the culture that it represents. She addresses why such an aristocratic art form could establish itself so firmly in ...more
Aaron Arnold
Oct 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2016, history
To my surprise, this appears to be the first general history of ballet ever written. That's a real shame, because as Homans shows, ballet is more than just another slowly dying elite artform like opera. Not only is it intimately linked to the other cornerstones of Western culture like music, theater, and film, it continues to set the standard for demonstrating how the movement of the body can produce beauty. You don't have to be a ballet fanatic to enjoy this book, but some familiarity helps, as ...more
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
★★★★½ —From April 2011 and probably in need of editing; will revise later — Jennifer Homan’s comprehensive look at the history of ballet, when I discovered it via The New York Time’s Sunday Book Review (it later made the list of the NYT’s 10 best books of 2010), was a long-awaited treat. The book is structured in two parts; part 1, “France and the Classical Origins of Ballet”, devotes the first chapter to Louis XIV. The second part of the book is almost entirely dedicated to the Russians, starti ...more
The Library Lady
Feb 15, 2015 rated it it was ok
As someone who has been in love with ballet all my life and who dances (badly) twice a week, I wanted to love this book. But I didn't.

For a book on ballet, it has very little on the actual physical dance itself. I challenge you to find actual ballet terms in French mentioned in most chapters. There is very little on the clothing that is the essence of ballet. How the heck can you write a book about the history of ballet and brush past the development of the pointe shoe, that icon of ballet, or g
Mar 18, 2012 rated it liked it
I was so eager to read this book but by the end I was completely bored with it. Yes, it's a history of ballet, but I don't really have a better understanding of the art, even after 550 oversized pages. There was lots of talk of technique and steps, etc, but as a reader I had no baseline understanding of any of these things so I had no idea how they adapted or changed, depending upon the era or artist being discussed.

I'm not a dancer, but I appreciate dance and love attending the ballet. The aut
Eva Stachniak
Jan 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What a great book. A story of the ballet written by a gifted dancer and a historian. Each page delights and enlightens. It is a book to cherish, learn from and delight in.
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely spectacular. A joy to read.
[B]allet took its identity from the aristocracy: without the weight and example of a court or nobility behind it, ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastic exercises.
Yep, folks, you heard it here. Ballet is for the rich, with the poor serving as easily abused clay. That's all. Everyone go home.

Anyway, it's amazing how political a so called historian can be so long as they're sucking up to the right person. Homans has little consideration for consistenc
Dec 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Valerie by: Leslie Guzman, Bill Ward
This book ends on a mournful note, the ballerina staring wistfully back to the stage, as she exits stage left. The great composers who lived for the ballet are gone, the great ballet makers have left us, and ballet itself must soon take its final bow. However, as anyone who has seen a ballet will know, that final bow, can last as long as the closing act. The curtain swooshing open to reveal yet another artless arrangement of dancers, thanking us for our patronage.

That final chapter of ballet lea
Apr 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Attempting to write a comprehensive history about the evolution of ballet is a daunting task; and Ms.Homans acquits herself in grand style. A note though: at 700 pages, this is a fairly detailed read, and it may not appeal much to readers unfamiliar with the ballet world.

The authorsketches the tale of ballet from its earliest origins in the European courts- its blossoming under the patronage of Louis the Sun King, the athletic rough-and-tumble style of the Italians, its maturing to be an indepen
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In 1978, with some trepidation, my friend and I got rather expensive (for us) tickets to the production of Ashton's "La Fille mal gardée" at the San Francisco Ballet. What if it was embarrassingly pompous or worse, wobbly? The curtain went up and revealed a line of fluffy, delicately dancing chickens, followed by a charming story told without words but with humor and empathy, refined precision with a light touch. It was perfect. We bought season tickets and especially enjoyed the spectacular "Nu ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it liked it
An enjoyable, thorough (700 pp) review of the history of ballet--accessible even to someone as unversed in the technical language of dance as I (who cannot tell an arabesque from a plie). While the descriptions of the dances and productions themselves didn't always focus on the specifics that I was curious about, I felt that the author did a fine job of conveying features and changes of note, and I felt that I had a good grasp of the evolution of dance when I was done. The most interesting featu ...more
Katie Sweet
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
“Apollo’s Angels” is an extremely well written history of ballet with an extensive bibliography and author’s notes. The book starts in fifteenth century France with the creation of ballet. It details the reason why ballet was created- to bridge the spiritual gap between humans and angels- and how it gained popularity- in the royal courts of Louis XIV. Ballet was seen as a courtly art during these times, however, due to its many similarities to fencing, it was also used during military training. ...more
Alana Gale
This book was more than two stars for me because it certainly did contain a very thorough, detailed history of ballet, and it did make me think about the intersectionality of science, art, and storytelling present in ballet, as well as the tension between elite dance and art accessible to all.

However, at points it read too much like a textbook to continue engaging me. And more importantly, I wasn’t convinced by the author’s suggestion that ballet is a dying art. After spending 12 chapters expla
Oct 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Homans has written an amazing comprehensive history of ballet. I mostly appreciated the clear history she told between ballet and politics. Homans succinctly tells not just the story of ballet but the story of nations and how art is used for political gains as well as communal enrichment. This text illustrates how ballet and dance in general reflects our collective psychology and pushes us towards a future imagination.

My only misgiving is what appeared to me a contradiction in Homans point of vi
Lise Petrauskas
Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans is excellent. It's definitely for people who are interested in the vocabulary of dance, but it's a very interesting history of Europe from the 15th century onward. Ballet started out as a court art and it transformed itself so fascinatingly through the French Revolution and onward to the present day.* To think that what began with Louis XIV was somehow to become the feather in the cap and pet project of Josef Stalin is pretty remarkable. It ...more
Dec 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The hype has been that Homans says ballet is dead (or in a deep sleep) but that’s totally beside the point - it’s not the story she tells.

Not only is Apollo’s Angels authoritative and definitive, it’s also the first written history of ballet as a whole. Homans is in a good position to write it, she’s dance critic for the National Review. She was a professional dancer who danced with a number of first class US ballet companies and with a wide range in her repertoire. She is also a PhD in Modern
Dara Salley
Feb 23, 2011 rated it liked it
This book is fun for those who would like to read an exhaustive (~600 page) history of ballet. I have a feeling that statement eliminates at least 90% of readers. If you’re still tuned in, this book is a gem. In the forward the authors states that she is a retired ballerina. No offense, but I had no idea ballerinas were so eloquent. Jennifer Homans takes an enormous amount of information and turns it into a (mostly) coherent narrative. The history of ballet encompasses political, economic, socia ...more
Jan 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ballet-books
An astonishing achievement, read it from cover to cover and then bought the audio version which I dip into regularly. A massive sweep from the origins to the present day of the development of ballet, it's not the perfect history, there are glaring omissions in the sections on British ballet and some countries are bypassed altogether, and I don't agree with everything she says. For instance, my bug bear: Kenneth MacMillan is dealt with way too superficially and dismissively - the man was a troubl ...more
Bryan Park
Nov 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
A mostly great book. Homans traces the history of ballet from the court of Louis XIV in France, through Italy, Denmark, Russia, England, and America. It's like a field of dandelions. Ballet takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline in one place, but the seeds get carried to another place, where it again takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline, but again, the seeds drift to somewhere else. Some of the chapters are a slog, like the chapter on Soviet Russia. Pl ...more
Feb 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: dancers, artists, history lovers
I came to Apollo's Angels to learn a little bit about ballet. As a father of two young kids in ballet (4 and 7), I felt like I should learn about the art form and understand some of its history. I had no idea how fascinating it would be. Homans does an excellent job of pulling someone into the history of the art form and doesn't assume that the reader comes to the subject with previous knowledge. One will walk away from this book with a strong understanding of the origins of ballet, what the maj ...more
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Jennifer Homans is a former professional dancer trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the American Ballet Theater School, and the School of American Ballet. She performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Currently the dance critic for The New Republic, she has also published with The New York Times, The International Herald ...more

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There's something great about a paperback book: They're perfect book club choices, you can throw them in your bag and go, and they've been out in...
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“In the period from 1945 to 1960, the number of orchestras in the country doubled, book sales rose some 250 percent, and art museums opened in most major cities. Ballet was quick to catch up: between 1958 and 1969 the number of ballet companies nationwide with more than twenty members nearly tripled.” 1 likes
“Words, moreover, can get in the way of dancing. They signal self-conscious thought, and the moment they play through a dancer's mind her concentration and the way she responds physically to music risk changing. Words can distance a dancer from the music and from her own impulses, and make her movement appear remote and flat.” 1 likes
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