The dust jacket of Apollo’s Angels, A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans (New York: Random House, 2010) announces its coveted listing on The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2010. Having received wide media coverage in print and internet outlets, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and the New York Review of Books, the book’s 643 pages, including sixty-two pages of notes and bibliography, are there to wow the reader into believing the claim by the publicity department that this is the most definitive ballet history ever written. On closer examination however, this claim seems guided more by the power of the publisher’s advertising money and a critical establishment that has come under pressure to support the publishing multi-nationals no matter how weak their products might be.
As the lengthy section of notes testifies, Jennifer Homans, former professional ballet dancer turned historian and The New Republic’s dance critic, has researched ballet’s history widely and writes about it enthusiastically. Many sections read as entertaining stories; however, starting with the Introduction, where she contradicts her basic arguments frequently, this book could have used some strong editing.
Some will see Ms. Homans’ claim that ballet has evolved into “this most refined, most exquisite art of ‘aristocratic etiquette, and “the highest form of the human physique” as an arrogant display of ethnic chauvinism in its dismissal of all the other glorious court dance forms?Java, Japan, India, and Ghana to mention a few.
She contradicts her claim that ballet discipline is “a hard science with demonstrable physical facts “whose “laws ?corresponded to the laws of nature,” by following it with a description of the many “differences” that evolved in various national styles of ballet? the Italians and French followed by Danes, Brits, the Soviet Russians, and the Americans trained by Balanchine. Since the early twentieth century, advances in kinesiology and sports medicine research have continued to refute there is perfection to ballet’s “hard science.” Some movements, such as the deepest knee bends of the grand plie, were eliminated from daily technique drills by such master teachers as David Howard, because over time, they proved certain to harm most bodies more than they benefitted them. In fact ballet technique is so stressful to the skeletal and muscular structure of most bodies that most ballet dancers have to retire from performing by their thirties or forties. Jennifer Homans retired in her twenties.
Ms. Homans chooses to ignore ballet’s precursors. Declaring in her Introduction, that “the origins of ballet lie in the Renaissance and the rediscovering of ancient texts,” does not inform the reader that important stylistic elements that were incorporated in the evolution of ballet — the court dances, the geometric spatial patterns or tracks of footsteps on the floor, and the training of performers’ body positions– all have earlier origins.
Ms. Homans allows only that “Dance was taught in fencing and riding schools?.,” so that “Dancing was thus an adjunct military art, a peacetime discipline akin to fencing and equestrianism, with which it shared some of its movements and a disciplined approach to training and physical skill.” There are many standard historical sources crediting how ballet’s spatial patterns or “figures,” and framework for the dancer’s body placement evolved from militaristic origins.
While many historians agree with Ms. Homans that ballet’s shift from ceremonial social ritual into a professional classic form started with Ballet Comique de la Reine, a 1581 extravaganza choreographed and staged by Balthasar de Beajoyeulx (Baldassarino da Belgiojoso), and commissioned by the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, on the occasion of her sister’s betrothal, Lincoln Kirstein’s Movement & Metaphor: four centuries of ballet, traces the beginnings of what he calls “figured dancing” to an 1573 indoor Palace of the Tuilleries celebration, Le Ballet des Polonais, also mounted by Queen Catherine de Medici, to celebrate her second son’s crowning as the King of Poland.
So the absolutes in Apollo’s Angels are not quite as absolute as presented. In fact, as early as the 1300s the courts of Italy and France held elaborate spectacles for occasions such as weddings, births or funerals, or purely to be shows of power, and they featured members of the royal court dancing in combination with music, singing, poetry, costume displays, and lavishly designed set elements.
Historians have documented the existence of horse ballets in military training practices as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome. By the 1500s, equestrian pageants had been well established as a popular ingredient of these European court spectacles. These dressage formations, as they have come to be known, provided the basic geometric patterns still apparent in classic choreographic placements of the corps de ballet today. And to say “It was Beauchamps who first codified the five positions of the body, providing ‘the crucial leap from etiquette to art,’” does not clearly acknowledge their similarity to the four basic fencing positions. It was the same Queen Catherine de Medici who brought Italian fencing masters to France, when this military form of training was formalized, around the time these first ballets were being mounted in the courts of Italy and France.
The court dance forms essentially came from ancient community ritual or festival folk dance forms, such as round dances, contra dances, and processionals which were appropriated as ballroom dances by the aristocracy. Court dances eventually became known as the pavannes, galliards or gigues, and later minuets which continued to be basic ingredients as court pageants evolved into the professional ballet, opera, and theater arts. These dances play as large an influence on the ballet as fencing and other disciplines associated with nobles’ military training.
When Ms. Homans quotes Deborah Jowitts’ biography of choreographer Jerome Robbins, Dances with Demons, where he wonders if his love of ballet “has something to do with ‘civilizationing’ of my Jewishness?.The language of court and Christianity?.,” she fails to note that many of the earliest European dancing masters, the codifiers of ballet tradition, were Jewish. The first European dancing manual De arte saltandi et choreas ducendi (“On the Art of Dancing and Directing Choruses”), was published in 1415, authored by a Jewish dancing master known as Domenico da Piacenza.
How did so many critics miss these contradictions?
Later sections of the book, especially the Epilogue, have generated the most critical disagreements, especially because Ms. Homans belittles ballet activities of the past two decades, following the death of Balanchine. Her claim 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,” is either reflective of one person’s opinions and taste, or guided by the sales department’s attempt to boost Christmas sales for this coffee table book by sparking a bogus controversy. The New York Times dance critic Alastair MacCaulay took the bait.
Ms. Homans believes the acclaim of audiences should not be the measure of enduring art, and states she grounds her discussion in experience, by actually going into the studio and performing whatever is known about the dances she discusses. But especially when writing about the recent past and present, the dancer’s viewpoint is hard to discern and appears to express her personal “tyranny of the beholder.” Choreographer William Forsythe is barely mentioned, and other important contributors of the recent past or present are left out completely, such as Angelin Preljocaj, Maguy Marin and Alexei Ratmansky. Ms. Homans says that the “sleeping art” of ballet may find its revival “from an unexpected guest from the outside?from popular culture [in a repeating cycle as in its origins?] ?from artists or places foreign to the tradition who find new reasons to believe in ballet.” Couldn’t it be said this is exactly why works by Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, and Merce Cunningham, to mention some of the most familiar choreographers first identified with “modern dance,” have been mounted on or licensed into the repertories of ballet companies world-wide. It is likely that some of their works are likely to survive because of these adoptions.
For her overarching theme, as reflected in the book’s title, Ms. Homans invokes Apollo as the embodiment of ballet’s highest formal ideals. Crediting Apollo’s noble and aristocratic bearing, she ignores his darker aspects because Apollo is equally famous for placing a curse on Cassandra after she refused his sexual advances, by vowing that her prophecies, although true, would never be believed. Apollo could be a bitch. This lack of candor at least makes a good illustration of how the scary underbelly of ballet provided so much energy to the recent film sensation, Black Swan. If this film wins an Oscar or two, will that mean that ballet has a chance to survive in the twenty-first century?
CARLA BLANK’s most recent performance work is “KOOL, Dancing in my Mind, “ a collaboration with Robert Wilson. She is the author of “Rediscovering America,” a multicultural guide to the 20th century, and working on “Anonymous Dancer,” a history of American dance in the twentieth century.