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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How good is "Apollo's Angels"?

The bombastic New York Times Book Review by Toni Bentley blared, "It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in “Apollo’s Angels.” She has written the only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet, this most refined, most exquisite art of “aristocratic etiquette,” this “science of behavior toward others,” as a 17th-century ballet master put it, in which lovely young women perch upon their 10 little toe tips (actually, it is ­really just the two big toes that alternately support the entire body’s weight: think about it) and waft about where the air is thinner — but heaven is closer." Obviously, she liked the book.

Jennifer Homans' book, a history of ballet, has gotten equal parts praise and scorn -- praise for her thoughtful, methodical research, her elegant writing style, and her passionate views. It's gotten scorn because of her famous (or infamous) epilogue, where, after such loving research, she declares ballet "dead." The epliogue can be read online at the New Republic. But, having read the book cover to cover twice now, I wonder, just how good is Apollo's Angels?

The positives of the book are that Homans was a careful, thoughtful researcher. She took the already-familiar outlines of the history of ballet, especially its origins in the French Imperial Court, and instead of dumbing down the material, Homans did the admirable strategy of smartening up. The book is filled to the brim with arcane but interesting facts about the "early days" of ballet that nonetheless make you admire the sheer effort she must have put into research. It's one thing to talk about the five classical positions in ballet, it's another to show a painting of what the five positions looked like in the court of Louis XIV. It's yet another to write under the picture as a caption, "The five positions of ballet as codified by ballet masters in the reign of Louis XIV. The best dancers appeared graceful and poised, never angular or forced. Moderate turn-out of the feet and hips conveyed aristocratic ease."

Another joy in the book is the luxurious pictures, all carefully chosen and truly enhancing to the story. She includes the original notations of the Italian spectacle ballet Excelsior. She shows us Marie Taglioni's original pointe shoes. She compares the original Mariinsky snowflakes with the Snowflakes Balanchine made for his Nutcracker. By the caption, Homans writes: "The similarities are striking, Balanchine made one important addition: his snowflakes are crowned, emphasizing their Imperial lineage."

Homans is also an excellent writer. I haven't seen such a good distillation of the unique Bournonville style until I read it in Apollo's Angels:
Bournonville's dancers had impeccable manners. They kept their arms low (no overheated gestures or luxurious port-de-bras) and their steps underneath them, never allowing their limbs to splay or extend beyond the natural circumference of the body. There were no static poses or hammy postures -- the steps were simply too demanding and tightly crafted to allow for egotistical excesses. Phrasing was key: steps, even (especially) the most virtuostic ones, were never show-offy stunts performed to wow an audience but were integrated instead into a disciplined whole. The point of a jump, for example, was not necessarily to soar: to this day Bournonville dancers rarely jump up or announce their arrival mid-air with a flourish on a musical upbeat. Instead, they jump to and from other positions within the arc of a musical phrase. A jump will often even pull to the downbeat, resisting the I-got-there moment in favor of a modest suspension -- a breach within an unbroken flow of movement. The thrust and ambition of a jump is thus sharply disciplined, its upward flying motion constrained by considerations of taste and musicality (p. 190).
This is a first rate mind talking about ballet, and that is always a joy to read.

As the history of ballet chugs along into the 20th century, the tightly focused early chapters give way to less interesting, more biased outlook. Homans' mentor and idol is Balanchine, but does she really have to dismiss Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet in one paragraph, or have to generalize that the rise of MacMillan in the Royal Ballet "sadly exemplified the malaise seeping into British life" (p. 442)? She gives Sir Frederick Ashton his due, but there's a slightly condescending tone to his writings about Ashton ballets, as if he were just the creator of some charming, sentimental bucolic slices of life. I mean, can his wonderful Sylvia be dismissed as a "lumbering confusion of gods and goddesses, sylphans, dryads, and naiads" (p. 430). She writes little about the choreographic touches Ashton was fond of putting into his ballets, such as the "air walking," and completely omits any mention of his masterpieces like Two Pigeons, Scenes de Ballet, Monotones, and Dapnis et Chloe, which makes me wonder how much Ashton's she's actually seen. The oppressive atmosphere state-run ballet companies in the former Soviet Union are well-known even to casual ballet fans, but is it necessary to reduce Maya Plisetskaya's uniquely dynamic dancing into a metaphor about a "fight" against the totalitatarian state?

And that's perhaps the problem with Homans' book -- the more well-known the material is, the less interesting she becomes as a writer. Perhaps it's because other books, more narrow in scope, have done a better job focusing on, say, Diaghilev's Ballet Russes or British Ballet or ballet in the Americas. The last chapter "The American Century II: The New York Scene" of course focuses heavily on George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. But this is stuff that has been covered better in books by Edwin Denby, Arlene Croce, and other critics who were "present at the creation" for the Balanchine and Robbins masterworks. There are so many excellent books written about the topic that Homans' chapter, no matter how well-written, is bound to seem a bit shallow.

As for its much-talked-about epilogue, one thing that is striking in the book is how many times ballet "died" before Homans declared its final death. Ballet died with the French Revolution, Romantic ballet died when Paris was abandoned by the dancers Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler for sites abroad, ballet died again when it became overstuffed by the exceesses of pure spectacle Italian ballets like Excelsior, which "boasted a cast of more than five hundred, including twelve horses, two cows, and an elephant (p. 233)." Ballet was never alive in Britain or the United States until certain extremely talented and determined people made ballet come alive.

Another thing about Homans is she's one of those critics who seem to think ballet died when Balanchine died. It's a sad viewpoint, because Balanchine was famously generous with his ballets and wanted them to belong to the world, and to be danced by the world, even if it wasn't trained in his style, because he didn't want his ballets to die. But Homans' argument becomes even harder to agree with when she says:
For performers, things are no easier. Committed and well-trained dancers are still in good supply, but very few are exciting or interesting enough to draw or hold an audience. Technically conservative, their dancing is opaque and flat, emotionally dimmed. And although many can perform astonishing stunts, the overall level of technique has fallen. Today's dancers are more brittle and unsubtle, with fewer half-tones than their predecessors .... Today we no longer believe in ballet's ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive. Those privileged enough to obtain specialized training, so this thinking goes, should not be elevated above those with limited access to knowledge or art. We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now. Ballet's fine manners and implicitly aristocratic airs, its white swans, regal splendor, and beautiful women on pointe (pedestals), seem woefully outmoded, the province of dead white men and society ladies in long-ago places.
The arguments are familiar: today's dancers are losing their links with great choreographers and pedagogues. There has been no real great choreographer since Balanchine's death. Yet such a long, bitter epilogue after such a loving history of ballet leaves a sour taste in one's mouth, even if I can agree with some of her points. First of all, I hate to think that such a painstakingly researched book was just to prove a point that ballet is dead. Second of all, I dislike declaring any art form dead. Wasn't it the great works of Marius Petipa in Russia that rescued ballet from the excesses of Italian ballet? It seems narrow-minded, knee-jerk conservative, and somehow deeply mean to declare an art form dead. The author assumes that if people enjoy ballet today, they are somehow ignorant, and that kind of elitist attitude doesn't help anybody. The other issue is that somehow I wonder if the epilogue was tacked on to sell more books, as a lengthy history book about ballet might not garner nearly as much controversy, and thus publicity. As Homans' book has proved, ballet was constantly changing as society changed. The courtiers of the French court gave way to highly trained specialized dancers, and when those dancers retired they took their talents to Italy, Russia, and Denmark. I agree with Homans that ballet is a fragile art form, but I also believe that it's in the end as resilient as a dancer's toes.

So how good is Apollo's Angels? I think it's an excellent primer on the history of ballet, and Homans is a very intelligent, and a good writer, but I fundamentally disagree with her premise of writing her book. And there are other books that in my opinion are just as critical for any balletomane's library. For books on dance criticism, Akim Volynsky's Ballet's Magic Kingdom, Edwin Denby's Dance Writings, Arlene Croce's Afterimages, Going to the Dance, and Sight Lines, offer an unparalleled persepctive and insight into eras of dance. Reading Dance, edited by Robert Gottlieb, is a huge anthology of dance criticism, excerpts from memoirs, interviews and other essays that make for a rich, rewarding book. There's a mini-library of works about Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, but Lynn Garafola's book Diaghilev's Ballet Russes is probably the best and most insightful. David Vaughn's Frederick Ashton and his Ballets offers much greater insight into a choreographer that's only touched upon superficially in Homans' book. Lincoln Kirstein's Fifty Ballet Masterworks is a much less wordy mini-history of ballet, with many more illuminating pictures, and written in Kirstein's wonderfully authoritative style. And our understanding of ballet would be poorer without the memoirs of Tamara Karsavina's Theatre Street, the rare ballet memoir that not only talks about the hard work and the career glories of ballet, but about the love. Love for dancing, love for one's ballet school, love for ballet. When one reads Denby, Croce, or Karsavina, they convey such love for the art form that one thinks that ballet is indeed, eternal. I wish Homans could combine her talents (writing, research) with a more optimistic, less fatalistic outlook.

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