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"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

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I saw a review of this new book on ballet history, "Apollo's Angels" in the SF Chronicle. Here is the link.

From the review it sounds like a very interesting and intelligently written book. Here's a quote from the review:

We move steadily from ballet's beginnings in the courts of France, through an isolated flourishing in politically stable Denmark, through crass acrobatic innovations in unstable Italy. The chapter on ballet in Italy seems unnecessarily long, but it is not: Those tricks en pointe and circus-like fouettes become the foundation for a more artistically invigorated flowering in Russia, where ballet thrives first as the art of tsars, then as Communist propaganda. Which leads to the Cold War ballet battles of East and West. And Homans crowns her geographic narrative with ballet in the United States, and with the Russian émigré who made ballet American: George Balanchine.

I'm interested in hearing other responses.

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The New Republic published an excerpt from the book, and that served as the basis for a 19-minute CBC Radio broadcast of a discussion between Karen Kain and Jennifer Homans.

You can link to the radio program and the article itself and read members' reactions to both -- and perhaps post your own :) -- here.

If you wish to comment on the book, please do so here. For the radio show and the article, please post on the earlier thread.

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It received a positive review from Benjamin Moser in the November, 2010 Harper's Magazine. And it was heartening to read that book itself itself is a reposte to the idea that ballet is fading. But he was wrong to say there are no other general histories of ballet -- perhaps he meant in print?

On the newstands or by subscription at http://harpers.org/subjects/ApollosAngelsAHistoryOfBalletBook"

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This readers comment was just posted at the Times in a discussion about the book's premise:

Ms. Homans’ generalizations from the epilogue of her book published in The New Republic were disappointing as was her unsubstantiated attack on Hodson/Joffrey reconstruction of Nijinksy’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The epilogue read like it was the result of Homans’ editors urging her to make more definitive statements, take a stance, don’t be namby-pamby, write something that will stir up some controversy ...

The state of the art of ballet is good. Where it falters is in its yielding to temptation to try to relate to new audiences of un-likeminded entertainments, e.g., video games, tweenie rap, Club Whatever, with the hope that it will expand its audience. In doing so, it often offends its devoted core audience.

Ballet is missing the boat by not aggressively marketing to the over 50 market to build its audience. Many people will not come to appreciate ballet until their own bodies begin to fail them and until they have acquired enough life experiences so that they can appreciate the predicaments of the characters in Giselle, Swan Lake, Manon, and Dark Elegies. There will always be a never ending supply of old people who want something other than video games, tweenie rap and Club Whatever. Everyone grows old. Everyone slows down. Everyone comes to a time in his life when he just wants to sit in a chair and be entertained by something beautiful. Ballet needs to have more faith in itself, more faith in the value of its traditional artistic product, more faith in its traditional audience.

Trixie

Arts Beat: When the critic says

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I read the book, all in one sitting. I wish the book had a more narrow focus, as is I think it attempts to cover way too much, although I admire Homans' love for detail and history. I like how she talks carefully about the origins of ballet, and the battle between pantomime and dancing steps -- a debate that's still here today. The book is stronger when writing about the origins of ballet, and the effect of Marie Taglioni. When she moves into the 20th century, some of the book becomes cliched and I didn't really need a book to know, for instance, that Margot Fonteyn was elegant, or Maya Plisetskaya was dynamic. Too bad, because when Homans does in-depth analysis of dance, she seems to have a sharp eye for detail.

The nice photos and somewhat history-book style of writing made me surprised at the epilogue though.

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I read the book, all in one sitting. It's actually a fairly light read, and without its provocative epilogue is more of a Cliff Notes about the history of ballet than anything else.

My impression -- based only on Robert Gottlieb's review in the NY Review of Books -- was the same as yours, canbelto.

http://www.nybooks.c.../waking-beauty/

Here's Gottlieb's treatment of the matter of "the future of ballet."

Where her book becomes more profoundly personal is in its final pages, when she looks back, around, and ahead, and concludes that ballet has essentially come to an end:

With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality; theaters feel haunted and audiences seem blasé. After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying. The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember, and our intense preoccupation with re-creating history is more than a momentary diversion: we are watching ballet go, documenting its past and its passing before it fades altogether.

She is not the only lover of ballet who feels this way. The deaths of Ashton and, particularly, of Balanchine have left in their wake a mourning and depressed generation. It is now thirty years since we have seen anything like a major new work of classical dance, and those who believe that great choreographers move among us are either self-deluded or fools. Occasionally a talent announces itself, and we pounce—most recently on Christopher Wheeldon, whose limitations became quickly clear, and Alexei Ratmansky, who is not only highly capable but whose wide range is suggestive and stimulating. (Homans mentions neither.) But is it remotely possible that either of these gifted men is the one to lead us out of the desert to the promised land? And is it fair or reasonable to place such a burden of expectation on a newcomer, particularly given the intense spotlight thrown on anyone today who turns up with even a grain of real talent? Balanchine and Ashton were able to develop in near obscurity.

Is ballet, then, as Homans suggests, beyond rescue? I would like to believe that even if no new master comes along, the long-running love/hate relationship between it and modern dance that began a century ago when Isadora Duncan went to Russia and bowled over Fokine and his young contemporaries may yet lead to a fusion that will both preserve and reinvigorate classicism. Or that yet another relocation of the art—to Brazil, say, or Asia—may kiss the Beauty awake again. Or that new social dances like hip-hop may infuse ballet with a new approach and energy, the way Italian exhibitionistic tricks on pointe did in the 1820s.

This may well, of course, be wishful thinking, when we consider that the historical circumstances that brought ballet into being and helped it flourish—and that Homans has so meticulously anatomized—are, indeed, history. After all, other great art forms have withered away. If Homans is right—and when I’m not in a Polyanna mode, the odds seem to me that she is—there’s nothing we can do about it except celebrate and cherish what we’ve lost. Her book, indeed, is her way of doing just that, which is why she could give it the exhilarating and radiant title Apollo’s Angels rather than the title her conclusion implies, The Dying Swan.

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I think the book is very well-written, by the way, and serves as a good background textbook for ballet. The pictures are wonderfully chosen. What it really isn't is dance criticism, and that's where I think the epilogue seems out of key. A book with a narrower time frame and tighter focus might have been more interesting, albeit less marketable.

Interesting that you mention Robert Gottlieb's review because his anthology "Reading Dance," while also very all-encompassing, manages to seem much less like a history book because of its eclectic, well-chosen selections of dance criticism.

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I read the book, all in one sitting. It's actually a fairly light read, and without its provocative epilogue is more of a Cliff Notes about the history of ballet than anything else.

My impression -- based only on Robert Gottlieb's review in the NY Review of Books -- was the same as yours, canbelto.

http://www.nybooks.c.../waking-beauty/

Just out of curiosity, does Gottleib mention that JH wrote for the NY Review, too? A good editor should have made sure he said that...

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Just out of curiosity, does Gottleib mention that JH wrote for the NY Review, too? A good editor should have made sure he said that...

No, he does not. I don't think that doing so in this case necessary, since it's a balanced review of a book that is written from a base of considerable knowledge and is non-controverisal. Neither Homans nor Gottlieb has serious axes to grind.

Gottlieb is generous in tone but includes criticisms and discusses a number of "slips." One of the most charming, it seems to me, is this:

Occasionally, though, her disinterestedness slips, as when she tells us that Taglioni’s international celebrity “set the pattern for Margot Fonteyn, Melissa Hayden, Galina Ulanova, and others to follow.” Hayden was certainly a formidable Balanchine dancer, but bracketing her with those two consummate artists strikes me as oddly off-key. Here the author seems to step out of ballet history and into personal history (she studied with Hayden at the North Carolina School of the Arts), but I can’t really begrudge her such an affectionate gesture of loyalty.

Gottlieb also has issues with Homans' treatment of Ulanova and Plisetskaya in regard to the question of what constitutes a "Soviet" (as opposed to "Russian") ballerina.

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Just out of curiosity, does Gottleib mention that JH wrote for the NY Review, too? A good editor should have made sure he said that...

No, he does not. I don't think that doing so in this case necessary, since it's a balanced review of a book that is written from a base of considerable knowledge and is non-controversial. Neither Homans nor Gottlieb has serious axes to grind.

Oh I agree--I just think any publication should be transparent about reviewing its own writers (as is, for instance, the New Yorker, even in brief book reviews).

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I don't think that doing so in this case necessary, since it's a balanced review of a book that is written from a base of considerable knowledge and is non-controversial.

Beside the point, I should think. The NYRB is known for having its contributors write tactful and often flattering things about each other.

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The ballet is dead or dying argument is a bit ridiculous and lacks any real foundation. The argument that Gottlieb makes in his review is aesthetic - it's that no good new ballet is in his view being made, no one has appeared who is the equal of Balanchine or Ashton. Even if true - and I think he underestimates the contemporaries - you can't base historical extinction on aesthetic features. On the contrary, there are a lot of companies right now, lots of tickets being sold, lots of schools, dancers, students, and interest and literature too. There's no reason to think this is a dying art form. Not to mention Homans, Gottlieb - even by hedging his bets - let's his nostalgia for his own golden age get the better of his judgment.

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You can't base historical extinction on aesthetic features. On the contrary, there are a lot of companies right now, lots of tickets being sold, lots of schools, dancers, students, and interest and literature too.
Michael, I really appreciate your point. Even in Balanchine's days in NYCB, a great deal of forgettable choreography was danced all along. The great works that were created remain in the repertory and have been performed all over the world. If we are in a fallow period in terms of new choreography, surely this is not the first such time in the history of ballet.

Meanwhile, as you say, the dancers, institutions, and (less predictably) the audience are in place. One can imagine them waiting (even if they don't know it) for the next great flowering of artistic creativity. People seem to be fearful about knowing what this new flowering will look like. But that's also part of the excitement in any important art form.

Here's Claudia La Rocco's refutation of the ballet-is-dying thesis: "Is Ballet Really Dying? Don't believe the diagnosis in a new history of the Classical Tradition."

http://www.slate.com/id/2274746/

OFF TOPIC. Out of curiosity, I checked Jennifer Homans using the Author Search on the NYRB website. A single article turns up: a 2002 review of the book Stravinsky and Balanchine: a Journey of Invention. Thus, she is indeed someone who has written for and contributed to the NYCB. The track record is quite slim, however, and not very recent. Is it possible that Homans' review was overlooked by both Mr. Gottlieb (who in no way gives Homans a free pass in his review) and his editor? Gottlieb identifies her, properly, as the dance critic for the New Republic.

Beside the point, I should think. The NYRB is known for having its contributors write tactful and often flattering things about each other.
I imagine that all publications do this sort of thing at times. I was not aware, until now however, that the NYRB is actually known for this, in the sense of doing it habitually, egegiously, and/or as a matter of editorial policy. I've been a subscriber since the first edition in 1963 and can recall quite a few pointed and impassioned disagreements among NYCB writers and reviewers over the years.

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Gottlieb's review is fairly circumspect compared to Toni Bentley's rave in the NYTimes.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/books/review/Bentley-t.html?_r=1

For a flavor of the review, the first paragraph:

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. She has taken this world where wilis, virgins, sylphs, sleeping princesses, the “women in white” embody the eternal — the eternally unattainable — and set it into the fabric of world history, and we see, miraculously, their pale tulle and satin pointes peeking out from the crevices of war, of revolutions, of political machinations, and on the ­stages of the monarchies and empires of the kings and czars who gave birth to this improbable art.

Later on:

Moreover, it actually feels as if she wrote the book in order to get to Balanchine, the one she loves, to put him in his deepest context, and to present him as the pinnacle of the towering pyramid of dance that she has built for him, for us. There he is, the undisputed “Yahweh” of all dance history, the Apollo of her title, accompanied by his beloved muses, his dancers, his angels, leading his chariot, no corseted doves in sight.

And it concludes with:

The Fabergé egg has fallen. Today’s ballerinas use Twitter, securing the fall of the fourth wall, and even Darren Aronofsky’s new ballet film, “Black Swan,” presents, uncannily, a haunting final image of a white tutu oozing blood. So what is one to do now, having seen, having known, a thing of such beauty that is facing imminent extinction? Jennifer Homans has put her mourning into action and has written its history, an eloquent and lasting elegy to an unlasting art. It is, alas, a eulogy.

I liked Homans' book but this kind of purple prose review doesn't help anybody.

I have a feeling the dance criticism world is fairly small and cozy, especially nowadays, and I really hate reading reviews that are not so much reviews as infomercials.

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Yes, I posted the Bentley review in the Links earlier. Toni B. has always had a tendency to empurpled prose, and it got the better of her this time.

The ballet is dead or dying argument is a bit ridiculous and lacks any real foundation. The argument that Gottlieb makes in his review is aesthetic - it's that no good new ballet is in his view being made, no one has appeared who is the equal of Balanchine or Ashton. Even if true - and I think he underestimates the contemporaries - you can't base historical extinction on aesthetic features. On the contrary, there are a lot of companies right now, lots of tickets being sold, lots of schools, dancers, students, and interest and literature too. There's no reason to think this is a dying art form. Not to mention Homans, Gottlieb - even by hedging his bets - let's his nostalgia for his own golden age get the better of his judgment.

Thanks, Michael. Quite so.

I was not aware, until now however, that the NYRB is actually known for this, in the sense of doing it habitually, egegiously, and/or as a matter of editorial policy.

Dunno what to tell you. I can't point you to a link, but I know I've read about it and it's been evident in the magazine, at least to my eye. Such things are never a matter of editorial policy for obvious reasons. Opinions will differ.

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There was Toni Bentley's review for the NYROB of the dueling Gottlieb/Teachbout biographies of Balanchine. It was predictably flattering towards Gottlieb's book (and well, Gottlieb's book was better) but also included such pontificating such as:

Terry Teachout begins his assessment of Balanchine in 1987, four years after Balanchine’s death, upon his first seeing Concerto Barocco. Assuming that his own belated coming to the light could possibly reflect that of thousands of others gives the reader an immediate clue to Teachout’s position. Perhaps he’d have done better to explore the reasons for his astonishing late arrival to the shores of one of the greatest artists not only of his own time but of the very city in which he lives. To ask, as Teachout does, “Why hasn’t anybody ever told me about this?” begs the question, while playing the innocent is disingenuous, especially for a “culture” critic. Teachout then sets himself up as guide and savior, setting Balanchine up as a victim of the public’s short-term memory loss by titling his first chapter “The Unknown Giant” and then claiming that today “you don’t have to know who Balanchine was, or what he did, in order to be deemed culturally literate.” Says who?
On Saturday, May 1, almost two hundred alumni of New York City Ballet (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of them) dating back as far as 1948 gathered at the New York State Theater at the invitation of the company director, Peter Martins, to take a bow for past services and share some vodka and blini. After only briefly discussing how the company just “isn’t what it was” (how could it be? it’s now Martins’s company, not Balanchine’s), discussion quickly moved on to the usual reunion banter: who’s married, who’s divorced, who’s no longer gay, and who’s reproduced. Many of us skipped the last ballet on the program—we knew we’d seen it done better—but beneath our ironic remarks lay disappointment. Most of us weren’t so interested in “ballet” per se; we were interested in Balanchine. His dances are now performed like ballets; we had approached them as missions. We are not naysayers, just dinosaurs who remember when the pterodactyls still flew at the State Theater.

And finally:

It is telling, though disturbing, that perhaps the most poignant image to emerge from Balanchine at one hundred is an advertisement for Movado watches (a corporate sponsor of NYCB) featuring Darci Kistler, Balanchine’s last angelic messenger and adored child-woman, whose rich but uneven career, sadly thwarted by injury upon injury, echoes like a cry in the dark since Balanchine’s death. In the full-page ad, her beautiful, mournful gaze, twenty years after losing her maestro, peers like a blond widow out of a black web. She, the last muse of the Man Who Knew Time, is posed with her arm across her neck like a noose. Balanchine taught his audience and his dancers how to bear loss with grace, and the serene sadness evident in Kistler’s enigmatic face is the visage of a woman whose loss indeed has been great.

This kind of overly sentimental pontificating and purple prose is what I find more objectionable in a lot of NY Review of Book articles. I like their in-depth anaylysis but many of the articles are more philosophical treatises with a rather definite political bent, which is appropriate when the subject is politics but the heavy hand is more dispiriting in arts reviews.

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there are a lot of companies right now, lots of tickets being sold, lots of schools, dancers, students, and interest and literature too.

In her delightful From London column in the Winter 2010 DanceView, Jane Simpson writes of the Victoria and Albert Museum's Diaghilev exhibition, that

what's particularly pleasing is that the exhibition seems to be capturing the interest of a younger generation, to whom this really is history. [ . . . ] it's fascinating to see how different aspects - the Ballets Russe influence on fashion, for instance - are bringing the era to life for newcomers.

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May I just say that I do understand the slight indignation towards Homan's, Gottlieb etc and the rather doom laden pronouncement that ballet is dead - and I agree also that purple prose can get in the way of appreciating the message pragmatically, but I do also believe that there is a great deal of truth in the concerns of the authors. If not dead then perhaps stagnant is a better descriptive term.

If I can recommend a better read on this subject then Barbara Newman's two books Striking A Balance & Grace Under Pressure address the issue from several viewpoints of great dancers, directors and teachers. The first book written in 1982, as the ballet boom was beginning to wind down and the second in 2003 when the issues and concerns about the legacy of ballet had become harsh realities, the ballet boom over, the great choreographers dead and the glamour of ballet all but disappeared from the media and greater public consciousness.

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I agree also that purple prose can get in the way of appreciating the message pragmatically

I don't mind purple prose from Bentley when she's writing about ballet. From some writers, it reads like cliches in the place of smart description and analysis. From her, for me, it reads like emotion layered onto smart description and analysis.

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I agree also that purple prose can get in the way of appreciating the message pragmatically

I don't mind purple prose from Bentley when she's writing about ballet. From some writers, it reads like cliches in the place of smart description and analysis. From her, for me, it reads like emotion layered onto smart description and analysis.

I violently object to purple prose from both Bentley and Homans, who do themselves and their subjects no favors by such swank self-indulgences. Homans' 'doomsaying' little 'conclusion' reminds me of nothing so much as the latest forecast of apocalypse by a 'religious leader' giving us the day, the minute, the hour...let's see, how many of these farcical pronunciamentos have we had? Rather the same with Homans' unfortunate epilogue--has she never encountered things like Yvonne Rainer's manifesto "NO to spectacle NO to virtuosity NO to theatrical magic...." from the mid-sixties, or similar things since? Recycled and manque, which is sad because the book is a nice dance history until the ending. As for Bentley, whose Winter Season is one of my all-time favorites in every way and whose Costumes by Karinska is almost as good, the transformation of this marvelous writer into an epic and campy sacred monster is a tragedy. The clarity, simplicity, and UTTER lack of pretension which made Winter Season such a masterpiece (and at such a young age) have been replaced by purple and pornographic prose both literal and figurative.

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I agree also that purple prose can get in the way of appreciating the message pragmatically

I don't mind purple prose from Bentley when she's writing about ballet. From some writers, it reads like cliches in the place of smart description and analysis. From her, for me, it reads like emotion layered onto smart description and analysis.

Gosh, all of you diamond and silver circle and 5 star commenters and I, a mere nobody, in your midst! I am reading Apollo's Angels and I love it! I also adored Toni Bentley's review, because it was so emotionally true, not just reportage, yes, lavender prose and all. I think Jennifer Homans is brilliant - though I haven't gotten to her pessimistic epilogue yet. However, she has given me an insight. Her selection of photos of Apollon Musegete, the original Balanchine ballet of the 20's, costumed in 20's style, echoed with a strange familiarity for me. Where had I seen those headpieces? At NYCB last season, in Ratmansky's Namouna, a Grand Divertissement, where the ballerinas are all wearing what look like odd helmets or swimming caps. Could these inexplicable caps be an homage to the original costuming of Apollo? Though Homans doesn't mention Ratmansky at all, when I read an excellent writer (and see her choice of illustrations), I make connections to my other ballet experiences. I can't be as critical as the more experienced commenters here. I am still in a state of - well, aesthetic joy. Homans connection of ballet as an expression by physical means of a moral purpose speaks to me - even if ballet didn't exactly ennoble Nureyev. Wasn't it Balanchine who said, "ballet is about behavior"? Correct me if I'm wrong.

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I hate purple prose, especially when it comes to dance criticism, because I feel it's a resort when you're not actually ... uh, writing about dance. The best dance criticism is markedly free of purple prose. Edwin Denby or Arlene Croce (or today, Robert Gottlieb or Alistair Macauley) have a kind of biting, cut-to-the-chase, quality about their writing which I like, even when I don't agree with them.

They would never resort to this kind of writing:

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.

Ok first of all, the second sentence is 81 words long. There is no excuse for any opening paragraph with that lengthy of a sentence, and one with 18 adjectives counted. And "the air is thinner but heaven is closer"? That kind of stuff makes me giggle. There's also no reason to ever string together three adjectives in a row anywhere (only truly definitive) and (most impossibly fantastic). I realize I'm sounding like an English teacher but dance to me is about movement, something Mr. B would certainly agree with. Dance criticism should be about describing movement, not stringing together superlative adjectives.

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Ok first of all, the second sentence is 81 words long. There is no excuse for any opening paragraph with that lengthy of a sentence, and one with 18 adjectives counted. And "the air is thinner but heaven is closer"? That kind of stuff makes me giggle. There's also no reason to ever string together three adjectives in a row anywhere (only truly definitive) and (most impossibly fantastic). I realize I'm sounding like an English teacher but dance to me is about movement, something Mr. B would certainly agree with. Dance criticism should be about describing movement, not stringing together superlative adjectives.

:lol: No, I feel your pain. There is good information in that second sentence, but it goes on and on and ends up pretty darn awful. Still, she's not attempting actual dance criticism.

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Gosh, all of you diamond and silver circle and 5 star commenters and I, a mere nobody, in your midst! I am reading Apollo's Angels and I love it! I also adored Toni Bentley's review, because it was so emotionally true, not just reportage, yes, lavender prose and all. I think Jennifer Homans is brilliant - though I haven't gotten to her pessimistic epilogue yet. However, she has given me an insight. Her selection of photos of Apollo Musegete, the original Balanchine ballet of the 20's, costumed in 20's style, echoed with a strange familiarity for me. Where had I seen those headpieces? At NYCB last season, in Ratmansky's Namouna, a Grand Divertissement, where the ballerinas are all wearing what look like odd helmets or swimming caps. Could these inexplicable caps be an homage to the original costuming of Apollo? Though Homans doesn't mention Ratmansky at all, when I read an excellent writer (and see her choice of illustrations), I make connections to my other ballet experiences. I can't be as critical as the more experienced commenters here. I am still in a state of - well, aesthetic joy. Homans connection of ballet as an expression by physical means of a moral purpose speaks to me - even if ballet didn't exactly ennoble Nureyev. Wasn't it Balanchine who said, "ballet is about behavior"? Correct me if I'm wrong.

Thank you for telling us your thoughts on the book, Eileen, and I imagine your own experience is more extensive than you realize.

Balanchine reportedly said, "La Danse…c’est une question morale," although your quote about behavior may be correct - it just doesn't ring any immediate bells with me. It's subject to a wide variety of interpretations.

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Re: "Is ballet dead?" Just in time, the George Balanchine Foundation shows up with an a propos quote from Mr. B:

Dance is a continuation. You cannot predict the signs of its evolution.

Also: Thanks, Eileen, for your post. I've been equivocating about buying Homans' book, but you made me decide to do so. (Click Amazon above. A % of the purchase price helps out Ballet Talk. :thumbsup: )

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