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"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

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It's an interesting (if slightly disorganized) piece -- part review, part musing on the topic of "Is Ballet Dying?"

I was especially struck by a statement in the last paragraph -- the sentence that I have printed in bold.:

Perhaps a later history will view all these as the final gutterings of a spent flame. This is no golden age, and several of its ballets are indeed dead. My own main alarm about ballet — not one that troubles Ms. Homans — is that its dependence on pointwork for women and partnering by men proposes a dichotomizing view of the sexes that is at best outmoded and at worst repellently sexist. Nevertheless, this balletgoer testifies that the scene feels brighter than it did 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
Ballet for Louis XIV, Petipa, and Balanchine reflected a very hierarchical view of society -- including a hierarchy of gender roles.

Now that I think of it, almost all of us have moved away from this view of the social structure. So have most creative artists, in the Western world at least.

Is ballet's identification with women on point -- and men as partners -- something that deserves to bite the dust in terms of new ballet creation? If so, what will replace it? :dunno:

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The hierarchical angle is unfortunate of course, but women obviously look beautiful on pointe, and courtesy is beautiful as well. Do pointework and partnering have to represent a chivalry born of sexism? I prefer to see partnering that shows off the woman as representing a man's love and respect for her, and her gracious appreciation of it, not from a point of weakness and inferiority, but of strength, both physical and spiritual. I prefer to see pointework as glorifying a woman's beauty.

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I was especially struck by a statement in the last paragraph -- the sentence that I have printed in bold[/bMy own main alarm about ballet — not one that troubles Ms. Homans — is that its dependence on pointwork for women and partnering by men proposes a dichotomizing view of the sexes that is at best outmoded and at worst repellently sexist.

Yes, I think you picked out the one striking passage of the article.

Now that I think of it, almost all of us have moved away from this view of the social structure. So have most creative artists, in the Western world at least.

Is ballet's identification with women on point -- and men as partners -- something that deserves to bite the dust in terms of new ballet creation? If so, what will replace it? :dunno:

I don't see it as 'outmoded' or 'repellently sexist', but whether most do, and that makes it bite the dust I don't know any more than anyone else. I'd think that if it did, that really would be the end to the essence of ballet, although there will still be lots of dance of all kinds. Not sure I agree that most have 'moved away from this view of the social structure', though. That's the liberal view in a few advanced western nations, and not even everywhere there: As long as there a preponderance of heterosexual marriages with children, even with repeal of DADT and gay marriage, there are still plenty of people who don't like those new social advances. otoh, it does suggest the horrible possibility that we'd get a Palinesque 'How's the new outdoorsy ballet workin' fer ye?' which, god knows, would be another form of ballet death knell.

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'How's the new outdoorsy ballet workin' fer ye?' which, god knows, would be another form of ballet death knell.

WELL-said!!!!!

I don't know that it’s at all necessary to see women on pointe in the light that Mr. Macaulay sees it.

For me, women on pointe are MORE independent, freer, than anyone in a soft shoe.

Alonzo King, to name only one, is using pointe work in pdd that are shared-center -- he's not supporting her any more than she is supporting HIM, they're often pulling away from each other, or knotted up in the kinds of tangles Balanchine used in his more advanced work -- Mr. B was not much into lifts -- Forsythe's most cantilevered pdd -- well, I’m thinking of 'in the middle, somewhat elevated,' so that's decades ago now -- but still, the partners are very equal, each is working hard, and if he's stronger in some ways, she’s stronger in others. And the pointe shoe gives the dancer a huge advantage -- if you don't have to use your calves but can do the work with the feet themselves, dancing is not so tiring., the toe-box is a real power assist, in many ways.

Mr. Macaulay seems to be, at least at the moment of writing, caught up in the idea that the toe shoe marks women as the second-rate sex, or the idealized, unreal one, or the one that needs the strength of men to hold them up. But he knows better.... dancing on pointe is easier on the body than jumping all the time. men have to retire young, women can go into the late forties with very little loss of strength since pointe work is low-impact and does less harm to the body than big jumps.... I'm exaggerating for effect -- but still, what male dancer was able to dance as beautifully into his forties as Kyra Nichols was into HER forties?

We’re a romance-starved people right now -- when the new romance arrives, it will surprise us with its features; it will probably bring back the old thing in a new, hitherto unimaginable way.

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Mr. Macaulay seems to be, at least at the moment of writing, caught up in the idea that the toe shoe marks women as the second-rate sex, or the idealized, unreal one,[ . . . ]

We’re a romance-starved people right now -[ . . . ]

Yes, and romance is about ideals. The idealized woman isn't real, but the ideal is.

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There are so many issues here in considering ballet - past, present and future. With its roots in hierarchical society, there's bound to be a reflection (even faint remnant) of that in current choreography. (Of course, that often depends upon the training and historical understanding of the choreographer....)

But currently ballet reflects and integrates many strains of modern and ethnic dance. Modern dance choreographers such as Taylor and Morris (among many) use a great deal of the type of "Shared-center" partnering that Paul points out in Alonzo King's work. To me, that's an example of integrating ideas and techniques from his contemporary modern colleagues. These new strains will probably expand and increase the range of ballet in the future. Whether it's good or bad quality is a separate issue.

Our (we here at Ballet Alert) beliefs on what the future of ballet is, are like the four (or however-many) blind men and the elephant.... each of us (MacAuley and Homans included) brings a different history and perspective to the theater so that what we see and reflect on will be different.

And for that reason alone, I don't think that ballet can be dying. Personally, with all the blending and, for example, men on pointe in the Trocks, the question becomes, WHAT IS ballet?

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Maybe I've missed something implicit in the discussion, but isn't it inescapable that men and women move differently? Not just that women are generally smaller than men, but that the distribution of weight around the body is different - with smaller shoulders and larger hips, women have the weight lower in their torsos, and with smaller hands and feet, not to mention larger thighs, the weight of their limbs is closer to their torsos. The dancers here must know better than a mere former science whizz how this allows for easier quick, small movements from women - try swinging a baseball bat by the wrong (large) end - and slower, heavier, perhaps more powerful movement from men. So it's a natural, inescapable dichotomy. Isn't what we make of the dichotomy another, separate but entwined story? (I want to thank kfw for his succinct account; my sentiments exactly!)

But as for Homans's thesis, not having read her book but only her concluding chapter, I'm probably in the wrong thread, but I have a hunch she's right, even if, as I gather from some of the reviews, she doesn't argue her case very tightly. She seems to see how ballet is dependent on society at large, on its surrounding civilization, and that's my own basis, if not reason, for pessimism: I happen to think western civilization is in pretty serious decline, and may be about over. (I don't have enough of a sense of the eastern civilizations to have a hunch about them.) I hate rudely to end it there, but that really is something for another thread, or another forum.

I will add, though, that I'm even pessimistic about my pessimism: I may be wrong!

Edited by Jack Reed

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Jack Reed:

She seems to see how ballet is dependent on society at large, on its surrounding civilization, and that's my own basis.

My sense, as I'm reading "Apollo's Angels," is that there is no society-at-large or history to it. Jennifer Homans' thesis seems to be that ballet is a sublime mechanism existing outside everything else. Her book, while a smooth summary of other researchers' work, doesn't itself dig into the girt of history or argue with and evaluate its sources - as Lynn Garafola often does. In Homans' telling, ballet history moves on a single homogenous trajectory (like the adagio movement of Symphony in C, or Diamonds?) - in which everything keeps getting better, albeit with some reversals, until the death of Balanchine, and then everything falls apart.

There are also very strange ways of reading things - for instance Homans cites a "prominent writer" of the era of Louis XIII - XIV, a period when there was probably no such concept, and goes on to characterize the brilliant memoir writer Duc de Saint-Simon, as "himself a virtual patron saint of ambition and spleen" and then hardly uses him - or Madame de Sevigne' - as eyewitnesses.

And while not mentioning the development of Cuban ballet at all - as Natalia has previously noted, Homans curiously remarks that “Dancers from Russia and the former Soviet bloc, as well as Cuba and South America, are flocking the the West.”

Regarding Diaghilev, "Apollo" - the ballet of the title - rates only two pages of analysis and "Prodigal Son" is not mentioned at all. Both are significant end points for the Ballets Russes ("Apollo" can be looked at as a remake of "Afternoon of the Faun," all its excesses corrected, and "Prodigal Son" burlesquing and then purifying early Ballets Russes Orientalism). "Parade," a significant mid-point ballet, subject to much scrutiny these days by art historians such as Yve-Alain Bois and Elizabeth Cowling, is not taken seriously.

Another odd comment: "Degas' intense preoccupation with ballet - almost half his work focused on ballet - was evidence of the art form's lasting ability to mirror its times." The other half or so of the famously grumbling misanthropist Degas' work is, unfortunately for this comparison, that of the brothels, which according to the art historian Theodore Reff, was "a subject imbued with that melancholy spirit of isolation and disillusionment which Degas and Huysmans identified with a modern sensibility. [They were] drawn by nature to the closed, nocturnal world of urban entertainment and distraction, rather than the sunlit one chosen by their Impressionist colleagues."

The balletic world that is reflected in Degas is of odd and cool alliances between patrons, mothers and dancers. His paintings are made up of small isolated drawings, as repetitious as barre work, that finally are tacked together, like a series of fruit on an espaliered tree - borrowing Degas' own metaphor. Jules Perrot - whom Degas genuinely admired - is moved about like a chess piece among the girls and mothers and stray cats and stray men in high hats (there are no male dancers at all in Degas' world).

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A great discussion, much more penetrating than most of the reviews I've read. Thank you, all. Among the many comments that have set me thinking. :

... the question becomes, WHAT IS ballet?

I aactually looked through the book, which I haven't finished, to find a discussion of this. Homans addresses the question, but does not think much about it. That, for me, is a loss. This wouldn't be serious if this were just another "ballet book" for a speciallized audience. It's clear, however, that she is has larger ambitions.

My sense, as I'm reading "Apollo's Angels," is that there is no society-at-large or history to it.

I do wish there were more in the way of a larger context.

A book which concludes with the possibility that the art form is "dying", needs to be much more rigorous in the way (a) it defines its central topic, and (b) explains how the art form has related, and continues to relate (or not) ,to the larger culture as well as to the social structure.

Homans presents her conclusion sin a brief epilogue: "The Masters Are Dead and Gone." She raises a number of serious points that are not supported as rigorously as her conclusions in the body of the rest of the book. Among these are:

Today's artists -- [the masters'] students and heirs -- have been curiouslyi unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy. They seem crushed and confused by its iconoclasm and grandeur, unable to build on its foundation yet unwilling to throw it off in favor of a vision of their own. [ ... ] The world's major ballet companies -- companies that built their reputations on new work -- have now become museums for the old. [ ... ] The twentieth-centuryh masters also remain the cornerstone of the companies they helped found ... Here too there are problems, however. ... Balanchine [for example] never stood still -- it was an expansive and open ended way of thinking taht changed over time and with each dancer The more the steps (and the ways to do them ) have become fixed, the less they recall the era . [ ... ]these old ballets are now housed in stately new theaters, steel and stone monuments to a fragile and ephemeral past. [ ... ] Classical ballet has always been an art of belief. It does not fare well in cynical times. ... Even the idea of a high art for the people and the twentieth-century ambition, lived out in different ways across Rssia and the West, to open the gates of elite culture to a larger society has now stalled. Once again, as under Lousi XIV, ballet is a privilege or privae right laragely reserved for connoisseurs and the wealthy. ... As for the people, they have been forgotten. ... The fragmentation and compartmentallization of culture do not help.

This is just an example of perceptions each of which might easily deserve a book -- or at least a long article -- of its own. Several of them are highly debatable and will need to be defended with evidence and further thhought.

Maybe Homans will write such a book some day. I hope so. There don't seem to be too many other ballet-lovers/experts out there, in the present day, who seem willing and capable of taking on the job.

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Maybe I've missed something implicit in the discussion, but isn't it inescapable that men and women move differently? Not just that women are generally smaller than men, but that the distribution of weight around the body is different - with smaller shoulders and larger hips, women have the weight lower in their torsos, and with smaller hands and feet, not to mention larger thighs, the weight of their limbs is closer to their torsos. The dancers here must know better than a mere former science whizz how this allows for easier quick, small movements from women - try swinging a baseball bat by the wrong (large) end - and slower, heavier, perhaps more powerful movement from men. So it's a natural, inescapable dichotomy. Isn't what we make of the dichotomy another, separate but entwined story? (I want to thank kfw for his succinct account; my sentiments exactly!)

Excellent point. In case someone would like a wider discussion on this, there is the excellent book by Kenneth Laws: Laws, K.L., The Physics of Dance, Schirmer Books (New York), 1984. (Paperback edition, 1986.) He has a website as well.

Now, I still haven't read Homan's book, (it's sitting right there!) but the first few reviews I read thought she put things into excellent historical perspective. Maybe that referred just to ballets' beginnings.

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The other day I was watching this Sheherezade clip from the Ballet Russes Celebration thread, and I kept thinking that it would be very difficult for a current company to revive this work...one that doesn't have the safe spot of pointe work or the always reliable technical tricks. If what this clip shows is what is missing or "dead" about ballet, then Homans is right.

http://www.youtube.com/user/NationalGalleryAus#p/u/9/Gb10L1P280A

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Just curious...Has any interviewer asked Ms Homans why the words "Cuba," "Alonso," "Japan" and "Varna" are not mentioned in her book, which purports to be an all-encompassing history of the art of ballet? This alone should tell anyone that this is a far-from-complete analysis. It also tells us that she did not think 'outside the box' (the 'Northern Europe-NYC corridor') while penning her grim final chapter.

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Jack Reed:

She seems to see how ballet is dependent on society at large, on its surrounding civilization, and that's my own basis.

My sense, as I'm reading "Apollo's Angels," is that there is no society-at-large or history to it. ...

"Degas' intense preoccupation with ballet - almost half his work focused on ballet - was evidence of the art form's lasting ability to mirror its times."

Maybe "dependent" was unfortunate diction on my part, but here you've quoted one of Homans's references to the way she thinks ballet's circumstances have some effect on it, for me a way ballet relates to, if not depends on, its social and cultural environment. Can you see why I'm unclear on your thought here, Quiggin?

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Jack Reed:

Maybe "dependent" was unfortunate diction on my part, but here you've quoted one of Homans's references to the way she thinks ballet's circumstances have some effect on it, for me a way ballet relates to, if not depends on, its social and cultural environment. Can you see why I'm unclear on your thought here, Quiggin?

I was trying to pack too many things together too tightly - and I had just seen a couple of fine Degas works from the Museum d’Orsay that are being shown in San Francisco

I sensed in "Apollo’s Angel’s" there was a lack of interface with the world outside the idealized one of ballet and with history outside ballet - like battles going on outside Versailles in Holland, or riots in Paris - and a shying away from the immediacy of primary materials and in favor of secondary materials. In a way what Homans complains is happening to the performance of ballet is happening to the telling of its history - the same smoothing and blending together the same sources, so that the narrative no longer has any bite - like the fading of color from the original fabric that Herodotus complains about. This is especially apparent in light of the exciting art history writings of the past thirty years which re-present Impressionist art as a harsh documentary record of the powerful social changes in Paris.

Degas really shows this harsh, grittier reality by turning his eye away from orthodox romantic view of ballet - and into its component pieces backstage and at the barre and focuses on the economies of patronage and exchange between mothers and daughters and silhouetted men in black opera hats. That male dancers are never shown serves to heighten the contrasts. I couldn’t tell if this was the world Homans was saying Degas was reflecting or the conventional idealized one.

I do appreciate your pessimistic views about the current state of ballet and society.

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I bought the book recently but haven't read it yet. I assumed that the 'Apollo' in the title referred to Louis XIV and not Balanchine---those who came after are certainly Louis' angels. Miss Homan's gave a lecture this afternoon at my local Tribeca Y. and I am sorry I didn't think of asking her this question.

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Marina Harss has published a very thorough review of "Apollo's Angels" in The Nation. I've only been seeing and reading Harss recently, but I am very impressed by her writing, thinking and her vision.

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Marina Harss has published a very thorough review of "Apollo's Angels" in The Nation. I've only been seeing and reading Harss recently, but I am very impressed by her writing, thinking and her vision.

Thanks for the link! I think it's one of the more thoughtful reviews of Apollo's Angels I've read to date. I think Harss puts her finger on one of the book's material shortcomings as a history here:

[T]he rigidity of Homans's moral and aesthetic code, useful, even vital, to the critic, is confining for the historian.

Here:

With Apollo, she writes, [balanchine] had "'eliminated' the hard edge of Soviet modernism, its erotic and gymnastic movements and mystical and millennial overtones," while retaining its "extreme plasticity and taste for spontaneity and freedom." Note the use of "acrobatic," "erotic" and "gymnastic." Those words recur regularly in Apollo's Angels, along with "vulgar," "extreme" and "kitsch," all of them labels for artists whose work Homans does not approve of and who lie outside the margins of elegance, refinement and idealization that she holds to be ballet's rightful realm.

and here:

I can't help wondering whether Homans's portrait of ballet's rise and development could have been richer if her view of ballet's history wasn't so rigid.

Harss notes that Homans completely ignores Balanchine's Prodigal Son, and does a good job explaining why its omission from Apollo's Angels is telling. Really, go read it.

I disagree with Harss on one thing at least - I didn't find Apollo's Angels "beautifully written" nor do I think it "strikes a graceful balance between exploring the nuances of steps and surveying the larger landscape of art, ideas and politics (more important than one might think), from ballet's beginnings in the Renaissance courts of Europe to its globalized present." Homans isn't a prose stylist; the book could have been more crisply written without losing its sweep. (Where was her editor?) Her survey of "the larger landscape" skims too lightly over the surface in some parts and goes down too many rabbit holes in others. There's far too much ink devoted to the life of Hans Christian Andersen, for instance. Not to his stories and their place in the 19th century's fascination with fairy tales and folk tales - that's important in a cultural history - but rather, to a lengthy biographical sketch. It's two pages that might have been better spent on Prodigal Son.

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I disagree with Harss on one thing at least - I didn't find Apollo's Angels "beautifully written" nor do I think it "strikes a graceful balance between exploring the nuances of steps and surveying the larger landscape of art, ideas and politics (more important than one might think), from ballet's beginnings in the Renaissance courts of Europe to its globalized present." Homans isn't a prose stylist; the book could have been more crisply written without losing its sweep. (Where was her editor?) Her survey of "the larger landscape" skims too lightly over the surface in some parts and goes down too many rabbit holes in others. There's far too much ink devoted to the life of Hans Christian Anderson, for instance. Not to his stories and their place in the 19th century's fascination with fairy tales and folk tales - that's important in a cultural history - but rather, to a lengthy biographical sketch. It's two pages that might have been better spent on Prodigal Son.

Kathleen, hmmm.... interesting comment. I'm sort of struggling with the Homans right now. It's taken me almost a week to read about 150 pages and to be fair I've had a lot of distractions this week. But I'm finding that the actually writing itself is maybe part of the problem. It doesn't flow smoothly and does wander off on a few too many bypaths. So what you wrote was a little bit of an aha moment for me.

I'll continue with it, to be sure, but agree it could have used a stronger editor.

Going :off topic: a tiny bit, has anyone any comments on Ballet in Western Culture by Carol Lee? This just came in a the library where I work and I was wondering what it was like. One comment from a casual perusal, the reproduced photos seem generally very dark and grainy, not really appealing at all. But I didn't sample the text at all.

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I posted this review on my blog, but I'll copy it here:

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-te-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. 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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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.

That's very good, I think, as is your whole long post of notes on the Homans, which I haven't read, but does sound like a fine reference book.

I also like this singling out you've done here, and what you say before quoting it:

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-te-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).

I'm glad you pointed out Toni Bentley's review from the fall, as it is the worst thing I've read of any kind since her last hyperbole and total immersion in every nook and cranny of snob appeal--to the point that even refinement is given a bad name; it's little more than a middle-class-wishful caricature of aristocracy, the kind of thing Louis Auchincloss was so good at portraying the reality of--as in such characters as drunken layabouts and 'parvenu-toff tutu-toffs' (if he'd gotten to the latter). A post I read about someone else's writing, called 'Notes from the Vomitorium' seems to apply equally to all Bentley's work--sometimes 'faux-aristocracy' comes across as mere vulgarity, by virtue of being vulgar. I have never read even a single paragraph by Ms. Bentley that was not vulgar, and in fact, it is simply excruciating. There are obvious reasons she is allowed to indulge in such grotesqueries, absolutely none of which are 'aristocratic', a word she is apparently deeply in love with, but somehow wants it to remain 'ethereal' and 'inaccessible' (like 'the heaven' of 'my special-only ballet in the eternity of real-time' or some such rot.) But this is particularly unbelievable in its condescension: Most of us love 'The Red Shoes', but this

is sickening (although I couldn't tell how much of it was literally Homans's view as well):

British ballet, led by the formidable Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn, had its culmination in the ­Fonteyn-Nureyev partnership in the 1960s, though it produced its best — and certainly most enduring — gift to ballet in Michael Powell’s 1948 cinematic masterpiece, “The Red Shoes.” “During the war we were all told to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” Powell said. “After the war ‘The Red Shoes’ told them to die for art.” And why not?

I can see that she deserves credit for pointing out some of the better points of Homans's book (which comes across as indispensible, if flawed, as a general concensus throughout the thread and its tangents). I was also interested that you call her 'an excellent writer', because, while I respect Kathleen's and Richard's assessments (most of us need tougher editors) as to the quality of the writing not being necessarily always 'beautiful' or maybe not 'exquisite' or 'perfect' (the subtext I was reading--for history and non-fiction, the rules are more stringent, and it has to be scrupulously formal), it is clearly not always ugly. The quality of writing is perhaps not as important as the research accuracy, which you point out well, but it does matter as well.

I thought this extremely good too, as the kind of recommendation of the book that is indisputable, although I think you're citing of other important texts also has real merit:

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."

Without having enough rock-solid background to make an unerring assessment, I would think that in some cases, these books are enhanced by there having a professional dancer who can also write, which seems to be the case to some degree with Ms. Homans, despite that depressing (and frankly boring) prognosis, reminding of the physicians' manuals 'death will occur'. There are quite a number of fine dance writers on this board, and not only the ones who practice it professionally. And The New York Times alone (not even getting to other papers and journals) proves that writing of an almost overweeningly silly quality is now being allowed publication regularly--as Simon G. pointed out last week in that appalling Style Section article (by Joshua David Stein) about Millepied and Portman, as 'diabetes-inducing', and it did read like the work of food critics like Gael Greene (who used to write oozing restaurant reviews for New York Magazine), so I guess the 'trade' may sometimes have to do with whether you're yourself trained as a ballet dancer, although not always.

Edited to add Feb. 13, although :off topic: While I still believe Ms. Bentley is incapable of writing anything that is 'not vulgar', I no longer hold that against her when she is writing her 'personal odyssey'; the prose works much better there. To wit, I just found the full Playboy excerpt from 'The Surrender', and I hardly ever laughed so hard. Her 'betrayal of Betty Friedan' was particularly geniale. So Suzanne is her idol? I'm not so sure...but I dare not link it...because...

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A post I read about someone else's writing, called 'Notes from the Vomitorium' seems to apply equally to all Bentley's work...

:rofl:

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I haven't read Homans's book, just the New Republic version of the last chapter, so I'll try to be brief, but IIRC, Alastair Macaulay also remarks that ballet has died and been reborn several times before. My own hunch is that we're in another of those bad patches, where some perceive things fall apart and worry the center will not hold; canbelto does a great job early on demonstrating how perceptive an interpreter Homans is of what she has dug up and what she has seen, so much so, that nearly convinced me to try the book itself. And it occurs to me Homans might have skimped recent periods simply because she knew others had written well on them, though she might well have indicated that thought.

But the characterization of Balanchine as someone who didn't care how his ballets were danced seems to me off the mark, even in a brief passage about a subtle and complex personality: Toward the end of his life, there were times he didn't think his ballets would survive; he thought he knew his ballets would look different because the dancers dancing them would be different, anyway. He knew that because there had already been times when they'd been performed without his supervision (or the supervision of someone he sent out to stage them) and he had seen the results. Sometimes, I believe, he asked they be stopped, or that he be given a chance to fix them up, even if they were so old he hadn't any legal rights. So I think he was of two minds - or more - about not wanting his ballets to die. He thought that was inevitable, because it mattered how they were danced. (Remember, he was someone who could savor the ephemerality of things.)

Now I want to say a good word for elitism! Mind, if people today are happy with what they are looking at today, fine; after all, in the anecdote I recall reading somewhere Mr. B. himself, after explaining to someone new to the subject the years of preparation, the weeks of rehearsal, the expense of production, responded to that person's question, What's ballet for? with the answer, It makes people happy, then for those people, it succeeds. But from my experience, I often can't help thinking they're missing something, something they might really like to have if they could. And so - not having read her book! - I may be projecting something onto Homans's thinking, but this might be what's behind her conclusion: Something she knows, or knew, first-hand, is missing today. It's human to lament that. Is it not humane to let others know? Is it all snobby and spoil-sport? Yes, her complaints are familiar; others have noticed what she notices.

Now the point about elitism or purism: People like us - if I'm right about her - not only want the experience of the dance she knows pure, undiluted by the corruptions and shortcomings she describes, pure, undiluted and strong - we also want it available to others to go to, also. This is not to say, you're wrong, you're ignorant, if you like what's on today. It's to think, glad you enjoy it, but there's something more that's missing. Something for the back of your mind, something to be on the lookout for.

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Now the point about elitism or purism: People like us - if I'm right about her - not only want the experience of the dance she knows pure, undiluted by the corruptions and shortcomings she describes, pure, undiluted and strong - we also want it available to others to go to, also. This is not to say, you're wrong, you're ignorant, if you like what's on today. It's to think, glad you enjoy it, but there's something more that's missing. Something for the back of your mind, something to be on the lookout for.

I rarely would defend a point against elitism, having nothing but problems with my own elitism. Canbelto's point was delimited and subtle (or that was my reading; in that case, my reading of canbelto's remark was delimited, subtle and even elitist.) I saw a lot of Balanchine live here in the 'Golden Age', and I know what that was. I also know that the Paris Opera Ballet really has something right now, and that the Royal Danish Ballet does too--I'm going to the second this year, the first next. 'THEY are my favourites...' to paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie. So it's a matter of opinion and sensibility, which might even be chemical--you know, the matter of 'mourning' about the past, and sensibilities which are more prone to cling to the past and be depressed about the current situations. I'm talking about myself, who used to be much more likely to think 'some art form is dead'. I probably still have a strong tendency in that direction, except that there is always something in any of them that all of a sudden is an exception that seems to come out of nowhere. Even in fiction you'll find the occasional writer of the 90s and 00s--mainstream sort, not talking about me now--like Harry Mulisch, who doesn't just write shtick like Rushdie is wont to do. Or there'll be a surprise B'way show or movie that 'couldn't possibly have happened in this era'. But I also wonder if people really even want another choreographer as great as Balanchine; it's as though he still ought to hold sway even in death, and in one of the more recent (last 40-50) American-style trends, is more famous now and after death than he was when alive, just like Marilyn and Elvis. I'm sure there are some choreographers who aren't intimidated by this, though, and that they even do surface and are seen by those who aren't always looking for a glimmer of Balanchine to prove the point. There's always something more, as you say. But there always was.

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My point was that I don't think Balanchine ever would have wanted people to have an attitude that ballet, and his ballets, would die along with him. He was many things, but he was not generally selfish and spiteful. Also ... I read this book twice, cover to cover. The moroseness and rigidity of Homans' view on ballet didn't become more apparent until the second reading. I too noticed how Homans ignores some of Balanchine's more narrative ballets, as well as his more commerical efforts. As I said, there is a great deal to appreciate about Homans' book, if one sits down and reads it cover to cover, as well as shortcomings.

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The problem with Holmans's book may be that it is a survey text, much like “Art through the Ages,” and suffers from all the limitations of that that genre - of having to skim history like a glass bottom boat (borrowing James Woods’s metaphor).

To save Balanchine (which seems to be Homans’s charge) and ballet, I think dance criticism has to be turned on its head in much the way art criticism was in the eighties with publications of the work of Robert Herbert on Impressionism as a harsh account of social changes, T J Clark's "The Painter of Modern Life" on Manet, and Picasso studies by Leo Steinberg, John Richardson, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Kraus and Elizabeth Cowling.

Richardson and Cowling, who consider “Parade,” “Mercure” and “Pulcinella” to be highly significant works, seem to have more to say on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, both critical and entertainingly anecdotal, than most dance critics other than Richard Buckle.

Only Arlene Croce (hopefully soon), and Alastair Macaulay (though limited by the tools of daily journalism), Tim Scholl, and Joan Acocella - in her trial-ballon seminar on “Balanchine and the Crotch” - seem to be working in some new direction.

With Balanchine perhaps there should be a temporary embargo on anything about “Apollo” and “Prodigal Son” and a reevaluatioon of everything that went before and just afterwards, such as Ballets 1933 which the 102 year old composer Eliott Carter thinks are among Balanchine’s most audaciously experimental works. I would add that WPA mural of existentialism, “The Four Temperaments."

Also I think it was a huge mistake of Homans not to discuss the work of the Cuban National Ballet and its expatriot dancers, who with their Cubo-African accents seem to be doing a fine job of keeping ballet alive in the Americas. Along with, of course, the Miami City Ballet.

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