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"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer HomansHas anyone read this yet? (Re-posting)


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#16 canbelto

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Posted 27 November 2010 - 08:02 AM

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.

#17 kfw

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Posted 27 November 2010 - 08:22 AM

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.



#18 Simon G

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Posted 27 November 2010 - 06:59 PM

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.

#19 kfw

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Posted 27 November 2010 - 07:37 PM

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.

#20 jsmu

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Posted 28 November 2010 - 03:48 PM


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.

#21 Eileen

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Posted 28 November 2010 - 03:57 PM


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.

#22 canbelto

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Posted 28 November 2010 - 04:36 PM

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.

#23 kfw

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Posted 28 November 2010 - 07:57 PM

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.

#24 dirac

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Posted 28 November 2010 - 09:37 PM

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.

#25 bart

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Posted 29 November 2010 - 12:23 PM

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: )

#26 Jack Reed

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Posted 29 November 2010 - 02:23 PM

bart, are those Balanchine Foundation quotations accessible? I've just looked there, and I didn't see any. Are their contexts included? (OT, to be sure.)

#27 Eileen

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Posted 29 November 2010 - 05:16 PM

Thank you for your kind response. I looked up the quote "ballet is about behavior" and saw where I initially read it, in a New York Times article about Garielle Whittle, children's ballet mistress at NYCB, who attributes it to Balanchine (she was in the company in the 1970's).


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.



#28 bart

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Posted 29 November 2010 - 05:25 PM

bart, are those Balanchine Foundation quotations accessible? I've just looked there, and I didn't see any. Are their contexts included? (OT, to be sure.)

Jack, i found them on Facebook after adding the Foundation to my list of "Likes." The quotes are free-standing, without context or background informationl.

#29 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 29 November 2010 - 08:43 PM

I just got the book. A birthday present from my friend... :)

Will report back...

#30 canbelto

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 05:05 PM

I'm rethumbing this book and I really think the strongest part of the book is the opening chapter on French court dance, and how it evolved into what we now know as "ballet." It really is a wonderfully written chapter. The pictures of the book are also as I said wonderful. It was one thing to read about the original five positions, another to see a period drawing of the courtiers and the original five positions.

The book really has some wonderful qualities, obviously the result of some painstaking research.


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