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


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#46 SandyMcKean

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 12:55 PM

Jennifer Homans was on PBS' Charlie Rose Show last night, interviewed in the first half-hour. Sorry that I caught this late and could not alert anyone. Hopefully others saw it, too.

This 23+ minute interview can still be seen at:

http://www.charliero...interview/11376

Homans came across very well, in general, although it may not have been fair to describe Maya Plisetskaya as "vulgar"...at the end of a string of more appropriate words, such as "Soviet brashness."

This is not how I remember what Homans said. If my memory is correct, she was describing the Russian style (as opposed to the French style) when she used those words. I didn't hear it as using the word "vulgar" to describe Plisetskaya individually. In fact, Holmans even hesitated trying to find a word that would convey the more heavy-handed, "weighty" style the Russians added to the French ballet style they inherited. In that slightly awkward moment while Holmans hesitated I spoke out loud to the TV set: "imperial". I thought her word delivered the concept far better than mine would have. At any rate, the word she used spoke to me (and I felt the word quite appropriate at the time precisely because of its "shock" value).

#47 miliosr

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 03:25 PM

Alastair Macaulay's picks for what he is looking forward to in 2011:

http://www.nytimes.c...d=all&ref=dance

To my mind, this is an unintentionally revealing list about both the state of the ballet and the modern dance. Other than the Indian dance program, the lead critic of the New York Times cites:

-- A ballet dancer whose primary repertory comes from two choreographers who have been dead 27 and 12 years respectively,
-- A recently-deceased (at the age of 90) modern dance choreographer whose company is about to join him in the afterlife,
-- A modern dance choreographer who is 80,
-- A modern dance choreographer who is 54, and
-- A legacy ballet which is 169-years-old.

I love the Old Masters and the legacy companies as much as the next person but it's hard not to conclude from this list that there's not a lot going on choreographically in the US by anyone under the age of 50.

#48 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 05:49 PM

Alastair Macaulay's picks for what he is looking forward to in 2011:

http://www.nytimes.c...d=all&ref=dance

To my mind, this is an unintentionally revealing list about both the state of the ballet and the modern dance. Other than the Indian dance program, the lead critic of the New York Times cites:

-- A ballet dancer whose primary repertory comes from two choreographers who have been dead 27 and 12 years respectively,
-- A recently-deceased (at the age of 90) modern dance choreographer whose company is about to join him in the afterlife,
-- A modern dance choreographer who is 80,
-- A modern dance choreographer who is 54, and
-- A legacy ballet which is 169-years-old.

I love the Old Masters and the legacy companies as much as the next person but it's hard not to conclude from this list that there's not a lot going on choreographically in the US by anyone under the age of 50.


Well, it might also be unintentionally revealing about Macauly's field of view. :wink: There's plenty of interesting stuff going on out there. I can think of at least five young / youngish choreographers whose next new work I'd like to see pronto. Most of them don't do ballet, and they don't routinely produce masterworks, but they're definitely worth watching.

#49 miliosr

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 06:01 PM

Well, it might also be unintentionally revealing about Macauly's field of view. :wink: There's plenty of interesting stuff going on out there. I can think of at least five young / youngish choreographers whose next new work I'd like to see pronto. Most of them don't do ballet, and they don't routinely produce masterworks, but they're definitely worth watching.

Oh, you're right, of course. But I do have to wonder if the 'NOW' stuff the under-50 crowd is producing will be very 'THEN' soon enough.

#50 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 04 January 2011 - 06:50 PM

Today, in the New York Times, MacAuley reviews and replies to the book. Here is the link.

#51 bart

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Posted 05 January 2011 - 08:27 AM

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:

#52 kfw

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Posted 05 January 2011 - 09:35 AM

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.

#53 papeetepatrick

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Posted 05 January 2011 - 09:41 AM

I was especially struck by a statement in the last paragraph -- the sentence that I have printed in bold[/b[b]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.

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.

#54 Paul Parish

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Posted 05 January 2011 - 10:17 PM

'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.

#55 kfw

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 05:45 AM

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.

#56 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 08:53 AM

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?

#57 Jack Reed

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 07:44 PM

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, 07 January 2011 - 08:37 AM.


#58 Quiggin

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 02:03 AM

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).

#59 bart

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 04:16 AM

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.

#60 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 05:23 AM

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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