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


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#91 bart

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Posted 01 July 2011 - 10:27 AM

Re: Ray's question concerning teaching dance history to dance students.

Sandik, that is fascinating. It seems to me that Homans' book is the kind of historical "survey" that you can't get much out of unless you already know quite a lot. And have experienced quite a lot. It would be interesting to see what young ballet students might actually think of it.

As someone with a background in history, though not dance history, I am skeptical about how much is actually absorbed by young people from textbooks or classes based on a survey approach.
In my experience, learning often works best -- in the sense that the lightbulb turns on :lightbulb: -- when presented as fairly well-detailed case studies rather than broad overviews. It's the case study that makes the lesson "stick."

For example, if students were being prepared for a production of Nutcracker or a competition pas de deux, that would be the optimal time to talk about historical context: music, discussion of various versions, classic performances, even the meaning and development of individual dances or passages which the students have either learned or are observing closely. You don't need a prefab textbook. Videos, photo copied material, etc., can be compiled easily by a good teacher.

To take an example from instrumental music, I learned far more by working on a few specific pieces of Mozart's easier chamber music with my classmates, and from a well-prepared class trip to see Cosi fan tutte at the Met, than from any lecture or book discussing, broadly, the works of Mozart.

Students who have obtained this kind of detailed knowledge -- learning directly related to doing -- are more likely, I've found, to seek out the larger context themselves. They can fill in the blanks. As they move into the larger world, and encounter people who DO know about Mozart, Petipa, Balanchine, Fokine, or whatever, they have personal experience that will motivate and enable them to absorb, retain, and benefit from this new knowledge.

#92 sandik

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Posted 01 July 2011 - 03:42 PM

Students who have obtained this kind of detailed knowledge -- learning directly related to doing -- are more likely, I've found, to seek out the larger context themselves.


I agree -- this is the optimal way to manage it. Unfortunately, the pragmatic nature of much dance studio instruction means that there is little time or support for this kind of enriched experience.

A few of my colleagues do combine performance training with a more intellectual approach to the material, but this kind of teaching is still in the developmental stages, and is mostly found in college/university settings. But it's much further along than it was even a few years ago!

#93 bart

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Posted 02 July 2011 - 04:14 AM

But it's much further along than it was even a few years ago!

Great to hear this !:thumbsup:

#94 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 02 July 2011 - 08:05 PM

puppytreats, on 22 June 2011 - 11:23 AM, said:
I finally finished this book. It provided a good historical background for someone who needed to read a primer on ballet. I agree with much of the criticism discussed in this forum, but as someone just beginning to learn about ballet, I can overlook the book's shortcomings and feel grateful to have been able to learn from it. I am curious regarding instruction about dance history in ballet academies. Are academic, historical courses given in dance schools, or do dancers learn about the history and development of the dance solely by learning about individual dance steps, rehearsals, attending performances, and personal reading?



I was speaking recently to one of the directors of Kaatsbaan, which has several summer intensive courses in ballet for young people from all over the country. He is a former dancer, and when I asked him a similar question about dance students studying history, he said that in general, when they are young, all they want to do is dance, and be in the moment. Usually, after the major part of their career is over, they realize the importance of the history, BECAUSE THEY REALIZE THAT THEY ARE A PART OF IT!!!

#95 sandik

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Posted 03 July 2011 - 10:54 AM

I was speaking recently to one of the directors of Kaatsbaan, which has several summer intensive courses in ballet for young people from all over the country.


I'm not sure how the Kaatsbaan curriculum is organized, but I do know that several major summer workshops include some dance history sessions in their program. I gave a couple of talks at Pacific Northwest Ballet's summer school a few years ago -- they've got other people on staff now who fill that role. It's not an exhaustive survey, but it's a start.

#96 Ray

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 03:35 AM

I don't see that we've discussed Mark Franko's scathing review in TDR (Vol. 56.2, Summer 2012) of Homans's book. From the opening graph:

"although impressive for its vast coverage, the book tends to be unreliable in its analysis and contradictory in its methodology. From the geometrical dances of 1581 in Le Ballet Comique de la Reine to Nijinsky’s American tour in 1916, many claims are compromised by the findings of recent scholarship, which the author has apparently not consulted. An agenda drives this chronicle. Jennifer Homans separates the wheat from the chaff of history by distinguishing what she considers to be “pure” ballet. This leads to value judgments, not social history. It is revealing to understand what Homans means by pure: ballet that does not tell a story, but evokes an essence or a feeling; ballet that exudes a godlike nobility; ballet that is rooted in highly conservative ideologies."

 

And that's just for starters.  He notes many odd things about her approach, such as the fact that while she often waxes  autobiographically, she never refers to her professional activities as a dancer--referring to herself only as a dance student.  More significant is that he excoriates her perfunctory treatment of the 18th century; all is blamed on what he sees as her almost total blindness to the dance scholarship (archival as well as theory-driven) of the past 30 years. 

 

He calls her now-infamous epilogue a "nasty and self-indulgent little diatribe that contains the key to so much that is erratically incomprehensible in her historiography"; and here's how he ends (the penultimate sentences): 
"This is not just a confused and a-disciplinary treatment of ballet history, it is just another pro-Balanchine tract masquerading as history, perhaps the last gasp in the Balanchine-as-the-be-all-and-end-all version of ballet history. It brings with it a peculiar amalgam of nostalgia, mourning, and arrogance."

 



#97 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 05:38 AM

I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.



#98 Ray

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 05:53 AM

I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place.  But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think).  For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone from a few years back--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack. 



#99 Ray

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 05:59 AM

Interesting also that JH seems to be having a change of heart re Forsythe, as we can see in her most recent essay for the New Republic.  Perhaps future editions of the book will include this material. 



#100 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 06:10 AM

 

I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place.  But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think). For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack.  

 

I don't know how we can separate attitudes in the writing from attitudes of the writer. In my opinion, right or wrong, clearheaded or fuzzy minded, etc. are appropriate categories. Where it gets tricky, I guess, for both critics and reviewers and readers, is that because art and writing about art are personal, attacking them can look like attacking their creators.



#101 Ray

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 07:34 AM

 

 

I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place.  But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think). For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack.  

 

I don't know how we can separate attitudes in the writing from attitudes of the writer. In my opinion, right or wrong, clearheaded or fuzzy minded, etc. are appropriate categories. Where it gets tricky, I guess, for both critics and reviewers and readers, is that because art and writing about art are personal, attacking them can look like attacking their creators.

 

I think, too, that this points to part of the problem for Franko:  JH doesn't do a good enough job separating her personal agenda from the demands of the topic. 



#102 puppytreats

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 09:19 AM

 

 

I wish I had access to the full article, but it seems to me that Homans gives us both history and value judgments, which makes for interesting and stimulating reading. And regardless of what he thinks of her opinion of the future and present state of ballet, "nasty and self-indulgent" sounds unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal.

In defense of Franko, though, Homans opens the door by starting from an autobiographical place.  But I actually have to disagree that the criticism here is personal; he's characterizing the writing as nasty/self-indulgent, not the person (he's careful to aim his criticism at the writing throughout, I think). For "unnecessarily harsh and judgmental and personal" I'd look to Macaulay's review of Doug Varone--or any other dance review that launches an ad hominem attack.  

 

I don't know how we can separate attitudes in the writing from attitudes of the writer. In my opinion, right or wrong, clearheaded or fuzzy minded, etc. are appropriate categories. Where it gets tricky, I guess, for both critics and reviewers and readers, is that because art and writing about art are personal, attacking them can look like attacking their creators.

 

Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings.  Sometimes distortions or agendas enter.  Farrell certainly protected people in her book.  Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills.  Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.  



#103 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 11:28 AM

Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings.  Sometimes distortions or agendas enter.  Farrell certainly protected people in her book.  Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills.  Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.  

 

 

What I was trying to say is that when we say a piece of writing has certain qualities, we are effectively saying that in writing it the writer was displaying those qualities. For example, when a critic gets off a unkind crack at the expense of a dancer, we don’t just fault his turn of phrase, we fault him. 



#104 Ray

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 11:38 AM

 

Writing is difficult. Some people lack skills and can't express accurately, clearly, or interestingly their ideas and feelings.  Sometimes distortions or agendas enter.  Farrell certainly protected people in her book.  Personality may or may not come through, depending on the co-writer or the writer's skills.  Therefore, one can separate the writer and the writing, and criticism can apply to one and not the other.  

 

 

What I was trying to say is that when we say a piece of writing has certain qualities, we are effectively saying that in writing it the writer was displaying those qualities. For example, when a critic gets off a unkind crack at the expense of a dancer, we don’t just fault his turn of phrase, we fault him. 

 

Fair enough, then.  I think that JH's epilogue doesn't come from a place of intellectual generosity.  If one, like Franko, doesn't think its harsh tone is substantiated by the evidence of the text--a text that in its quasi-academic form promises to offer substantiation--one has to wonder where it comes from.  I think very few writers can get away with writing both an objective account and a screed. 



#105 pherank

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Posted 09 October 2013 - 03:26 PM

I think it's a mistake to look at Jennifer Homan's book as a textbook kind of history, which implies both impartiality and inclusiveness -- we want to think that the author doesn't have a singular agenda and that they consider multiple points of view in their work. Apollo's Angels is a personal look at history -- in a way, it's like Margot Fonteyn's Magic of Dance (which was also used as a textbook by a few schools). It tells us almost as much about Jennifer Homans as it does about the history of ballet.

 

 

"It tells us almost as much about Jennifer Homans as it does about the history of ballet."

Precisely. And I don't actually have a problem with that myself because Homans does explain something of her personal approach/viewpoint in the Introduction. But is that enough? Perhaps not, given the amount of "blowback" that has appeared, especially regarding the closing section of the book. This is a stylistic issue to me, that is certainly fixable in a re-write.

For me, if a book is ultimately successful, it is because I am inspired to learn much more on all the various subjects touched upon. And that in fact happened for me with Homans's book. So I can't say the book was a failure by any means. There is a tremendous amount of information inside, and it is always the reader's job to try to figure out what is plausible and useful, and what is problematic, and open to interpretation (or even factually incorrect). I don't think I understood, for many years, that most people regard whatever non-fiction they happen to be reading (or watching) as a compendium of actual facts. We seem to give these things the benefit of the doubt and assume that all is "true" until we come across something that really rubs our values the wrong way. Then we might start to question matters. In graduate school, I was finally introduced to the notion of a 'critical reader', who plays detective and pieces together some sort of 'truth' from the textual evidence - never assuming the writer to be all knowing and completely trustworthy (or even competent) on all levels. But it is a life's work to get good at playing text detective: you've got to learn about stylistics, grammar, as well as the real world characters and events being referenced.

Mark Franco's criticisms are valid (even though he can sound rather nasty himself in making his points), but the Homans book is still worthy reading, and that's the truly important point.




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