"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer HomansHas anyone read this yet? (Re-posting)
Posted 07 January 2011 - 08:59 AM
Posted 07 January 2011 - 10:23 AM
Posted 07 January 2011 - 12:20 PM
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?
Posted 07 January 2011 - 02:40 PM
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.
Posted 09 February 2011 - 04:58 PM
Posted 11 February 2011 - 05:55 AM
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:
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.
Posted 11 February 2011 - 06:35 AM
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 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.
Posted 12 February 2011 - 07:36 AM
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:
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:
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.
Posted 12 February 2011 - 09:46 AM
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:
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):
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:
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 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...
Posted 12 February 2011 - 10:51 AM
Posted 12 February 2011 - 12:48 PM
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.
Posted 12 February 2011 - 01:26 PM
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.
Posted 12 February 2011 - 02:10 PM
Posted 12 February 2011 - 08:27 PM
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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