Jump to content
ViolinConcerto

"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

Recommended Posts

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

Having now read and enjoyed Franko's article, I better understand his anger (not that I share it). Here are several things that struck me. Minor points. 1) Based on Balanchine’s Adagio Lamentoso and Homans' description of the dancers in the Four Temperaments as having “a cold rigor and precision – an angelic detachment,” Franko writes that for Homans, “apparently, Balanchine spoke of dancers as angels because of what he perceived as their emotional detachment.” I don’t follow his logic. 2) Franko is mistaken that Homans doesn’t cite Tim Scholl’s earlier ballet history, “From Petipa to Balanchine” in her bibliography. She cites the book in her secondary bibliographies for chapters 7 and 8.

More major: Franko writes that for Homans “ballet by its very nature is ‘unconstrained by tradition and the past,’” as if she likes it that way, and goes on to reprove her for complaining, contradictorily, in the epilogue that lack of constraint is causing decline. But in the introduction where he takes that quote she goes on to write that “it does have texts, even if these are not written down . . . when an older dancer shows a step or variation to a younger dancer, the ethics of the profession mandate strict obedience and respect; both parties rightly believe that a form of superior knowledge is passing between them" [emphasis mine]. When she writes that “Ballet, then, is an art of memory, not history,” she seems not to be discounting its history but to be saying that the muscle memory to be handed down is its history, rather than, as Franko paraphrases her, “dance exists primarily in the present.”

There is so much more in Franko’s critique, which I hope others will discuss, much of it concerning the intersection of ballet history with politics and theology (political and religious opinion are verboten on BA, but history is something else again). Thanks, Ray, for alerting us to the article. Does TDR publish letters to the editor? Let us know if she responds!

Share this post


Link to post

I've just finished the book and generally enjoyed it -- I'm qualifying "generally" because of the epilogue, of course.

I'm a neophyte compared to the other contributors on the board, and so as a historiographic survey AA is a useful starting point(e) (first position?), if you'll permit me the puns. Homans' preferences for ballet as restrained, graceful, and elevated -- in short, an endeavor of elitism -- shows through enough of her prose throughout the book and early on enough that I knew that her tastes and mine diverge. This difference in taste largely isn't an issue (I was disheartened to read that Robbins dismissed Philip Glass's music, as I count "Glass Pieces" as my favorite dance of his) and I thus knew well enough to view her assertions not as gospel truth but as the stories she as a neoclassicist wants to tell -- that is, until that epilogue. There, her aesthetic judgments take on an aggressively ethical dimension that casts a pall on the rest of the book. The tone of the epilogue actually soured my mood when I reached it, partly because for me the most vital and appealing aspects of ballet are the ones she takes as signs of its decline as an art form of today. I adore contemporary ballet for its obvious athleticism (which I might argue for beyond a mere democratization / vulgarization of taste, and connect it more to minimalism in music) and its lack of emotional affect (here I think I should familiarize myself with Tudor), the combination of which delivers a pure dance experience unencumbered by narrative, bathos, etc.

(I also have an immediate skepticism for people who announce that an art form is dead or dying and pine for some inaccessible, halcyon past, which to me invariably comes from a reactionary reading of history, but this is a prejudice of mine, and I also can't argue that we're clearly living in a day and age where ballet is a niche and not mainstream form.)

All this, and her unnecessary and unfair dismissal of Hodson's reconstructed Rite -- a "travesty"? Really?

I also wouldn't describe her prose as beautiful, since Homans largely writes in the transparent register of a historian; any passages of rhapsodizing are too fleeting (or, if I'm being honest, simply not to my tastes) to have made an impression on me as good writing. (There were a few places, however, where the editing failed her; I believe during the Soviet chapters where her diction gets mired down in the plodding lumpenstyle that wouldn't be out of place in a dram-balet.)

Share this post


Link to post

And apropos of the discussion some pages back about the social ramifications of the pointe shoe, I fondly recall a conference where one presenter described ballet dancers as cyborgs, since they use technology to enhance and augment their biological abilities. So, the transhumanist (if not specifically feminist) reading of ballet does exist.

Share this post


Link to post
On 5/8/2019 at 12:48 PM, leee said:

I've just finished the book and generally enjoyed it -- I'm qualifying "generally" because of the epilogue, of course.

I'm a neophyte compared to the other contributors on the board, and so as a historiographic survey AA is a useful starting point(e) (first position?), if you'll permit me the puns. Homans' preferences for ballet as restrained, graceful, and elevated -- in short, an endeavor of elitism -- shows through enough of her prose throughout the book and early on enough that I knew that her tastes and mine diverge. This difference in taste largely isn't an issue (I was disheartened to read that Robbins dismissed Philip Glass's music, as I count "Glass Pieces" as my favorite dance of his) and I thus knew well enough to view her assertions not as gospel truth but as the stories she as a neoclassicist wants to tell -- that is, until that epilogue. There, her aesthetic judgments take on an aggressively ethical dimension that casts a pall on the rest of the book. The tone of the epilogue actually soured my mood when I reached it, partly because for me the most vital and appealing aspects of ballet are the ones she takes as signs of its decline as an art form of today. I adore contemporary ballet for its obvious athleticism (which I might argue for beyond a mere democratization / vulgarization of taste, and connect it more to minimalism in music) and its lack of emotional affect (here I think I should familiarize myself with Tudor), the combination of which delivers a pure dance experience unencumbered by narrative, bathos, etc.

(I also have an immediate skepticism for people who announce that an art form is dead or dying and pine for some inaccessible, halcyon past, which to me invariably comes from a reactionary reading of history, but this is a prejudice of mine, and I also can't argue that we're clearly living in a day and age where ballet is a niche and not mainstream form.)

All this, and her unnecessary and unfair dismissal of Hodson's reconstructed Rite -- a "travesty"? Really?

I also wouldn't describe her prose as beautiful, since Homans largely writes in the transparent register of a historian; any passages of rhapsodizing are too fleeting (or, if I'm being honest, simply not to my tastes) to have made an impression on me as good writing. (There were a few places, however, where the editing failed her; I believe during the Soviet chapters where her diction gets mired down in the plodding lumpenstyle that wouldn't be out of place in a dram-balet.)

If you're looking for a general history of dance, you might want to check Susan Au's "Ballet and Modern Dance" (I know, not a gripping title).  It's a tight chronological overview that is less America-centric than most.

Also Deborah Jowitt's "Time and the Dancing Image" -- it's more episodic, but places dance events in their historical context, which I think is incredibly interesting.

Share this post


Link to post
5 hours ago, sandik said:

Also Deborah Jowitt's "Time and the Dancing Image" -- it's more episodic, but places dance events in their historical context, which I think is incredibly interesting.

Two thumbs way, way up for Jowitt's Time and the Dancing Image! I've read it through twice and refer to it often, and every time I do it triggers a new insight or prompts me to think about something in a new way. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Jowitt doesn't make critical assessments or that she's "neutral," but she makes every effort to describe things objectively and in good faith. The book is out of print, but there are plenty of used copies to be had at practically give away prices, so there's no excuse for not grabbing a copy. 

Nancy Reynolds' and Malcolm McCormick's No Fixed Points surveys twentieth century dance generally and has useful chapters on ballet was well as modern and postmodern dance.

Share this post


Link to post
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...