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Good books about ballet

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Hi All!

I would like to learn more about dance and it's history. I am searching for some nice books to read during the summer. Already read "Apollo angels" by  Jennifer Homans. I enjoyed this, but the modern days chapters were more focused on the American ballet, while i have a preference for Europe, since this is where i am located. I hope you have some nice suggestions.

Thank you in advance,

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When I was teaching dance history, I often used Susan Au's "Ballet and Modern Dance" as a core assignment, supplemented by excerpts from multiple sources.  She is less America-centric than most of the other general history texts.

You might want to take a look at Deborah Jowitt's "Time and the Dancing Image."  She takes several key works and/or traditions and examines them in their historical context.  The whole book is excellent, but I think her chapter on Romantic ballet is particularly fine, and might serve your purposes.

Lynn Garafola's seminal book on Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe is large, but don't be intimidated -- it's very readable and packed with great scholarship.  Many people have written about the BR, and all its descendants -- Garafola is a great place to start examining that legacy.

Horst Koegler was an excellent observer of the German ballet scene, Erik Aschengren and Alexandra Tomalonis (founder of this website!) have written thoughtfully about the Danish Ballet, and there have been many excellent writers covering ballet in the UK. 

And rummage around here


for more specific suggestions (and lots of opinions!

I think that might be enough for now, but the gods know I can go on and on about this topic...  Let us know what you're reading, and what you think about it.

Edited by sandik
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If you would like to learn more about the early 20th century period,  there are a number of classic autobiographies still in circulation:

Theatre Street: The Reminiscences of Tamara Karsavina

Choura - Alexandra Danilova

Split Seconds - Tamara Geva

I, Maya Plisetskaya

Balanchine & The Lost Muse - Elizabeth Kendall
(Balanchine's early days in Europe - ties in nicely with the above books by Karsavina, Danilova and Geva)

The Ballet Russes film documentary by Goldfine and Geller is great fun. It deals with the post Diaghilev period mainly, and the BR's influence on North American, South American and Australian ballet.

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Cyril Beaumont's books, by a spectator rather than a participant, are focused on Europe, and the last supplement to The Complete Book of Ballet - a four volume series in all, if I remember correctly - appeared in 1945 or so.  Very detailed accounts of the ballets. 

For some of the dancers themselves, or their companies, he published separate volumes (some listed on Amazon) which I haven't seen.  The question is, which are available outside libraries.

Andre Levinson is an author whose name I know only by reputation - that he was one of Beaumont's co-authors adds to it - but he wrote about the period and location you're interested in.

Edited by Jack Reed
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Some dance books I've found helpful, randomly found in used bookstores here in San Francisco:

Horst Koegler's Dictionary of Ballet Oxford University Press, 1977, seems to be a sturdy and learned reference book, not outdated, but being unsupplemented might be its weakness. Don't know if there's a successor.

John Percival's Modern Ballet, studio vista Dutton Pictureback, is an interesting snapshot survey of dance up to 1970, much of it European. Major companies and currents of the period, some now forgotten.

Human – Space – Machine. Stage Experiments at the Bauhaus, Spector Books covers important developments in Germany in the twenties that have had a stealth influence on modernist dance of the post war period, lavishly illustrated.

Theatre in Revolution: Russian Avant-Garde Stage Design 1913-1935, Thames & Hudson/San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, has chapters by Elizabeth Sourtiz and Nicoletta Misler about Soviet dance experiments which have had a trickle down influence on modern dance everywhere – and during the late twenties on the Diaghilev company. George Balanchine (New Ballet) was a junior member of this movement.

The Ballet Annual, Arnold Haskell editor, published from 1948 to 1958, is a good survey of European and American ballet in the immediate post war period. (I see $5.00 penciled on the inner cover of the copies of my broken set.)

Bonus: one of the last issues of Ballet Review has an article by Alexei Ratmansky on the problems and delights of restaging a Petipa ballet:


Always liked this bit of ballet history in Franz Kafka's Letters to Felice:


January 17 to 18, 1913

… tomorrow the Russian Ballet will be here. I saw it once two years ago, and dreamed about it for months, above all about one very wild dancer, Eduardova. She won’t be here; very likely she was considered an unimportant lady anyway; the great Karsavina won’t be here either (she has been taken ill, to spite me), but there is still a great deal left. You once mentioned the Russian Ballet in a letter; a discussion concerining the Russian Ballet had taken place at the office. What was it about? And what is this tango-dance you danced? Is that really its name? Is it something Mexican? Why is there no picture of this dance? More beautiful dancing than that of the Russians, more beautiful dancing than individual movements, now and then by individual dancers, I have seen only at Dalcroze’s. Have you seen a performance of his Institute in Berlin? I believe they dance there quite often.

January 19, 1913

Nijinsky and Kyast are two flawless human beings; they are at the innermost point of their art; they radiate mastery, as do all such people.

And per Sandik, Horst Kroeger's succinct entry on German ballet in his Oxford Dictionary fills in the background of Kafka's note –


Modern dance gained an ever-increasing following after I. Duncan and St. Denis 1st appeared in Ger. in 1902 and 1906 respectively, and Jaques-Dalcroze opened his Institute for applied rhythm in 1911 in Hellerau (a suburb of Dresden). When Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman returned from Switzerland after the 1st World War, they became the leading personalities of the Ger. movement of 'Ausdruckstanz' .. This movement brought forth such personalities as Yvonne Georgi, Gret Pulucca, Dore Hoyer, Kurt Jooss, Albrecht Knust, Sigurd Leeder, Max Perpis and Harald Kreutzberg. It had its climax during the mid-1920s and then slowly faded out or was usurped by the Nazis in 1933; significantly, the most important comp. work of the movement, Jooss's Green Table, had its 1st perf. by the Essen Folkwang B. In Paris in 1932 ... b. fared extremely badly during those years, surviving mainly through schools like those of Eugenia Eduardova and the Gsovskys in Berlin. After 1945 Ger. was for a long time undecided whether to resume its modern dance activities or to build anew from a classical basis, though the East Berlin State Op under Tatjana Gsovsky developed a native form of modern b. ...



Edited by Quiggin
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4 hours ago, Quiggin said:

Some dance books I've found helpful, randomly found in used bookstores here in San Francisco:

Horst Koegler's Dictionary of Ballet Oxford University Press, 1977, seems to be a sturdy and learned reference book, not outdated, but being unsupplemented might be its weakness. Don't know if there's a successor.



The OUP Dictionary is now the Oxford Dictionary of Dance (Craine and Mackrell, 2010).

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I recommend the books of Ivor Guest, mainly French Ballet history.  The best comprehensive book on Russian ballet is probably Era of the Russian Ballet by Natalia Roslavleva.

I note you are based in Amsterdam, do you ever visit Britain?   The town of Hay-on-Wye on the border with Wales is book lovers' heaven with more book shops than you can shake a stick at.  Almost all have a performing arts section and it's possible to pick up some real gems.  Not sure if the town is accessible by public transport though.

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I recommend Edwin Denby's Dance Writings for the most on-the-scene first-responder reactions to some very iconic ballet and dance moments. Arlene Croce's books also have that flavor although Croce's writings are more esoteric. 

If you are interested in Balanchine, Nancy Reynolds' Repertory in Review is a must. 

Dancer autobiographies: generally a pretty uneven bunch, but Tamara Karsavina's Theatre Street, Alexandra Danilova's Choura, Allegra Kent's Once a Dancer and Jacque d'Amboise's I Was a Dancer can be enjoyed simply as sharp keen looks at dance. 

David Vaughn's study of Ashton ballets is very enjoyable.

Lincoln Kirstein's Dance is a very dense, opinionated dance history. 

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8 hours ago, kbarber said:

The OUP Dictionary is now the Oxford Dictionary of Dance (Craine and Mackrell, 2010).

Thanks. Both might be worth owning. Craine and Mackrell seem to use as a basis, and amend, many of the old Koegler entries (though without crediting K.). The new Dictionary updates the "Germany" entry through Pina Bausch but eliminates much of the important pre WWII history, Joost, etc. Since much of visual arts of the fifties and sixties in the US (abstract expressionism and minimalism) seem to be a fulfillment of ideas seeded in Russia and Europe in the teens and twenties, this might be a significant loss of history for dance.

Edited by Quiggin
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We're well into the 21st century, but No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, is a straightforward and eminently digestible survey of what happened in the world of dance during the last century, although, if pressed, I'd opt first to read a book Sandik recommended above, Deborah Jowitt's Time and the Dancing Image. But I find myself going back to No Fixed Points pretty often, too.

If the 580 pages in Garofola's Diaghilev's Ballets Russes seem a little daunting for the summer months, she also edited a very informative volume of essays on the subject titled The Ballets Russes and Its World. It's packed full of beautiful illustrations and it fun to flip through just for that. It's pretty pricey new, but there are lots of used copies to be had out there.

I also enjoyed Sjeng Scheijen's Diaghilev: A Life

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On 6/29/2019 at 5:52 AM, kbarber said:

The OUP Dictionary is now the Oxford Dictionary of Dance (Craine and Mackrell, 2010).

I've got the newer edition, but still use the older one for some things.  They had to edit out some older material to make way for additional information...

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