The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans
Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels is a beautifully written and deeply felt history of ballet, told with an epic sweep and a sensitive, almost physical feel for detail. It is consistently engrossing, and 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 touches on everything from fashion to court etiquette, the sexual politics of the opera house and the demographics of the ballet milieu, onstage and off, all the while offering unexpected pearls, such as a sensitive explication of the role of the foot in seventeenth-century France and a step-by-step description of barre exercises from the 1820s, that vividly bring the past back to life. Apollo’s Angels is a book for the balletomane and everyone else.
Ballet is a life-or-death matter to Homans. She was once a dancer, and in her poignant introduction she describes the profound experience of learning the vocabulary of ballet from Felia Doubrovska and Alexandra Danilova, instructors at the School of American Ballet and colleagues of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who trained in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, made works for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and co-founded New York City Ballet in 1948 with Lincoln Kirstein. Doubrovska and Danilova represented the “living, breathing evidence of a lost (to us) past—of what their dances were like but also of what they, as artists and people, believed in,” Homans writes. Their religion became hers, a faith in “an art of high ideals and self-control in which proportion and grace stand for an inner truth and elevated state of being.” Homans went on to dance with various companies, including the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She is only 50, but a dancer’s career is brief, so since retiring from the stage in the mid-1980s she has made a second life as a scholar of French history and a writer. She has been the dance critic of The New Republic for the past ten years, during which time she also researched and wrote Apollo’s Angels, combing through archives, interviewing scholars and critics across Europe and experimenting with different historical dance techniques in the studio. Her experience as a dancer can be felt in the evocations of choreography that are one of her book’s principal pleasures.
Homans’s New Republic essays are a good primer on her vision of ballet’s guiding principles as well as the historical framework of Apollo’s Angels. In them, she argues that ballet’s aesthetic and philosophical roots lie in the seventeenth-century French court, and that ballet is a fundamentally aristocratic, idealistic art, concerned with grace, proportion and civility. For her, the ballets of Balanchine represent the highest point in the art’s history, and since his death in 1983, ballet has been in a steep, deadly decline. Contemporary dancers and choreographers have lost the key to its codes, and so their performances lack inner life. Their technique and athleticism, when taken to a level Homans considers to be extreme, are a hindrance to expression.
All of this is true, up to a point. But the rigidity of Homans’s moral and aesthetic code, useful, even vital, to the critic, is confining for the historian. A reader of Apollo’s Angels, for example, might think that because Homans doesn’t identify any important choreographic voices since Balanchine’s death, none exist. This is not the case. One example is William Forsythe, whose radical reconfiguration of ballet technique—in his own words, he has sought to manipulate “the language of ballet to see how far it can go before it becomes unrecognizable”—has profoundly influenced a generation of choreographers and dancers, for good or ill. The critic Roslyn Sulcas, who has been watching his work closely for more than twenty years, has written of her reaction the first time she saw one of his ballets, New Sleep, in 1988: “I can still remember my sensation of mixed shock and excitement…. Bravura pas de deux and counterpointed ensemble work flashed before my eyes, but in such a radically new context that I could scarcely believe what I was seeing: ballet without quotation marks around the word, as much a part of the contemporary world as film or architecture or quantum physics.” Forsythe is not for everyone. His choreography is aggressive, technically extreme, fragmented and even, one might say, ugly; he has a penchant for loud electronic music and using abrupt lighting effects or unexpected, jarring interruptions to disrupt the flow of movement. The curtain might descend in the middle of a solo or the dancers stomp offstage for no obvious reason. His experimentation with ballet has gone so far that he can be said to have left ballet behind (as he predicted he might). One doesn’t have to enjoy his approach, but given the extent of Forsythe’s influence on younger choreographers and the aesthetics of contemporary ballet, especially in Europe, he cannot be ignored.
Less monumental, perhaps, but more encouraging are two young choreographers whose vision of ballet’s future is staked on renewal more than rupture with the past: Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. Wheeldon, a 37-year-old Brit who danced with the Royal Ballet, was resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet from 2001 to 2008, and briefly experimented with founding his own company, Morphoses. Ratmansky, who trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow and danced in Western Europe and Canada, went on to lead the Bolshoi for five years and is now choreographer-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre (see Harss, “Ratmansky Takes Manhattan,” October 12, 2009). Neither is Balanchine, but each is doing his part to stave off the corrosion of ballet’s moral and aesthetic universe, and to assure its survival as a living, breathing art. Neither questions ballet’s grounding in order, proportion and civility, but each also feels pressed by his imagination to test ballet’s boundaries and myths. They are not remaking Giselle or, as some contemporary choreographers have done, at least metaphorically, hacking it to pieces because it is “out of step” with modern life. Each is engaged in a dialogue with ballet’s history but also has his own ideas about movement, theatrical presentation and storytelling, which are manifested in ballets that are personal, original and innovative, to a certain degree, but also legible to the audience. Their work is an exception to Homans’s claim that “contemporary choreography veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation.” Homans is familiar with the careers of both choreographers—she has spoken about Wheeldon with cautious praise in The New Republic and elsewhere—which makes their absence from Apollo’s Angels even more puzzling.
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George Balanchine haunts Apollo’s Angels like an earthly ideal. Homans invokes Apollo as the ultimate “physical presence” for dancers, who, she posits, “carry in their mind’s eye some Apollonian image or feeling of the grace, proportion, and ease they strive to achieve.” For Homans, Balanchine is the purest embodiment of Apollonian classicism and the heritage of Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. His ballet Apollo (or Apollon Musagète, as it was originally called), from 1928, is her touchstone, not only for her interpretation of his life’s work but also for her understanding of all ballet. It is the silver thread that connects the French seventeenth-century ballet de cour (Louis XIV was an excellent dancer, who enjoyed dressing up as the young god); the uplifting spirituality of Marie Taglioni’s dancing en pointe in the first real romantic ballet, La Sylphide, in 1832; the refined, courtly classicism of The Sleeping Beauty (in Homans’s words, Petipa’s “greatest work,” from 1890); and Balanchine’s most experimental creations like The Four Temperaments and Agon.
Apollo is Balanchine’s earliest surviving work, and one of only two ballets he made for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that are still with us. (It was also his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky.) By his account, it marked a new beginning: “Apollon I look back on as the turning point of my life. In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate.” He revised the ballet many times during his life, adjusting its choreography, simplifying the costumes, pruning everything superfluous or excessive (some feel that in the end he may have cut too much). Homans vividly describes the work, noting its “jutting hips” and “concave backs,” and how the choreographer asked his Apollo to “slide like rubber” to create a desired effect. She celebrates its purity and nobility, emphasizing its lack of bravura steps, the ease and lyricism of its movement and the way it turns its back on Balanchine’s earlier experimentation with acrobatics (though, it must be said, some elements of acrobatics, including splits, interlacing poses and innovative lifts, remain). With Apollo, she writes, the choreographer had “‘eliminated’ the hard edge of Soviet modernism, its erotic and gymnastic movements and mystical and millennial overtones,” while retaining its “extreme plasticity and taste for spontaneity and freedom.”
Note the use of “acrobatic,” “erotic” and “gymnastic.” Those words recur regularly in Apollo’s Angels, along with “vulgar,” “extreme” and “kitsch,” all of them labels for artists whose work Homans does not approve of and who lie outside the margins of elegance, refinement and idealization that she holds to be ballet’s rightful realm. The late eighteenth-century dancer and technical innovator Auguste Vestris, who vastly extended and ornamented the repertory of male steps (to include the sort of tricks and jumps still used today), is deemed to have danced in a manner that was “exaggerated even to the point of contortion.” As Homans sees it, Balanchine’s early Russian choreography (“his dancers split their legs, bent into back-breaking bridges, and opened their mouths in Munch-like screams”) was eclipsed by the rigorous, ennobling Apollo. Homans discusses only one ballet—Parade, from 1917—by Léonide Massine, one of the Ballets Russes’ main choreographers, who, in addition to creating works in the 1930s and ’40s that helped to popularize ballet in America, was one of the first choreographers to create “symphonic ballets” without plot or characters. She deems Massine’s Parade to be in “poor taste,” a “pastiche of…popular culture.” Maya Plisetskaya, one of the most electrifying ballerinas of the twentieth century, is described as “beefy and strong,” and her dancing as “brazen” as well as “hard and unyielding, never elegant or polite.” And the British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, creator of an enduringly popular version of Romeo and Juliet, is faulted for committing “too many lapses in judgment and taste” and reducing “ballet’s eloquent language to a series of barely audible grunts.” Homans’s judgments of subsequent generations of unnamed contemporary choreographers, who we are told trade in “gymnastic or melodramatic excess” and “unthinking athleticism,” are no less categorical.