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.