The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans

The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans

Jennifer Homans thinks ballet is dying, its masters dead and gone. But ballet, which exists in time and leaves no record, is always dying.


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.

It’s revealing too that Homans passes over Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s only other surviving work from the Ballets Russes period. Created in 1929, one year after Apollo, it nonetheless drew upon the experimentation that occurred in Russia in the wake of the Revolution, when innovators like Kasyan Goleizovsky expanded the vocabulary of ballet by using extreme poses (splits, acrobatic lifts, interlocking limbs), popular dance forms like the tango and openly erotic imagery. Balanchine had been an enthusiastic participant in this movement, forming a group called the Young Ballet, which performed his experimental pieces (all of which have been lost) in small theaters and cabarets. Prodigal Son drew freely from this ferment, employing expressionistic gestures, mime, extremes of emotion, acrobatic feats (including a mock wrestling match, a human caterpillar and backbends) and brazen eroticism, in a wonderful pas de deux that is comically grotesque and explicitly sexual (the ballerina wraps her leg tightly around her partner’s waist and holds him there as he arches his back with pleasure). The ballet is also an eloquent illustration of Diaghilev’s collaborative aesthetic, which did so much to reinvigorate the art in the early twentieth century: Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by Diaghilev to compose the score, the libretto was written by Diaghilev’s assistant Boris Kochno and the scenery and costumes were created by the French Fauvist painter Georges Rouault.

Because of its vivid theatricality and sentimentality—in the final two sections, the Prodigal does not dance at all but rather drags himself across the stage and into his father’s arms—Prodigal Son is in some ways the antithesis of Apollo. But as with Apollo, its presence is palpable in Balanchine’s later works. Experimentation with nonclassical movement reappears in Modernist masterpieces like Agon; the use of interlocking bodies in partnering is a prominent feature of The Four Temperaments; the totemic presence of a powerful, almost frightening female figure is notable in The Unanswered Question and La Sonnambula; and the evocative use of gesture recurs often, as in the second pas de deux in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, from 1972, which quotes a hand gesture from Prodigal Son. Prodigal is still performed, with Rouault’s sets and costumes, by companies such as the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. It has been a rite of passage for many of the greatest male dancers of our time: Edward Villella, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Herman Cornejo. It seems strange to exclude it from a comprehensive history, especially one written in Balanchine’s shadow. Perhaps its sharp angles do not fit snugly into the clean, Modernist mold Homans has cast for Balanchine: “an art of angels, of idealized and elevated human figures, beautiful, chivalric, and above all strictly formal.”

Balanchine was known to enjoy earthly pleasures like showy virtuosity, sentimentality and kitsch, and appreciated their usefulness in spicing up the rarefied atmosphere of classical dance. He encouraged his ballerinas to move with unseemly abandon—splitting their legs immodestly, raising their hips, against classical form, in order to get their feet up in the air into a 180-degree arabesque, eschewing “proper” form. Many found this immodest way of dancing displeasing, and Balanchine thumbed his nose at such priggishness; when a British critic fussed about his abuses of ballet decorum, he responded that in England, “if you are awake, it is already vulgar.” His ballets Bugaku, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Western Symphony constantly flirt with vulgarity, employing techniques drawn from sources as diverse as the chorus lines of Broadway (where Balanchine worked in the 1930s and ’40s), popular dance forms and his own eroticized view of non-Western cultures. What could be more “extreme” than the partnering in Agon or the lightning-fast footwork in Ballo della Regina? Or more sentimental than the final waltz in Vienna Waltzes? Kitsch, too, has its place: think of the peppy cheerfulness of Stars and Stripes, all salutes, bumptious jumps and chorus-girl kicks, and the little waves and carefree, flirtatious bravura of Tarantella.

* * *

I don’t necessarily disagree with Homans’s core assertions about the nature of ballet. It is inarguably an elevated form, based on a highly refined and codified technique, and aspires to an ideal (at least most of the time) that is impossible to achieve and beyond expression in words. As the luminous former ballerina Violette Verdy said recently, “We have a responsibility to the audience to give them something transcendent.” But within this framework, variety and even transgression are possible. I can’t help wondering whether Homans’s portrait of ballet’s rise and development could have been richer if her view of ballet’s history wasn’t so rigid. There should be space for more variety, greater contradiction and a healthy clash of contrasts. This, too, has a place in ballet’s past and present. Consider the career of Alexei Ratmansky. To the optimism and athleticism of social realist ballet—a mainstay of the Soviet ballet tradition that he absorbed at the Bolshoi—he has mixed in Massine’s love of gesture, added a sprinkle of postmodern irony and spun it into gold in ballets like The Bright Stream, Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH. For his part, Christopher Wheeldon has taken the raw emotion of MacMillan, combined it with the fussiness of Frederick Ashton and the theatricality of Jerome Robbins (and the supple torso of modern dance), and produced ballets like After the Rain, The Nightingale and the Rose and Polyphonia. With ballets like these, who can say that ballet is dying?

The best sections of Apollo’s Angels are those in which Homans feels less compelled to distinguish the good from the bad and instead gets down to the business of telling a rich, finely hued story. For example, her discussion of dance in the period after the French Revolution—with its public spectacles featuring gracefully moving crowds of young women dressed in white, forerunners of the corps de ballet—and the institutional and organizational innovations of the Napoleonic era, when the modern dance academy was invented, are especially revealing because they introduce a completely different way of thinking about the symbolism of dance and the role of ballet in public life. They also suggest that ballet is a constantly evolving form that to a certain degree reflects the society around it. Truly revelatory is Homans’s detailed account of the training regime followed by Marie Taglioni, which promoted the muscular development required for her to create the illusion of effortlessness and spiritual transcendence while dancing on the tips of her toes without the aid of modern, padded toe shoes. Homans’s analysis of the work required of a dancer to embody the sylphlike qualities of Taglioni’s character in La Sylphide goes a long way to explain this dancer’s enduring influence on our idea of the ballerina: strong but ethereal, energetic but effortless, virtuosic and yet spiritually stirring. (As odd as it may seem, Forsythe’s choreography could not exist without Taglioni.) Few art forms are so intrinsically contradictory—this is the “magic” of ballet.

Homans’s vehemence in upholding the values of elegance and proportion is heartening, a testament to the coherence and harmoniousness of ballet’s basic principles and codes. And inevitably, I too am captive to my own prejudices and experiences. Having come to ballet as an adult, in the post-Balanchine era, I find that my perspective is necessarily different from Homans’s. Her credo finds its strongest expression in the final chapter of Apollo’s Angels, a provocative essay with the lugubrious title “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” Homans postulates that ballet is dying and perhaps beyond life support, complaining about the “dull, flat-screen look of today’s dances and dancers,” “artistically moribund” revivals, “dispiriting” performances that are “dull and lack vitality,” and an “inaccessible avant-garde.” Even ballet’s angels, it seems, are falling from the sky.

But ballet is always dying. Like all dance, it exists purely in time and leaves no record, and is an art of the external present. Unlike music, it does not have a consistent written language; video can capture only its shadow because it lacks the third dimension, where dancing lives. So we are left with the present. As Balanchine said, “There is only now.” In this light Homans’s discouragement feels like fatigue, her disappointment like complacency. She may tire of seeing yet another production of Giselle or Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, but what about the person who is seeing these ballets for the first time, who stumbles out of the theater in a daze, in tears of disbelief at what he has just witnessed? Is this not worth preserving, worth fighting for? As Homans wrote several years ago, in a different mood, “Who are we to hold old memories so tightly? Perhaps it is time to stop mourning and move on.”

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