Unique among the arts, ballet has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. A ballerina dancing today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements recall a lost world of courts, kings, and aristocracy, but her steps are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. From ballet's origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France's Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through the courts of Europe, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. Jennifer Homans, a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer, traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them.--From publisher description.
Classical ballet, originating in Italy’s courts in the 15th century, was famously adopted in the 17th century by France’s King Louis XIV, The Sun King, thus named after his role as Apollo in a famous ballet performance for which he wore a golden costume covered with glowing gems. Making his début as a dancer at age 13, Louis XIV elevated his passion for ballet to a matter of state:
“Under Louis XIV, dance became much more than a blunt instrument with which to display royal opulence and power. He made it integral to life at court, a symbol and requirement of aristocratic identity so deeply ingrained and internalized that the art of ballet would be forever linked to his reign. It was at Louis's court that the practices of royal spectacle and aristocratic social dance were distilled and refined; it was under his auspices that the rules and conventions governing the art of classical ballet were born.”
The last two chapters are dedicated to ballet in the U.S.A. where the contributions of 20th Century choreographers Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) and George Balanchine (1904-1983) are discussed at length. Balanchine’s legacy is immense; he made ballet a 20th century art form, founded the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and created groundbreaking choreographies which are still performed by ballet companies around the world today. Sadly, most of the 400 ballets Balanchine conceived did not survive; as Homans explains, before the advent of film and video, there had never been a satisfactory system devised which could faithful record the complexity of dances, which for the most part lived on only in the creator’s minds.
As an amateur—though by no means a connoisseur—of ballet, I found this book to be a fascinating and thorough examination of an art form which has always had a special place in my heart. One of it’s great merits is that it touched on many other areas of interest. The lengthy passages on specific dances and choreographies would probably best appeal to a more specialized audience, but this should not be a deterrent. Homans, with her background as a professional dancer and her thorough understanding and appreciation for the craft, backed with the solid research of a conscientious journalist (she has written for a number of reputable publications, such as The New York Times and is a dance critic as The New Republic), has written a book which deserves to be considered the authoritative work on ballet. To my mind, she has perfectly captured the essence and spirit of an art form which is by nature ephemeral, and she has done so in a way that makes for interesting—a pleasurable—reading.
A more comprehensive version of this review can be found right here.
One factor is structural. Ballet requires high inequality to thrive, an impoverished mass to supply the bodies to be trained, a factor well matched in the US. The next factor is barely achieved in the US: A localized court that dominates the fashion and entertainment discourse. The cultural influence of New York, Chicago, LA and Washington D.C. on the rest of the country is trivial compared to the magnetism of Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow in their heyday. Americans coming to town are much more likely to watch a musical or go to Radio City Music Hall. a classical ballet is a hard sell. Most audiences, furthermore, lack the necessary knowledge to appreciate the dancer's skills and moves beyond an emotional reaction. Even in Europe, ballet tickets are usually shuffled into opera season tickets. Finally, the training of ballet dancers requires government support to dedicated institutions. The end of the Cold War has reduced the need for the US government for showcase investments.
Given the limited contemporary influence of classical ballet, one way out of the dilemma would have been to develop the connections of ballet to modern dance and the supporting function of ballet dancers in opera and musical productions. The smaller venues of modern dance allow for more artistic and innovative expression. Homans, however, restricts her view to the wedding cake part of ballet, the big stand alone evening attraction. Her own book shows that for most of its history, ballet was always integrated into a wider show business block. Like classical music, ballet is pushed either towards established repertoire fare or into a supporting function.
A chapter about modern European ballet is certainly missing, as is a chapter on the early renaissance spectacles in Italy. Read it for the non-American chapters.
While most of the book is very good, there are parts that drag and, at times, there is a great deal more information than the reader needs to know to understand her point. Another problem I had is that Homans uses several stock phrases throughout the book. Over and over and over and over. A good editor should have caught this…..and didn’t.
She spends a lot of pages on some aspects of the history of ballet while reducing others to mere paragraphs. This, to me, belies her prejudices for and interest in certain aspects of her art at the expense of others – she just cannot muster up much interest in certain eras and especially certain dancers.
Quite often her timelines vary dramatically, often on the same page. Now we’re discussing a choreographer/dancer/whatever and it’s 1955 – several paragraphs later, while still discussing that choreographer/dancer/whatever, and it’s 1925. It’s a though while writing a thought popped into her head and she had to get it down before she lost it……then she can go back to whatever it was she was writing about. Quite often I found myself stopping, rereading and then going back a page or two to make sure I was reading about the same thing….very disconcerting. Again, a good editor would have caught this….and didn’t.
She completely misses out on several very important people in ballet. Not a word about Gelsey Kirkland – very strange considering Kirkland’s relationship with Balanchine. Very little about Nureyev even though he, along with Margot Fonteyn, revitalized ballet in the 60s and 70s and became truly international stars. Without saying so in so many words she seems to dismiss Nureyev as just another homosexual dancer of very little importance.
Homans may claim otherwise, however, her homophobia screams very loudly in this book. Whenever she actually tells the reader that a choreographer or dancer (always male) is gay it is in the “he was a homosexual” you know fashion; quite often also making sure to alert the reader to the fact that he married a woman, so……. Here she shows a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the era about which she is writing. How one can spend all the years she has surrounded by gay men and not absorb even a bit of their history is beyond me. (Yes, Ms. Homans, in a great part of the 20th century, gay men often married women….it was a cover….get it? They feared for their lives and livelihood….best to toe the line….and survive.)
Enough has been written about her Epilogue….by many people. After the exhaustive history we have just read to learn that the author believes that ballet is, if not dead already, it’s well on the way to the grave!! Ballet is dead --- this from a dance critic for The New Republic? It leaves one with the feeling that she was never good enough a dancer to make it to the “big time” and boy, is she still jealous that she didn’t make it there!
Skip this one – it’s not worth the time.
I find it interesting that a single statement she made near the very end of the book has generated the most talk--that ballet is dead. Consider this: she was fortunate to work with one of the 20th century's greatest geniuses, George Balanchine. The man revolutionized ballet. He brought his training and cultural history with him from Russia, tweaked it to fit his own grand vision and totally revolutionized an art form. Balanchine is one the the world's greatest geniuses, and I suspect Ms. Homans' lament has more to do with sadness that there is no one else like Balanchine at work in ballet today. I wonder how many other art forms have been blessed with a recurrence of genius; it seems to me that perhaps she hopes for too much.
Still, the book is wonderful. I am pleased to see scholarship and tasty bits alongside one another. Many stars of the ballet are quoted throughout. This is no dry history book. If you love ballet, I think you will love this book no matter your opinion on Ms. Homans' remark that ballet is dead.