A Dying Art?

Apollo’s Angels : A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans ★★★★½

I discovered ballet like most little girls, when I saw representations of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake around age 5, which is when I decided that my calling in life was to be a ballerina. Of course, I started taking ballet lessons but there were signs of trouble when I proved to be lacking in discipline and kept missing classes because of various complaints which would never have kept a true disciple away from the barre and teachings of instructors, no matter how strict. And then the crushing blow of being turned down following an audition for the National Ballet School. “Well, what could you expect?” was my mum’s reasonable response to my glum discomfiture. Still, I hung in there for a few years and absorbed all I could from the scary, venerable, and elegant Russian ladies who seemed to have been born in stage makeup and never had a hair out of place. They were ubiquitous at reputable dance academies in those days.


More than anything, I was absolutely in love with the lore and romanticism of the art, peopled with great icons such as the mythical dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890 – 1850), who was a superstar in his day, and was also the lover of the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) for a time. Together they produced ground-breaking ballets such as The Rites of Spring, to a musical score by Igor Stravinsky, or the controversial L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), with music by Claude Debussy. There is no existing footage of this great dancer, but we know that Nijinsky had an astounding physicality, was dedicated to a harsh training regimen, and that his jumps were gravity-defying; he reportedly stayed suspended in the air longer than seemed humanly possible. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1919, which effectively ended his career—he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums—a tragic romantic figure if ever there was one. Nijinsky’s contemporary and dance partner at the Ballets Russes, the great Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931), is still recognized as one of the finest dancers in ballet history, she forever immortalized The Dying Swan to the now famous Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des Animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns. She was filmed in that role late in her career, and this blurry, choppy footage allows us to get a small glimpse of what her performances might have been like.

Jennifer Homan’s comprehensive look at the history of ballet, when I discovered it via The New York Time’s Sunday Book Review (it later made the list of the NYT’s 10 best books of 2010), was a long-awaited treat. The book is structured in two parts; part 1, “France and the Classical Origins of Ballet”, devotes the first chapter to Louis XIV. 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.”

“[During Louis XIV’s reign] the grip of ritual and etiquette on court life was unyielding. Status famously depended—quite literally—on where you stood in relation to the king. […] Even the way a courtier moved was precisely choreographed: a noble of inferior rank was obligated to seat a higher noble to his right; the princes of the blood left the Parlement by crossing through the center of the room, whereas the bastard son of the king was required to walk obsequiously around the sides.”

Ballet had always been mostly a male domain, until the Romantic Era, which marked the rise of the ballerina, with Marie Taglioni—a unique phenomenon—as the figurehead:

“We know her from prints of La Sylphide, the Parisian ballet that made her famous in 1832; she is a wispy, winged creature, a confection of white tulle and rose perched delicately on toe . She is birdlike, quaint, and almost cloyingly sweet, and if there is a thought in her head, it is lost in the mists of her vaporous ethereality. She is the pink-tights-and-toe-shoes ballerina of girlish dreams—and feminist nightmares. Yet Marie Taglioni was one of the most important and influential ballerinas who ever lived. She galvanized a generation and drew some of Europe’s best literary minds to dance [such as German poet Heinrich Heine, Stendhal, Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Sir Walter Scott, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Victor Hugo, among others]; she was an international celebrity—ballet’s first—and set the pattern for Margot Fonteyn, Melissa Hayden, Galina Ulanova, and others to follow.”

“Taglioni had to work around her own physical limitations, Her rounded back made her lean forward slightly, and lithographs show that she incorporated this stance into her technique. Slightly distorted proportions and compensatory adjustments gave her dancing a kind of compressed energy, not unlike the women painted by Ingres. Taglioni further disguised her defects by developing extraordinary muscle power. When she trained, she held each pose to the count of one hundred—an agonizing challenge for even the strongest dancers today.”

Homans places ballet squarely in historical, political and philosophical contexts, and presents the most influential European personalities who transformed it, according to their own life experiences and physical aptitudes, the teachings of their mentors, their training, and what was most likely to appeal to the public. A chapter on “Scandinavian Orthodoxy: The Danish Style” credits this style to August Bournonville (1805 – 1879), who created a “low-church, family style of ballet”. Bournonville’s restrained and exacting approach, due to the political and geographic position of Denmark, was not affected by the changes taking places in other parts of Europe, and was therefore preserved for future generations, and continues to be a major influence today. In contrast, the next chapter describes the Italian heritage of ballet, in which strong emphasis was put on pantomime and virtuosity, at the cost of the more noble aspects of the art.

The second part of the book is almost entirely dedicated to the Russians, starting with Peter the Great, and ending with the Russian influence on ballet in America.

“Before Peter the Great [who ruled from 1682 to 1725] there was no ballet at all in Russia. It is worth recalling just how isolated and culturally impoverished the country was before [he] came to power. For centuries, church and state had been inseparable: the Russian tsar was an Orthodox prince and Moscow was cast as a “third Rome.” Western Europe went through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution, but Russia remained cut off and bound up in the timeless liturgies of the Orthodox faith. It had no universities and no secular literary tradition; its art and its music were almost exclusively confined to icons and sacred songs. Musical instruments were considered sinful, and dance was something peasants did.”

“Classical ballet came to Russia as etiquette and not as art. […] The desire to acquire the grace and elegance and cultural forms of the French aristocracy remained a fundamental aspiration. From the moment ballet entered Russia, it was inextricably bound up with the Westernizing project that would shape the country’s history for generations to come. It was part of “making Russians European.””

Choreographer Marius Petipa arrived in St. Petersburg from Paris in 1847, and went on to create some of the most famous ballets still performed today, not the least of which… The Nutcracker (1892), based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffman, and Swan Lake(1895), both set to music which Tchaikovsky arranged specifically for these dances. The following chapter is devoted to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, a company considered to be the most influential of the 20th century. Most of the dancers who originally joined the company were Russians who had danced in Imperial Russia, and they performed works by Marius Petipa, as well as those by a young George Balanchine, among others. Based in Paris, they toured many countries from 1909 until 1929, when Diaghilev passed away.

Galina Ulanova: pride of the USSR

“Communist Ballet from Stalin to Brezhnev”, describes how this imperialistic art form was appropriated by the new regime: “Why did this elegant nineteenth-century court art become the cultural centrepiece of a twentieth-century totalitarian state? The answer is complicated, but it has to do above all with ideology. Under Communist rule, the whole purpose of ballet changed. No matter its Imperial roots, it was a universal language accessible to anyone, from barely literate workers to sophisticated foreign ambassadors—and especially (during the Cold War) the Americans.”

A chapter dedicated to the emergence of an English tradition (“Alone in Europe: The British Moment”) describes the important contributions of, among many others, choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and of course, dancer Margot Fonteyn, who broke through during WWII and went on to dance in partnership with Rudolf Nureyev in the 60s. 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 and Suzanne Farrell in rehearsal.

It’s impossible to speak of ballet without recognizing the genius of George Balanchine (born Giorgi Balanchivadze), who began dancing in Imperial St-Petersburg under the influence of Marius Petipa. Only 3 months after arriving in America, Balanchine and his American partners opened the School of American Ballet in 1934, and after many years of continued efforts, formed the New York City Ballet in 1948. With his unique approach, Balanchine formed some of the greatest dancers of the last century; Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden (born Mildred Herman, 1923 – 2006), Allegra Kent (Iris Margo Cohen, b. 1937), Tanaquil LeClercq (whom he wed), Peter Martins, Jacques d’Amboise, and Suzanne Farrell (with whom he was madly in love) to name just a few. But “[In America] building audiences for ballet took more work. This meant fund-raising, but it also meant teaching the public how to see ballet—and above all, convincing them that it mattered.” Balanchine’s legacy is immense; he made ballet a 20th century art form 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.

In Homans’s controversial epilogue, she asserts that classical ballet may be in it’s death throes. She cites the general lack of interest in an art form that has become more conservative—and more expensive to attend—than ever, the passing away of those who transmitted the traditions of this ancient art, the need for a new generation of great visionaries who can take ballet into new directions, changes in mentality and the prevalent cynicism and loss of ideals of our times; “For classical ballet to recover its standing as a major art would require more than resources and talent. Honor and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback. We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set of ethical principles. Our contemporary infatuation with instability and fragmentation, with false pomp and sentiment, would have to give way to more confident beliefs. If that sounds conservative, perhaps it is; ballet has always been an art of order, hierarchy, and tradition.” But then, as she clearly demonstrates, ballet has nearly died and been revitalized many times throughout it’s history.

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.

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4 thoughts on “A Dying Art?

  1. I discovered the joys of ballet much later when I worked back stage in the theatre. I was privileged to work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet and the Russian Ballet and discovered that I liked it. The whole spectacle is amazing, the sets, the costumes, the music and the dancing are just magical when done well.

    • OMG, Pamela! I couldn’t figure out who you were until just now because the link here when you leave messages doesn’t work and I couldn’t remember who “Imaginography” was! So nice to have your visits! I had a look at you web site, since it had been a while and have to say your photos look great.

      I haven’t gone to see a ballet in many years now. There was one year when I took up a membership for two, thinking I’d find someone to accompany me to the six or so ballets there were that year and believe it or not, I had trouble finding a date every time. Didn’t matter, I enjoyed going alone, but what a waste of a good ticket! I’ve wanted to go many times since and just balk at the price for decent seats but I’m thinking I should start treating myself to at least one performance a year, because I really do miss it. The magic and wonder of it is something very unique.

    • You wouldn’t believe how long I worked at this review! I kept trying to edit down by at least half, and it just wouldn’t work. But then I decided to take a few sections which I posted on LibraryThing with a link to the blog if anyone was interested in the long version, and I almost scrapped this long version here too thinking no one would be interested enough to read through all that. So that’s the story. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. As you know, this is a topic that is close to my heart, and it was a daunting task trying to describe such a great book about an art that is always striving for perfection!

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