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One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements re One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty 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 and gestures are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. Ballet has been shaped by the Renaissance and Classicism, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Bolshevism, Modernism, and the Cold War. Apollo’s Angels is a groundbreaking work—the first cultural history of ballet ever written, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told. Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. The steps are never just the steps—they are a living, breathing document of a culture and a tradition. And while ballet’s language is shared by dancers everywhere, its artists have developed distinct national styles. French, Italian, Danish, Russian, English, and American traditions each have their own expression, often formed in response to political and societal upheavals. 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. It was in Russia that dance developed into the form most familiar to American audiences: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker originated at the Imperial court. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and in Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance. Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo’s Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo’s Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.


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One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements re One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty 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 and gestures are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. Ballet has been shaped by the Renaissance and Classicism, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Bolshevism, Modernism, and the Cold War. Apollo’s Angels is a groundbreaking work—the first cultural history of ballet ever written, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told. Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. The steps are never just the steps—they are a living, breathing document of a culture and a tradition. And while ballet’s language is shared by dancers everywhere, its artists have developed distinct national styles. French, Italian, Danish, Russian, English, and American traditions each have their own expression, often formed in response to political and societal upheavals. 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. It was in Russia that dance developed into the form most familiar to American audiences: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker originated at the Imperial court. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and in Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance. Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo’s Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo’s Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.

30 review for Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

  1. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    The subtitle, "A History of Ballet," says it clearly, and this is very probably the most definitive, satisfying book of its kind I've come across in years by an observant and savvy insider. Succinct, almost exhaustively detailed (but not, because the details are so interesting), there are two parts, France and the Classical Origins of Ballet, and Light from the East: Russian Worlds of Art. Part 1 has 6 chapters: Kings of Dance; the Enlightenment; French Revolution; Romantic Illusions & Rise of t The subtitle, "A History of Ballet," says it clearly, and this is very probably the most definitive, satisfying book of its kind I've come across in years by an observant and savvy insider. Succinct, almost exhaustively detailed (but not, because the details are so interesting), there are two parts, France and the Classical Origins of Ballet, and Light from the East: Russian Worlds of Art. Part 1 has 6 chapters: Kings of Dance; the Enlightenment; French Revolution; Romantic Illusions & Rise of the Ballerina; Scandinavian Orthodoxy; Italian Heresy. Part 2 is another 6, consisting of: Tsars - Imperial Russian Classicism; East Goes West: Russian Modernism & Diaghilev; Communist Ballet; British Moment; American Century I - Russian Beginnings; and American Century II - New York Scene. The author, a former dancer, is a revelation, a real historian. To her great credit, Homans doesn't let her subject go stale or dull despite an enormous array of facts, voluminous notes, an extensive bibliography and index. She includes some wonderful prints and lithographs, diagrams and engravings; this is a true scholarly work on the subject and it's about time. The bibliography alone gave me giddy joy. Homans weaves the development of ballet from its earliest days with events of history and culture --painting, poetry, literature, music, theater, opera, philosophy -- over 600 pages of fascinating, exhilarating detail in illuminating context, distilling what would ordinarily be a daunting history into a readable piece of non-fiction. But I must say here that more than a passing familiarity with the subject is necessary to fully savor and enjoy this book. The epilogue is a poignant, perhaps unexpected statement: "Something important really is over. We are in mourning." Whether we agree or not, I believe Homans has proven her point. And I'm thrilled she wrote it. I'm thrilled I read it. Here's what former dancer Jacques D'Amboise had to say about Apollo's Angels on the back cover: "Each page of this luminous work delights, enlightens, and beckons. Every dancer should live with this book, of course, but every person who loves literature and history, who is word-struck and story-addicted, should give himself a treat with Apollo's Angels. Treasure this treasure." Yes.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    The history of ballet is presented as beautifully as you could hope. I expected to be bored by descriptions of 16th century court life or the Cecchetti method versus the Vaganova, but this is primarily an account of what ballet has meant to different people at different points in history, and it's fascinating. Some of it was unsurprising; for instance, ballet functioned as a code of mannerisms, to teach nobles how to be really good-looking while walking down the street. What I never knew is that The history of ballet is presented as beautifully as you could hope. I expected to be bored by descriptions of 16th century court life or the Cecchetti method versus the Vaganova, but this is primarily an account of what ballet has meant to different people at different points in history, and it's fascinating. Some of it was unsurprising; for instance, ballet functioned as a code of mannerisms, to teach nobles how to be really good-looking while walking down the street. What I never knew is that ballet is also rooted in neoplatonic ideals: the precise mathematics of music and movement were supposed to reveal nothing less than divine celestial harmony (clearly this is why I'm interested in ballet). Learning about the evolution of ballet music was also really interesting. Apparently ballet music was cheesy, commercial and easy to dance to until Tchaikovsky arrived on the scene. Which explains (at least to me) why I can never remember a note of boring Giselle, but the scores of even the lesser-known Tchaikovsky ballets (Serenade, Mozartiana) are painfully beautiful to listen to. Of course the Balanchine chapters are the best, and it's easy to get caught up in the golden era of New York in the fifties and sixties, which Homans calls "one of the most exciting artistic revolutions of the century." Homans is a former professional dancer from Balanchine's School of American Ballet and has particular insight into his ballets and the reasons for which Balanchine's artistic zeitgeist couldn't survive his death (his relationship with his dancers was always present in the choreography, binding his dances to these individuals at this moment; his love for his ballerinas was part of their allure). The New York Times describes Homans's Balanchine narrative as never better told; it's a story I've read now in countless forms, and I think I agree. Homans also mourns the end of an era of artistic achievement. It feels true that ballet nowadays is more fearfully accomplished than ever, but decidedly not transcendent. Homans takes us through ballet's progression from the divine to the aristocratic to the democratic, through Balanchine's giving imperial Russian tradition to street kids from the outer boroughs and working-class kids from the Midwest, and creating an American art. But those raw materials have been processed and gentrified in a uniquely American fashion. In her introduction Homans tells us she wrote Apollo's Angels to answer her own questions about dancing; the question left unanswered is, what now? I have some ideas of my own, but that's for the next book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    Beautiful! Beautiful writing, well compiled A+! This makes me want to dance, it makes me want to see all of the greatest ballets, it makes me want to live eat and breathe ballet. I loved the history, I loved that she explored the connections between ballet and music and I was blown away by the ending. I thought she put together a hard case and then just blasted you at the end with the conclusion. Ballet is a dying art! How many people would quickly jump to defend the great dancers of today, but Beautiful! Beautiful writing, well compiled A+! This makes me want to dance, it makes me want to see all of the greatest ballets, it makes me want to live eat and breathe ballet. I loved the history, I loved that she explored the connections between ballet and music and I was blown away by the ending. I thought she put together a hard case and then just blasted you at the end with the conclusion. Ballet is a dying art! How many people would quickly jump to defend the great dancers of today, but really with the history provided and the astounding revolutions and creations of the past ballet today really does begin to seem to be a hollow shell of it's once glorious self. You could tell that the author loves the ballet, you could feel her compassion as she almost admitted this loss of true ballet to herself on paper. I felt very moved by it, and could see that with the sort of research done on the history of ballet these conclusions were bound to slowly creep into her heart and leave her wondering what modern ballet is means and what it is left with, when shrouded in this protective wrapping of historical preservation. Beautiful and poignant like the ballet itself.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tanushree Baruah

    A rather arduous read - Apollo's Angels starts off cumbersomely slow and can be quite dry. It is ironic for a book that has been written by a practitioner of the art, it is incredibly passionless. I love the ballet and I am very interested in its evolution - but this book to me read more as a barely skimming the surface history text. It seems detailed but in reality consists of a lot of space dedicated to two bit players and the political and cultural environments of the era. The book could have A rather arduous read - Apollo's Angels starts off cumbersomely slow and can be quite dry. It is ironic for a book that has been written by a practitioner of the art, it is incredibly passionless. I love the ballet and I am very interested in its evolution - but this book to me read more as a barely skimming the surface history text. It seems detailed but in reality consists of a lot of space dedicated to two bit players and the political and cultural environments of the era. The book could have been helped by a good editor. One more thing I did not enjoy was the way Homan dismissed known choreographers as having 'secondary talent' and not talking about people who really mattered. Let's be real - Balanchine was lucky to have had Kirstein's support. Also, Homan does not talk about known dances in enough detail - I would have loved entire chapters dedicated to the anatomy of known ballets such as Mayerling or even Romeo and Juliet. And the ending was horrifying. Clearly Homan has turned into one of those Victorian old bidies she writes so disparagingly about - The type that clutch their pearls and talk about the good old days. Three stars for the insights into Russian culture and history. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, not even to a ballet expert.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    It has taken me a while to read 'Apollo's Angels' as there is a lot of it. It's heavy, both literally and figuratively. Quite a lot of effort, but worth it. Although I have a long standing fascination with ballet, my knowledge of its past was extremely sketchy and largely based on novels I read before I turned 13. Homans provides a thorough and erudite account of ballet's five hundred year history. The chapters are divided between different national ballet traditions, ranging across France, Ital It has taken me a while to read 'Apollo's Angels' as there is a lot of it. It's heavy, both literally and figuratively. Quite a lot of effort, but worth it. Although I have a long standing fascination with ballet, my knowledge of its past was extremely sketchy and largely based on novels I read before I turned 13. Homans provides a thorough and erudite account of ballet's five hundred year history. The chapters are divided between different national ballet traditions, ranging across France, Italy, Denmark, Russia, Britain, and finally the US. In general, I found the most rewarding parts those that analysed ballet's link with politics and culture. I was fascinated to learn how both the French and Russian Revolutions recast a royal art into new forms. The interplay between different national traditions was likewise interesting. Homans, a professional ballet dancer herself, has a lot of excellent insight into the complex and ambiguous meanings of ballet. On the other hand, the book was quite slow when concentrating on portraits of specific dancers and choreographers. Homans is more adept at historical narrative and analysis than biography, I think. Or perhaps that is just my personal preference. The chapters about ballet in pre-revolutionary France and post-revolutionary Russia are perhaps the most compelling. I found this very striking: We are left with a seeming paradox: dance and dancers thrived in a repressive, ideologically driven police state. Worse, as we shall see, they produced their best and most lasting art in its cruellest years. It is easy to assume that art demands freedom, that creativity and the human spirit flourish only when individuals can openly express themselves, unfettered by outside authority and an oppressive state. But the Soviet example suggests otherwise: dance succeeded because of the state, not in spite of it. And if Soviet ballet did finally lapse into an artistic coma, paralysed by years of political pressure and sloganeering, we must nonetheless recognise that even then, at its lowest point, the Soviet system continued to produce some of the world's greatest dancers and most impressive ballets. Where did they come from? What was it that nourished their art? A very interesting set of questions. George Orwell memorably wrote in The Prevention of Literature that poetry, art, architecture, and music can all be twisted to glorify totalitarianism, but literature cannot. Dance, it seems, can thrive in the same conditions that brutally suppressed prose fiction. I wondered if this peculiarity is linked to ballet's origins in the stifling hierarchy of the French Court? Perhaps ballet is an art that was born in such a narrow place that it suffers when offered too much freedom? Such an interpretation accords with Homans analysis of why Kenneth MacMillan failed to successfully lead the British Royal Ballet in the late 20th century: It remains the central fact of MacMillan's career that he consistently sacrificed his talent to an obsessive desire to make ballet something it was not. He wanted ballet to be brutal and realistic, a theatrical art that could capture a generation's disillusionment and chart the depths of his own troubled emotions. It was an understandable impulse, but MacMillan completely misread the tradition he had inherited; or perhaps he believed in it too much. Instead of pushing ballet in new directions, he revealed its fundamental limits - and then failed to recognise them. Classical ballet is an art of formal principles; take those away and it disintegrates into crude pantomime. This does not mean that ballet cannot portray inner pain or even social despair, but it can only do so on its own terms, within its own bounds. MacMillan's ballets showed too many lapses in judgement and taste. By the end, he had reduced ballet's eloquent language to a series of barely audible grunts. The waxing and waning of ballet's popularity is worthy of study in itself, as it has a distinct and quite rigid aesthetic that seems to suit certain points in history better than others. There is an elitist and masochistic air about it, combining cultural markers of classical music and professional sport. Personally I enjoy it on a very simplistic level: the dancing just looks beautiful to me. I love Swan Lake most of all, and enjoyed the Matthew Bourne version so much that I went to see it several times. This book didn't so much shed light on why I enjoy ballet as provide exhaustive historical context for it. Although Homans' own love of ballet comes through clearly, her tone is not at all celebratory. She has written an elegy, as she feels ballet is a dying art in the 21st century. She argues that the middle ground, between dancing only the classics and avant garde dance forms, is increasingly deserted. Less convincingly, she comments that for ballet to regain its former popularity, 'Honour and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback'. This is hard to square with its success in Russian under Stalin, surely a time of dishonour, indecorousness, incivility, and tastelessness. Stalin loved ballet, of course. Perhaps ballet has not (yet?) found a niche in the 21st century. It is a nostalgic art, ideal for fables and fairytales; beautiful escapist spectacles are certainly not without appeal at the present time. Maybe at some point it will be rediscovered as an art form whose narrow limits enable a constrained but intricate creativity? While turgid at times, and rather too focused on specific 'masters' of choreography, 'Apollo's Angels' is an impressively thorough and thought-provoking work of history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Phoenix

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. First a bit of a disclaimer: I am merely someone who was fascinated enough with dance and ballet (as a spectator) to look up a book such as this as a way of perhaps becoming better acquainted with the art form. I rented the audiobook version originally to build up some background knowledge for a character in friend's RP that used to be a court dancer in the Renaissance period, but found that I became interested in the history for it's own sake. I have no direct experience as a ballet dancer, nor First a bit of a disclaimer: I am merely someone who was fascinated enough with dance and ballet (as a spectator) to look up a book such as this as a way of perhaps becoming better acquainted with the art form. I rented the audiobook version originally to build up some background knowledge for a character in friend's RP that used to be a court dancer in the Renaissance period, but found that I became interested in the history for it's own sake. I have no direct experience as a ballet dancer, nor would I be able to (or want to) become a ballet dancer. I'm simply just someone who enjoys going to see live performance art (whether it's a circus performance, a ballet, a concert or a play). With that being said, the opinions expressed in this review are simply just that. I hope it's a somewhat more educated set of opinions after having read this impressively compiled history book, but if I make assumptions that you cannot accept, I will understand. I know I am not an expert on the subject of ballet, but I do appreciate it as an art form and I feel that the author's argument worth ruminating on. This is a very informative and comprehensive history of ballet from its earliest beginnings up until the present day. I found myself discussing the epilogue and what it might mean for ballet (as well as other performance art)'s future with my family after finishing it. It's clear that ballet cannot (and should not in my opinion, whatever that's worth as someone who has next to no experience with ballet directly) return to its roots, as it's near impossible to do so. The contexts and the crowd that sustained those older forms of the dance are all but gone (as is discussed in the epilogue of the book). I find that in some ways this may be a good thing, as although it is always disheartening to lose the more beautiful works of art in any medium, it becomes necessary to move on and find new ways to express new works of art. Not very much comes of trying to ape the styles of the old ballets, which are themselves loosely adapted from still older forms of dance. It is completely understandable why, like oral storytelling for example, some want to make sure the old ways don't die out. It's a one-of-a-kind way to create and experience art. At the same time, if we concentrate too much on what may or may not be lost in any art form, we will miss opportunities to experiment and come up with new ways of expressing ourselves through dance. I find there's a parallel to this in film, as well as music. Many film buffs are currently unsure of what the future holds for films as an art form, understandably as there has been a rash of overly commercial and watered down films as of late that are either derived from older works, based on older works or adapted from other sources that are often superior to their film counterparts. I do not claim to have a definite answer for where film or ballet should go to find new inspiration and life for their respective art forms. I do know this though: neither is going to really "die." And to be honest, bringing it back to the book, I believe that ballet will transform again, not die. I think the only death ballet will see is of its oldest self, which again in my own opinion it may have needed to do a long time ago. There will always be echoes of the old ways of ballet that filter through to present choreographers and dancers productions. I think what ballet is doing right now is struggling to shed its old skin (to use a very tired phrase) without destroying what little remnants of itself it has to refer back to. There should always be a respect for what it has of it's classical past, but clinging so hard to the old ways may be what makes it that much harder to keep up. And now I feel a bit conflicted after writing all that. After all, since ballet's history is (to use the author's words) contained in the dancers' bodies themselves and the dancers are becoming much less connected to the roots of ballet perhaps ballet will cease to exist. I cannot quite say that though without still doubting that. After all, there are now many film recordings that have preserved these dances. These recordings together with ballet masters that still care enough to teach the older styles along with the more contemporary forms, I hope, will at least keep new dancers aware of where ballet came from. I think that, although to those more closely involved with ballet may despair of what the death of Balanchine and twentieth century advancements may mean for classical ballet, I think it's a blessing in disguise. I think what ballet needs right now is as much new blood as possible.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Diana

    Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★ This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated w Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★ This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context. Apollo’s Angels begins its story in France, tracing the very origins of classic ballet. This is probably the most exciting part of the book. The year is 1530, and then 1580, when the ballet de cour flourished. The French royalty championed it, elevating it to the highest display of taste and grace. It is at this time that the dance “was invested with its seriousness…and even religious purpose,…[with people] linking it to French intellectual and political life” [Homans, 2010: 32]. The thing to remember here is that ballet has always been viewed as linked to the social hierarchy and social etiquette. There were certain rules and procedures to be followed in front of a king, and all the graceful and elegant movements, as well as ways to stand in front of the royalty, found its way to the dance. More than that, ballet later had to tell a story and always had to be performed with a mathematical precision, even going so far as to implicitly demonstrate the human connection to the universe and the purpose of life: “at the origins of ballet lay two ideas: the formal mathematical precision of the human body and the universality of human gesture” [Homans, 2010: 135]. “It was the author’s concrete precision – their preoccupation with mapping the length, duration, measure, and geometry of a step – combined with their expansive spiritual aspirations that laid the groundwork for classical dance techniques as we now know [them]” [Homans, 2010: 8]. Homans tells us how Louis XIV made ballet “integral to life at court” [2010: 8], precipitating the popularity of dancing schools. Later, the desire to promote and imitate the French culture meant that ballet spread far and wide, its influence encompassing the whole of the continent of Europe. The famous five positions of Pierre Beauchamps became the ballet’s cornerstones, and the rise of women danseurs also changed the ballet’s structure and performance, with it slowly becoming more of a narrative dance. The author then tells us how the aristocratic root of the ballet became to be challenged, and, with Napoleon as the head of state, the dance became almost militaristic in quality, “in accordance with principles Napoleon legislated across his realm: professional rigour and a meritocratic ethic jointed to military-style discipline” [Homans, 2010: 122]. The Italian commedia dell’ arte would still sometimes find its way into ballet with its coarse jokes and overly-theatrical movements, but the classical ballet was slowing turning into something more serious and refined. The nineteenth century saw the rise in popularity of romanticism, and the romantic imagination found its centre in the ballets of La Sylphide [1832] and Giselle [1841], that are now considered to be the first “modern” ballets. In this period, Italian ballet dancer Marie Taglioni (1804 –1884) became the first person to stand on pointe shoes. “Words….often failed, or else they served as a cover, masking a man’s true feelings. The body, by contrast, could not dissimulate: faced with an anguishing dilemma, the muscles instinctively reacted, twisting the body into positions that conveyed inner torment with greater accuracy and pathos than words could ever muster”, Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 – 1810), a French ballet master. The great thing about Apollo’s Angels is that it not only talks about different ballets in some depth, commenting on their history, but also takes each country in turn and elucidates on its ballet intricacies and social history. In that vein, we read about Carlo Blasis (1797-1878), one of the founders of the Italian school of ballet, and the innovations introduced by Danish ballet-master August Bournonville (1805-1879), who is famous for his La Sylphide and will always be remembered for his “egalitarian” choreography, which does not make major distinctions between male and female roles. Naturally, Homans talks a lot about the Russian ballet, before and after the coming of Marius Petipa, the great French choreographer, in 1847 from Paris to St Petersburg, Russia to “revive” and “revolutionise” the art. Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter [1862], La Bayadere [1877] and The Sleeping Beauty [1890] are still staged today to a great acclaim and public success. New paths in the Russian ballet were also opened thanks to the work of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), the founder of the Ballets Russes, and later, the coming of Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) and her techniques further ensured that the ballet, as envisaged by Marius Petipa, continued to be taught and performed successfully. I cannot agree with Homans’s pessimistic conclusion that the new, younger, generation does not have sufficient interest in ballet so that this dance is preserved and continues into the future. This is certainly not the current position in Russia, where it could even be said that the number of children and young people interested in joining ballet in some capacity grows annually. The fact that the ballet The Nutcracker [1892] continues to be so popular nowadays, with sold tickets often exceeding the capacity, is the testament to the enduring power of ballet, and the fact that it is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future). Although Apollo’s Angels is too long a book and contains too much detail, it is also a very thorough work which makes very important links between ballet and the social and political histories of countries. It is fascinating to learn through this book how the core rules governing ballet remained unchanged since the times long past and this is because ballet as a dance was first born out of strict etiquette and social hierarchy. Seeing it in this vein, it can be said that ballet and history are interchangeable, ballet is history. Thus, it remains very important, and even essential, to preserve this unique and beautiful dance, which remains the most elegant and graceful on this planet.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    This would be a great read for someone who doesn't know much about European history or culture but wants to read a 600-page book about ballet. (Whoever that may be.) As for me, I was frustrated by the chapters I read, passim, looking for as good an evocation of dance as I found in the introduction to the book. Instead I mostly found lengthy discussions of court politics, broad historical trends, and analyses of the music and literature of the day. All of which I'm interested in, but also suffici This would be a great read for someone who doesn't know much about European history or culture but wants to read a 600-page book about ballet. (Whoever that may be.) As for me, I was frustrated by the chapters I read, passim, looking for as good an evocation of dance as I found in the introduction to the book. Instead I mostly found lengthy discussions of court politics, broad historical trends, and analyses of the music and literature of the day. All of which I'm interested in, but also sufficiently well-versed in that I wanted to get to the ballet already. The author's digressive style doesn't just mean that she'll explain the Fronde, or Romanticism, or Peter the Great's program of Westernization--there is also no figure so minor that she will not tell the reader about his or her parents and their background as well. I read quite a bit of this book but it will be due at the library before I finish and I'm not inclined to put another hold on it, so it goes on the abandoned shelf. I would love to read a straight-up history of ballet--if only I could find one.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Duckie

    "Ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastics exercises." - Jennifer Homans. Ouch. Someone's not a fan of acro. "Ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastics exercises." - Jennifer Homans. Ouch. Someone's not a fan of acro.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    This history of ballet is breathtaking in the scope of its research. More than the story of the dancers and choreographers, it places the dance form in the larger context of the times and societies in which it originated and evolved. From the French court to revolutionary Russia to modernist New York, the author takes a deep look at the meaning of ballet and what it reflects about the culture that it represents. She addresses why such an aristocratic art form could establish itself so firmly in This history of ballet is breathtaking in the scope of its research. More than the story of the dancers and choreographers, it places the dance form in the larger context of the times and societies in which it originated and evolved. From the French court to revolutionary Russia to modernist New York, the author takes a deep look at the meaning of ballet and what it reflects about the culture that it represents. She addresses why such an aristocratic art form could establish itself so firmly in totalitarian Russia as well as in America’s Puritan ethic. The illustrations are well-chosen to illustrate ballet as a historical process.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    To my surprise, this appears to be the first general history of ballet ever written. That's a real shame, because as Homans shows, ballet is more than just another slowly dying elite artform like opera. Not only is it intimately linked to the other cornerstones of Western culture like music, theater, and film, it continues to set the standard for demonstrating how the movement of the body can produce beauty. You don't have to be a ballet fanatic to enjoy this book, but some familiarity helps, as To my surprise, this appears to be the first general history of ballet ever written. That's a real shame, because as Homans shows, ballet is more than just another slowly dying elite artform like opera. Not only is it intimately linked to the other cornerstones of Western culture like music, theater, and film, it continues to set the standard for demonstrating how the movement of the body can produce beauty. You don't have to be a ballet fanatic to enjoy this book, but some familiarity helps, as she deeply explores the history of the form; its artistic movements; the cultural influence of France, Italy, and especially Russia; the major composers, choreographers, and dancers; and of course the actual ballets themselves, explaining much of the symbolism that a layman like myself would not have noticed otherwise. Homans danced with George Balanchine's School of American Ballet for several years, and so her intimate understanding of ballet's appeal to both the head and the heart is apparent on every page, and even though she writes with sadness of the passing of ballet's glory years, your "to watch" list will still be quite large after finishing. My own history with ballet is basically limited to seeing performances of The Nutcracker at Christmas when I was a kid, although I have a fairly extensive musical background. I was in marching band in high school, which gave me an appreciation for the difficulty involved in coordinating many people's motions to produce an aesthetic effect, we performed many pieces which were originally written to accompany ballets, and as a big classical music fan I've always loved many of the scores to famous ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, or The Firebird. What originally led to me this book, though, was reading Andrei Tarkovsky's autobiography Sculpting in Time, with his opinionated ranting about the purity of film. Since I've always thought of film as a composite art form (usually requiring not only camera work itself but also screenwriting, makeup, costuming, scenery, lighting, music, sound effects, editing, etc), I immediately thought to contrast film with another art form that also involves many of the same elements, but I realized I didn't actually know anything about ballet as an art form itself. Since only being familiar with the score to a ballet is like only having heard the soundtrack to a movie, I figured it was best to actually read something about it. Homans talks about the dances, but also the men and women who put them on, and what animated them. Dancing itself is of course older than civilization, but ballet as we understand it dates from the 16th century, as Catherine de Medici imported some of her native Italian culture of dance to her new home in France when she became Queen. Initially centered around the French royal court, it gradually absorbed more popular influences and spread across Europe and the rest of the world due to the force of French prestige. Interestingly, the conventions of ballet were very male-dominated for a long time, since monarchs like Louis XIV used dancing skill as a way to control their courts, where poor form could lead to embarrassment or even demotion. Women's roles gained more importance later on, as ballets like Giselle or La Sylphide, which prominently featured what we now think of as the beautiful, graceful, feminine ballerina, became popular, but at first ballet was an inward, aristocratic art which wasn't so strongly focused on drama and narrative. That association of ballet with elites both helped and hurt it: ballet can be very expensive to create and perform, so appealing to the tastes of the rich and powerful was a practical necessity. However, that elevated position not only left ballet perilously exposed to political turbulence, it also left it in an uneasy artistic dialogue with other art forms like pantomime, which could claim more popular appeal, even if ballet has had the more lasting appeal precisely because of its association with the aristocracy. Elite-driven nationalism has played a large role in ballet from the beginning. While France made the art glamorous, particularly once the ballerina became an icon of beauty, it didn't own the art exclusively and in fact for a time Vienna rivaled Paris as an artistic center, particularly because of its traditional dominance in classical music. Dancers like Marie Taglioni, born in Stockholm to an Italian choreographer, perfecting her art in Vienna, before moving on to Paris, were emblematic of how the art crossed national boundaries as each country attempted to one-up its rivals. There's a chapter on Danish and Scandinavian ballet that makes this clear: choreographer August Bournonville, who had a French father and mastered dancing in Paris, returned to his native Copenhagen to lead the Danish Royal Ballet, even as the French Romantic style, as exemplified by his version of La Sylphide, continued to be his ideal. Yet even as he worked to create a Danish idiom modeled on the French one, the work he felt most passionate about was Napoli, whose exotic rendering of Italian dancing styles was based on a romanticized memory of a vacation to Naples. Yet despite this attempt to absorb foreign influence, the end of his life was marked by an increasing artistic conservativism. However, his rigid aesthetic did in fact give Denmark a distinct style, which it might not have had without his nationalism. Even Hans Christian Andersen was encouraged to become a ballet dancer (Bournonville suggested his concentrate on his writing instead). That entanglement of politics and dance is most prominent in the Russian chapters, but it applies to Italy as well. The chapter in Italian ballet raises and answers a great question I'd never thought of before: why did Italy, which produced many great operas, not produce much great ballet, and then mainly through expatriates and their descendants like Marie Taglioni? Homans' answer is that turmoil in Italy's fragmented political structure at crucial moments in the history of ballet were crippling for its ability to grow its own traditions, and that of the higher arts ballet was uniquely vulnerable due to its lack of a universal written notation to preserve dances, efforts by Pierre Beauchamp and Raoul-Auger Feuillet notwithstanding. Whereas it's easy to preserve the score to an opera or symphony and then reconstitute an orchestra to play it, the same is not true with a ballet and its dancers: a ballet's steps are primarily passed down from dancer to dancer, and therefore much more vulnerable to the ravages of time (hence the great importance and influence of "schools" under particular instructors). Countries like France had centralized aristocracies to preserve favored forms, but as each Italian principality underwent revolution or invasion in the 18th and 19th centuries, they had fewer resources to preserve dances, instructors, traditions, etc. So even though in good times ballets used to be performed right alongside operas, after the revolutionary chaos died down the ballets didn't come back. Russia, of course, escaped this post-revolutionary artistic death in a peculiar way. Though ballet has many classical Greco-Roman aspects to it (hence the book's title, a reference to the 9 Muses), and was primarily French for several centuries, the Francophile Russians eventually came to own the artform due to Imperial patronage and the relentless pressure to make Russia a world power. There's a fascinating discussion of how choreographers like Marius Petipa, originally from France, and composers like Pyotr Tchaikovsky struggled with the idealized native Russian culture and the European influences they were attempting to absorb and transcend (this same conflict was famously fictionalized in Tolstoy's War and Peace). For example, here's one short section about artistic innovation in Sleeping Beauty, one of the most enduring of the Russian ballets: "Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind - he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work - but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky's music, the ballerina's balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will." A confluence of skilled dancers, talented choreographers, and inventive musicians ensured that the pre-revolutionary ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and more have defined ballet for most modern aficionados. However, after the Communist revolution the art had the same issues with censorship as all others. The section on the refusal of Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes company to return to the country after 1917 reminded me strongly of Richard Stites' Revolutionary Dreams, where many talented authors who were full of enthusiasm for revolution and progress in the abstract were eventually ground down by the horror of the actual revolutionary government. This artistic turmoil only intensified in the Stalin years, even though being a ballet dancer in the USSR carried great prestige and privileges. Homans explains what that pressure from the leadership meant to the dancers (the discussions of the artistic differences between the Western-minded Leningrad-based Kirov Theater and the more nativist Moscow-based Bolshoi are very interesting), but she never forgets to return to the dancing. Take her explanation of the appeal of Maya Plisetskaya versus her artistic rival Galina Ulanova: "As a performer, Plisetskaya excelled in the hard-edged, technically demanding roles that Ulanova eschewed: Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote. She never danced the role of Giselle ("something in me opposed it, resisted, argued with it"), but instead played the iron-willed queen of the wilis. She was also the jealous, seductive harem girl - not the "good" Maria - in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. Physically this made sense: Plisetskaya was beefy and strong, with thick legs and a muscular back. Stylistically, her movements were hard and unyielding, never elegant or polite. Her technique was raw but powerful - she lacked the refinement of the Kirov school, but could save a step or pull herself back into alignment from a dangerously off-balance position by dint of sheer force. Films of Plisetskaya's performances show her throwing herself into dancing with an abandon few ballerinas would dare, and in her sharp light, Ulanova's restrained purity can take on the paler glow of piety. She was brazen and often moved with questionable taste. "I knew some things, others I stole, some I figured out myself, took advice, blundered through. And it was all haphazard, random." But there was also something appealing about her garishness: she was unpretentious, refreshing, direct. She did not hold back." While Plisetskaya, like the majority of ballet artists, stayed in the Soviet Union, many of them availed themselves of the time-honored option of so many Russians throughout history, and simply left. This was bad for Russian ballet, but great for world ballet: "There was a certain poetic logic to the situation: if the Russians had spent the better part of the nineteenth century absorbing French and Italian ballet and making it Russian, the Europeans in turn spent the twentieth century absorbing Russian ballet and making it their own. The twentieth century in dance did not belong to the Soviets, but it did belong to the Russians - not at home, but in exile in the West." I had known vaguely of some British connection to ballet - chiefly that the great economist John Maynard Keynes had married a ballerina - but Homans' treatment of how the postwar British government promoted ballet as a classical art was quite revealing, both in how different the modern version of "creating a national ballet culture" worked in the 20th century than the 19th, and also in showing how personal the connection to ballet was for Keynes and the rest of his circle. Ballet is a highly sensual art, not only for the performers but also for the viewers, and the sexual fluidity of the elite Bloomsbury Circle that Keynes was a member of juxtaposed with the high-minded rhetoric about encouraging public appreciation for the arts is amusing but also enlightening, especially in how it was reflected in the dancers themselves, who always seem to have had fairly eventful sex lives. Ballet was beginning to take on its modern form of a primarily female audience (the loss of many male dancers to the draft in World War 2 seems to have permanently altered ballet's appeal and fanbase in the West), yet the primarily male members of the British elite still thought of it as a valuable cultural patrimony. Unfortunately, they were fighting against an unseen cultural revolution, and though they managed to produce forces like Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, and Kenneth MacMillan, the grim malaise of the Thatcher years would soon permanently steal the energy from British ballet. It was different in the United States. Homans spends by far the most time discussing the American ballet scene and its works, not only because of her personal connection to George Balanchine, but because even though the Soviet Union bragged about its dominance, it was continually shedding many of its greatest talents to America. While she does talk about American attempts to fashion a homegrown ballet culture, the US had the most success in either adapting foreign talent to American themes (e.g. West Side Story) or following their own artistic voices (e.g. most of Balanchine's oeuvre). She's particularly insightful about Balanchine's more modern dances like Agon, with their abstract themes, lack of narrative, and unconventional dances. That rejection of the traditional in the pursuit of situating the heritage of ballet in a contemporary context perhaps explains his attitude towards explanation of his works: "Must everything be defined by words?" he once complained. "When you place flowers on a table, are you affirming or denying or disproving anything? You like flowers because they are beautiful.... I only wish to prove the dance by dancing." That "res ipsa loquitur" philosophy makes for a neat contrast to that of Lincoln Kirstein, with Balanchine a cofounder of the New York City Ballet: "In dance, he despised what he took to be the self-indulgent excesses of Romanticism - exemplified by the nightly "ritual suicides" of diva ballerinas in Giselle - and was equally unforgiving of contemporary American modern dance, which seemed to him a flagrant display of ego masquerading as art; Martha Graham's dances, he once said, were "a cross between shitting and belching." He would similarly scoff at abstract expressionism in painting, seeing in it a willful rejection of the skill and tradition that he took to be the premise of artistic endeavor. Representation and the human figure, he insisted, were the ground zero of Western art. Classical ballet seemed to stand for everything that Kirstein cared about." Unfortunately, as the melancholy epilogue opines, ballet seems to be a dying art, or at least to be in a hibernation period until it becomes popular again (yes, she uses the Sleeping Beauty metaphor). I wish she would have discussed hard numbers - she doesn't quote company revenues, attendance figures, or dance class enrollment statistics - but I think she's right that ballet has in many ways become limited to what I experienced, namely Christmas trips to see The Nutcracker. One reason that Shakespeare has lasted so long is that actors love him since he gives them such good lines, but the same isn't true for dance: as the old choreographers die off, it's hard to dance their old steps. Modern technology solves the notation problem by allowing for recordings of steps and choreography, yet that can paradoxically freeze the art in time, which isn't the right answer either. I'm not sure whether ballet is still as lively as ever or if it's like Frank Zappa once said about jazz, that "it's not dead, it just smells funny". But a true fan should have hope. Zappa is also often credited with the line that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", and though to my knowledge no one ever took up the challenge of writing a ballet about Art Deco or the International Style, it turns out that it's perfectly possible to write about dance with insight, appreciation, and grace. Nothing replaces seeing a performance, but Homans does her best to explain dance, its history, and why it matters.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ilana

    ★★★★½ —From April 2011 and probably in need of editing; will revise later — 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. The second part of the book is almost entirely dedicated to the Russians, starti ★★★★½ —From April 2011 and probably in need of editing; will revise later — 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. 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. 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. 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    The Library Lady

    As someone who has been in love with ballet all my life and who dances (badly) twice a week, I wanted to love this book. But I didn't. For a book on ballet, it has very little on the actual physical dance itself. I challenge you to find actual ballet terms in French mentioned in most chapters. There is very little on the clothing that is the essence of ballet. How the heck can you write a book about the history of ballet and brush past the development of the pointe shoe, that icon of ballet, or g As someone who has been in love with ballet all my life and who dances (badly) twice a week, I wanted to love this book. But I didn't. For a book on ballet, it has very little on the actual physical dance itself. I challenge you to find actual ballet terms in French mentioned in most chapters. There is very little on the clothing that is the essence of ballet. How the heck can you write a book about the history of ballet and brush past the development of the pointe shoe, that icon of ballet, or go into how it is used? And I looked in the index for the word "leotard" and realized that while Homans mentions them in describing costumes, she doesn't talk of how they became the dancer's standard garment. At all. Its history is impeccable and I learned a great deal, especially about the early days of ballet--never knew of its origins at the courts of France! And I give credit to Homans for giving enough historical background to explain the settings and evolution without going way off track. But this lacks humor, the little touches that bring historical figures to life. It has none of the joy And it ends with a sour declaration that ballet is a dying art.Perhaps Homans' cynical view colors her writing and makes this such a heartless book. I suggest instead of reading this that you watch some of the great, if cheesy ballet movies. "The Red Shoes" will bring the time of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to life. "The Children of Theatre Street" is a splendid documentary on Soviet Russia's ballet schools. "The Turning Point" is hokey, but it gives you a behind the scenes look at ballet, and Baryshnikov dancing in it makes up for the flaws. And "The Company" by Robert Altman shows a Joffrey Ballet company of modern times. I'm going to watch them all, and revive my love of ballet. After I go to class tomorrow, that is....

  14. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    I was so eager to read this book but by the end I was completely bored with it. Yes, it's a history of ballet, but I don't really have a better understanding of the art, even after 550 oversized pages. There was lots of talk of technique and steps, etc, but as a reader I had no baseline understanding of any of these things so I had no idea how they adapted or changed, depending upon the era or artist being discussed. I'm not a dancer, but I appreciate dance and love attending the ballet. The aut I was so eager to read this book but by the end I was completely bored with it. Yes, it's a history of ballet, but I don't really have a better understanding of the art, even after 550 oversized pages. There was lots of talk of technique and steps, etc, but as a reader I had no baseline understanding of any of these things so I had no idea how they adapted or changed, depending upon the era or artist being discussed. I'm not a dancer, but I appreciate dance and love attending the ballet. The author claims ballet is a dying art in her conclusion, and after all of that text I almost felt grateful. Just kidding, I hope it's not true, but I was so glad this book was over when I finished it!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eva Stachniak

    What a great book. A story of the ballet written by a gifted dancer and a historian. Each page delights and enlightens. It is a book to cherish, learn from and delight in.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sonja

    Absolutely spectacular. A joy to read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    [B]allet took its identity from the aristocracy: without the weight and example of a court or nobility behind it, ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastic exercises. Yep, folks, you heard it here. Ballet is for the rich, with the poor serving as easily abused clay. That's all. Everyone go home. Anyway, it's amazing how political a so called historian can be so long as they're sucking up to the right person. Homans has little consideration for consistenc [B]allet took its identity from the aristocracy: without the weight and example of a court or nobility behind it, ballet training could easily lapse into a narrow and meaningless set of gymnastic exercises. Yep, folks, you heard it here. Ballet is for the rich, with the poor serving as easily abused clay. That's all. Everyone go home. Anyway, it's amazing how political a so called historian can be so long as they're sucking up to the right person. Homans has little consideration for consistency, whether it be in analytical style or methodology of academia or simple opinion, and my god, does she have a lot of opinions. The further one goes, the more impossible it is to read up on decent, no bones about it historical material, as Homans becomes increasingly caught up in passing judgment on this artist and that movement and this ethnicity and that nation, often hypocritically, often hatefully, often in the sort of middle of the road posing that brown noses so much that the nonfictional thread is weighed down in a morass of obsequeious rants, unqualified adulation, and a general swamp of adjectives thrown willy nilly in the sort of attempted direction of opinion that good historians may not completely refrain from, but at least don't allow such to serve as the majority of their text. I give one star more than the baseline for mentions of Maria Tallchief (insultingly brief), Nijinsky, Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, and a general sort of history that is at least long enough to be somewhat comprehensive, if not in a thoroughly vetted sense. It just goes to show: rise high enough, and nothing you write in the vein of history needs to be history. Just have enough strung together facts, lots of pretty pretty pictures, and a wealth of incongruous and self entitled judgment, and away you go. She is the pink-tights-and-toes-shoes ballerina of girlish dreams—and feminist nightmares. Pretty remarks are part of why this book's not going to last for very long. I got decently valuable bits and pieces out of it, much as I do out of anything I persist to the point of completition of, but this mining process was heavily interfered with by Homans vacillating between one opinion pool and another, cultivating the conservatives at one point, the liberals on another, the poor in one section, the rich in another, the heteronormativity in on period, queerness in another (where someone can at least be bisexual, which means Homans should not be allowed within at least fifty feet of any queer person), and on and on to an absolutist scathing degree targeted at the unfortunate antagonist of the chapter, either focusing or glossing over inordinately across the board depending on the country, the century, the gender, and who, literally came out on top in ballet canon. That end point was what really dictated Homans' attention span, along with a general bad faith ignorance when it came to the persistent issues of economic inequality as inevitable result of capitalism, antisemitism, and patriarchal abuse that made the ballet into the gilded monster of yesteryear and today. The really unforgiveable note, though, is how Homans sits back at the end and complains about it dying all around her, when she'd likely have the exact same attitude during the early 20th c., or the 19th, or the 18th, or even back at the very beginning of the development of what would be known as ballet, for the simple reason that, when she's not imbibing the positive judgments of the higher ups, the only critical thing she's capable of doing is whining. Anyone can see that the white, rich, hateful, and abusive architecture that for so long formed the crux of ballet was destined to peter out in impotent rehashings of the same old sadisms. It's the ultimate destination for any art that uses and abuses the vulnerable and thinks it sustains itself by anything other than money and invested time. ...poorly educated and ill-suited to lead an art... I'm fine with reading opinions. Indeed, I concern myself with reading them every single day, as the knowledge that my unconscious solipsism translates directly to potential deadly violence means such enforced attention payment is a must. What I'm not fine with is polemical brutality disguised as impartial nonfiction, a gleeful apologism decrying all who don't fit or refuse to fit, founding in the sort of decrepit malaise that marks the end of any pompous bigot whose life was spent in the service of believing itself worth more than others. In other words, disappointing. If I wanted to watch a bunch of hateful shitwads trying to outrun their chickens coming home to roost, I'd watch Fox News. Tudor was known for breaking his dancers emotionally. He did this largely through humiliation, with cutting personal attacks that pulled dancers into a spiral of self-hatred[;] it was a deliberate strategy. This is why we can't have nice things.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    This book ends on a mournful note, the ballerina staring wistfully back to the stage, as she exits stage left. The great composers who lived for the ballet are gone, the great ballet makers have left us, and ballet itself must soon take its final bow. However, as anyone who has seen a ballet will know, that final bow, can last as long as the closing act. The curtain swooshing open to reveal yet another artless arrangement of dancers, thanking us for our patronage. That final chapter of ballet lea This book ends on a mournful note, the ballerina staring wistfully back to the stage, as she exits stage left. The great composers who lived for the ballet are gone, the great ballet makers have left us, and ballet itself must soon take its final bow. However, as anyone who has seen a ballet will know, that final bow, can last as long as the closing act. The curtain swooshing open to reveal yet another artless arrangement of dancers, thanking us for our patronage. That final chapter of ballet leaving the party, glass slipper in hand, although sad, is but a small piece of this amazing book setting ballet in context with French, Italian, Danish, and Russian history. Setting the famous defections in place, extolling the connection between music, dance and politics, and giving me a taste of the history of this art and training that I've chosen to dedicate a large portion of my free time to.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Aoi

    Attempting to write a comprehensive history about the evolution of ballet is a daunting task; and Ms.Homans acquits herself in grand style. A note though: at 700 pages, this is a fairly detailed read, and it may not appeal much to readers unfamiliar with the ballet world. The authorsketches the tale of ballet from its earliest origins in the European courts- its blossoming under the patronage of Louis the Sun King, the athletic rough-and-tumble style of the Italians, its maturing to be an indepen Attempting to write a comprehensive history about the evolution of ballet is a daunting task; and Ms.Homans acquits herself in grand style. A note though: at 700 pages, this is a fairly detailed read, and it may not appeal much to readers unfamiliar with the ballet world. The authorsketches the tale of ballet from its earliest origins in the European courts- its blossoming under the patronage of Louis the Sun King, the athletic rough-and-tumble style of the Italians, its maturing to be an independant performing art under the Imperialist Russians. We delve deeper into the influence of ballet on the cultural world- exploring its ties to literature and opera. And ofcourse as no history would be complete without including the lives and careers of the great dancers who revolutionized this art- Taglioni, Pavlova, Nuruyev, Diaghilev. A beautiful, very well done piece of work. Do give this a read even if you have a passing interest in ballet- you will be fascinated at every turn..

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elena

    In 1978, with some trepidation, my friend and I got rather expensive (for us) tickets to the production of Ashton's "La Fille mal gardée" at the San Francisco Ballet. What if it was embarrassingly pompous or worse, wobbly? The curtain went up and revealed a line of fluffy, delicately dancing chickens, followed by a charming story told without words but with humor and empathy, refined precision with a light touch. It was perfect. We bought season tickets and especially enjoyed the spectacular "Nu In 1978, with some trepidation, my friend and I got rather expensive (for us) tickets to the production of Ashton's "La Fille mal gardée" at the San Francisco Ballet. What if it was embarrassingly pompous or worse, wobbly? The curtain went up and revealed a line of fluffy, delicately dancing chickens, followed by a charming story told without words but with humor and empathy, refined precision with a light touch. It was perfect. We bought season tickets and especially enjoyed the spectacular "Nutcracker." The San Francisco Ballet, starting with the Christensen brothers, really was and is spectacular, I just didn't know why. After reading Homans's history of ballet, I now know that Ashton pastoral dance from the British Royal Ballet was quietly rebelling against the brutalism of postwar avant garde and the cheesiness of hippy art. And how Ashton, born in Ecuador and raised in Peru, took a form originating in Louis XIV's court, perpetuated after the French Revolution by the Danes and the Russians, and then re-imagined it in a 17th century French ballet, that had been mostly lost, within an English aesthetic. Well you just have to read the book. Homans is a trained dancer herself, learned from Russian emigres, and also is a trained historian. She is extraordinarily articulate about an art form that is able to convey complex emotions and narratives without words, possibly better than with words. And she follows the five-centuries-long development of gestures, positions, arabesques, carriage, poise, -- and correlates each artist's contribution with the demands of his or her era. No surprise, then, that the book is long. There are long sections on Italian pantomime, French court rituals, Bournonville in Denmark, Petipa in Russia, Pavlova in Russia and in exile, Diaghilev in exile...The big reward for staying with the 500 year narrative is the last two chapters, primarily on George Balanchine in New York. "Must everything be defined by words?" Balanchine complains, "I only wish to prove the dance by dancing." Homans sees Balanchine's orthodox religion with its mute but expressive icons, and long glorious ceremonies, as the springboard for his art. He hated it, she explains when "critics referred to his 'creations': 'God creates, I assemble.'" Words have an after life with text on paper; paintings and sculptures have tangible form, but dance is ephemeral, in real time only. Dance notations are incomplete, and modern video flattens the three dimensions into just two. It is an art from that has to be perpetuated in the bodies and muscles of real dancers who teach each new generation, and the chain of ballet has continued, in one country or another, from one dancer to another for centuries. Until now. In the epilogue Homans complains that ballet is dying out. She hopes she is wrong. I do, too. And I should not complain that the most complete history of ballet, at 642 pages in length, is still not quite complete. There is only a brief footnote that the first full length "Nutcracker" in the United States was staged, not by Balanchine, but by Christensen, -- in San Francisco. And the San Francisco Ballet was the first in the US to get permission to perform the full version of Ashton's "La Fille mal gardée" in 1978.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    An enjoyable, thorough (700 pp) review of the history of ballet--accessible even to someone as unversed in the technical language of dance as I (who cannot tell an arabesque from a plie). While the descriptions of the dances and productions themselves didn't always focus on the specifics that I was curious about, I felt that the author did a fine job of conveying features and changes of note, and I felt that I had a good grasp of the evolution of dance when I was done. The most interesting featu An enjoyable, thorough (700 pp) review of the history of ballet--accessible even to someone as unversed in the technical language of dance as I (who cannot tell an arabesque from a plie). While the descriptions of the dances and productions themselves didn't always focus on the specifics that I was curious about, I felt that the author did a fine job of conveying features and changes of note, and I felt that I had a good grasp of the evolution of dance when I was done. The most interesting feature to me was Homans setting of dance within its wider cultural milieus, and showing how it was a mirror of the social mores, etiquettes and attitudes of its time. Rarely have I heard as thorough and a convincing portrait of art as commentary on society, and a living, vibrant conversation between culture and art. Recommended for those interested in the history of art and of ballet specifically.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Katie Sweet

    “Apollo’s Angels” is an extremely well written history of ballet with an extensive bibliography and author’s notes. The book starts in fifteenth century France with the creation of ballet. It details the reason why ballet was created- to bridge the spiritual gap between humans and angels- and how it gained popularity- in the royal courts of Louis XIV. Ballet was seen as a courtly art during these times, however, due to its many similarities to fencing, it was also used during military training. “Apollo’s Angels” is an extremely well written history of ballet with an extensive bibliography and author’s notes. The book starts in fifteenth century France with the creation of ballet. It details the reason why ballet was created- to bridge the spiritual gap between humans and angels- and how it gained popularity- in the royal courts of Louis XIV. Ballet was seen as a courtly art during these times, however, due to its many similarities to fencing, it was also used during military training. But as the art evolved, ballet lost its similarities to fencing and instead, merged with opera. In the early 160s, the Paris Opéra was founded. It staged both ballets and operas, and quickly monopolized the rest of the French theaters. This caused lots of change. Previously, ballet had only been for men of high-blood, but as the Opéra grew, more women were allowed into the ranks of dancers. The women were mostly commoners and worked as prostitutes in addition to their dancing jobs. It was during this time that other types of ballet began to form around Europe. The English did not approve of French ballets, so they created their own form of English ballet. The Italians created a type of ballet that was very gymnastic-like and full of tricks and acrobatics. The Danes preferred a more reserved type of dancing that conveyed a story. “Apollo’s Angels” goes into depth about notable figures for each of these types of ballet, before moving on to Russian ballet. Russian ballet started in the Imperial Courts, and is the most similar to the type of ballet we see today. Although many of the early French ballets have been lost, we have better records of Russian ballet and technical. “Apollo’s Angels” focuses mainly on the Cecchetti method and the Vaganova method. It compares and contrasts the two techniques and provides details about the origins of each one. Finally, the book moves into twentieth century ballet. It talks about Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine and their contributions to ballet, before ending with a final summary about the evolution of ballet. In my opinion, “Apollo’s Angels” would be a wonderful book for anyone who loves history or ballet to read, however they must be willing to dedicate lots of time and thought to it. I enjoyed some parts of the book and learned a lot, but got impatient with all the details in other parts and struggled to stay focused. I am used to reading books for entertainment, and found the factuality of “Apollo’s Angels” a bit dry. Reading it did make me realize, though, that I need to diversify the genres of books I read and find more challenging ones. “Apollo’s Angels” was definitely a challenge- it contained many words from the SAT Vocabulary Lists and was full of historical information. If I were to reread “Apollo’s Angels” in the future, I think I would enjoy it a lot more; I simply was not ready for such scholarly nonfiction when I read it last month.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alana Gale

    This book was more than two stars for me because it certainly did contain a very thorough, detailed history of ballet, and it did make me think about the intersectionality of science, art, and storytelling present in ballet, as well as the tension between elite dance and art accessible to all. However, at points it read too much like a textbook to continue engaging me. And more importantly, I wasn’t convinced by the author’s suggestion that ballet is a dying art. After spending 12 chapters expla This book was more than two stars for me because it certainly did contain a very thorough, detailed history of ballet, and it did make me think about the intersectionality of science, art, and storytelling present in ballet, as well as the tension between elite dance and art accessible to all. However, at points it read too much like a textbook to continue engaging me. And more importantly, I wasn’t convinced by the author’s suggestion that ballet is a dying art. After spending 12 chapters explaining how different generations of dancers and choreographers thought ballet was dying as an art, and then explaining how they were all wrong and ballet continued in a newly expanded form, she offers us a conclusion where she insists ballet may be falling into obscurity. The irony, seemingly missed by her, was something I couldn’t ignore. In any case, at least I can walk away with more knowledge about ballet to inform me as I continue to seek out performances of an art that I still find utterly compelling.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    A wonderful history of ballet, well written and entertaining. The author quotes Theophile Gautier " The very essence of ballet is poetic, deriving from dreams rather than from reality. About the only reason for its existence is to enable us to remain in the world of fantasy and escape from the people we rub shoulders with in the street. Ballets are the dreams of poets taken seriously."

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    Homans has written an amazing comprehensive history of ballet. I mostly appreciated the clear history she told between ballet and politics. Homans succinctly tells not just the story of ballet but the story of nations and how art is used for political gains as well as communal enrichment. This text illustrates how ballet and dance in general reflects our collective psychology and pushes us towards a future imagination. My only misgiving is what appeared to me a contradiction in Homans point of vi Homans has written an amazing comprehensive history of ballet. I mostly appreciated the clear history she told between ballet and politics. Homans succinctly tells not just the story of ballet but the story of nations and how art is used for political gains as well as communal enrichment. This text illustrates how ballet and dance in general reflects our collective psychology and pushes us towards a future imagination. My only misgiving is what appeared to me a contradiction in Homans point of view concerning ballet as an influencer of other dance forms and its ability to evolve. In chapter 10 Homans rips Kenneth McMillan's choreographic choices apart, stating: "He wanted ballet to be brutal and realistic, a theatrical art that could capture a generation's dissalusionment.... Instead of pushing ballet in new directions, he revealed its fundamental limits-... Classical ballet is an art of formal principles; take those away and it disintegrates into crude pantomime. " She then contradicts this statement in the following chapter with; "...ballet was the more radically experimental art. It is no accident that modern dancers were becoming increasingly serious students of ballet, which they saw not just as a base of technique but also a source of innovation" This last statement completely leaves out the serious advancements of other dance forms without which ballet would not have been able to evolve. Modern dance was a direct statement against ballet as the central base for dance technique AND an answer to ballet's rigid limitations. Without the modern dance pioneers there would be no contemporary ballet. It was Isadora Duncan who inspired Fokine and Nijinsky to try new things; Duncan turned Nijinsky into a contemporary choreographer. It was Laban who made it possible for William Forsythe to forge new technical pathways in ballet; ballet will never be the same again. Balanchine would not have been the iconic ballet choreographer revered today if it were not for jazz dance and African-American dancers and choreographers who gave him new knowledge about the body's movement potential. Ballet is indebted to modern, contemporary, and cultural dance forms, not the other way around. For this white gaze faux pas, I give this book 4 stars.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lise Petrauskas

    Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans is excellent. It's definitely for people who are interested in the vocabulary of dance, but it's a very interesting history of Europe from the 15th century onward. Ballet started out as a court art and it transformed itself so fascinatingly through the French Revolution and onward to the present day.* To think that what began with Louis XIV was somehow to become the feather in the cap and pet project of Josef Stalin is pretty remarkable. It Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans is excellent. It's definitely for people who are interested in the vocabulary of dance, but it's a very interesting history of Europe from the 15th century onward. Ballet started out as a court art and it transformed itself so fascinatingly through the French Revolution and onward to the present day.* To think that what began with Louis XIV was somehow to become the feather in the cap and pet project of Josef Stalin is pretty remarkable. It's the only discussion of its kind about ballet and I love the way it immersed me in history. (Peeve #1: an extreme over-use of the terms "on the contrary" and "by contrast" and other such dissertation-like phrases. They almost always worked to make things clearer for me, and the writing was not overly scholarly by any means, but I noticed it, and it started to bug me.) (Peeve #2: I read this in both audio book and tree book form. The narrator of the audio book was simply horrible at pronouncing French and Italian, which were crucial not only in terms of ballet but also place names and historical figures, etc. It was so bad as to be seriously distracting. By contrast, she was pretty good at pronouncing Russian names. Heh, see what I did there?) *Unbiased this author is not, though, and she leaves us with a super bummer ending in which she declares that in her view, ballet is dead. I agree with her about its current decline, but I also wonder how someone who spent so much time researching and recounting how ballet "died" and then came back renewed at different different times and in different places over the course of the last five centuries can have no imagination about how ballet might restore itself in the future.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    The hype has been that Homans says ballet is dead (or in a deep sleep) but that’s totally beside the point - it’s not the story she tells. Not only is Apollo’s Angels authoritative and definitive, it’s also the first written history of ballet as a whole. Homans is in a good position to write it, she’s dance critic for the National Review. She was a professional dancer who danced with a number of first class US ballet companies and with a wide range in her repertoire. She is also a PhD in Modern The hype has been that Homans says ballet is dead (or in a deep sleep) but that’s totally beside the point - it’s not the story she tells. Not only is Apollo’s Angels authoritative and definitive, it’s also the first written history of ballet as a whole. Homans is in a good position to write it, she’s dance critic for the National Review. She was a professional dancer who danced with a number of first class US ballet companies and with a wide range in her repertoire. She is also a PhD in Modern European history from New York University where she teaches the history of dance. She knows her stuff. The book starts with the statement that ballet has come to an end. She ends the book with the statement that ballet has come to an end. What falls between is everything that happened from the marriage of Henry II to Catherine de Medici in 1533 when the history of ballet begins, to the death of Balanchine in 1983. Homans moves from the origins in Renaissance France to the developments of the Enlightenment, the storm of the French Revolution, the acrobatics of Italy, the preservation in Denmark, Russia before, during and after their Revolution, the English revival, Balanchine’s America and finally, an Epilogue - the end of ballet as we’ve known it she says - and she backs this claim. The book is incredibly well researched and documented. It’s easy to read if you’re interested and have some small background. The wonder is that it’s Homans’ first book - but maybe the book she was meant to write. I don’t know if I agree with Homans about the state of ballet today or not. Ballet has changed so much in the last 500 years that I really think a dry spell of 25 or so years makes it a bit too early to tell.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dara Salley

    This book is fun for those who would like to read an exhaustive (~600 page) history of ballet. I have a feeling that statement eliminates at least 90% of readers. If you’re still tuned in, this book is a gem. In the forward the authors states that she is a retired ballerina. No offense, but I had no idea ballerinas were so eloquent. Jennifer Homans takes an enormous amount of information and turns it into a (mostly) coherent narrative. The history of ballet encompasses political, economic, socia This book is fun for those who would like to read an exhaustive (~600 page) history of ballet. I have a feeling that statement eliminates at least 90% of readers. If you’re still tuned in, this book is a gem. In the forward the authors states that she is a retired ballerina. No offense, but I had no idea ballerinas were so eloquent. Jennifer Homans takes an enormous amount of information and turns it into a (mostly) coherent narrative. The history of ballet encompasses political, economic, social and cultural history in Europe, Russia and the US over a period of hundreds of years. Personally, I wouldn’t know where to begin but Homans proves equal to the task. I would say that what I got most out of this book is a better appreciation for the various famous ballets that are often performed. I now know the cultural origins of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Giselle, which will give me a fuller experience when viewing them. I also know more about some ballets that are less familiar to me, like Balanchine’s Jewels. I never had much interest in seeing that ballet, I thought it was too abstract, but now I’d like to see it. Homans ends on a pretty dour note, proclaiming the death of ballet. She says that there hasn’t been a groundbreaking ballet, dancer or choreographer since Balanchine died in the 80’s. Ballet companies just recycle the same old stuff. She says that ballet’s ideals of subtlety and gentility are out of sync with the modern age. It’s hard to argue with that but as her book proves, ballet has a habit of coming back and meaning knew things to different generations. There’s always hope.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    An astonishing achievement, read it from cover to cover and then bought the audio version which I dip into regularly. A massive sweep from the origins to the present day of the development of ballet, it's not the perfect history, there are glaring omissions in the sections on British ballet and some countries are bypassed altogether, and I don't agree with everything she says. For instance, my bug bear: Kenneth MacMillan is dealt with way too superficially and dismissively - the man was a troubl An astonishing achievement, read it from cover to cover and then bought the audio version which I dip into regularly. A massive sweep from the origins to the present day of the development of ballet, it's not the perfect history, there are glaring omissions in the sections on British ballet and some countries are bypassed altogether, and I don't agree with everything she says. For instance, my bug bear: Kenneth MacMillan is dealt with way too superficially and dismissively - the man was a troubled genius who lost his way badly at times but left an amazing legacy, both choreographically and the dancers he chose to work with - and Jerome Robbins doesn't fare much better. There is a heavy bias in favour of Balanchine which makes it an unbalanced read in my view. I also don't agree with her conclusions in the end chapter, but I won't spoil the reading of it by commenting in any detail here. Having said all of that, it was a massive undertaking to research and write and a hugely enjoyable and detailed text I shall go back to many, many times. The inclusion of detailed artistic, social and political context is one of its many enjoyable facets. Quite amazing in so many ways and the pleasure I have in consulting it makes me easily able to overlook its flaws each time I go back for a refresher.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Park

    A mostly great book. Homans traces the history of ballet from the court of Louis XIV in France, through Italy, Denmark, Russia, England, and America. It's like a field of dandelions. Ballet takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline in one place, but the seeds get carried to another place, where it again takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline, but again, the seeds drift to somewhere else. Some of the chapters are a slog, like the chapter on Soviet Russia. Pl A mostly great book. Homans traces the history of ballet from the court of Louis XIV in France, through Italy, Denmark, Russia, England, and America. It's like a field of dandelions. Ballet takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline in one place, but the seeds get carried to another place, where it again takes root, sprouts, flourishes, and then goes into decline, but again, the seeds drift to somewhere else. Some of the chapters are a slog, like the chapter on Soviet Russia. Plus, she's way too fond of the phrase 'as we have seen'. It's clear that she wrote the first 400 pages of the book so that she could get to Balanchine. It's that chapter that really shines. And then we have her epilogue, in which she declares that ballet is dead. It's hard to know how to respond to this epilogue. You could react sarcastically: 'Yes, it's too bad that all the major companies have shuttered and that there aren't new companies being formed every year and there isn't a grassroots network of ballet academies everywhere and choreographers aren't trying new techniques.' The strength of the rest of the book is in the details, and yet the epilogue is written with broad strokes and huge generalizations. The epilogue seems to have been written by a different author than the one who wrote the previous 450 pages.

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