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Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet Hardcover – November 2, 2010
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A Look Inside Apollo's Angels
Photo by Costas
Photo by Costas
Photo by Costas
Nikolaj Hübbe in La Sylphide
Photo by Costas
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In an important and original work of cultural history, New Republic dance critic Homans places ballet--an art often viewed as hermetic and esoteric--in the larger context of the times and societies in which it evolved, flourished, and flagged, only to be revitalized by an infusion of fresh ideas. That revitalization could come from a ballet master like Jean-Georges Noverre, presented by Homans as an important Enlightenment figure whose ideas on reforming ballet were consonant with those of Diderot on reforming theater. Renewal came from the genius of dancers like Marie Taglioni, the incarnation of romanticism, whose originality, Homans indisputably shows, reached far beyond dancing up on her tippy-toes. But in a closing section that will be hotly debated, this exhilarating account sounds a despairing note: "ballet is dying," she declares. Not only is the creative well running dry and performances dull, but more crucially, Homans sees today's values as inimical to those of ballet ("We are all dancers now," she writes, evoking what she sees as a misguided egalitarianism that denies an art rooted in discipline and virtuosity). Her cultural critique, as well as her expansive and penetrating view of ballet's history, recommend this book to all readers who care about the history of the arts as well as their present and possible future. Color and b&w illus. (Nov.)
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Top customer reviews
The art form became special during the long reign of King Louis XIV (reigned from 1648-1715) the Sun King of la belle France. Louis was a dancer who made ballet important at his splendid court. Ballet was both an entertainment, exercise and visible embodiment of the aristocratic milieu of European court life. Ballet steps bore a distinct affinity with those of fencing. Though it was given birth in France the art soon spread to all the courts of Europe.
Homans takes the time and detail necessary to explore the growth and style of ballet practiced in France, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy and most notably in Russia. It is clear that ballet's development was impacted by social issues and war. Homans book is more than just a book for ballet fans but a social and cultural history of Europe.
The book is most interesting in its discussion of the state of ballet in the twenty-first century. Homans believes ballet is in a sharp decline as aristocratic culture and disciplined dance have been superseded by our technocrat society. I also found of great interest her discussion of some of the men and women who made ballet a great arm form. These luminaries include people such as Serge Diaghilev who created the famous Ballet Ruses which turned the dance world upside down with such ballets as Stravinksy's
"The Firebird"; "The Rites of Spring" and Petrushka". The star of the book is George Balachine raised in St Petersburg who choreographed over four hundred ballets and made American ballet the best in the world.
Homans book is written in a scholarly style which demands concentration and focus. It is a fine book. The book is recommended for all persons wishing to deepen their knowledge of ballet.
The chapter on France and the classical origins of ballet are the most interesting. Homans explains that ballet’s roots can be traced to Charles IX’s time, when he established the Academie de Poesie et de Musique all the way back in 1570. The purpose of the Academie was to bring spirituality to theatre and art. Homans writes, “…these poets believed that hidden beneath the shattered and chaotic surface of political life lay a divine harmony and order – a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God.” This is where we see the theoretical foundations of ballet, which just needed to be codified into a technique, which would then ‘elevate man…and bring him closer to the angels and God’ (Homans 2010). Very entertaining in particular is the author’s description of court etiquette and the vanity of kings. Also interesting is her explanation of state strategy, the difference between courtiers and trained dancers, and the eventual move from court to theater in the late 17th century.
The connection between dance and politics is emphasized throughout the book, and the reader will understand how ballet – although wordless – is an art form that carries both meanings and subtexts. The reader learns, for example, that the ballerina Marie Antoinette established a trend dressed as a shepherdess, whereafter women in white tunics “became powerful symbols of a nation cleansed of corruption and greed.” (Homans 2010). The women in white became what we know today as the corps de ballet, which took its cue from the Revolution. “They represented the claims of the community over those of the individual” (Homans 2010).
The chapters on ballet in the New World focus mostly on the influential Russian choreographer George Balanchine, who founded New York City Ballet in the 20th century to rival the European ballet companies. But, despite Balanchine’s innovative creations of neoclassical ballets that paved the way for a tradition of classical ballet in America, Homans sees no future for ballet. She ends her book with an Epilogue called “The Masters Are Dead and Gone” in which she laments what she perceives as a decline of the classical ballet during the past 20 plus years. Her feeling is that we no longer admire ballet, and that without new genius creators the art form will not survive. That is a perplexing view, given the fact that dance always has been a fluctuating art form.
Despite the book’s massive volume of 650 pages, it is rarely boring. Homans’ descriptions of important artists and the works they created or danced are vivid and expressive, - possibly due to the fact that Homans herself was a professional ballerina who danced many of the works she writes about. While her writing is packed with meaning it is never dense or convoluted. A fluid writing style makes it easy for any reader to follow and understand the scenarios surrounding the evolution of ballet for hundreds of years. Apollo’s Angels is scholarly and entertaining at the same time, and beautifully told. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in history, dance, and body politics.