“The very essence of ballet is poetic, deriving from dreams rather than 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.” — Théophile Gautier
Thirty-thousand feet in the air, somewhere between New York and Chicago, I finished Jennifer Homans’ new ballet history Apollo’s Angels. Despite being named one of the year’s 10 best books by The New York Times (and the almost unanimous acclaim for Homan’s research), the book has sparked controversy within the dance world because of Homans’ blunt conclusion: Ballet is dead.
More on that later.
Homans — who trained at the School of American Ballet and performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet before turning to writing — deserves credit. To my knowledge (and I’ve done plenty of research on dance reading), no other writer has offered a comprehensive history of ballet — an almost impossible project given the ephemeral nature of the works and the difficulty in recording them.
Homans begins in 1533, with the marriage of the French king Henri II to the Florentine Catherine de Medici, who placed a high premium on court spectacle and made an institution of what we now call ballet. She follows a rough chronology, tracing ballet through the French Revolution and failed attempts at popularizing it in Italy (Verdi and Puccini’s operas were difficult to compete with). We learn in detail about August Bournonville’s (well-preserved) experiments in Denmark and the Frenchman Marius Petipa’s fruitful relocation to Russia, where he created his masterpiece The Sleeping Beauty and, with the help of Tchaikovsky, took ballet to new heights. With the chapter on Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes — an unparalleled Parisian venture that paired choreographers including Nijinsky and Balanchine with the likes of Stravinsky, Chanel, Chagall, Picasso, and Debussy — the book begins to soar. Homans concludes with ballet’s further shift to the west in the 19th century, at London’s Royal Ballet and, more important, the New York scene: Her passages on Balanchine are riveting.
As we have seen (ha!), Apollo’s Angels is an accomplishment, and an invaluable resource for anyone hoping to learn as much as possible about ballet and its history, from the French pioneer Jean-Georges Noverre up to Balanchine and Robbins. One of Homans’ greatest triumphs is weaving the history of ballet into the parallel narratives of politics and culture at large. Initially tied to the aristocracy, ballet was attacked along with the crown during the French Revolution; in Russia it became an unlikely propaganda tool for Stalin, who encouraged ballets that showed the perfection of Soviet life. Initially, ballets en travesti were the rage, since women were considered unfit to dance ballet’s noble steps; later, as male dancing was increasingly perceived as “frivolous,” women began dancing men’s roles in drag. Homans excels at contextualizing ballet within a broader narrative.
If there’s anything to criticize in this book, it’s the sometimes dull, formulaic writing. The stories are fascinating, even exciting, but Homans incessantly reminds us of previous passages (“as we have seen” is probably the most common phrase in the book). The descriptions of individual ballets are rich in detail but seem to be pulled from a template: historical context, the ballet’s plot, critical and public reaction. There are no surprises, no changes in perspective, in the telling of what she herself reveals to be a highly dynamic and volatile art form. The book is too easy to put down.
But to return to Homans’ controversial conclusion, is ballet really dead? Many critics are loudly claiming that it isn’t. Both Artforum and The New York Times included Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, a Grand Divertissement (and other premieres from New York City Ballet’s “Architecture of Dance” festival) on their “best of the year” lists. Writing for Slate, Claudia LaRocco urges readers, “don’t believe the diagnosis.”
I’m not sure what to believe. I didn’t witness “the golden years” of New York City Ballet, but my favorite works — with the exception of Namouna and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain — are by Robbins or Balanchine. “Dead” is a strong word, though, and Apollo’s Angels itself points out that ballet has suffered lows before reaching new highs. Perhaps we’re experiencing one — albeit an extended one — right now.
If ballet is experiencing a decline, the artists aren’t entirely to blame. Today I had the pleasure of watching Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary on Fran Leibowitz, who waxes nostalgic on the glory days of New York and (as always) hits the nail on the head:
“When people talk about why was the New York City Ballet so great… Well, I mean it was because of Balanchine and Jerry Robbins and people like that, but also that audience was so… I can’t even think of the word. There was such a high level of connoisseurship that made the culture better… An audience with a high level of connoisseurship is as important to the culture as artists. It’s exactly as important.”
Maybe that audience is gone.