Named for the god and angels whose unearthly images have been admired and remade in ballets for centuries, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, draws the reader into a rich and storied history of the cultural cornerstone of Western civilization. In her book, Jennifer Homans journeys deep into an international community to create a history that until now has remained within a fading oral and physical tradition, inaccessible to most, and soon to be lost to all. She explains, “[U]nlike theatre or music, ballet has no texts and no standardized notation, no scripts or scores, and only the most scattered written records; it is unconstrained by tradition and the past” (p. xviii). Yet, as Homans describes, ballet is rooted in memory—parts of a dance, an expression, a pose, a whole ballet is ingested by the dancers and becomes a part of their being to be passed down to the next generation. Homans, herself an accomplished dancer having studied under numerous famed ballet masters, serves her purpose extremely well in putting down on paper an in-depth examination of the birth, growth, and decline of ballet that can be enjoyed by generations to come.
The book is divided into two parts that unfold chronologically and follow in location the emergence of significant ballet dancers, masters, schools, tours, communities, and cultures. “Part One: France and the Classical Origins of Ballet” describes in great detail the emergence of ballet as its own distinct art form, an entertainment born of aristocratic delights in the fifteenth century. “Part Two: Light from the East: Russian Worlds of Art” examines the Russian influence that spread West and remains entrenched in ballet today. Homans escapes what could have been a bland account of dates, names, and dances by creating this history of ballet within the broader context of economic, political, cultural, and biographical histories from which ballet was shaped and transformed. Tracing the art not only through France and Russia, but Scandinavia, Italy, England, and finally America, the reader gains a sense of the considerable role ballet played, as dances and dancers themselves came to represent nationalism, cultural tradition, political defiance, and entire populations. Considering the depth of such a project, the book’s organization is logical and flows well from one chapter to the next.
Homans’ passion for ballet and her experience with bodily expression does not go unnoticed in her beautifully written accounts of numerous ballets, styles of dance, and specific, ground-breaking movements. Aided by photos and drawings, dances long forgotten by most are brought to life through superb explanation and imagery that describes the look, feel, meaning, and significance behind dances that are considered from both the performers’ and the audience’s perspectives. Readers witness the dramatic rise and fall of many dancers and masters, whose biographies seamlessly link each period of change as ballet is carried across continents, oceans, and time.
This book is exceptionally well researched, providing extensive notes and a well-developed bibliography. Writing from inside the ballet community, Homans gives the reader an intimate look at the lives of those who created, influenced, and changed the course of [End Page 178] ballet. If there is a drawback to this preservation of sport and art, it is perhaps that there are too many details, implanted in the text at the cost of clarity and without adding anything of significance. It is sometimes difficult to maintain who is who, as individuals are described at different points throughout the chapters. Yet, even loaded down at times with irrelevant specifics and name-dropping of inconsequential individuals, this book remains an exceedingly informative and generally entertaining read.
If the story of ballet is coming to a fizzling finish, as Homans suggests it may be, then Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet could not have come at a better time. It captures a fading past before it is lost. More importantly, Homans’ creation of this impressive, inspiring, and enlightening history is sure to light a spark of intrigue, while a spark...