- Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet
I have long thought a social history of ballet would be a good idea — perhaps something modeled after Arnold Hauser's classic Social History of Art (1951). Apollo's Angels reviews four centuries of ballet history with a focus on technique and styles that are strongly tied to national identity. Stories of the dancers and choreographers are interwoven with plot outlines from ballet libretti and thumbnail sketches of major and minor historical events. But, although impressive for its vast coverage, the book tends to be unreliable in its analysis and contradictory in its methodology. From the geometrical dances of 1581 in Le Ballet Comique de la Reine to Nijinsky's American tour in 1916, many claims are compromised by the findings of recent scholarship, which the author has apparently not consulted. An agenda drives this chronicle. Jennifer Homans separates the wheat from the chaff of history by distinguishing what she considers to be "pure" ballet. This leads to value judgments, not social history. It is revealing to understand what Homans means by pure: ballet that does not tell a story, but evokes an essence or a feeling; ballet that exudes a godlike nobility; ballet that is rooted in highly conservative ideologies. Stylistic purity is above all aristocratic, conservative, and, at her own admission, "stuck" in the past: "It was stuck, but that also meant that it marked a historical place and fiercely guarded the aristocratic principle that was its guiding force" (264). There is very little room for innovation in this conception despite the advent of modernism, and it is not surprising that William Forsythe has no place in Homans's history. He only appears once in a footnote.
The purity of ballet originates for Homans in France during its early modern period. It eventually moves to Russia (there is "light" in the East, as the title of Part II tells us) and then migrates to the United States, where it is embodied in the modernist neoclassicism of George Balanchine. The Apollo of the book's title nods to Balanchine's Apollo (1928) and the angels, as it turns out, are to be found in Balanchine's lesser-known Adagio Lamentoso (1981). Apparently, Balanchine spoke of dancers as angels because of what he perceived to be their emotional detachment (528). "Apollo" and "Angels" are code words for Balanchine and the New York City Ballet: "In the years following Balanchine's death his angels fell, one by one, from their heights" (540). Do we need to read Milton's Paradise Lost to see what happens to fallen angels? In the post-Balanchine world of ballet, they engage in "unthinking athleticism," and are "ill at ease" with themselves (540). Well, this does turn out to be an evil. Purity, although godlike, is also vulnerable, and it is near collapse in the epilogue: "The Masters Are Dead and Gone." The epilogue confirms this book was written for readers who cannot reconcile Balanchine's death with the future of ballet as an art form.
Epilogue aside, what we have here is the trajectory of Tim Scholl's 1994 From Petipa to Balanchine backed up into the Renaissance, although the book is not in Homans's bibliography. According to Scholl, Balanchine's Apollo (1928) nods to Petipa's Sleeping Beauty (1890), which itself pays homage to the court of Louis XIV — the birthplace of classical dance in the early modern period. What Scholl brilliantly presented as a theory of retrospective modernism Homans tells as a story moving forward, providing dance history with a telos. I found the first [End Page 198] half of the book infuriating with all its contradictions until I realized the scheme, and that the details were being manipulated to fit this scheme. One would expect from her dancer-centric approach at least a fidelity to the unadorned description of danced movement seen through the dancer's eyes. Yet, in the midst of description we are often confronted by heavy-handed symbolism. Of The Dying Swan, she writes: "Pavlova...