30 September 2011
Book Review: Apollo's Angels, by Jennifer Homans
As the image indicates, Apollo's Angels claims to be "A History of Ballet." This isn't entirely inaccurate. The first six chapters are devoted to the early years of ballet and include an impressive amount of research on the author's part. She digs into the past and reveals a range of detail that suggest only a passion on the part of a writer for the subject matter. Homans makes an effort throughout to link the development of dance to the cultural influences of the day -- i.e., early ballet in France was the result of steps designed for court dances intended to honor the king -- and in this she manages to keep the book from becoming a dry tome exhausted with information. I should point out that in doing this, she also makes speculative leaps that don't always feel reliable. But at least it makes for great food for thought.
After chapter 6, the book moves on to the early days of ballet in Russia, and after this the rest of the book is more or less devoted to ballet in the 20th century. That's not an unfair balance, to be honest. Except in Russia (and, to a degree, in Denmark), ballet was always a somewhat peripheral activity that did not take off as an important and respected art form worldwide until the 20th century. Homans hones in (I totally had to write that...) on the early modern days in Russia, with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, as well as on Soviet Ballet, ballet in England, and ballet in America. Oh wait, I'm sorry: ballet in New York. And you might guess that this is where I transition from summarizing the book to reviewing it more seriously.
There's a lot of good in Apollo's Angels. Homans does an exceptional job of providing information about pre-20th century ballet. But what this is not is a textbook about ballet. While this might sound like a good thing, the problem is that many people who are only vaguely familiar with ballet will read it like a textbook -- that is, a solid history of ballet and how it has developed. This book contains that information, but it is always shaping it and guiding it in one direction. It's highly opinionated, flagrantly biased, and containing frequent editorializing. It's no mistake that the last major chapter is about ballet in New York. (Because, you know, that's the only ballet in America that counts?) In fact, it's not unreasonable to point out that the entire book is leading up to the glorious moment when Balanchine arrived in New York to begin developing a ballet company (now the New York City Ballet) and choreographing his works for it. Homans's primary thesis, in fact, seems to hinge on this point. She appears to be using the theme of "Apollo" and "angels" to create a link between the aristocratic history of ballet and its occasionally otherworldly aura. But she makes the latter a necessity, rather than a contextual feature. For her, the courtly dances are no longer relevant, but ballet in the modern era should strip the art form from this background while still retaining the overall impression of the regal and balance it with the ethereal. Everything else, including the much-loved "story ballets" that are still performed, fails to appreciate this need and is a step backwards in the grand forward march of ballet. And only Balanchine accomplished this. Apparently, he gave the world an abstract vision of ballet's purpose, so his greatness is unquestioned.
In case you're wondering, I don't agree. In fact, I disagree emphatically. Balanchine created some extraordinary choreography, but I would simply place him next to many other excellent 20th-century choreographers who developed equally striking and significant work. Balanchine just happened to choreograph a lot, and people who do a great deal of work tend to strengthen their style over time. (He also gets credit for making ballet important in America; I'll give him that one. But he created a specific style that may or may not have longevity. It's a toss-up at this point.) More important, however, Homans fails to mention any of these choreographers, in part, I suspect because their work might conflict with her thesis. The result is a poorly balanced presentation of ballet, written by someone who worked with Balanchine and remembers the "good old days" that are no more. She actually concludes the book with a much-noted epilogue in which she argues that ballet is dead. But her reasons are vague and badly formed, and the impression is that she believes ballet is dead because it doesn't look like what she thinks it should look like. Remember the grand forward march, mentioned above. That's not really how ballet has evolved, after Balanchine's death, so she has only grim visions for the future.
How absurd. Ballet might be in a state of flux, but one of the arguments Homans makes throughout the book is that ballet has repeatedly gone through such stages. It would seem that she has forgotten this, or at least forgotten that a transition takes some time and is often difficult to recognize until after it has been completed. It might very well be that classical ballet is currently struggling to identify itself in this era, but it's still around. Ballets are being performed; people are attending and enjoying them; ballet schools are full of eager young dancers. We can't just throw up our hands and say, "Well, I don't see as much progress as I'd like, so ballet must be dead." That's just silly. Ballet will shape its 21-century identify because people remain involved in it and print their own vision on it.
What is more absurd perhaps is the amount of information that Homans leaves out. I mentioned choreographers above, and after Balanchine Homans only tips her hat to a few but comments that there is no good work being created now. Excuse me? She says this but completely overlooks Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon; both, I should mention, did not come from the New York City Ballet or the school that Balanchine created, the School of American Ballet. Ratmansky is a product of the Bolshoi and Wheeldon of the Royal Ballet. But both are widely regarded among the "first-tier" choreographers of the 21st century. Are all their works great? Of course not. But neither were Balanchine's (a point that Homans tends to pass by with her fleeing remark that even Balanchine had the right to create "kitsch" from time to time). The point is that they're still working and making strides to develop and give voice to the ballet of today.
More shocking is her complete failure to acknowledge the work of American choreographer William Forsythe who did study in New York at one point and even has a Balanchine-influenced past. His work pushes the boundaries, and even he noted that he might very well leave ballet behind at some point, but it should be noted that he has been actively creating vibrant new work for dance. The reason for ignoring him, I can only assume, has something to do with the fact that Forsythe's work doesn't quite fit Homans's thesis about "Apollo's angels." His work tends to be hard-edged and often earthy. Far from skimming the surface of the angelically abstract, it presents a more raw form of abstract that must not be acceptable.
Homans completely ignores the development and popularity of ballet outside her small vision of ballet's modern relevance. Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina who pioneered ballet in that country, established a tradition there that is still going strong. In fact, several years ago the Royal Ballet (from England) toured Cuba. (One of the Royal Ballet's male principals, Carlos Acosta, is a Cuban native.) The performances were so popular that they sold out, and the Royal Ballet then began erecting large screens outside the theater so that more people could view the dancing. Ballet is certainly not dead in places like that, where it is beloved by the vendor on the street. Beyond Cuba, there is no mention of ballet in China and Japan, which is odd because both countries send dozens of ballet participants to all the major competitions, and they are in the process of creating their own ballet identity. There's no reason to be disappointed by the results.
In terms of dancers, Homans fails to mention two female ballerinas, both of whom justly deserved to be called ballerinas and both of whom had a permanent impact on the aesthetics of 20th- and 21st-century ballet. The great French-born dancer Sylvie Guillem is completely ignored. I have to wonder if Homans does this, because mentioning Guillem might conflict with her argument about French ballet going into a permanent decline after World War II. The omission is startling, however. If nothing else, Homans should have acknowledged the impact that Guillem had and the fact that she's still dancing and being part of the evolving face of ballet. Yes, Guillem is controversial, but she's a major part of ballet history. The other omission is equally surprising and yet somehow not so much. American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland isn't mentioned once. The fact that she might be the greatest ballerina America ever produced apparently doesn't overcome the fact that Kirkland broke off her connection to Balanchine to forge a different path. My understanding is that after this the New York City Ballet removed her from their history, and it looks like the grudge is still being held. Nonsense. Utter nonsense, in large part because none of Balanchine's favored dancers could hold a candle to Kirkland in either technique or style. (Additionally, Homans seems to admire Balanchine's preference for having "no stars" in the company -- he had to be the only star? -- and Kirkland, who appeared on the cover of Time in 1978, was certainly a star.)
I'll wrap things up soon, but I want to make a further comment about Homans's approach in the book that left me very unsettled. She, somewhat begrudgingly, acknowledges the importance of Russian ballet and the contribution of the Russian style. But she seems to do this in large part to (once again!) point the reader in the direction of Balanchine, who was from Russia and to suggest that he really was the highest point in their balletic development. Of course, he then went to create ballets in America, so the focus on greatness must follow him. In terms of Russian ballet today, Homans essentially writes it off and has very little to say. But this too is a terribly biased approach. There are definitely problems in Russian ballet as it has moved past the Soviet era and into the 21st century. Russian ballet companies have created a mess of dancer hierarchies and ill-conceived reenactments. But Russian ballet schools are still producing some of the finest dancers in the world, and these dancers are creating spectacular work in Russia. There's a bit of sour grapes in this. Because Homans views the New York City Ballet during its Balanchine era as the pinnacle of ballet history, she remains fixated on this as the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the New York City Ballet has recently relied too heavily on its Balanchine past instead of creating more new work, and as a result the company has been sinking into artistic irrelevance for the last couple of decades. Its dancers, though technically solid, don't have the strong classical background that dancers in other companies -- particularly Russian -- have, and they simply cannot handle the technical challenges of traditional ballets as successfully as we are made to believe they should. In other words, if I were Homans and I were coming from her background, I'd be disappointed to. The New York City Ballet, far from leading the way in 21st-century dance, has simply fallen back on regurgitated performances of Balanchine's work as well as adding mediocre productions of traditional story ballets. And their dancers aren't necessarily looking better for it. But in order to make her point, Homans has to overlook the good that's coming out of Russia and also ignore the fact that Russian dancers have taken on Balanchine's choreography much better than the dancers of Balanchine's inheritance can take on the traditional Russian ballets. No, Russian dancers don't always look like Balanchine-trained dancers, and they often get the "feel" of it wrong. But for me, Russians bring context and sense to Balanchine's choreography in a way that no Balanchine-trained dancer has ever done.
A final comment. The writing in the book is mediocre, and the overall flow can be choppy to the point of confusion at times. What saves this book is the passion that Homans infuses into her topics and the time she takes, particularly in the early chapters, with easing tiny historical details out of the past and making them interesting in the present. For this, and this alone, I can recommend the book. I want to make a gentle suggestion, however: if you are not a ballet dancer with a background in classical ballet and a familiarity with the different styles, if you see ballet as a beautiful art form and are interested in reading more about it, please read this book carefully. Homans has produced a decent history of ballet as seen through highly biased eyes. She has not -- and I repeat emphatically not -- produced a solid history of ballet that looks at it through purely academic eyes. She is telling the story as she sees it, and frankly as is the case with most writing you learn as much about author are her own views in this "history" as you do about ballet. Perhaps more.
Year of publication: 2010
Number of pages: 643