Apollo’s Angels

apollosangelsApollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans
2010 / 643  pages
rating  9.5

The hype has been that Homans says ballet is dead (or in a deep sleep)  but that’s totally beside the point – it’s not the story she tells.

Not only is Apollo’s Angels authoritative and definitive,  it’s also the first written history of ballet as a whole.   Homans is in a good position to write it,  she’s dance critic for the National Review.  She was a professional dancer who danced with a number of first class US ballet companies and with a wide range in her repertoire.  She is also a PhD in Modern European history from New York  University where she teaches the history of dance.   She knows her stuff.

The book starts with the statement that ballet has come to an end.  She ends the book with the statement that ballet has come to an end.   What falls between is everything that happened from the marriage of Henry II to Catherine de Medici in 1533 when the history of ballet begins,  to the death of Balanchine in 1983.

Homans moves from the origins in Renaissance France to the developments of the Enlightenment,  the storm of the French Revolution,  the acrobatics of Italy,  the preservation in Denmark,  Russia before, during and after their Revolution,  the English revival, Balanchine’s America and finally,  an Epilogue – the end of ballet as we’ve known it she says – and she backs this claim.

The book is incredibly well researched and documented.  It’s  easy to read if you’re interested and have some small background.  The wonder is that it’s Homans’ first book –  but maybe the book she was meant to write.

I don’t know if I agree with Homans about the state of ballet today or not.  Ballet has changed so much in the last 500 years that I really think a dry spell of 25 or so years makes it a bit too early to tell.


Just reading this on my own – no groups involved.   I haven’t got far – maybe to chapter 3.  This may take me awhile but that’s okay – I’ve loved the history of ballet since college.

Chap 1 –  The Kings of Dance –  according to Homans,  the history of ballet begins in 1533 at the French court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici when French and Italian traditions blended and what had been entertainments and jousting matches were formalized and elevated in status to court functions.

Other French Kings followed with Louis XIV dancing,  writing and founding the Royal Academy.   Ballet developed with fancified street shoes,  classic movements and elaborate costumes.  Slowly the dance went on stage.

Chapter 2  The Enlightenment and the Story Ballet – shows how good stories made great ballet.   Ballet makes the scene all over Europe including England.  French ballet is considered classic but it’s modified to tell stories and appeal to the locals aristocracy.  A few ballerinas became famous,  Salle, Camargo,  Heinel and Petit (some scandal was often involved) and composers and teachers like Novarre,  tried to reform the dance through criticism.  Enormous and elaborate sets were designed.  Rousseau wanted a story-line and pantomime was introduced –  so many changes during this era – it almost brought the ballet into an art form but not quite –  ballet was still the province of the nobility and aristocracy.   Notation was problematical and necessary but not permanently achieved.

Chapter 3 – The French Revolution in Ballet –  the ballet found ways to appeal to the streets –  pantomime and politics were brought in by some creative teachers / balletomines.  Ballet mirrored both the aristocracy and the Revolution with strict rules of performance but somehow crumbling in efficacy. Eventually the ballet was seen as an arm of the Court and outlawed by the Terror.  The Royal Opera was the scene of choreographed restaging of the Storming of the Bastille,  etc.   Later ballet was revived and there were 6 dance halls during the time of the Directory.   The waltz was introduced and Napoleon pronounced himself hereditary emperor – keeping very close tabs on the arts.  But the arts are easier to control than the artists so foment continued.  Women changed the strenuous athleticism of dance to a softer routine but which included a very rigorous training. With the “state” in ruins,  women broke through the ranks to save ballet.

Chapter 4 – Romantic Allusions and the Rise of the Ballerina

Marie Taglioni of course, and en pointe.  But there was more  -she refined the idea of the ballerina to one of sweetness and romance.  Her style was very simple yet incredibly strenuous.  She did this from a small and imperfect body but her father pushed and pushed along the lines of the more gymnastic Italian ballet.  SHe came to symbolize both Robespierre and the ‘ancien regime.‘   And La Sylphide was written almost FOR her.   And then came Giselle by Gautier with the dancer Grisi.

The ballet as we know it,  about love and magic and the ballerina in front stage rather than about the gods,  male heroes and/or aristocratic manners.   But that time was short lived and the street attractions seemed to take over with the pull of music hall dancing and Folies Bergere.  We have Degas.

Chapter 5. Scandinavian Orthodoxy

But if the ballet was languishing in Paris it was thriving elsewhere.  Bourbonville, the son of a French dancer who moved to Denmark during the revolutions,  trained in Paris.   He returned to Denmark in 1830 and brought the romantic ballet with him.  Over time he added a unique style of Danishness to the classic French art form creating the ballet as the US knows it.  Notation was stressed but it didn’t last.

Chapter 6 –  Italian Heresy – Pantomime,  Virtuosity, and Italian Ballet

Meanwhile in Italy dance was a more acrobatic affair.  It was looked down on by Parisians and other Europeans.  But Vigano pushed the French ways on them and then Napoleon entered the picture.  He used Beethoven,  Hayden and Mozart and Rossini for music and the dancers used much more pantomime and gesture.   Italian dance goes back to the Greek influence where pantomime was used as a form.

Blasis created the Italian school of ballet.  He used the ideas of antiquity (rather than the Parisian revolutionary or Scandinavian orthodox) and added more French style dance to the increasingly strenuous physicality of his work.  The result was almost mechanical.

The Wars of Unification ruined Italian ballet. First, due to the incredible instability the great houses like La Scala were closed.  Second the great maestro Taglioni was shot.  Third the economics of the South were in horrid disarray.  And fourth,  Opera had taken hold.

But when things settled down a bit,  Manzoni stepped in with some more revolutionary ballets which were well received.  He then went very elaborate with huge productions and casts of hundreds including animals.  It became a national celebration of the unification and was produced in many countries including the US.  But it was horribly expensive to produce – his downfall.

And so Italy came to have a hold on Opera – probably due to the highly talented Verdi and Puccini,  but also due to the fact that there was still no regular notation available to preserve the great ballets.   The upshot is that Italian ballet was brought to Russia.

Chapter 7 – Tsars of Dance – Imperial Russian Classicism

Covers Russian dance from the pre-French days of nothing but peasant dances,  through their infatuation with French classical ballet,  to Napoleon’s defeat and the anti-French (pro-Russian) response.

Peter the Great brought French ballet to his court and to St. Petersburg.  Catherine the Great expanded it.  It came as a kind of aristocratic etiquette and was meant for the court with masks,  not for the stage,  not for expressing stories or feelings.  Ballet was foreign,  French.   But there were the serf-ballets,  produced for rich landowners by French teachers and using serf dancers.  These were very popular.
Enter Charles Didelot who gave Russia some Russian ballet stars (they were afraid of a revolution like in France)  and Marius Papita,  a French dancer and teacher who never really left France but brought their dance to the Russian stage with some Russian influence.  And then came Napoleon and the heavy French influence was erased as much as possible.   Russian dances to Russian tales like Firebird were introduced and Diderot often sought the advice of French ballet masters.

Then the Decembrists had their day and Nicholas was appointed Tsar.  Nicholas clamped down on all things foreign.  Dostoevsky,  Tolstoy, and Pushkin were in vogue. The next dance director however,  was a Frenchman but he brought with him the Aristocratic feel of the early French ballet along with some Danish elements.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s