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Waking Beauty

Dominique Nabokov
George Balanchine at a rehearsal of Scherzo à la russe for the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival, Lincoln Center, 1982

Here is a book of immense ambition—a one-volume history of ballet—and of considerable accomplishment. Jennifer Homans, whom we know primarily as The New Republic‘s provocative dance critic, shows herself to be both dogged and graceful as a historian—a rare and welcome combination of qualities. She’s also a passionate believer in the central importance of ballet as an art, seeing it as an expression of a way of life, a philosophy of life, not simply as an enjoyable and often moving entertainment. And she’s a persuasive guide to the deep connections that from the beginning of its history have existed between ballet and the state:

Classical ballet grew up in Europe’s courts; at its origins it was an aristocratic etiquette and political event as much as it was an art…. The steps were never just the steps; they were a set of beliefs, echoing as they did the self-image of a noble caste…. How ballet began and what it became is best appreciated in light of the political and intellectual upheavals of the past three hundred years. Ballet was shaped by the Renaissance and French Classicism, by revolutions and Romanticism, by Expressionism and Bolshevism, modernism and the Cold War.

Throughout her book she is loyal to this perspective, which underpins the narrative without becoming too assertive an agenda. And for the most part it doesn’t narrow her story, since—however strong her impulse to see things through the prism of history—she is first and foremost a dance person, a dance critic, a dancer. Clearly she has flung herself into the available sources and has mastered what they have to tell us: I follow her gratefully through the centuries as she traces the progress of ballet from its beginnings. (I follow more cautiously when she arrives at what she considers to be ballet’s imminent demise.)

If you have a smattering of dance history under your belt, you’re aware that ballet essentially begins when Catherine de Medici, aged fourteen, arrives in Paris in 1533 to marry Henri II, bringing her Italian Renaissance outlook along with her. Within decades, Homans tells us, the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, founded by her son Charles IX, is proposing “an encyclopedic course of inquiry, including natural philosophy, languages, mathematics, music, painting, and the military arts.” As for dance,

The Academicians saw in ballet a chance to take man’s troublesome passions and physical desires and redirect them toward a transcendent love of God…. The movements of the body, disciplined with poetic rhythm and meter and brought into accord with musical and mathematical principles, could tune him to celestial harmonies.

And further: “It was this sense of perfect mathematical proportion that led the Abbé Mersenne, in a moment of high inspiration in 1636, to refer to ‘the author of the Universe’ as ‘the great Ballet-master.’”

This high-minded idea of dance gave way under Louis XIII to the employment of ballet for less elevated purposes: Louis was “more concerned with power than God, and rather than revealing the order of the universe, the ballet de cour now magnified the grandeur of the king.” It was his son, Louis XIV—the Sun King, himself a superb dancer—who was to situate dance at the very core of his vision of royalty, making it “integral to life at court, a symbol and requirement of aristocratic identity so deeply ingrained and internalized that the art of ballet would be forever linked to his reign.”

From this apogee of ballet’s preeminence in the cultural and political life of a royal state, it has over the centuries made its way, in fits and starts, toward becoming a reflection of the interests of a popular, middle-class audience—something to be enjoyed by the general public rather than something practiced by the nobility as an essential skill, along with fencing and riding. It made, in other words, what Homans in another context calls “the crucial leap from etiquette to art.”

Or to put it another way, it became ripe for reform—shifting its focus from gods and kings to man and his emotions; from formal conventions to narratives both frivolous and melodramatic. This change, which took place both incrementally and in sudden bursts of novelty, basically recapitulates the arc traveled by drama, opera, and poetry: the eternal progress (if that’s what it is) from ritual and formality to the personal. Homans gives us a generous account of the succession of crucial figures that lit the path, among them the dancers and ballet masters Jean-Georges Noverre (called “the Shakespeare of the Dance” by David Garrick), Pierre Gardel (who ran the Paris Opera ballet for over forty years), and Auguste Vestris (“le Dieu de la Danse”), and she is particularly instructive about Marie Sallé, who in the mid-eighteenth century foreshadowed the changes to come in ballet by feminizing and eroticizing it: she was expressive, she was “natural,” and as Homans puts it, she gave the world “a glimpse of the ways in which ballet could depict inner realms as well as ceremonial forms.” It would, however, be the political turbulence of the French Revolution followed by the artistic turbulence of the Romantic movement that provided the decisive break between the old and the new.

We can, as Homans writes, roughly date the beginnings of ballet as we know it today to the years 1831 and 1832, when Marie Taglioni, the most famous of all ballerinas before Pavlova, created first the role of the Abbess, leader of a group of the ghosts of dead nuns who created a sensation in Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable, and four months later, the title role in the original version of La Sylphide, staged by her redoubtable father, Filippo Taglioni. Not only did these ballets (followed a decade later by Giselle) invoke the supernatural—ghosts, sylphs, wilis—but they signaled the ascendancy of the female dancer, as Taglioni and others rose to their toes to dance on pointe, refining and spiritualizing what had begun as part of the armory of sensational tricks deployed by the splashy, far from spiritual Italians. For the next three quarters of the century, women would dominate ballet; the reign of Louis XIV was finally over. It was only when Diaghilev brought Nijinsky from Russia to Paris in 1909 that the male dancer would again be ascendant.

But long before that could happen, the most important relocation of formal dance since Catherine de Medici’s arrival in Paris was the shift from Paris to Russia as the heart of the ballet world. Here Homans’s focus on history is especially valuable, since she understands the historic conditions under which this migration took place. Again, it was a dominating leader who brought it about. Until Peter the Great, there was no dance in Russia; court ballet did not exist. Homans explains how Peter brought classical ballet to Russia. As had previously happened in France,

Ballet was not initially a theatrical “show” but a standard of physical comportment to be emulated and internalized—an idealized way of behaving. And even when it did become a dramatic art, the desire to imitate and absorb, to acquire the grace and elegance and cultural forms of the French aristocracy, remained a fundamental aspiration. Thus from the moment ballet entered Russia, it was inextricably bound up with the Westernizing project that would shape the country’s history for generations to come.

What made it all possible was the enormous wealth and absolute power of Peter and his successors as well as the social ambitions of the great landowners who, in competition and/or collaboration with the tsars, ruthlessly trained and deployed their serfs as dancers.

It was, then, as one aspect of his Westernization of his country that Peter began the importation of French and Italian ballet masters to train the nobility in court manners, beginning the process that would eventually lead to the development of native Russian dancers and a repertory that would surpass what was being created in France. (Of what we think of as the nineteenth-century classics, only Coppélia, with its wonderful Delibes score, matured in Paris. La Sylphide in the form we know it was staged by Auguste Bournonville in Denmark; Giselle was reshaped and revivified by Marius Petipa in Russia; and the great trio of Tchaikovsky ballets—Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty—also, of course, sprang from Russia, as did Stravinsky and Balanchine, who would dominate ballet in the twentieth century the way Tchaikovsky and Petipa did in the nineteenth.)

Yet it was only as the twentieth century approached that Russian ballet was able to shake off its dependency on France. And then Diaghilev returned the historical favor, bringing his Ballets Russes to the West and transforming the art there with his brilliant taste and indomitable energy while the Russian revolution and Soviet repressions led to a creative vacuum at home.

Homans is at her best in these explorations, especially when her historical slant is united with her dance sensibility. In her long and insightful assessment of The Sleeping Beauty, which, like most serious ballet critics, she identifies as the key work in the history of classical ballet, she writes:

It was not just the construction of [its] dances that was so impressive; it was the way the dancers moved to Tchaikovsky’s music. It is difficult today to imagine just how different these dances must have been to perform. Tchaikovsky’s music brought out a whole new range and tone color in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus or Pugni could never inspire.

And she identifies Beauty as

the first truly Russian ballet. It was an impressive act of cultural absorption: this was no longer Russians imitating the French but instead a pitch-perfect summation of the rules and forms that had shaped the Russian court since Peter the Great. With Beauty, Petipa found a way to take out the seams of French ballet, to expand its technique and expressivity while paradoxically reinforcing its strict formal rules and proportions. And if the ballet’s grand scale seemed to some a capitulation to féerie and spectacle, it could also be read as an exaltation of the dignity and noble ideals of an aristocratic art. But Beauty also showed that high court ballet could meet popular theater and assimilate that and the Italian techniques too, folding them both into a newly Russian style of dance.

Again, like many others, Homans identifies the quietly revolutionary neoclassical Apollon musagète (1928) as the crucial work of the twentieth century:

Apollon was a watershed dance, both for Balanchine and for the future of the art. Despite and because of his Russian heritage, Balanchine, with Stravinsky, had turned firmly away from the East—away from Firebird, Sacre, and Les Noces—and back to the humanist roots of western civilization.

Where I diverge from her view of midcentury ballet is over her treatment of what was taking place in the Soviet Union before and after Apollon:

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