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:
We are left with a seeming paradox: dance and dancers thrived in a repressive, ideologically driven police state. Worse, as we shall see, they produced their best and most lasting art in its cruelest years…. We must…recognize that even…at its lowest point, the Soviet system continued to produce some of the world’s greatest dancers and most impressive ballets.
Yes, Russia continued to produce great dancers—the pedagogic system never faltered. And yes, many dancers thrived. But impressive ballets? I can’t think of one that I’d like to see today. The Red Poppy? The Fountains of Bakhchisarai? Spartacus? The Stone Flower—or anything else by Yuri Grigorovitch?
As for the dancers, Homans’s central example is the sublime Galina Ulanova, but I find it hard to accept the argument that “it is not enough to say that Ulanova was a great dancer: she was above all a great Soviet dancer.” When we saw her here in 1959, on her only trip to America, it was clear that she was a genius whose talents happened to be superbly suited to the Soviet “dram-ballet” Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev-Lavrovky). But Homans doesn’t take into account that she was equally great—and equally acclaimed—in Giselle, Les Sylphides, and as the Dying Swan. Ulanova certainly became a great Soviet figure, but as a dancer she was merely great.
I wish Homans had focused more on the eternal conflict between the elegant Maryinsky/Kirov style born in St. Petersburg and Moscow’s more flamboyant Bolshoi approach. Ulanova was a Kirov dancer transplanted to the Bolshoi on Stalin’s orders; the quintessential Bolshoi ballerina was Maya Plisetskaya. When Ulanova danced The Dying Swan, her death was conclusive—her anguishing performance was about death itself, not about being a bird. Plisetskaya was all wing-like rippling arms; after she “died,” she got up in response to the ovation and did it all over again. (Once I saw her do it three times. She was one tough bird.) To me, Plisetskaya was a Soviet dancer, Ulanova a Russian one.
I have certain other reservations. For instance, Homans carefully anatomizes some of Bournonville’s ballets, yet later she dismisses them as “hopelessly trite and moralizing, remnants of another time and place.” Here I sense that her critical eye and dancer’s response are in conflict with her concerns as a theorist. Again, is her almost total dismissal of Massine’s talent really justified? And how can she find John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin “beautiful and emotional gripping”? I wonder if she knows how Balanchine (her hero and mine) loathed it.
But these are minor disagreements of the kind that are bound to arise between critics; they certainly don’t detract from Homans’s overall achievement. And she’s earned the right to her occasional eccentricities of emphasis—almost four pages on Chateaubriand, for instance. And four more devoted to the demented Italian mega-spectacle Excelsior (1881). (One scene replicated “the building of the Suez Canal, including a sandstorm and mounted bandits who charge across the stage with rifles and pistols firing.”) It’s fun to read about, with its “cast of more than five hundred, including twelve horses, two cows, and an elephant.” Excelsior kept turning up in new versions into the 1930s—the most successful dance work ever choreographed in Italy. It also, as Homans points out, “all but killed Italian ballet.”
Throughout, her deft intelligence and lively voice keep her book from sounding too academic, and its vast stock of information is cogently organized. Occasionally, though, her disinterestedness slips, as when she tells us that Taglioni’s international celebrity “set the pattern for Margot Fonteyn, Melissa Hayden, Galina Ulanova, and others to follow.” Hayden was certainly a formidable Balanchine dancer, but bracketing her with those two consummate artists strikes me as oddly off-key. Here the author seems to step out of ballet history and into personal history (she studied with Hayden at the North Carolina School of the Arts), but I can’t really begrudge her such an affectionate gesture of loyalty.
Where her book becomes more profoundly personal is in its final pages, when she looks back, around, and ahead, and concludes that ballet has essentially come to an end:
With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality; theaters feel haunted and audiences seem blasé. After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying. The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember, and our intense preoccupation with re-creating history is more than a momentary diversion: we are watching ballet go, documenting its past and its passing before it fades altogether.
She is not the only lover of ballet who feels this way. The deaths of Ashton and, particularly, of Balanchine have left in their wake a mourning and depressed generation. It is now thirty years since we have seen anything like a major new work of classical dance, and those who believe that great choreographers move among us are either self-deluded or fools. Occasionally a talent announces itself, and we pounce—most recently on Christopher Wheeldon, whose limitations became quickly clear, and Alexei Ratmansky, who is not only highly capable but whose wide range is suggestive and stimulating. (Homans mentions neither.) But is it remotely possible that either of these gifted men is the one to lead us out of the desert to the promised land? And is it fair or reasonable to place such a burden of expectation on a newcomer, particularly given the intense spotlight thrown on anyone today who turns up with even a grain of real talent? Balanchine and Ashton were able to develop in near obscurity.
Is ballet, then, as Homans suggests, beyond rescue? I would like to believe that even if no new master comes along, the long-running love/hate relationship between it and modern dance that began a century ago when Isadora Duncan went to Russia and bowled over Fokine and his young contemporaries may yet lead to a fusion that will both preserve and reinvigorate classicism. Or that yet another relocation of the art—to Brazil, say, or Asia—may kiss the Beauty awake again. Or that new social dances like hip-hop may infuse ballet with a new approach and energy, the way Italian exhibitionistic tricks on pointe did in the 1820s.
This may well, of course, be wishful thinking, when we consider that the historical circumstances that brought ballet into being and helped it flourish—and that Homans has so meticulously anatomized—are, indeed, history. After all, other great art forms have withered away. If Homans is right—and when I’m not in a Polyanna mode, the odds seem to me that she is—there’s nothing we can do about it except celebrate and cherish what we’ve lost. Her book, indeed, is her way of doing just that, which is why she could give it the exhilarating and radiant title Apollo’s Angels rather than the title her conclusion implies, The Dying Swan.
December 9, 2010