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…

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