Feature

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

The dancer turned critic has written a rich assessment of ballet’s four-century history.

(Random House, 643 pages, $35)

“It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in Apollo’s Angels,” said Toni Bentley in The New York Times. The dancer turned critic has written “the only truly definitive history” of ballet. Beginning with a 1581 French court performance recognized as the first ballet, Homans introduces us to the art form’s seminal figures, from Parisian dancer Auguste Vestris, who first “pried the feet open to 180 degrees,” to Russian choreographer Marius Petipa, the first producer of both Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Always, though, “the question of ballet’s survival” looms over Homans’ story, which ends on a curiously pessimistic note. “I now feel sure ballet is dying,” she writes.

That “grim diagnosis” makes no sense, said Claudia La Rocco in Slate.com. Underlying it is Homans’ view that ballet is, at its core, “a deeply conservative and insular art that resists change.” But by making that claim, she sells short the work of her heroes, notably George Balanchine. Inarguably the 20th century’s greatest choreographer, Balanchine spent his career “forging a new, American tradition that grew from his roots in Imperial Russia but soon encompassed a radical modern aesthetic.” Later, she ignores such contemporary choreographers as William Forsythe, who is “widely acknowledged to have changed the face of contemporary ballet.” Homans believes that the golden age is over only because her tastes are somewhat old-fashioned.

Yet it can’t be denied that ballet is hurting, said Laura Jacobs in The Wall Street Journal. “Even the most talented classical dancers, choreographers, and impresarios seem to be working in a void,” so Homans is right to ponder potential solutions. Unfortunately, she seems to miss the solution that can be found in a close reading of her own rich assessment of ballet’s four-century history. Ballet may indeed be imperiled and undermined by “our increasingly lowbrow” world. But as Homans’ book shows, in chapter after chapter, “the art and its ideals have weathered many a void, only to shine again.”

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