Reading the elegiac epilogue of Jennifer Homans’ history of ballet Apollo’s Angels, I am struck by her sense of doom.  As a ballet practitioner I have found much of the book a gripping and exciting account, and have been stirred by its scope and the provocation of its ideas as to ballet’s place in an often inimical world.   Yet aspects of her thesis trouble me; arising from her interpretation, inevitably condensed and therefore incomplete, of the rise and as she sees it decline of British ballet in the 20th century. This is a period part of which I have lived from the inside; as a child growing up schooled through that peculiarly British institution the Royal Academy of Dancing, inspired by images of Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet, later as a student at the Royal Ballet School, and then as a young dancer in the Royal Ballet companies experiencing the most richly varied ballet repertoire in the world in my own body, now transmuting this learning to communicate through teaching and choreography.

So I note that Homans makes no mention of the uniquely British development of ballet teaching associations and the international export of their training curricula and examination syllabi. I cannot agree with Homans’ wholesale condemnation of MacMillan’s oeuvre; and I am also saddened by her diminution of de Valois, bracketing her as a choreographer with Helpmann under the heading “melodramatic theatricality” without consideration of her two greatest works The Rake’s Progress and Checkmate.  In general Homans seems to relegate de Valois merely to the role of fixer administrator; rather than the complex, multifaceted and visionary artist, pedagogue and creator of the Royal Ballet companies and schools that Jennifer Jackson and I reflected on in our paper for the de Valois conference of 2011.

My disagreement with this presentation begins to undermine my acceptance of the rest of this initially compelling and convincing book.  If Homans lacks balance and understanding here, is this also the case in other chapters and topics where I have less knowledge?  What else is she leaving out?  And thus cracks appear and suspicion seeps in.

Reading the two final chapters on ballet’s “American century”, my disappointment deepens.  Rather than maintaining its wider cultural and historic perspective, the book becomes a more parochial tribute to the two great men of American ballet; Jerome Robbins, and, accorded the honour of final billing, George Balanchine.  Homans gives a biographical account of Balanchine’s developing oeuvre with little attempt at objectivity, or to situate him in a wider context of dance.  She accepts his conception of ballet as its highest manifestation, without considering some of the more questionable aspects of his influence on the genre.

A colleague rightly reminded me that a history has to stop somewhere, but Homans’ pessimistic conclusion suggests she is shutting her eyes to phenomena which have affected ballet in recent decades, some with their roots well before the death of Balanchine.  Surely a history covering ballet in the twentieth century should give more space to the gradual displacement of ballet from the avant-garde of the western theatre dance tradition by the emergence of contemporary dance forms, and the cross fertilization of dance genres  – no mention of Glen Tetley, Hans van Manen and William Forsythe, or discussion of “neo-classical” work in Europe, the development and significance of major European companies such as Dutch National Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Cullberg Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet?  No discussion either of the international spread of ballet training and competitions, and the emergence of exciting dancers of ferocious technical accomplishment from Japan, China, Australia, Cuba and South America?

What of the impact of 20th century technological advances such as action photography, film, the wide availability of recorded music and the invention of lycra?  Little discussion of the significant changes in the accepted physique and aesthetic of the ballet dancer, away from the petite and curvaceous shapes of the late 19th century, to the long legged extremely slender and hyperflexible gymnast of the late 20th century; how has this come about and how does it shape and affect the creation of new work and the reinterpretation of old repertoire? I note too that beyond a serious account of Les Noces, one of the towering masterworks of the 20th century, Bronislava Nijinska its choreographer makes only a fleeting appearance, accorded less status and interest as a creator than her charismatic and troubled brother.  Homans paints a picture of a world in which the creators of ballet are almost invariably male, and women are interpreters.  Female ballet choreographers are few enough, but Homans seems to accept this phenomenon without question, compounding the stereotype through her dismissive attitude to such as de Valois and Agnes de Mille (only included in her capacity as a chronicler of the period), and in her closing examination of ballet’s current ills and problems the possible contribution of this continuing gender imbalance is not considered.

Homans is right to be concerned in these hostile times.  I share her love of and nostalgia for ballet’s admirable qualities of beauty, order and courtesy, but I also love its ability to adapt and absorb, to embrace dramatic narrative, poetic nuance and theatricality, its rich vocabulary rooted in folk and social dance, and the extraordinary variety of work possible beneath its broad umbrella.  Ballet has a future, but Homans with her particular transatlantic focus may not be looking for it in the right place.

Susie Crow