Apollo’s angels:  a history of ballet / Jennifer Homans

I began reading this book with high expectations.  The author is described as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Columbia, and quotations on the flyleaf and back cover include statements such as “Here is the only truly definitive history of classical ballet” (International Herald Tribune) and “It will doubtless come to rank as the standard and authoritative work in the field” (Literary Review).  Although it is not published by an academic press, it bears some of the hallmarks of a scholarly work, with its extensive bibliographies, footnotes and evidence of original research.

The early chapters of the book dealt with periods of which I am largely ignorant until on p.39, I came across this footnote:  “Molière was gone:  he died onstage in 1673 while performing Le Malade imaginaire”.  Not so, according to Ivor Guest[1] or the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, according to which he collapsed on stage and was carried back to his house, where he died.  This concerned me, and from Chapter 8, East goes west:  Russian modernism and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, when the book moves territory with which I am more familiar, I became progressively more uneasy.

I followed up n.1 on p.291 at the end of a paragraph that is highly critical of Kschessinska’s character, because it refers to Volynsky’s Ballet’s magic kingdom, (p.17)[2].  Volynsky’s article does not to comment on the ballerina’s private conduct at all;  it is about her remarkable technique and qualities as a dancer.  Homans’ footnote relates to a few words selected and quoted from Volynsky’s article (“wild, crude, and brimming with passion”), and I realised that this is consistent with Homans’ policy that “notes source quoted material only”.  Fair enough, but it meant that the references that I had skipped past in the earlier chapters gave citations for specific quotations, rather than the evidence and authorities that I had assumed lay behind Homans’ broader arguments.

As I read on, I became increasingly concerned about Homans’ factual accuracy.  For example, on pp 438-9, Homans writes “In 1969 … Kenneth Clark … created and hosted a hugely successful thirteen-part television series entitled Civilisation”.  Not quite correct:  Clark did not “host” the series like a chat show (he wrote, narrated and presented it himself), and although transmission began in February 1969, he had delivered his first, revised script in March 1967[3].

Small inaccuracies of this kind are significant because throughout the book the author makes sweeping statements, which are often not specifically substantiated.  Readers, asked to take her comments on trust, need to be sure that she evaluates her sources correctly and interprets them with precision.  Thus, on p.442, Homans states that in the 1970s Britain “began to spin into confusion and self doubt”, but what is her evidence?  I assume this refers either to the turbulent industrial relations of the period, or possibly to the fact that the UK joined the EEC in 1973[4], but the reader is left guessing at the evidence.

Then on p.446, Homans writes that by 2001 when de Valois died “the company she had created seventy years before was in a state of artistic and financial free fall”.  Perhaps it is an oblique reference to the brief directorship of Ross Stretton, which began with the 2001/2002 season, but at the time of de Valois’ death, the Royal Ballet had recently  moved back into the Royal Opera House, Birmingham Royal Ballet was already firmly established, and Dowell’s final season had received both critical and audience success[5].

Reading this book, I question what Homans chose to leave out and what to emphasise.  An example of an omission is the fact that the only reference to the ballet Coppélia is in the introduction (un-indexed, at p.xx).   As for errors of emphasis, Keynes is repeatedly credited with a key role in the establishment of British ballet: for example, Homans writes (p. 411) “When Diaghilev died in 1929, many of them joined Keynes in establishing the Carmargo Society”.  This is misleading:  Guest[6] writes that the Camargo Society “was formed, at the suggestion of Philip Richardson and Arnold Haskell”, Vaughan[7] confirms this, and Anderson[8] adds that he became Treasurer of the Society “the next year”.  Keynes certainly played a significant role, in making the Camargo Society solvent, and also as Chairman both of CEMA and the first Chairman of the Board of the Royal Opera House[9], but I do not think that he should be bracketed with de Valois and Ashton as one of the founders of British Ballet, while more significant players such as Lambert and Rambert are passed over (as for example, on p.540).

The problem is that this is not a scholarly work (and I am not sure that the author would claim this either);  it is an interesting, stimulating and very personal interpretation of a vast amount of research carried out over a period of ten years.  Homans states that she “wrote this history to answer the questions that grew out of my life as a dancer” (p.xxiii).  My question is, can we, the readers rely on her conclusions when the book includes so many generalizations and inaccuracies?  I think that we cannot, and I certainly would not recommend it as a source book, but that does not make it any the less enjoyable to read.

Maggie Watson

[1] GuestThe dancer’s heritage, 4th ed. 1970,  p.10-11

[2] Volynsky.  Ballet’s magic kingdom:  selected writings on dance in Russia, 1911 – 1925 (ed. Rabinowitz), 2008

[3] Civilisation:  a personal view by Lord Clark.  Viewing notes, p.11

[4] Joining the EEC may have had an impact on the international profile of dancers in British companies, due to changes to rules on the right to work in the UK, but Homans does not explore this.

[5] Anderson.  The Royal Ballet:  75 years, p.288 “Stretton was also appointed before the critical and audience success of Dowell’s last season”.

[6] Guest.  Adeline Genée:  a lifetime of ballet under six reigns, 1958, p.174

[7] Vaughan.  Frederick Ashton and his ballets, 2nd ed. 1999, p.44

[8] Anderson.  The Royal Ballet:  75 years, p.20

[9] de Valois, in Lydia Lopokova (ed. Milo Keynes), 1983 , p.111