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. (more…)

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. (more…)