The Most Beautiful Language

For four centuries, ballet has presented human anatomy at its most aspiring and celestial

The first ten years of this new millennium witnessed a stately rollout of big books on ballet. Margot Fonteyn (2004) and Rudolf Nureyev (2007) each received definitive studies that were far more ruminative and raw than the numerous previous biographies. Between 2001 and 2006, the great American choreographer Jerome Robbins was the subject of not one, not two, but three huge works. And in 2007, we got the first book—with at least one more announced—on the protean intellect and impresario Lincoln Kirstein. While ballet onstage is desperately trying to find a place in our inattentive and increasingly lowbrow culture, writers have been happily taking the measure of the last century, letting the longer view bring light to subjects on which we seemingly can’t get enough. Or perhaps it’s that we can’t bear to let them go, can’t bear to move from the past to the present, where even the most talented classical dancers, choreographers and impresarios seem to be working in a void.

Into this climate of uncertainty and assessment, Jennifer Homans has delivered another big book—one that pulls itself up, drops its shoulders, and lifts its chin to get the longest view of all. “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” takes the measure of the last four centuries, showing us exactly when and why the unlikely art of ballet came into being, and how, growing more unlikely with every century, it evolved and survived.

Those who “get” ballet at first glance—an event that typically happens in childhood and usually at a matinee of “The Sleeping Beauty”—would never use the word “unlikely” to describe this art. For us dreamers, ballet needs no context or explanation; it is at once and forever the most bewitchingly beautiful language in the world, the human anatomy at its most aspiring, celestial and “likely.” For all the rest, ballet can look artificial, archaic or absurd.

How to explain this art form to them? Ms. Homans, a former dancer turned academic, has focused on answering the question: “How had the art come to embody ideas, or a people, or a time?” For while the story she tells begins very specifically in France, in the 16th century, it crosses continents and plays politics. “Ballet,” she writes, “was shaped by the Renaissance and French Classicism, by revolutions and Romanticism, by Expressionism and Bolshevism, modernism and the Cold War.” “Apollo’s Angels,” then, is the intellectual history of a deeply physical form. Ms. Homans lays the stress on ideas—and, by extension, idealism.

Her very first sentence reads like the beginning of a fairy tale: “When the French king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal alliance, and it is here that the history of ballet begins.” This chapter, “Kings of Dance,” is a tour de force, with Ms. Homans unleashing passages of description as if they were Olympian thunderbolts. Speaking of the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, which was established in 1570 by Charles IX and whose purpose was to bring an inclusive, pacific spirituality to theater and art, she writes, “these poets believed that hidden beneath the shattered and chaotic surface of political life lay a divine harmony and order—a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God.” Here were the theoretical foundations of ballet, which needed only to be codified into a technique—”the length, duration, measure, and geometry of a step”—and would then “elevate man . . . and bring him closer to the angels and God.” Court etiquette, state strategy, the vanity of kings, the evolution of stagecraft, the shift toward illusion, the use of the instep, the symbolism of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the move from court to theater and from performers who were courtiers to trained dancers—Ms. Homans takes the reins of all these developments and drives them to a breathtaking culmination: classical dance. “It was a vision and defense of nobility,” she writes, “not as a social class but as an aesthetic and way of life.”

In the chapters that follow, Ms. Homans proves adept at guiding the converging aspects of history into powerful punctuations. “The idea that dance could tell a story better than words, that it could express some essential human truth with a moral force that words simply could not convey: this was an idea that came directly out of the French Enlightenment. And it was this idea that changed ballet from a decorative ornament to the independent narrative art form that we think of today as the story ballet.” She makes clear the genesis of the new form’s conventions and metaphors. Why, for example, the corps de ballet is invariably dressed in white. During the French Revolution, Ms. Homans explains, women who wore “simple white tunics became powerful symbols of a nation cleansed of corruption and greed. . . . The corps de ballet as a group of women (never men) in white thus took its cue from the Revolution: they represented the claims of the community (and the nation) over those of the individual.” She continually shows us that, while ballet may be wordless, it is an art that carries meanings and subtexts, which can be explicated and analyzed. It is just as serious as painting, sculpture and music, and in some ways more so, because it is born of all three.

A book of this breadth is going to have its own biorhythms—chapters that engage the author’s mind and heart wholly, where everything clicks and the thinking is virtually kinetic, and chapters that don’t come as easily. Ms. Homans is at her best when the ideological agenda at hand aspires to discipline, precision and refinement. Her French section is masterful, as are the chapters on the rise of the ballerina, the Danish style, Imperial Russian classicism, and British ballet. When she characterizes Margot Fonteyn’s dancing—”Her line was pure and unornamented. . . . It was as if she had removed the jewelry from the Russian aristocratic tradition”—she could be describing her own writing. The chapters on Italian and Soviet ballet, however, though no less erudite, are less keen and somewhat airless. “Lacking the security and raison d’être of a court,” Ms. Homans writes, “Italian ballet became an unthinking and gymnastic art.” And under Stalin classical dance was often a mindgame, dramas that lauded “life in a socialist paradise.” The wrong ideas do not lead Ms. Homans into flight.

The last two chapters of “Apollo’s Angels” cover American ballet in the 20th century—the very century we’re still in the process of assessing. Here, one has the opportunity to measure Ms. Homans’s opinions in a more immediate way. Why, I wondered, does she so underrate Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid”? Can it really be true that Antony Tudor’s “Echoes of Trumpets” is better than his “Undertow”? But how refreshing to read an appraisal of the ever-complicated Jerome Robbins that doesn’t take him to the woodshed for not being George Balanchine. As for Balanchine, he is very much the natural apogee of both ballet history and this book—aristocratic classicism come full circle with a twist. Reading in Ms. Homans’s first chapter about the wildly mythical and religious reaches of early ballet, I couldn’t help thinking of Balanchine’s desire to end his 1962 “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with, in his words, “a big vision of Mary standing on the sun, wrapped in the moon, with a crown of twelve stars on her head and a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns . . . the revelation of St. John.” He didn’t, he said, because “people would think I was an idiot.” The Académie’s original impulse for a surpassing spiritual synthesis—for revelations—was still coursing after four centuries!

Ms. Homans has acute observations to make about Balanchine—that his first American ballet, “Serenade,” was also the first ballet to use both third-person and first-person forms, for instance. Her writing on “Agon,” a 1957 masterpiece that is as radical as it is “rooted in classical forms,” elegantly displays the multiple levels of meaning—personal, political, poetic—that breathe within the best ballets. Balanchine may have pooh-poohed deep analysis of his work, but his achievements invite it. This section of the book doesn’t quite transcend the sum of its parts as one wants it to. But then, only 27 years since his death in 1983, Balanchine’s genius may still loom too large to be contained.

“Apollo’s Angels” ends with an epilogue that is mournful about the prospects for ballet’s survival. Ms. Homans is not alone in this feeling, but that she actually danced many of the works she writes about makes her sadness mean more. The art of ballet is indeed imperiled—undermined, as Ms. Homans writes, by cynicism, the “compartmentalization of culture,” the loss of distinct national dance styles, the politicized fear of elitism and a public that thinks ballet “the province of dead white men and society ladies in long-ago places.” Nevertheless, the publication of “Apollo’s Angels” is itself a moment in the magnificent history of classical dance. Yes, the sun is in eclipse, but as this book shows us, the art and its ideals have weathered many a void, only to shine again.

Ms. Jacobs is the dance critic of the New Criterion and the author of “Landscape With Moving Figures: A Decade on Dance” (2006).


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