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Monday, April 25, 2011

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

Apollo's Angels:
A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans
p. 2010

     Rarely do I buy a book for myself based on a review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, but I'll buy a book for my wife, and such was the case here.  As I recall, the reviewer had nothing but kind things to say about Homans' work, and from a certain perspective, I agree.  For one, Homans has to be the first ballerina/historian who can both describe the entire history of ballet from a technical/dance standpoint while at the same time adhering to a rigorous scholarly method which includes source materials in six different language.  For another, it appears that this book is the first comprehensive "History of Ballet" written in English.  Finally, Homans possesses a fluid and readable writing style that makes digesting a technically rich 500+ page history of ballet manageable task.

   Those are the positives.  On the negative side is Homans lack of any critical historical perspective beyond "describing the history of ballet accurately."  In her introduction, Homans says, "I have resisted too the kind of thinking that assumes a dance does not exist until it is seen by an audience- that it is the reception rather the the creation of a work of art that determines it meaning.  In this view, all art unstable and changing: its value depends entirely on who is seeing it, not on what the artist intended."

  I actually sighed out loud when I read that paragraph, because to me, it is the relationship between Artist and Audience that is worth exploring.  I think Homans reluctance to embrace this perspective stems from her experience as a critic ("Currently the dance critic for the New Republic") but at the same time it means that she doesn't really explore why Ballet has lost the hearts and minds of the general public, leaving her to write a "Ballet is Dead/Dying" conclusion without offering any insight as to why other then offering "Artist exhaustion."  Oh really?

   After reading Apollo's Angels, the history of ballet looks like a three act play:  First act, everything up to the Cold War:  The French/Italian origins of Ballet in the Court of the French monarch, and the regional ballets of the 18th and 19th century in places like Vienna and Denmark- Ballet takes shape. Second act:  The Cold War: between America and Russia and the mass media Ballet has its mass media moment: television, movies, barnstorming world wide tours and state sponsored support.  Third act: Creative exhaustion- Ballet gets "too cool for school" and starts thinking that it is bigger than the Audience, leading to literally twenty different ballets featuring "Rape" as a prominent theme.

     If there is one thing that I find to be consistent across all art forms it is that artistic avant gardes always think themselves bigger then the audience, and they are always wrong.  Ballet is no exception.

   In its audience alienating approaches, post Cold War ballet apes other Artistic disciplines.  And that is all well and good, but it costs a shit ton of money to do ballet up right, and if you can't sell tickets, then it is going to be tough to stay relevant.  In ballet, in any art form, Artists may despise their Audience, but to ignore them is to render the form irrelevant to the very people whose attention makes Art possible.

  So tip of the cap to Homans for doing such a bang up job pulling together the sources and possessing the skill set to be able to describe the entire history of ballet in such a way that Random House would publish her book, but did this book spur me to any further interest in Ballet.  No.  Ballet is dead, Homans says it herself in the conclusion.  Sad fact, but true, the end.

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