It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in Apollo's Angels. She has written the only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet…She has taken this world where wilis, virgins, sylphs, sleeping princesses, the "women in white" embody the eternalthe eternally unattainableand set it into the fabric of world history, and we see, miraculously, their pale tulle and satin pointes peeking out from the crevices of war, of revolutions, of political machinations, and on the stages of the monarchies and empires of the kings and czars who gave birth to this improbable art. Homans's accomplishment is akin to setting the most delicate and beautiful of all the imperial Fabergé eggs into a fissure high on Mount Rushmore and tracking its unlikely survival.
The New York Times
In an important and original work of cultural history, New Republic dance critic Homans places ballet--an art often viewed as hermetic and esoteric--in the larger context of the times and societies in which it evolved, flourished, and flagged, only to be revitalized by an infusion of fresh ideas. That revitalization could come from a ballet master like Jean-Georges Noverre, presented by Homans as an important Enlightenment figure whose ideas on reforming ballet were consonant with those of Diderot on reforming theater. Renewal came from the genius of dancers like Marie Taglioni, the incarnation of romanticism, whose originality, Homans indisputably shows, reached far beyond dancing up on her tippy-toes. But in a closing section that will be hotly debated, this exhilarating account sounds a despairing note: "ballet is dying," she declares. Not only is the creative well running dry and performances dull, but more crucially, Homans sees today's values as inimical to those of ballet ("We are all dancers now," she writes, evoking what she sees as a misguided egalitarianism that denies an art rooted in discipline and virtuosity). Her cultural critique, as well as her expansive and penetrating view of ballet's history, recommend this book to all readers who care about the history of the arts as well as their present and possible future. Color and b&w illus. (Nov.)
The only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet . . . an eloquent and lasting elegy to an unlasting art.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A delight to read, massively informed yet remarkably agile . . . The story of ballet offers a singular perspective on the evolution of our culture: a fascinating mirror on the arts. Nowhere is this narrative told more amply and compellingly than in Jennifer Homans’s triumphant Apollo’s Angels.”—The Washington Post
“Here is a book of immense ambition—a one-volume history of ballet—and of considerable accomplishment. Jennifer Homans, whom we know primarily as The New Republic’s provocative dance critic, shows herself to be both dogged and graceful as a historian—a rare and welcome combination of qualities.”—The New York Review of Books
“Intellectually rigorous, beautifully written, brilliantly structured.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Magnificent . . . [a] monumental work.”—The Boston Globe
“Each page of this luminous work delights, enlightens and beckons. Every dancer should live with this book, of course, but every person who loves literature and history, is word-struck and story-addicted, should give themselves a treat with Apollo’s Angels. Treasure this treasure.”—Jacques d’Amboise
“This is a wonderful book about how ballet evolved. Written by a gifted dancer, Apollo’s Angels is dance history seen from the inside. The wonder to me is how much this accessible, beautifully-crafted book reveals about the times and places in which ballets were made; it makes culture come alive.”—Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsman
“A dancer who is also a historian—who ever dreamed of such an improbable creature? But here is Jennifer Homans and her indispensable book. She puts the understanding of ballet on a whole new footing. Finally the delicacies of ballet have been restored to the indelicacies of history, and the art seems even more wondrous for it. Apollo’s Angels is an enlightenment, a remarkable feat of scholarship and sensibility, an affecting mixture of criticism and devotion, an intellectual joy.”—Leon Wieseltier
A magisterial and often moving history of the silent art by a former dancer and current journalist.
New Republic dance critic Homans confronts her historical problems immediately—most ballets are lost. Because of difficulties with notation, the evanescent nature of movement itself and the relatively late arrival of visual-recording technology, we will never really know how Vaslav Nijinsky moved—or how his many other predecessors created, defined and refined the dance. The author also expresses her fear that ballet is dying, a theme she revisits in a sadly valedictory section at the end. After stating these admonitions and worries, Homans leaps into European history, beginning with the 16th-century French, whose lavish court entertainments fathered the art. Later, she notes that Charles Perrault's 1697 story "Sleeping Beauty" would achieve enormous significance in ballet history (it was Balanchine's earliest and last dance experience). The author examines the increasing importance of story in ballets of the 18th century and credits Marie Antoinette for aiding ballet's success. In the 19th century, the ballerina began to soar in importance (here the author tells the story of Marie Taglioni). The scene then shifts to Denmark, where August Bournonville inspired a dance revolution. Next is Italy, where the art flourished before political and military matters fractured it. Unsurprisingly, Homans devotes many pages to the Russians, whose techniques of training and staging were dominant for decades. She looks at the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nijinska, Ulanova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and other luminaries known and forgotten. The British had their (brief) time in the sun, but Homans shifts her focuse to Balanchine (who deservedly dominates the final sections), Joffrey, Robbins and many others in the American school.
The author artfully choreographs a huge, sometimes unruly cast, producing a work of elegance, emotion and enduring importance.