Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo’s Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo’s Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.
says her publisher, Random House. If fact all the critics have praised her style and the breadth of this work. Jennifer MacDonald in the Ney York Times writes:
Apollo’s Angels” traces four centuries of ballet — from its origins in 16th-century France to its elevation in the court of Versailles, through the Renaissance, Bolshevism, modernism and the cold war — describing the dance’s evolutions and revolutions in the context of political, philosophical and aesthetic currents. “The steps were never just the steps,” Ms. Homans writes. “They were a set of beliefs.”
The book took 10 years to research and write, but it was a lifetime in the making. “I think I was always stranded between two worlds,” said Ms. Homans, who has been the dance critic for The New Republic since 2001 and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University. “When I was dancing, I always had a book in my hand, and when I was in the world of my childhood — and later the academic world — I always had a foot in the dance studio.
In the Wall Street Journal, Laura Jacobs quotes:
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.”
But this book has get everyone talking because of its provocative claim. Rachel Howard in the San Francisco Chronicle writes:
Jennifer Homans begins and ends her weighty new cultural history of ballet with a provocative old claim: Ballet is dead. Let’s set aside the obvious question of why anyone would invest 10 years of research and 643 pages in a moribund art; let’s set aside, too, Homans’ withering tone and spurious framing (we’ll get to that). Forget the possibility that this death-knell sounding might be merely a shrewd publicity maneuver (Homans seems too earnest). Ignore, for now, the panicky reactions – pro and con – that the slim epilogue to “Apollo’s Angels” is sure to provoke. Predictable controversies should not be allowed to obscure the tremendous achievement of this book.
Laura Jacobs sums it up:
“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.
- When the Critic Says an Art Form Is Dying (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The Most Beautiful Language (online.wsj.com)
- Nick’s Picks: Five Winners (finebooksmagazine.com)
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.