In her magisterial history of classical dance, Jennifer Homans tells the story of ballet's life over four centuries: dance conventions and dance-obsessed people, ideas and political movements, sacred and profane gestures. Apollo's Angels is a cultural history of the highest order—like Anne Hollander's Seeing Through Clothes or Frances Yates's The Art of Memory. The book, with its quiet, encyclopedic knowledge, relates more than a decade spent in archives around the world, reading generations of scholars. The result is neither a digital-age mash-up nor an overlong compilation of "the greatest dance stories of all time." Homans is wholly uninterested in the culture wars dominating academic discussions about the performing arts. Backstage gossip and cults of personality don't monopolize her attention but are instead harnessed into a greater narrative: that of the humanizing function of dance—the historical role of ballet as a Platonic ideal. By watching beautiful ballets, we become more noble versions of ourselves.
Homans—the widow of the late historian Tony Judt—brings to the page a practical knowledge gained in an earlier career as a dancer. Thus she leaps easily from big-picture political trends in one sentence to the minutiae of a dancer's steps in the next, from how dances were made to who the patrons were. (The czars sat in a gold-encrusted box in the middle of the theater and made a display of their entrance; Stalin snuck in through a private entrance to a bulletproof bunker with its own stash of vodka.) As for what types of government forge the best conditions for ballet, Homans's answer is, unfortunately for us, monarchies and dictatorships.
Constituting a sort of prelude to the book are the melancholy articles about ballet and modern dance that Homans has written over the past decade for the New Republic and the New York Times. In an obituary she wrote for Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009, Homans affectionately compared his dances to seashells. But such affection is rare: Homans has more often scolded journalists for focusing on salacious gossip and chided ballet masters for trying to duplicate the successes of earlier decades, thus devaluing the form. Writing in the New Republic about Julie Kavanagh's biography of superstar dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Homans grumbled, "Nureyev was not always performing his sex life. Sometimes he was just dancing." Of Peter Martins's reign at the New York City Ballet after the legendary George Balanchine died, Homans wrote in the Times that "lifeless orthodoxy reigns."
Homans's overwhelming nostalgia for a culture where ballet played an enlightening role both makes for fascinating reading and locks her into a predictable conclusion: Ballet is dead. This is not exactly a new charge. The poet and dance critic Edwin Denby asked in 1944, "Where are the new serious ballets?" The New Yorker's longtime dance critic Arlene Croce complained in 1971 that the New York City Ballet "isn't what it used to be." But by embedding the death of ballet in its history, Homans does more to establish the significance of its loss. She uses the word etiquette frequently to describe her beloved art, by which she means not just manners but a way of comporting oneself, an ethical code. This is an old-fashioned book, and admirably so. It chronicles the sheer variety of forms ballet has taken, from a dance depicting the Pythagorean part of Plato's dialogues, to a fairy tale about a beautiful girl trapped in a swan's body (Swan Lake ), to Balanchine's 1957 Agon, an abstract work set to music by Stravinsky that "piles blocks of movement and music one on top of the other."
Homans poetically calls ballet "an art of memory, not history," and she has a talent for evoking the dances and the dancers—little record remains of either—without prettifying them or dumbing them down. Here she is on how "the first modern ballets," the nineteenth century's La Sylphide and Giselle, transformed eighteenth-century pantomime-dance into Romantic classics: "They broke the hold on dance of words, pantomime, and the story ballet and completely shifted the axis of the art—it was no longer about men, power, and aristocratic manners; classical gods and heroic deeds; or even quaint village events and adventures. Instead, it was an art of women devoted to charting the misty inner worlds of dream and imagination." Describing the stumpy body of Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, she writes: "He was just five feet four inches in height, and had a long, thick neck, and narrow, femininely sloping shoulders, muscular arms (he lifted weights), and a slim, elongated torso." His thighs, she writes, were "grasshopper-like."
In the book's first part, ballet is invented in the sixteenth-century French court as both a comic interlude for opera and plays and an homage to the divine. Philosophers at the earliest school for ballet saw a chance, through drama and dance, as Homans puts it, to "take man's troublesome passions and physical desires and redirect them toward a transcendent love of God." Initially, ballets were allegorical tales based on Greek myths. But ballet could also celebrate the king's power: Louis XIII performed in some spectacles, playing the role of Apollo or the Sun. The Enlightenment did the most to set the course—it reinvented ballet by popularizing theatrical genres (effectively ripping the form from its royal roots) while exploiting them. One philosopher took a particular interest. Impatient with the most aristocratic aspects of the art, Rousseau wanted dancers to pay less attention to courtly etiquette and more to Aristotelian tragedy. He wrote that this could be accomplished by taking dancers to, as it were, "the foot of a cliff."
At the same time, demiurges in other countries continued the tradition of stealing from popular art forms to tell stories in dance. Italian and Danish innovators tried to make pantomime modern while retaining its courtly elegance. But it wasn't an easy thing to pull off, and the best solutions were the French ones, perhaps because the country's courtly traditions had the best-established rules. Homans describes the problem as Jean-Georges Noverre, the visionary eighteenth-century ballet master, must have seen it when he tried to tell serious stories with ballet: "Pantomime could not tell a complicated story. It had no way, for example, of expressing the past or the future—how could a dancer gesture that last year his mother had murdered his father?" Noverre tried to make new dances based on Greek myths, but employing a new language of gesture—less artificial than the voguing of the French court and more sophisticated than the slapstick of street theater. It should, he wrote in his Lettres, expose one's true feelings—not just the politesse expected in royal life.
In addition to new kinds of storytelling, new audiences, and new theorists of the ballet, out of the Enlightenment a new heroine appeared: the romantic ballerina whose knowing sexuality haunted and titillated audiences. Homans points out that—as the French monarchy declined, the French Revolution roiled, and bourgeois audiences emerged—"the ways in which [female] dancers slipped between art and a decadent demimonde became a dominant theme in the history of ballet." Marie-Madeleine Guimard, the daughter of peasants, delighted audiences because she was able to dance the roles of both villager and aristocrat. As Homans puts it, Guimard "brought out the queen in the peasant—and the peasant in the queen." Offstage, she was "also a brazen courtesan" entertaining multiple lovers. Guimard and the other female dancers of this era anticipated both Degas's rough erotic portraits of ballerinas at the barre and Balanchine's preoccupation with the "eternal feminine."
In Russia, ballet seemingly sprang from nothing—serfs on the great feudal estates were the first dancers. It was in the nineteenth century that ballet became the national art form: French ballet masters brought their techniques to Saint Petersburg and drew from Russian folktales and peasant dances to create a new style that flourished in the slavishly Francophile courts of the czars. In the political tumult of the nineteenth century, radicals shunned ballet as the bauble of a decadent elite, and this tension between the form of ballet and the realpolitik in the streets helped to produce the Imperial Ballet's greatest works: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. She relates how observers found Sleeping Beauty—which, in part because of Tchaikovsky's music, is one of the most revered and popular ballets in the canon—too "decorative," while others saw in the story about a princess who sleeps for a hundred years a metaphor for their own dying culture. Still others, she notes, thought it schlocky. Homans does not apologize for that, thankfully, instead deconstructing how the choreography represented the collision of different schools of thought: The ballet was an "astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game" (virtuosic footwork), as well as "an impressive act of cultural absorption" for the Russians.
As old political regimes eroded in the twentieth century, the culture that gave birth to the Imperial Russian Ballet ceased to exist. Dance needed to find a new style. In Russia, with the arrival of Communism, ballet was put in the service of propaganda, and dancers defected. With the Ballet Russes, they reinvented the form, albeit mostly from exile in France. Under the reign of visionary modernist Sergey Diaghilev, Nijinsky, one of the greatest dancers of the modern era, created a style of dance that was fast, international, unsentimental, and "self-consciously Russian" all at once. It was also sensational. The shocking eroticism of the most infamous Ballet Russes collaborations, like L'Après-midi d'un faune—where Nijinsky, after the faun eludes him, masturbates onstage—became a trope for modern narcissism.
Homans finds more meaning in the dance's dispassionate, clumsy movements. Looking at the archival still photos of Nijinsky, the only record of how he moved, Homans sees him "reaching" out of the poses, straining to catch something ephemeral, maybe dance itself. Here, as elsewhere, Homans is less interested in ballet as a metaphor for ecstasy or sex than in grounding Nijinsky in the social and cultural events of his era. As she wrote in a different context—a 1987 letter to the New York Times correcting an article about dance's sensuality—"I think, therefore I am . . . therefore I dance." This intellectual approach sometimes blinds her to dance's role as an erotic barometer: At the turn of the twentieth century, when audiences began to empathize with gay and bisexual dancers for the first time, ballet became progressive. Homans nods to this trend but neglects to describe how the more recent mainstreaming of gay culture may have contributed to the fact that the form now seems stale.
The familiar story of how ballet "came to America" is that of George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, and other geniuses. Homans eschews clichés about the slangy "American" jazz-inflected choreography of the Robbins–Leonard Bernstein collaboration Fancy Free, preferring instead to dissect The Cage, Robbins's violent ballet about female insects devouring male intruders. Robbins has been a polarizing figure—a tormented American Jew, an ambivalent pre-Stonewall homosexual, and a namer of names during the McCarthy era—but Homans understands him as the product of the sort of psychological and social forces that create good ballet.
The melancholy of Homans's tone increases as she nears the present era, and especially on the subject of Balanchine. Born in Russia in 1904, he worked with the Ballets Russes in Paris and came to New York in the 1930s at the invitation of Kirstein. In the American cultural renaissance after World War II, Mr. B. made dance fashionable in part because he made no excuses for it: Ballet simply was. Homans takes Balanchine's reverence for the sacred, both in his dances and in his training of dancers, as an echo of ballet's origins. Like icons, his dances "bring the worshipper into another spiritual world more real than the real."
By the time the book ends, with Balanchine's death in 1983, Homans's lament has become wearying. And yet I know what she's getting at. Visiting Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the finish of a Moscow Art Theatre production of The Three Sisters, the audience rose to its feet in applause that seemed to last for half an hour. The heartfelt devotion had little in common with the self-congratulatory ovations I have witnessed at the ends of Broadway plays. But maybe that's the point—the reverence for what happens onstage arises out of an understanding that it can only be, like love, ephemeral. Homans would probably call this faith.
Audiences, it seems, have lost their taste for ballet. Or maybe they're just no longer capable of imagining story and mood when evoked through music and gesture and on a stage of fantastic, leaping figures—it's too far from today's concept of realism. So what are contemporary performers and scholars in love with this art form supposed to do? By longing for ballet's golden eras—many of which were politically and socially conservative—Homans implicitly poses this question. Indeed, it is her responsibility as a critic to do so. But no intellectual lament, no matter how persuasive or urgent, can make Apollo's angels vital today. For that, another genius needs to emerge.
Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, including The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, forthcoming from Penguin Press in 2011.