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Review: Dancer, historian Jennifer Homans on pointe in 'Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet'

I was the rare sort of little girl who never had aspirations to be a ballerina. A klutz from birth, I was unmoved by pink leotards and The Nutcracker , my career ambitions as a small child tending toward cowgirl or jockey. (Actually, I wanted to be a horse, but that's another story.)

Given my lack of the tutu gene, it came as a very pleasant surprise to find myself enthralled with Jennifer Homans' Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet . Erudite and engaging at once, this book is not only a fascinating, fact-packed survey of almost 500 years of ballet, but a cultural history of the world in which it grew and changed.

Homans' timing is good, given the current interest in the ballet film Black Swan . But she also brings unusual qualifications to this task. She is both a former professional dancer — she performed with the San Francisco Ballet and other troupes — and a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University with a doctorate in modern European history. She brings to Apollo's Angels the historian's perspective and the dancer's physical understanding, a rare and useful combination. What's more, she is a clear, lively and often vivid writer, which is not always the case for cultural historians.

Ballet has been seen as everything from an ethereal, idealized art that can raise humans closer to the gods (hence the title of Apollo's Angels ) to a bawdy and indecent display of unclad bodies. But this book begins with ballet's roots in the 16th century French court. There, it was an extension of the elaborate, highly codified etiquette demanded of the nobility, whose every gesture could be freighted with meaning.

The first ballets were expressions of hierarchy and power, and were danced by court members themselves, including Louis XIV, the Sun King, during whose extraordinary 72-year reign ballet achieved its first great flowering. An accomplished dancer, Louis observed a grueling schedule of practice and, at age 15, danced the lead role in the 13-hour Le Ballet de la Nui t.

Although the court was ballet's biggest influence in the 17th century, Homans explores other factors as well, such as the growing popularity of opera and the theatrical training many French aristocrats received in Jesuit schools. In that period, ballet was danced only by men; women's roles were performed by men en travesti .

Even as ballet's steps and positions were codified by the development of methods of notation, the 18th century and the Enlightenment began to change it. Homans details ballet's shift from a court entertainment to a popular form, from a show of rank to a method of storytelling. Influential dancers and choreographers — Gaetan Vestris, Marie Sall é, Marie Taglioni, Jean-Georges Noverre, Pierre Gardel — all take their places in the process.

She explores the ascendancy of the ballerina over the male dancer, dishes a soupcon or two of gossip and expands her analysis to the impact of the larger culture, from the plays of Moliere to the complex effects of the French Revolution. Ballet, of course, expanded its reach beyond France, and Homans writes about its permutations in Germany, Austria, Italy and the Scandinavian nations.

In the book's second half, she details ballet's great blossoming in Russia, initially as part of Peter the Great's sweeping Westernization of the once-isolated nation in the late 17th century. The czar imported ballet as a way of reforming and cultivating his court, but it became enormously popular in Russian culture, influenced by everything from "serf theater," the lavish operas and dances performed by the slaves of aristocrats, to the modernism of such influential later figures as impresario and Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev and the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Again, Homans links ballet with the surrounding culture — the politics of tsars and revolutionaries, the music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, and, as the Russian ballet migrated back to France, the works of Proust, Debussy, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse and others.

The 20th century, Homans writes, "redrew the map of classical ballet," and the book's last three chapters focus on the flowering of ballet in England (exemplified by the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn), and in the United States. In this country, where ballet had long been dismissed as an elitist and foreign art, interest was sparked by the flood of artistic refugees after the Russian Revolution, notably the charismatic ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured on the vaudeville circuit but made such an impression that when she died in 1931, "scores of dreamy American girls reportedly fell spontaneously into a state of hysteria."

And after World War II, Homans writes, came an "astonishing explosion of ballet in America," where it morphed into a supremely modernist form in the hands of choreographers like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, with political support from the likes of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and star power from celebrity dancers like Rudolf Nuryev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Ballet's influence on popular culture, from Fred Astaire to West Side Story , was for a time pervasive.

But the epilogue of Apollo's Angels , "The Masters Are Dead and Gone," reads rather like an obituary.

"In dance as in so much else," Homans writes, "we have entered an age of retrospective . . . audiences everywhere are awash in productions of Nutcracker , Swan Lake , and The Sleeping Beauty ." Not that those dances aren't classics, but where are the new works, the new choreographers, the new dancers who can sweep away audiences as their predecessors did? As Homans' passionate history of ballet makes clear, it must evolve to survive.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

By Jennifer Homans

Random House,

643 pages, $35

Review: Dancer, historian Jennifer Homans on pointe in 'Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet' 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 3:30am]

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