I don’t know much about dance, haven’t been in the audience much until recent years, and have a concomitant ignorance of its history. Apollo’s Angels explores the history of classical ballet and its many forms since its origins in (didn’t know this one) the 18th century court of Louis XIV. Homans is passionate about her subject, and her descriptions of dance its metaphorical relationships to society are powerful. It’s idealized humanity, a hierarchal system of beauty and movement as elite as it is exclusive. And mostly, that’s good. The last pages trace the post WWII growth of ballet in Europe and the U.S. These were the ages of exiled Russians who carried imperial traditions to the west and transformed them into forms appropriate to the new times. Balanchine–steeped in traditions of Tchaikovsky and the Russian Orthodox religion, for example worked with Stravinsky to create works that looked both backward to their heritage and forward to the emerging new world.
Homans’ description of how all this happened in human and historical terms is spellbinding. How immigrant jews from Russian/New Jersey made great art with American kids from Kansas. How Jerome Robbins crossed back and forth between broadway and classical work. Fantastic stories which she tells very well. However, as she describes the various choreographers’ works, it becomes clear that the book is intended for an audience which knows much more about dance than I do. So when we’re trying do a comparison/contrast between Balanchine’s Agon and Tudor’s Lilac Garden, complete with hand and foot positions relative one to the other, I’m wandering lost in the woods.
Surprising to me, was her verdict re the current state of dance. Lost its way. Nothing fresh happening. Everything has become swan lake and nutcracker or far out experimental stuff. Nothing in between. Thus, classical ballet is dead or dying. Maybe she’s right. Maybe, as Moss Hart responded to the oft-proclaimed death of broadway with his book, The Fabulous Invalid, someone else is waiting in the wings with a parallel work re ballet and there are new juices flowing our way.
Whatever the case, I’m glad I read what I did, glad I didn’t go for more. I’ll be a bit more enlightened next time I go to the ballet, even if I am watching what Holman sees as a moribund art.