Apollo’s Angels, part IV

Sorry about the break.

From chapter 9: Left Behind? Communist Ballet from Stalin to Brezhnev
This is possibly the weakest chapter of the book. Homans makes the same mistake that Alex Ross makes in the Rest is Noise when talking about Soviet Russia, which is twofold. One is that she accepts too easily the predominant ideological views of Soviet Russia in the West, and the second one is to view it too monolithically, without its own internal changes and processes. It is far too easy from our point of view of ‘victors’ of the Cold War to regard Soviet Russia as a historical aberration, and simplistically divide its artists into two categories. There were those who sought artistic freedom and defected to the West (or at least fought for Western ideas of art within the Soviet Union), and those who fit well within the framework of Soviet concepts of art (changing and complex as those were), who we relegate all too easily to status of lesser artists.
To me this chapter reads as no less a living history of ballet than that in France of the nineteenth century: there were dominant streams of thinking, there were those opposed to it; the government exerted a strong influence determining which will be the dominant, and as the government changed so did the ideology of dance. What’s most important is that ballet was a central part of Russian society of the twentieth century, popular both with the masses and the various governments in power. Some of the ballets were comparable to the ones the West was used to, and some were not. “With Romeo and Juliet, it was still possible to believe that Peter the great’s “window on the West” was open, at least a crack. With Spartacus it had been slammed shut: this was the Bolshoi, the East, and a defiantly Slavophile form of art. There was no common ground. This is what made it exciting, of course, but it is also what put it beyond the critical pale.” p. 392, 393 But surely, this can be said about how Italy perceived French ballet in the nineteenth century, that some translated better than others. Why should Russian ballet of this entire period be beholden to an external criterion (a Western one) unlike any other period tied to a specific country? Homans has to explain Stalinist Russia’s ballet to Western audiences because we are inheritors of an ideology that views anything coming out of the East from the Cold War period with suspicion and derision if not downright dismissing it.
That things were not necessarily thus, shows the story Homans tells about “the British dancer Antoinette Sibley, who had seen [Galina] Ulanova in a stage rehearsal for the ballet, later described her astonishment: “She was a mess. Like an old lady…she looked a hundred…And then she just suddenly started dreaming. And in front of our very eyes – no make-up, no costume – she became fourteen [dancing Juliet]…And our hearts! We couldn’t even breathe. And then she did that run across the stage after the poison scene: well – we were all screaming and yelling, like at a football match.” Things were no idfferent on opening night: Ulanova received thirteen ovations and ecstatic reviews.” p. 372
This is not to say that ballet in Russia and Britain were not different from one another. Only that they each stood on their own ground: just as we wouldn’t explain British ballet (in the following chapter) by constant reference to Russia, there is no need to explain Russian ballet with constant reference to the West.

From chapter 10: Alone in Europe: The British Moment
At this point in the book we are on familiar territory. This is neither too far in the past, nor is it in an exotic land. British ballet starts after World War I, and picks up in the thirties. And the names that establish it are familiar to us from other contexts. “None of the Russian ballet’s many admirers, however, would be more central to the future of British ballet than John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is usually remembered as the preeminent economist of the twentieth century, but he was also deeply involved with classical dance and a key player in creating a thriving British ballet.” p. 409
The figures who would dominate British ballet were Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn. De Valois was born Edris Stannus, and the name change tells a story in itself, that one was more marketable in Britain as a dancer with a Russian name, such was the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In the time period between when de Valois danced and Fonteyn danced, British ballet stood up on its own two feet. “In the 1950s Margot Fonteyn was British ballet.” p. 429.
No sooner was British ballet put on its feet, and there were already oppositions and counter streams. “By 1958 Ashton was under direct attack fro a new and angry generation, led by the Scottish-born choreographer and dancer Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992).” p. 431 Although the big three worked on until the seventies and eighties, the counter-culture of the sixties brought its own challenges, as you might imagine. But what comes through over and over in this book, and why I like it so much, is how continuity sometimes leads down a dead end, and how conflict sometimes pushes an art along. “He [MacMillan] wanted ballet to be brutal and realistic, a theatrical art that could capture a generation’s disillusionment and chart the depths of his own troubled emotions. It was an understandable impulse, but macMillan completely misread the tradition he had inherited; or perhaps he believed in it too much. Instead of pushing ballet in new directions, he revealed its fundamental limits – and then failed to recognize them.” p. 444
“It is no accident that MacMillian’s best ballets were also elegies – to Cranko, to the soldiers of the First Wold War, to love, to ballet itself. Nor is it surprising that his most brutally representative dances – created right up against our own time – have faded an appear today hopelessly dated and trite. Ashton’s ballets, by contrast, remain beautiful and uplifting. […] They are exactly what Keynes had hoped British ballet would always be: “serious and fine entertainment.” p. 446, 447

The last two chapters, on America, and the Epilogue in the next installment. Stay tuned…


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