Posts tagged ‘Jennifer Homans’

July 14, 2011

Apollo’s Angels, final

Ballet is a huge, gaping hole in my education. I’ve been to a handful in my life. What made me read this book is the radio interview I heard on the radio with the author, Jennifer Homans. It was three things she said: 1) That ballet has an oral history and no fixed texts; 2) That this is the first comprehensive history of ballet ever! and 3) that ballet might be dying.

It goes without saying that the whole time I was reading the book I wanted to run out and go see a ballet. But even if I never see another ballet in my life, it would be worth reading this book for its cultural history, its scope and breadth of subject, and the brilliance of thinking that comes through in Homans’ clear writing. Frankly, reading this book has been humbling. Nothing disabuses one of erroneous beliefs and conceits of one’s time like a good history book.

One of the most fascinating things about the book is Homans’ clear grasp and exposition of all the twists and turns of history and the multiplicity of factors that go into a single cultural phenomenon. (To start with the second part there,) how classical ballet originates with French court etiquette, but is almost immediately set in a productive and fertile opposition with low entertainment like pantomime; how it is the body language of the rich, but can also be learned by the poor to move up in society. This theme crops up over and over in the book.

Homans shows (this is the first part of that sentence above) how things build on their past by breaking with it. How a direct descendant of a teacher might in fact be straying away from a tradition, and how someone desperately trying to get away from form of art, consciously or unconsciously incorporates the past, and ties it to their own work. How sometimes looking toward the past can be more radical than blindly trying to force one’s way into the future. And most cruelly, how the accomplishments of the day can mean nothing to the future often flaring and falling away, while things of the moment considered passé and démodé can turn out to be long-lasting. History, as Engels put it, is the cruelest of all the goddesses.

Not that everything always has to be measured by whether it lasts, but there is something satisfying (to me at least) how individual cultural or national traditions seemingly die out in their place of origin, only to show up woven into the national tradition of another. This idea of layering of traditions, techniques, of the language of an art and craft. When it seems to be lost in France it moves to Denmark, and just when it seems to go stale in Denmark, the Danish steps appear in the bodies of Russian dancers, etc.

Another thing that drew me to the book are my own affinities of thinking and talking about the body. How a four hundred year tradition, and a world wide art form can be seen in the body of the performer. For every great dancer in the book, Homans is able to find incredible ways of describing how their body incorporates the grammar of dance and then say something. Not with words, but with the body and movement. In the chapter on America she talks about the dancer Nora Kaye she says that she “had this kind of body, naturally opaque and without luminosity or grace.” Then talking about Balanchine’s dancers, she says that “what they did share was an unusual physical luminosity.”

The body, then, is the written text of ballet. Nor has using recording devices changed this. As she points out at the end, watching a video of someone dancing can be helpful, but it is in itself a translation of a three-dimensional form onto a two dimensional surface that then has to be retranslated back into three dimensions. Further, a video recording does not distinguish between accident and mistake: when an unforeseen thing gets incorporated into the ballet, and when it is simply discarded in future performances. Not to mention that the video is a record of a single performance, whereas a ballet can be said to be like a jazz standard, more a compilation of all the performances, variations, attempts together, rather than any single ‘definitive’ one.

So what of this claim that ballet is dying? First of all she seems to be too harsh a critic of contemporary dancers and choreographers. (If I were a dancer today I would be afraid of having her in the audience.) Secondly, perhaps her looking so far back into the past and so hard at the luminaries of the yesterday has rendered her a bit blind to the lights of today. I don’t know enough ballet to be able to say at all, nor can I vouch that the pessimism in the epilogue is not just Homans’ (particularly strong) conservatism. Who knows? But she does, herself, open the door at the end. If Balanchine is the crown jewel in the ballet tradition thus far, maybe we need someone to do something in opposition to him, to kick start another productive dynamic of history. Maybe the opposition will come between ballet’s Western tradition (here I include Russia in a broad idea of the West) and the rise of India, China, Brazil? Maybe the opposition will be a class one. If the history of ballet thus far has been a wresting of the art from the hands of the aristocracy into the hands of the bourgeoisie – a feat not fully accomplished until ballet moved into the English-speaking world and the twentieth century – perhaps in opposition to this bourgeois form there will be one of the working class…don’t let me get too Marxist on you (I already quoted Engels).

Well, I need to stop somewhere. Over at her website, the photographer Paula Lobo, has beautiful black and white photos of dancers. I thought I would share some with you here.



July 13, 2011

Apollo’s Angels, part V

Crossing the ocean…

From chapter 11: The American Century I: Russian Beginnings
It seems to me from this book that a requirement for ballet is that the state be involved. Not only was it an art that relied on stately support in Europe, but in America it only started in spurts and starts before being established on more solid footing once more powerful entities helped. “One explanation for its precipitous rise is sheer talent: its most prominent leaders, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Antony Tudor, were supremely gifted choreographers, and the dancers they worked with were no less impressive. But this alone cannot explain the force of the shift. It was the changing shape of America as much as the changing shape of dance.” p. 451
In America more powerful entities includes the state only partially. We’re talking about figures like Lincoln Kirstein. “Kirstein had no theatrical background. His grandfather, who was German and Jewish, was a lens grinder from Jena who emigrated in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, and his father had risen to a position of prominence (and wealth) as a partner at Filene’s Department Store in Boston. The family was cultivated an actively involved in the cultural and charitable life of the city. Kirstein’s father was president and patron of the Boston Public Library and his parents read widely and attended opera, ballet, and concerts. They were also Anglophiles, and as a young man Kirstein spend time in London, where he mixed with the Bloomsbury set (it was Maynard Keynes who first introduced him to the work of Gauguin and Cézanne) and went to the ballet.” p. 457
Another figure was New York city mayor Fiorello La Guardia. “La Guardia’s parents were Italian immigrants, and as a yong man he himself had lived and worked in Budapest, Triete, and Fiume. He spoke several languages, including Italian, German, French, and Yiddish (his mother was Jewish), and had a lifelong interests in music. La Guardia wanted New York to have theater, music, and dance on a par with the great European cities, and he wanted them to be affordable and accessible to working people. Top this end, in 1943 the city turned an old Shiners meeting hall on 55th Street into a performing art center, financed by wealthy New Yorkers but also by trade unions. They called it the City Center for Music and Drama.” p. 463
The New Deal arts programs, the post-war economic boom and competition with Soviet ballet during the Cold War got the state involved. “It was no accident that the grant came just four years after the Bolshoi Ballet’s first-ever tour to New York, amid wide-spread discussion of the “Soviet advantage” in state funding for the performing arts. In 1964, thanks in large measuer to Kirstein’s friendship with Nelson Rockefeller, NYCB moved from City Center to the newly minted Lincoln Center. […] By the mid-1960s, then, classical ballet was on firm footing.” p. 467

From chapter 12: The American Century II: The New York Scene
Conditions are one thing; there was also the talent. The three figures Homans choses to show ballet in America after WWII are Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and George Balanchine. Without going over everything she wrote about them, I’ll give you the little tidbits that amused me.
“[After his career stalled,] instead of regrouping or persevering, however, Tudor did something quite extraordinary: he bowed out. He retreated into Zen Buddhism, and in the course of the next four decades created very few ballets – and only one of lasting value. That one ballet, however, was hi greatest (if least known) work and a key to his perplexing withdrawal.” p. 480 Homans is referring to Echoing of Trumpets, created in 1963. “Tudor stopped short in the 1930s and ’40s; that was the story he told, and that was the limit of his talent.” p. 484
“Everybody knows Jerome Robbins.” p. 484 “He began in 1944 with Fancy Free, for Ballet Theatre. It was a landmark production – American, vernacular, and jazzy – and the first collaboration between Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. They were both twenty-five years old and the connection was immediate: like Robbins, Bernstein was the child of immigrant Russian Jews, and he too aspired to create a distinctly American style of musical art.” p. 488 [Later]”came The Age of Anxiety (1950), to the poem by W. H. Auden, again with a score by Bernstein… […] A year later, Robbins created one of the ugliest and most disturbing ballets of all time. The Cage is a twenty-five-minute orgy of savage female insects who stalk, kill, and feed on male intruders with explicit sexual pleasure. It is as relentless and driving as Stravinsky’s score, and also as poignant.” p. 489 And of course there is West Side Story, wit slightly different beginnings. “At first Robbins had imagined a Romeo and Juliet story of rival Jewish and Catholic families on the New York’s Lower East Side (working title: East Side Story).” p. 491
“Balanchine was a world apart. His ballets are the jewel in the crown of twentieth-century dance: their depth and scope far surpass those of the dances made by Robbins, Tudor, Asthon, or any of the Soviets. And even if their work at times played into his own, few doubted that Balanchine towered over them all; they were standing on his shoulders.” p. 504  (I will point out the mixed metaphor in that last sentence only because it’s such a striking gaff in Homans’ otherwise excellent writing.) “All of Balanchine’s great dancers were of course talented, but not in the ways that people often assume – long legs, turned-out feet, small head, and unusual flexibility. In fact, his featured artists never fit to this (or any other) type. […] What they did share – and this is far more important – ws an unusual physical luminosity. When a Balanchine dancer performed a step, you could see more in the movement – more dimension, more depth, more range – than you could with another dancer, no matter how perfectly shaped her legs or feet. Unconsciously or otherwise, the dancers Balanchine chose made you see. (He said of audiences: “They look but they do not see, so we must show them.”)” p. 512 He created over 400 ballets and the list of composers to whose music he set his dances is simply dizzying: Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Hindemith, Strauss, Bizet, Ravel, Glinka, Weil, Glass, Fourré, and above all Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. “”Stravinsky made time,” Balanchine once said, “not big grand time – but time that worked with the small parts of how our bodies are made.”” p. 526 And this produced fantastic results: when he and Igor made Agon in 1957, Marcel Duchamps said “that the electricity in the theater that night made him think of the premier of The Rite of Spring.” And he went on to produce works until his death in 1983.

From the epilogue: The Masters Are Dead and Gone
“After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying.” This is a stunning statement. But it comes from a very conservative outlook she has (and admits to). Perhaps looking so far back has left her without the ability to see forward. Still, she adds: “if artists do find a way to reawaken this sleeping art, history suggests that the kiss may not come from one of ballet’s own princes but from an unexpected guest from the outside – from popular culture or from theater, music, or art; from artists or places foreign to the tradition who find new reasons to believe in ballet.” Insha’Allah!

My own conclusions to follow…

July 11, 2011

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…

July 7, 2011

Apollo’s Angels, part III

On we go…

From chapter 6: Italian Heresy: Pantomime, Virtuosity, and Italian Ballet
“By rights, classical ballet should have been Italian.” This is the first line of the chapter. So in telling the history of ballet in 19th century Italy, Homans is also trying to show why it is not the case that ballet is Italian. The way I understand it, some of it has to do with ballet being tied to pantomime and hence the lower classes, so the fruitful (if fortuitous) connection ballet and court etiquette did not form the way it did in France of Louis XIV. Some of it involves the success of opera as the dominant form entertainment and artistic expression.
Pantomime is nothing to be sneered at, though. It had classical roots, and Homans retells Lucian of Samosata’s story “of a pantomime challenged by the cynic Demetrius, who claimed that the performance had been all fancy costumes and musical effect. The pantomime responded by repeating his performance without music or song. In awe Demetirus relented: “Man, this is not seeing, but hearing and seeing, both: ’tis as if your hands were tongues!”” p. 219
Some of opera’s success over ballet (again, as I understand it) had to do simply with the men who made and ran opera in Italy at the time were better than their ballet counterparts. “Italian ballet masters stubbornly – and inexplicably – persisted in writing their own scenarios. French Romantic ballet benefited immensely when poets and professionals took this important job away from ballet masters, who had never been noted for their imaginative writing or literary skills. Italian ballet masters, however, paid little heed to this important Parisian development and persisted in producing weighty, witless librettos. Opera composers, however, had always depended on the talents of librettists. Verdi was particularly adamant on the subject and took great pains to seek out (and perfect) a good libretto: “A libretto, just give me a libretto – and the opera is written!”” p. 239, 240.
But like with Danish ballet, Italian ballet is not just a side story. If the librettos were poor, the technique they developed would later influence ballet in Russia.

From chapter 7: Tsars of Dance: Imperial Russian Classicism
Ballet in Russia had a dual origin. On the one hand there was Peter and Katherine the Great’s opening to the West and imitating western mores. On the other, there were the “serf theaters,” which were run on country estates of the Russian aristocracy. “The extravagance of these country estates is hard to grasp today. By the late 1780s, Count Nikolai P. Sheremetev, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, owned as many as one million serfs. He had eight serf theaters. His modest estate at Fountain House, for example, had 340 servants, and almost everything in the manor – food, clothing, art, furniture – was imported from western Europe  at staggering cost. Paintings by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Rembrandt, and other decorated the galleries and there was a library of some twenty thousand books, mostly in French. At his estate at Kuskovo (similarly outfitted) there were two theaters, one indoor and another for fresh-air entertainments, along with a large lake on which sea battles could be staged for the pleasure of his guests, who sometimes numbered up to fifty thousand.” p. 252
However, if the conditions for ballet were good in Russia, it was still a foreign import. And as Russia’s relationship to the West went back and forth between friendly and envious on the one hand, and regressive and antagonistic on the other, so did its relationship with ballet. So it took a foreigner, Marius Petipa to bring more stability to the establishment of ballet in Russia through his long reign as ballet master, from 1847 until 1910. And even he was only successful because he not only worked with great Russians – Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909), Tchaikovsky, and basing stories on Pushkin – but also because he had decades long collaborations with them. Still when Petipa arrived in Russia, ballet could have gone either way. By the time he died, ballet as an art was as Russian as it had been French until that point. It was at this time that some of the great ballets that are still performed today were created. First there was Sleeping Beauty (“the first truly Russian ballet” p. 277), then The Nutcracker (which although set in France was a “fond depiction of Christmas à la Russe” p. 279), and, of course, Swan Lake (“perhaps the most imperfect but powerful of all Russian ballets” p. 281). The version of this last one that we know today is what Tchaikovsky was working on when he died, but derives from 1870s ballet with only a “passing resemblance.” “Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. I twas a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the  1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time.” p. 286

From chapter 8: East Goes West: Russian Modernism and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Imperial  Ballet went the way of Imperial Russia, only a little sooner. And although Sergei Diaghilev ran the Ballets Russes from 1909 to his death in 1929, the revolution happened in the few years between 1909 and 1913. “The tsar […] granted permission to borrow dancers from the Imperial Theaters for his hastily assembled company, and in the spring of 1909 Fokine, Pavlova, karsavina, Nijinsky, Benois, and Bakst led the way to Paris. […] The Ballets Russes was officially born.” p. 300 Along with a young composer, Igor Stravinsky, the Ballets Russes started their assault upon the world with The Firebird. They followed that up with Schéhérazade in 1910 with a Rimsky-Korsakov score, then Petrouchka in 1911, again with Stravinsky, and then of course the Rite of Spring in 1913.
Better than retell the story of the Ballets Russes I prefer to give you two side notes in this portion of the story of ballet. One is Homans’ footnote on page 311. “Eurythmics was a system of movement and music education pioneered by the Swiss musician Émile Jaques-Dalcroze that emphasized physical rhythms as a fundamental basis of music. Dalcroze directed a preparatory school for the arts in the “garden city” of Hellerau from 1910 to 1914: by 1914 the school had five hundred students and branches in St. Petersburg, Prague, Moscow, Vienna, Frankfurt, Breslau, Nürnberg, Warsaw, London and Kiev. Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited the school together and were much taken with its teachings and ideas.” Huh. Who knew Annie Lennox had such renowned background?
The other “tidbit” is about Vaslav Nijinsky. His life just begs to be told in a Hollywood movie. We are not sure exactly when he was born (around 1889),  he was made fun of by kids in Poland for his slanting eyes, he grew up to be five foot four, slept with men but was possibly straight if not bisexual, and supremely talented. “He concealed his growing strength in split-second timing: no matter how closely Bronislava [his sister] looked (and she had a trained eye), she could not see his preparation for a pirouette, even when he gathered enough force to unleash a dozen turns at a time.” p. 307, 308. And he went mad. “In 1919, in the first stages of the madness that would overtake him, he performed a final solo dance in St. Moritz. It was the last dance he would ever perform: he was subsequently institutionalized and died in 1950.” p. 320 He danced his last dance at about 30, and then lived for another 30 years?! The dance he performed he began with the words “Now I will dance the war…the war which you did not prevent and are responsible for.” p. 320.

to be continued…

July 6, 2011

Apollo’s Angels, part II

Moving right on…

From chapter 3: The French Revolution in Ballet
You would think that with the whole world changing between the years 1789 and 1830, nothing would remain permanent. But Pierre Gardel would prove you wrong. “…born in 1758 and raised at the Opera, he became a prominent dancer, learned to make ballets at his brother’s side, and took over the position as lead ballet master in 1787, when Maximilien [his brother] died. Artistically, Pierre remained deeply loyal to the ancien régime: tall, thin, and elegantly proportioned, he had (as Bournonville later put it) a “cold and ostensibly phlegmatic” appearance and the “rigid training” of a danseur noble. His dancing was restrained and formal, but Gardel also suffered from a weak constitution, which gave his movements a noble style as a whole. […] Like the diplomat Talleyrand, Gardel slid with apparent ease from the king’s employ to the radical Revolution, rose to glittering prominence under Napoleon, and even maintained his hold during the restoration of the Bourbons. He did not finally retire until 1829, and then only reluctantly.” p. 107, 108
“In the aftermath of the Revolution the Opera’s director, Bonet de Treiches, wrote a pointed memo insisting that a new dance notation must be invented immediately. Without notation, he said, ballet would never sustain its position as a high art. Despréaux made an attempt around 1815, but the result (never published) was a collection of overly complicated diagrams and iterations indicative of the unsettled state of dance.” p. 125, 126

From chapter 4: Romantic Illusion and the Rise of the Ballerina
Ballet was now well in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which meant that this art, born of aristocratic background, now had to work to earn its crust, like everyone else. “Finally, Véron recruited Auguste Levasseur (and paid him splendidly) to form and lead what became known as “the claque.” This was a group of professional clappers hired to guide public opinion. Levasseur consulted closely with Véron, attended rehearsals, and studied the score for a given production – but he also took bribes from artists and their supporters. On the night of a performance, he marked himself by sporting brightly colored clothing and strategically places his men throughout the audience (Véron and the artists provided the tickets, gratuit). Levasseur carried a cane, which he tapped at the appropriate moment, unleashing a round of applause, bravos, and stomping by his men designed to carry the public in its enthusiasm. This was not resented; to the contrary, Véron’s claim that the claque was a moderating force that “put an end to all quarrels” and stopped “unjust coalitions” of fans from disrupting performances appears to have been widely accepted.” p. 145
I will say that reading this passage I was initially outraged, but by the last two sentences I couldn’t but shift my sympathies heavily towards Véron’s point of view.
The whole chapter is jam-packed with typically romantic stories involving Gautier, Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Madame de Stäel, Juliette Récamier, and Marie Taglioni, the great dancer of the era. One such story is summed up in the following sentence. “Eugène Desmares was a perfect stranger when he first defended Taglioni’s honor in a duel, after which the two became constant companions and lovers.” p. 163

From chapter 5: Scandinavian Orthodoxy: The Danish Style
It seems odd to me (although what do I know about these things) that it was in Denmark that classical ballet was preserved when Western Europe was going through turmoil after the 1848 revolution. But Homans shows how the  Danes not only preserved ballet at the time, but were a key component that moved ballet to Russia later in the century. This becomes important later on. This whole chapter really belongs to the Bournonvilles, Antoine (1760-1843) and August (1805-1879).
For our purposes here, she also talks about Hans Christian Andersen. “Rather like Chateaubriand, although with less high drama and more charm, Andersen imagined women as sylph-like figures, unattainable and alluring. He usually fell in love desperately and from a distance – sometimes with dancers […] but it was the singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” who really won his heart. […] But Andersen never married or settled down; he lived a restless bohemian life, with standing dinner invitations to the homes of loyal friends (one for each night of the week) and long bouts of travel.” p. 185

to be continued…

July 5, 2011

Apollo’s Angels, part I

I was prompted to read Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet after hearing an interview with her on the radio. I am a little over half way in and I realized that the book is too brilliant to be summed up in one post, so I decided to give you bits and pieces of it along the way.

She mentioned this part from the introduction in the interview, and it’s the first of many stunning things I’ve read so far.
“And yet it is because ballet has no fixed texts, because it is an oral and physical tradition, a storytelling art passed on, like Homer’s epics, from person to person, that it is more and not less rooted in the past. For it does have texts, even if these are not written down: dancers are required to master steps and variations, ritual and practices […] The teachings of the master are revered for the beauty and logic, but also because they are the only connection the younger dancer has to the past – and she knows it. […]
Ballet, then is an art of memory, not history.” p. xix

From chapter 1: France and the Classical Origins of Ballet
“Nor is it a coincidence that the younger Louis [XIV] – more than any other kind before or since – devoted himself so passionately to dancing. Making his debut in 1651 at age thirteen, Louis danced roles in some forty major productions until his final appearance eighteen years later in the Ballet de Flore of 1669. […] Every morning following the ceremonial lever, he retired to a large room where he practiced vaulting, fencing, and dancing. His training was directed by his personal ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, who worked with the king daily for more than twenty years. […]
Louis’s interest in ballet was no just a youthful fling; it was a matter of state.As he himself later reflected, these performances flattered his courtiers and captured the hearts and minds of his people, “perhaps more strongly, even, that gifts or good deeds.”p. 11, 12
The best part regarding Louis XIV comes when Homans is describing all the etiquette at the king’s court from which ballet arose and what initially made ballet so important. “As Madame de Maintenon once quipped, “The austerities of a convent are nothing compared to the austerities of etiquette to which the Kin’s courtiers are subjected.” But Louis knew what he was doing. “Those people are gravely mistaken,” he warned, “who imagine that all this is a mere ceremony.” ” p. 15

From chapter 2: The Enlightenment and the Story of Ballet
Meet Marie Sallé (c. 1707 – 1756). “What are we to make of Sallé? In one sense, she was nothing more than a fairground performer who had the luck of great beauty and a considerable discipline: she put herself through rigorous practice sessions daily. But she was also more than this, and deserves our attention because she was one of the first women to intuitively play sex and ballet off each other and to set her talents against convention.” p. 62
“Sallé’s Parisian contemporary and rival Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710 – 1770), known as La Camargo, found a different way out of the staid conventions of her art: technical brilliance. Women did not traditionally perform the jumps, beats, and other virtuosic steps […] Camargo did. She did not stop there but went so fas as to shorten her skirts to the calf so that her brilliant footwork (and sexy feet) might be better appreciated […].” p.63
“Between them, Sallé and Camargo inadvertently shifted the course of ballet and pointed it toward the nineteenth century, when the ballerina would eventually displace the danseur at the summit of the art.” p. 63
The story also deeply concerns people like Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 – 1810) who was a ballet master who worked in Paris, Lyon, London, Berlin, Stuttgart, Vienna and Milan. And also people like Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg of Stuttgart who was “handsome, intelligent, and autocratic, ” “loved women and ballet, and had a strong taste for French and Italian music and art.” p. 81. Not just because ballet masters created new dances and techniques and moved the story of ballet forward, but because they followed the money. When the Duke of Württemberg went broke in 1768 and could no longer support his big ballet troupe, the dancers and Noverre had to go elsewhere, thus disseminating their art. This made ballet spread across Europe and cross-polinated various techniques, dances, choreographies, styles, musics, enriching them in the process.

to be continued…