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Jennifer Homans

Autor/a de Apollo's Angels : A History of Ballet

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An exhaustive spectacularly researched biography of the ballet master George Balanchine from his youth in Russia to his eventual home in New York. He is married five times and has numerous relationships with a bevy of other dancers. We se a driven compulsive personality as he trains and sometimes discards dancers for well over fifty years establishing America as a major player in worldwide ballet. He is such an unusual unique personality you need to read this book. Even his cause of death is weird'… (més)
muddyboy | Dec 17, 2023 |
To my surprise, this appears to be the first general history of ballet ever written. That's a real shame, because as Homans shows, ballet is more than just another slowly dying elite artform like opera. Not only is it intimately linked to the other cornerstones of Western culture like music, theater, and film, it continues to set the standard for demonstrating how the movement of the body can produce beauty. You don't have to be a ballet fanatic to enjoy this book, but some familiarity helps, as she deeply explores the history of the form; its artistic movements; the cultural influence of France, Italy, and especially Russia; the major composers, choreographers, and dancers; and of course the actual ballets themselves, explaining much of the symbolism that a layman like myself would not have noticed otherwise. Homans danced with George Balanchine's School of American Ballet for several years, and so her intimate understanding of ballet's appeal to both the head and the heart is apparent on every page, and even though she writes with sadness of the passing of ballet's glory years, your "to watch" list will still be quite large after finishing.

My own history with ballet is basically limited to seeing performances of The Nutcracker at Christmas when I was a kid, although I have a fairly extensive musical background. I was in marching band in high school, which gave me an appreciation for the difficulty involved in coordinating many people's motions to produce an aesthetic effect, we performed many pieces which were originally written to accompany ballets, and as a big classical music fan I've always loved many of the scores to famous ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, or The Firebird. What originally led to me this book, though, was reading Andrei Tarkovsky's autobiography Sculpting in Time, with his opinionated ranting about the purity of film. Since I've always thought of film as a composite art form (usually requiring not only camera work itself but also screenwriting, makeup, costuming, scenery, lighting, music, sound effects, editing, etc), I immediately thought to contrast film with another art form that also involves many of the same elements, but I realized I didn't actually know anything about ballet as an art form itself. Since only being familiar with the score to a ballet is like only having heard the soundtrack to a movie, I figured it was best to actually read something about it. Homans talks about the dances, but also the men and women who put them on, and what animated them.

Dancing itself is of course older than civilization, but ballet as we understand it dates from the 16th century, as Catherine de Medici imported some of her native Italian culture of dance to her new home in France when she became Queen. Initially centered around the French royal court, it gradually absorbed more popular influences and spread across Europe and the rest of the world due to the force of French prestige. Interestingly, the conventions of ballet were very male-dominated for a long time, since monarchs like Louis XIV used dancing skill as a way to control their courts, where poor form could lead to embarrassment or even demotion. Women's roles gained more importance later on, as ballets like Giselle or La Sylphide, which prominently featured what we now think of as the beautiful, graceful, feminine ballerina, became popular, but at first ballet was an inward, aristocratic art which wasn't so strongly focused on drama and narrative. That association of ballet with elites both helped and hurt it: ballet can be very expensive to create and perform, so appealing to the tastes of the rich and powerful was a practical necessity. However, that elevated position not only left ballet perilously exposed to political turbulence, it also left it in an uneasy artistic dialogue with other art forms like pantomime, which could claim more popular appeal, even if ballet has had the more lasting appeal precisely because of its association with the aristocracy.

Elite-driven nationalism has played a large role in ballet from the beginning. While France made the art glamorous, particularly once the ballerina became an icon of beauty, it didn't own the art exclusively and in fact for a time Vienna rivaled Paris as an artistic center, particularly because of its traditional dominance in classical music. Dancers like Marie Taglioni, born in Stockholm to an Italian choreographer, perfecting her art in Vienna, before moving on to Paris, were emblematic of how the art crossed national boundaries as each country attempted to one-up its rivals. There's a chapter on Danish and Scandinavian ballet that makes this clear: choreographer August Bournonville, who had a French father and mastered dancing in Paris, returned to his native Copenhagen to lead the Danish Royal Ballet, even as the French Romantic style, as exemplified by his version of La Sylphide, continued to be his ideal. Yet even as he worked to create a Danish idiom modeled on the French one, the work he felt most passionate about was Napoli, whose exotic rendering of Italian dancing styles was based on a romanticized memory of a vacation to Naples. Yet despite this attempt to absorb foreign influence, the end of his life was marked by an increasing artistic conservativism. However, his rigid aesthetic did in fact give Denmark a distinct style, which it might not have had without his nationalism. Even Hans Christian Andersen was encouraged to become a ballet dancer (Bournonville suggested his concentrate on his writing instead).

That entanglement of politics and dance is most prominent in the Russian chapters, but it applies to Italy as well. The chapter in Italian ballet raises and answers a great question I'd never thought of before: why did Italy, which produced many great operas, not produce much great ballet, and then mainly through expatriates and their descendants like Marie Taglioni? Homans' answer is that turmoil in Italy's fragmented political structure at crucial moments in the history of ballet were crippling for its ability to grow its own traditions, and that of the higher arts ballet was uniquely vulnerable due to its lack of a universal written notation to preserve dances, efforts by Pierre Beauchamp and Raoul-Auger Feuillet notwithstanding. Whereas it's easy to preserve the score to an opera or symphony and then reconstitute an orchestra to play it, the same is not true with a ballet and its dancers: a ballet's steps are primarily passed down from dancer to dancer, and therefore much more vulnerable to the ravages of time (hence the great importance and influence of "schools" under particular instructors). Countries like France had centralized aristocracies to preserve favored forms, but as each Italian principality underwent revolution or invasion in the 18th and 19th centuries, they had fewer resources to preserve dances, instructors, traditions, etc. So even though in good times ballets used to be performed right alongside operas, after the revolutionary chaos died down the ballets didn't come back.

Russia, of course, escaped this post-revolutionary artistic death in a peculiar way. Though ballet has many classical Greco-Roman aspects to it (hence the book's title, a reference to the 9 Muses), and was primarily French for several centuries, the Francophile Russians eventually came to own the artform due to Imperial patronage and the relentless pressure to make Russia a world power. There's a fascinating discussion of how choreographers like Marius Petipa, originally from France, and composers like Pyotr Tchaikovsky struggled with the idealized native Russian culture and the European influences they were attempting to absorb and transcend (this same conflict was famously fictionalized in Tolstoy's War and Peace). For example, here's one short section about artistic innovation in Sleeping Beauty, one of the most enduring of the Russian ballets:

"Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind - he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work - but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky's music, the ballerina's balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will."

A confluence of skilled dancers, talented choreographers, and inventive musicians ensured that the pre-revolutionary ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and more have defined ballet for most modern aficionados. However, after the Communist revolution the art had the same issues with censorship as all others. The section on the refusal of Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes company to return to the country after 1917 reminded me strongly of Richard Stites' Revolutionary Dreams, where many talented authors who were full of enthusiasm for revolution and progress in the abstract were eventually ground down by the horror of the actual revolutionary government. This artistic turmoil only intensified in the Stalin years, even though being a ballet dancer in the USSR carried great prestige and privileges. Homans explains what that pressure from the leadership meant to the dancers (the discussions of the artistic differences between the Western-minded Leningrad-based Kirov Theater and the more nativist Moscow-based Bolshoi are very interesting), but she never forgets to return to the dancing. Take her explanation of the appeal of Maya Plisetskaya versus her artistic rival Galina Ulanova:

"As a performer, Plisetskaya excelled in the hard-edged, technically demanding roles that Ulanova eschewed: Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote. She never danced the role of Giselle ("something in me opposed it, resisted, argued with it"), but instead played the iron-willed queen of the wilis. She was also the jealous, seductive harem girl - not the "good" Maria - in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. Physically this made sense: Plisetskaya was beefy and strong, with thick legs and a muscular back. Stylistically, her movements were hard and unyielding, never elegant or polite. Her technique was raw but powerful - she lacked the refinement of the Kirov school, but could save a step or pull herself back into alignment from a dangerously off-balance position by dint of sheer force. Films of Plisetskaya's performances show her throwing herself into dancing with an abandon few ballerinas would dare, and in her sharp light, Ulanova's restrained purity can take on the paler glow of piety. She was brazen and often moved with questionable taste. "I knew some things, others I stole, some I figured out myself, took advice, blundered through. And it was all haphazard, random." But there was also something appealing about her garishness: she was unpretentious, refreshing, direct. She did not hold back."

While Plisetskaya, like the majority of ballet artists, stayed in the Soviet Union, many of them availed themselves of the time-honored option of so many Russians throughout history, and simply left. This was bad for Russian ballet, but great for world ballet: "There was a certain poetic logic to the situation: if the Russians had spent the better part of the nineteenth century absorbing French and Italian ballet and making it Russian, the Europeans in turn spent the twentieth century absorbing Russian ballet and making it their own. The twentieth century in dance did not belong to the Soviets, but it did belong to the Russians - not at home, but in exile in the West."

I had known vaguely of some British connection to ballet - chiefly that the great economist John Maynard Keynes had married a ballerina - but Homans' treatment of how the postwar British government promoted ballet as a classical art was quite revealing, both in how different the modern version of "creating a national ballet culture" worked in the 20th century than the 19th, and also in showing how personal the connection to ballet was for Keynes and the rest of his circle. Ballet is a highly sensual art, not only for the performers but also for the viewers, and the sexual fluidity of the elite Bloomsbury Circle that Keynes was a member of juxtaposed with the high-minded rhetoric about encouraging public appreciation for the arts is amusing but also enlightening, especially in how it was reflected in the dancers themselves, who always seem to have had fairly eventful sex lives. Ballet was beginning to take on its modern form of a primarily female audience (the loss of many male dancers to the draft in World War 2 seems to have permanently altered ballet's appeal and fanbase in the West), yet the primarily male members of the British elite still thought of it as a valuable cultural patrimony. Unfortunately, they were fighting against an unseen cultural revolution, and though they managed to produce forces like Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, and Kenneth MacMillan, the grim malaise of the Thatcher years would soon permanently steal the energy from British ballet.

It was different in the United States. Homans spends by far the most time discussing the American ballet scene and its works, not only because of her personal connection to George Balanchine, but because even though the Soviet Union bragged about its dominance, it was continually shedding many of its greatest talents to America. While she does talk about American attempts to fashion a homegrown ballet culture, the US had the most success in either adapting foreign talent to American themes (e.g. West Side Story) or following their own artistic voices (e.g. most of Balanchine's oeuvre). She's particularly insightful about Balanchine's more modern dances like Agon, with their abstract themes, lack of narrative, and unconventional dances. That rejection of the traditional in the pursuit of situating the heritage of ballet in a contemporary context perhaps explains his attitude towards explanation of his works: "Must everything be defined by words?" he once complained. "When you place flowers on a table, are you affirming or denying or disproving anything? You like flowers because they are beautiful.... I only wish to prove the dance by dancing." That "res ipsa loquitur" philosophy makes for a neat contrast to that of Lincoln Kirstein, with Balanchine a cofounder of the New York City Ballet:

"In dance, he despised what he took to be the self-indulgent excesses of Romanticism - exemplified by the nightly "ritual suicides" of diva ballerinas in Giselle - and was equally unforgiving of contemporary American modern dance, which seemed to him a flagrant display of ego masquerading as art; Martha Graham's dances, he once said, were "a cross between shitting and belching." He would similarly scoff at abstract expressionism in painting, seeing in it a willful rejection of the skill and tradition that he took to be the premise of artistic endeavor. Representation and the human figure, he insisted, were the ground zero of Western art. Classical ballet seemed to stand for everything that Kirstein cared about."

Unfortunately, as the melancholy epilogue opines, ballet seems to be a dying art, or at least to be in a hibernation period until it becomes popular again (yes, she uses the Sleeping Beauty metaphor). I wish she would have discussed hard numbers - she doesn't quote company revenues, attendance figures, or dance class enrollment statistics - but I think she's right that ballet has in many ways become limited to what I experienced, namely Christmas trips to see The Nutcracker. One reason that Shakespeare has lasted so long is that actors love him since he gives them such good lines, but the same isn't true for dance: as the old choreographers die off, it's hard to dance their old steps. Modern technology solves the notation problem by allowing for recordings of steps and choreography, yet that can paradoxically freeze the art in time, which isn't the right answer either. I'm not sure whether ballet is still as lively as ever or if it's like Frank Zappa once said about jazz, that "it's not dead, it just smells funny". But a true fan should have hope. Zappa is also often credited with the line that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", and though to my knowledge no one ever took up the challenge of writing a ballet about Art Deco or the International Style, it turns out that it's perfectly possible to write about dance with insight, appreciation, and grace. Nothing replaces seeing a performance, but Homans does her best to explain dance, its history, and why it matters.
… (més)
aaronarnold | Hi ha 12 ressenyes més | May 11, 2021 |
Homans has written an amazing comprehensive history of ballet. I mostly appreciated the clear history she told between ballet and politics. Homans succinctly tells not just the story of ballet but the story of nations and how art is used for political gains as well as communal enrichment. This text illustrates how ballet and dance in general reflects our collective psychology and pushes us towards a future imagination.

My only misgiving is what appeared to me a contradiction in Homans point of view concerning ballet as an influencer of other dance forms and its ability to evolve. In chapter 10 Homans rips Kenneth McMillan's choreographic choices apart, stating:
"He wanted ballet to be brutal and realistic, a theatrical art that could capture a generation's dissalusionment.... Instead of pushing ballet in new directions, he revealed its fundamental limits-... Classical ballet is an art of formal principles; take those away and it disintegrates into crude pantomime. "
She then contradicts this statement in the following chapter with;
"...ballet was the more radically experimental art. It is no accident that modern dancers were becoming increasingly serious students of ballet, which they saw not just as a base of technique but also a source of innovation"

This last statement completely leaves out the serious advancements of other dance forms without which ballet would not have been able to evolve. Modern dance was a direct statement against ballet as the central base for dance technique AND an answer to ballet's rigid limitations. Without the modern dance pioneers there would be no contemporary ballet. It was Isadora Duncan who inspired Fokine and Nijinsky to try new things; Duncan turned Nijinsky into a contemporary choreographer. It was Laban who made it possible for William Forsythe to forge new technical pathways in ballet; ballet will never be the same again. Balanchine would not have been the iconic ballet choreographer revered today if it were not for jazz dance and African-American dancers and choreographers who gave him new knowledge about the body's movement potential. Ballet is indebted to modern, contemporary, and cultural dance forms, not the other way around.

For this white gaze faux pas, I give this book 4 stars.
… (més)
amberluscious | Hi ha 12 ressenyes més | Feb 11, 2021 |



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