Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

by Jennifer Homans


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For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. Lavishly illustrated and beautifully told, Apollo’s Angels—the first cultural history of ballet ever written—is a groundbreaking work. From ballet’s origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France’s Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through the courts of Europe, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and in Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance. Jennifer Homans, a historian, critic, and former professional ballerina, wields a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. Her admiration and love for the ballet, as Entertainment Weekly notes, brings “a dancer’s grace and sure-footed agility to the page.”


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812968743
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/29/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 672
Sales rank: 425,657
Product dimensions: 6.16(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Homans was a professional dancer trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, American Ballet Theatre, and The School of American Ballet. She performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Currently the dance critic for The New Republic, she has written for The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books, and The Australian. She earned her B.A. at Columbia University and her Ph.D. in modern European history at New York University, where she is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Kings of Dance

Music and Dancing, not only give great pleasure but have the honour of depending on Mathematics, for they consist in number and in measure. And to this must be added Painting and Perspective and the use of very elaborate Machines, all of which are necessary for the ornament of Theatres at Ballets and at Comedies. Therefore, whatever the old doctors may say, to employ oneself at all this is to be a Philosopher and a Mathematician.

-Charles Sorel

According to Aristotle, ballet expresses the actions of men, their customs and their passions. -Claude-François Ménestrier

The king's grandeur and majesty derive from the fact that in his presence his subjects are unequal. . . . Without gradation, inequality, and difference, order is impossible. -Le Duc de Saint- Simon

It is to this noble subordination that we owe the art of seemliness, the elegance of custom, the exquisite good manners with which this magnificent age [of Louis XIV] is imprinted. -Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

WHEN THE FRENCH king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal alliance, and it is here that the history of ballet begins. The French court had long reveled in tournaments, jousting, and masquerades, but even these impressive and lavish entertainments fell short of those traditionally mounted by the princes and nobility of Milan, Venice, and Florence: flaming torch dances, elaborate horse ballets with hundreds of mounted cavaliers arranged in symbolic formations, and masked interludes with heroic, allegorical, and exotic themes.

The ballet master Guglielmo Ebreo, writing in Milan in 1463, for example, described festivities that included fireworks, tightrope walkers, conjurers, and banquets with up to twenty courses served on solid gold platters with peacocks wandering on the tables. On another occasion, in 1490, Leonardo da Vinci helped to stage Festa de paradiso in Milan, featuring the Seven Planets along with Mercury, the three Graces, the seven Virtues, nymphs, and the god Apollo. The Italians also performed simple but elegant social dances known as balli and balletti, which consisted of graceful, rhythmic walking steps danced at formal balls and ceremonies, or on occasion stylized pantomime performances: the French called them ballets.1

Catherine (who was only fourteen when she married) dominated the French court for many years after Henri's death in 1559, bringing her Italianate taste to bear on French courtiers-and kings. Her sons, the French kings Charles IX and Henri III, carried the tradition forward: they admired the floats, chariots, and parades of allegorical performances they saw in Milan and Naples, and shared their mother's keen interest in ceremonial and theatrical events. In their hands, even strictly Catholic processionals could morph into colorful masquerades, and both monarchs were known to promenade through the streets at night dressed en travesti, adorned with gold and silver veils and Venetian masks, accompanied by courtiers in similar attire. Chivalric themes enacted with dancing, singing, and demonstrations of equestrian skill made for impressive theatrical collages, such as the joust held at Fontainebleau in 1564, which included a full-scale reenactment of a castle siege and battles between demons, giants, and dwarfs on behalf of six beautiful nymphs in captivity.

These festivities, so seemingly gay in their extravagances, were not mere frivolous diversions. Sixteenth-century France was beset with intractable and savage civil and religious conflicts: the French kings, drawing on a deep tradition of Italian Renaissance thought and princely patronage of the arts, thought of spectacle as a way to soothe passions and calm sectarian violence. Catherine herself was no saint of tolerance, as her role in the murder of Huguenots in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572 proved. But the brutality of this event should not blind us to the fact that she, her sons, and many others also genuinely hoped that theatrical events might be an important political tool, assuaging tensions and pacifying warring parties.

It was in this spirit that Charles IX established in 1570 the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, modeled after the famous Renaissance Florentine Platonic Academy and drawing its members from a circle of distinguished French poets, including Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Jean Dorat, and Pierre de Ronsard.* Profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism, these poets believed that hidden beneath the shattered and chaotic surface of political life lay a divine harmony and order- a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God. Melding their own deeply religious beliefs with the Platonic notion of a secret and ideal realm more real than their own perceived world, they sought to remake the Christian church-not through the old practices of Catholic liturgy but through theater and art, and above all through the classical forms of pagan antiquity. Working with players, poets, and musicians, these men hoped to create a new kind of spectacle in which the rigorous rhythms of classical Greek verse would harmonize dance, music, and language into a measured whole. Number, proportion, and design, they felt, could elucidate the occult order of the universe, thus revealing God.

A powerful alloy of mystical theology, recondite magic, and classical rigor, the new Academy represented a distinct form of idealism: music and art could summon men to their highest capacities and goals. The key lay in turning spirituality and learning to concrete theatrical effect. And so the Academy proposed an encyclopedic course of inquiry, including natural philosophy, languages, mathematics, music, painting, and the military arts. The focus, as one adherent later explained, was to perfect man "both in mind and body." Music-"the beautiful part of mathematics"-held a special place, with its celestial harmonies, Pythagorean logic, and penetrating emotional intensity seen as an unmatched suasion. "Songs," it was said (following Plato), "are the spells for souls." Or, as the statutes of the Academy put it, a

bit more dryly, "where music is disordered, there morals are also depraved, and where it is well ordered, there men are well disciplined morally."2

So it was with dance. Indeed, the Academicians saw in ballet a chance to take man's troublesome passions and physical desires and redirect them toward a transcendent love of God. The body had long been seen as pulling man down, sacrificing his higher spiritual powers to material needs. On the Great Chain of Being, ranking all living things from the lowliest vegetative and material creatures up to the angels who occupied the highest rungs near God, man was consigned to the middle rungs: suspended perilously between beasts and angels, his highest spiritual aspirations were forever constrained by his earthly ties and gross bodily functions.

But if he danced, so the men of the Academy believed, man might break some of these earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels. The movements of the body, disciplined with poetic rhythm and meter and brought into accord with musical and mathematical principles, could tune him to celestial harmonies. Pontus de Tyard, a poet involved with the Academy, wrote of the logic justifying such claims in characteristically humanist terms: "The spread of the two arms and the extreme opening of the legs correspond to the height of the man: as does the length of the head multiplied eight or nine or ten times, according to different statues." It was this sense of perfect mathematical proportion that led the Abbé Mersenne, in a moment of high inspiration in 1636, to refer to "the author of the Universe" as "the great Ballet-master."3

To bring these lofty ideals to theatrical life the artists of the Academy labored to fit poetry and music to the meter of Greek verse. They scanned dance steps following a pattern of long and short syllables and notes, thus training gestures, walking, and skipping motions to the rhythms of music and poetry. Every Sunday the players performed for the king and other patrons. In sharp contrast to the lively social occasions of court performances, in which eating, drinking, and conversation were commonplace, the concerts at the Academy were given in absolute silence, and no one would be seated after the music and dances began. It was this devotional character that made subsequent generations of Catholic thinkers admire the Academicians as "Christian Orpheuses" who proved that with musical discipline "the whole of Gaul, in fact the whole world should ring to the greater glory of God and the hearts of all be inflamed with divine love."4

In 1581 the researches of the Academy came to fruition in the Ballet comique de la Reine. This ballet was given in celebration of the marriage of the queen's sister, Marguerite de Vaudémont, to the Duc de Joyeuse, himself an ardent supporter of the Academy. The Ballet comique was one of seventeen entertainments, including tournaments, a horse ballet, and fireworks, and the poets of the Academy prepared the celebrations in the ancient style, mixing sung verse, music, and dance. Performed in Paris in a large salle at the Petit-Bourbon to an audience of "persons of mark," the spectacle nonetheless attracted crowds numbering in the thousands who pressed their way to the palace, eager to witness the event. As was not uncommon, the performance began at 10:00 p.m. and lasted nearly six hours, finishing deep in the night.5

It was a spectacular but intimate affair. Elevated platform stages did not yet exist, and the actors of the Ballet comique performed up close in the audience's midst. The story they told was an allegorical tale of the enchantress Circe vanquished by the powerful gods Minerva and Jupiter. Like painters, ballet masters commonly worked with mythological manuals, thick reference books that detailed the allegorical and symbolic character of gods and goddesses. The story thus worked on many levels, which spectators at the time would have grasped: it was a tale of passions subjugated to reason and faith (a blunt reference to religious fanaticism), of the king and queen subduing their enemies, of discord resolved and the triumph of reconciliation and peace (the ballet was staged just nine years after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre). As the dancing master Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx himself wrote in the preface to the ballet, "And now, after so many unsettling events . . . the ballet will stand as a mark of the strength and solidity of your Kingdom. . . . The blush of color has returned to your France."6

The dances were designed to prove the point. Created by Beaujoyeulx (celebrated by one contemporary as "a uniquely creative geometer"), they traced perfectly formed figures across the floor in tightly measured steps: circles, squares, and triangles, each demonstrating the ways that number, geometry, and reason ordered the universe and men's souls. At the end of the performance Circe bowed down and presented her magic wand to the king, and a grand ballet unfolded with twelve naiads in white, four dryads in green, and the queen and princesses forming and re-forming chains and shapes. "So dexterously did each dancer keep her place and mark the cadence," wrote Beaujoyeulx, "that the beholders thought that Archimedes himself had not a better understanding of geometrical proportions." Those watching, he hoped, would be "filled with awe."7

Many were. The Ballet comique de la Reine was lauded at the time and later engraved in French memory as the first of a new genre, the ballet de cour, which imposed what one scholar has called an "intense and exact classicism" on the heretofore freewheeling practices of medieval spectacle. Before the Ballet comique de la Reine, the dances in court performances were more like stylish walking than ballet. In the Ballet comique de la Reine, by contrast, there was a formal discipline and design, derived from the desire to make dance and music a measure of the order of the universe. It was the authors' concrete precision-their preoccupation with mapping the length, duration, measure, and geometry of a step-combined with their expansive spiritual aspirations that laid the groundwork for classical dance technique as we now know it. This was the base upon which ballet masters nearly a century later would build when, under the reign of the French king Louis XIV, they would systematize and codify ballet's steps according to a set of strict geometric principles.8

The Ballet comique de la Reine and the emergence of the ballet de cour thus marked an important departure from earlier practices: they invested dance with a serious, even religious purpose and joined it to French intellectual and political life. A strong idealistic strain derived from Renaissance humanism and amplified by the Catholic Counter-Reformation made cultivated men like those at the Academy believe that by welding dance, music, and poetry into a coherent spectacle they might actually begin to bridge the yawning gap between earthly passions and spiritual transcendence. It was a breathtaking ambition, and one that never really died in ballet, even if in more skeptical times it was sometimes forgotten or derided. The artists who created the Ballet comique de la Reine genuinely hoped to elevate man, to raise him up a rung on the Great Chain of Being and bring him closer to the angels and God.

Not everyone at the time, however, appreciated the significance of the Ballet comique de la Reine. If some spectators found themselves awed, others were angered: how could the king waste such vast resources on a lavish entertainment in a time of civil war and strife? Henri III had long been criticized for his obsession with the Academy. One critic nailed a notice to the chamber where its poets met with the king, charging, "While France, crushed everywhere by civil war, is falling into ruin, our King practices grammatical exercises." He had a point, and indeed the high-minded enthusiasms of the men of the Academy were soon swept away in the violence that marked and finally ended Henri's ill-fated reign. Forced to flee Paris by the reactionary pro-Spanish Catholic League, which had designs on the throne, Henri had its leaders murdered only to be slain himself at the hand of a monk in 1589.9

The ideas first crystallized in the Ballet comique de la Reine, however, cast a long shadow. Well into the seventeenth century, distinguished scientists, poets, and writers looked back with admiration to the Academy's experiments, especially as Europe faced the renewed violence of the Thirty Years, War (1618-48). The Abbé Mersenne, whose home in the convent of Minimes at the Place Royal in Paris became a "post office" for the life of the mind in Europe in the first half of the century, wrote about the ballet de cour, and many of his friends and colleagues, including René Descartes, also discussed the art and in some cases even tried their hand at writing ballets. (Descartes offered the Ballet de la Naissance de la Paix to the queen of Sweden in 1649, just before his death.) At court, ballet remained central: the French queen Marie de Medici (Florentine by birth) held ballets in her apartments every Sunday and increased the number of performances at court. And her son King Louis XIII (1601-1643) became a fine dancer and avid performer.10

But it was not really the same. Under Louis XIII the lingering Neoplatonic ideals of the Academy faded in favor of a more instrumental raison d'état. As Louis and his formidable first minister, Cardinal de Richelieu, set about pulling the disparate and warring forces of France under the strengthening arm of the French state and making the king's power over his realm absolute, the meaning and character of ballet changed-it had to. Louis and Richelieu were more concerned with power than God, and rather than revealing the order of the universe, the ballet de cour now magnified the grandeur of the king. Thus the intellectual seriousness of the Ballet comique de la Reine gave way to a more bombastic and flattering style. This too would be an enduring aspect of ballet.

Table of Contents


Introduction Masters And Traditions

Part One France And The Classical Origins Of Ballet

Chapter 1 Kings Of Dance 3

Chapter 2 The Enlightenment And The Story Ballet 49

Chapter 3 The French Revolution In Ballet 98

Chapter 4 Romantic Illusions And The Rise Of The Ballerina 135

Chapter 5 Scandinavian Orthodoxy: The Danish Style 176

Chapter 6 Italian Heresy: Pantomime, Virtuosity, And Italian Ballet 205

Part Two Light From The East: Russian Worlds Of Art

Chapter 7 Tsars Of Dance: Imperial Russian Classicism 245

Chapter 8 East Goes West: Russian Modernism And Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 290

Chapter 9 Left Behind? Communist Ballet From Stalin To Brezhnev 341

Chapter 10 Alone In Europe: The British Moment 396

Chapter 11 The American Century I: Russian Beginnings 448

Chapter 12 The American Century II: The New York Scene 470

Epilogue: The Masters Are Dead And Gone 540

Notes 551

Bibliography 573

Index 613

Illustration Credits 641

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"[The] book is a delight to read, massively informed yet remarkably agile." —-The Washington Post

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Apollo's Angels 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Maikataot4 More than 1 year ago
It didn't take more than just the introduction to get me excited about this book. Though I never danced at the same level as Ms. Homans, I studied ballet for 11 years, and briefly taught ballet and lyrical dance until my back gave out. Her introduction discusses how ballet is passed on through the memories of one generation of dancers to the next - exactly as I used to explain to my students. She puts into words what I have always felt about ballet in my heart, muscles and bones. She has put together a history of the dance that was sorely needed, written by someone that has experienced it intimately.
ClifSven on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not as good as it could have been; not as good as it should have been. Jennifer Homans¿ Apollo¿s Angels: A History of Ballet is a well-researched history of ballet. It is heavily footnoted and her Bibliography is over 30 pages long!While most of the book is very good, there are parts that drag and, at times, there is a great deal more information than the reader needs to know to understand her point. Another problem I had is that Homans uses several stock phrases throughout the book. Over and over and over and over. A good editor should have caught this¿..and didn¿t.She spends a lot of pages on some aspects of the history of ballet while reducing others to mere paragraphs. This, to me, belies her prejudices for and interest in certain aspects of her art at the expense of others ¿ she just cannot muster up much interest in certain eras and especially certain dancers.Quite often her timelines vary dramatically, often on the same page. Now we¿re discussing a choreographer/dancer/whatever and it¿s 1955 ¿ several paragraphs later, while still discussing that choreographer/dancer/whatever, and it¿s 1925. It¿s a though while writing a thought popped into her head and she had to get it down before she lost it¿¿then she can go back to whatever it was she was writing about. Quite often I found myself stopping, rereading and then going back a page or two to make sure I was reading about the same thing¿.very disconcerting. Again, a good editor would have caught this¿.and didn¿t.She completely misses out on several very important people in ballet. Not a word about Gelsey Kirkland ¿ very strange considering Kirkland¿s relationship with Balanchine. Very little about Nureyev even though he, along with Margot Fonteyn, revitalized ballet in the 60s and 70s and became truly international stars. Without saying so in so many words she seems to dismiss Nureyev as just another homosexual dancer of very little importance.Homans may claim otherwise, however, her homophobia screams very loudly in this book. Whenever she actually tells the reader that a choreographer or dancer (always male) is gay it is in the ¿he was a homosexual¿ you know fashion; quite often also making sure to alert the reader to the fact that he married a woman, so¿¿. Here she shows a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the era about which she is writing. How one can spend all the years she has surrounded by gay men and not absorb even a bit of their history is beyond me. (Yes, Ms. Homans, in a great part of the 20th century, gay men often married women¿.it was a cover¿.get it? They feared for their lives and livelihood¿.best to toe the line¿.and survive.)Enough has been written about her Epilogue¿.by many people. After the exhaustive history we have just read to learn that the author believes that ballet is, if not dead already, it¿s well on the way to the grave!! Ballet is dead --- this from a dance critic for The New Republic? It leaves one with the feeling that she was never good enough a dancer to make it to the ¿big time¿ and boy, is she still jealous that she didn¿t make it there!Skip this one ¿ it¿s not worth the time.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This well written history of classical ballet suffers from the author's frustration that her story arc does not pay off. In her view, ballet was born in France (helped by an Italian midwife). At the end of the 19th century, the Russians took up the torch and even through the Soviet years carried ballet forward. Finally, the winners of the Cold War and God's chosen country, the United States of America was supposed to take over the mantle and reign supreme in the world of ballet. Alas, it didn't happen. Despite all the struggles of George Balanchine, ballet never became an American art. This might have given pause to the author and venture into a deeper analysis of the success factors of ballet.One factor is structural. Ballet requires high inequality to thrive, an impoverished mass to supply the bodies to be trained, a factor well matched in the US. The next factor is barely achieved in the US: A localized court that dominates the fashion and entertainment discourse. The cultural influence of New York, Chicago, LA and Washington D.C. on the rest of the country is trivial compared to the magnetism of Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow in their heyday. Americans coming to town are much more likely to watch a musical or go to Radio City Music Hall. a classical ballet is a hard sell. Most audiences, furthermore, lack the necessary knowledge to appreciate the dancer's skills and moves beyond an emotional reaction. Even in Europe, ballet tickets are usually shuffled into opera season tickets. Finally, the training of ballet dancers requires government support to dedicated institutions. The end of the Cold War has reduced the need for the US government for showcase investments.Given the limited contemporary influence of classical ballet, one way out of the dilemma would have been to develop the connections of ballet to modern dance and the supporting function of ballet dancers in opera and musical productions. The smaller venues of modern dance allow for more artistic and innovative expression. Homans, however, restricts her view to the wedding cake part of ballet, the big stand alone evening attraction. Her own book shows that for most of its history, ballet was always integrated into a wider show business block. Like classical music, ballet is pushed either towards established repertoire fare or into a supporting function.A chapter about modern European ballet is certainly missing, as is a chapter on the early renaissance spectacles in Italy. Read it for the non-American chapters.
WordMaven on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I just started this wonderful book, but already I'm entranced. This book was written with love. Ms. Homans put a tremendous amount of work into this book and it shows. I find it interesting that a single statement she made near the very end of the book has generated the most talk--that ballet is dead. Consider this: she was fortunate to work with one of the 20th century's greatest geniuses, George Balanchine. The man revolutionized ballet. He brought his training and cultural history with him from Russia, tweaked it to fit his own grand vision and totally revolutionized an art form. Balanchine is one the the world's greatest geniuses, and I suspect Ms. Homans' lament has more to do with sadness that there is no one else like Balanchine at work in ballet today. I wonder how many other art forms have been blessed with a recurrence of genius; it seems to me that perhaps she hopes for too much. Still, the book is wonderful. I am pleased to see scholarship and tasty bits alongside one another. Many stars of the ballet are quoted throughout. This is no dry history book. If you love ballet, I think you will love this book no matter your opinion on Ms. Homans' remark that ballet is dead.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think this was an awsome book
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TedMorgan More than 1 year ago
This is a work of savor with repeated reading and leisurely transit. The history is comprehensive and informed on many levels. I did a fast initial read but I am now reading it slowly. I am learning more about something I very much enjoyed during my youth. I will write another review later.
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Brenda Crespo More than 1 year ago
i developed a passion for ballet when i was ten so this was a perfect
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