Apollo's Angels

Apollo's Angels

A History of Ballet

Book - 2010 | 1st ed
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One of The New York Times Book Review 's 10 Best Books of the Year

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. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements recall a lost world of courts, kings, and aristocracy, but her steps and gestures are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. Ballet has been shaped by the Renaissance and Classicism, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Bolshevism, Modernism, and the Cold War. Apollo's Angels is a groundbreaking work--the first cultural history of ballet ever written, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told.

Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. The steps are never just the steps--they are a living, breathing document of a culture and a tradition. And while ballet's language is shared by dancers everywhere, its artists have developed distinct national styles. French, Italian, Danish, Russian, English, and American traditions each have their own expression, often formed in response to political and societal upheavals.

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. It was in Russia that dance developed into the form most familiar to American audiences: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker originated at the Imperial court. 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 is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo's Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo's Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.
Publisher: New York : Random House, c2010
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9781400060603
Branch Call Number: 792.8 HOM 2010
Characteristics: xxv, 643 p., [40] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 25 cm


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Feb 04, 2018

Ballet- dance- like all forms of art is a complex topic to fully "unpack" and distill into a single meaning, but Jennifer Homans comes close. She traces the centuries-old story of ballet to its origins in France to it's most modern interpretation in the United States.

While the beginnings of ballet were evident in the mid 16th century- thanks, in no small part, to an infusion of Italian influence- it was under the Sun King's reign that ballet became a dominant art form. It is no accident that his reign is also known for its emphasis on manners and etiquette. Those social observances, as well as ballet, were intentionally formalized to reinforce the court hierarchies Louis wanted to emphasize. Early ballets- many of which Louis himself performed in- showed an idealized world that hearkened back to classical ideals. (It is no coincidence that he frequently danced as Apollo, god of the sun- and art.)

Ballet would not have assumed its early importance were it not for its association with the court, but that importance also made it difficult for many years for ballet to find an audience outside of aristocratic circles: Many times throughout history, observers questioned what the art had to say outside of a royal court. At the same time, making ballet more accessible for other audiences usually meant making the form more acrobatic, dramatic and/or "showy".

Every art has its motivating tensions, and for ballet one of the most enduring was how to tell a story with movement that was still recognizably dance and not a mashup of movement and drama. In addition, ballet has a unique artistic challenge: there has never been an agreed upon system of notation that enabled one artist to preserve his or her choreography (or performance choices) for other artists to follow. This means that artists have had to pass their work down in person, whether through participation or observation. That constraint made it almost impossible to reproduce anything exactly as it had been done before; conversely, it required that any re-launched work would need to be reinterpreted by the choreographer and the dancers. In other words, ballet depended on both tradition and adaptation.

Not surprisingly, the periods that saw some of the most energetic and dynamic innovations in dance were in periods that were both hyper-aware of their past and desperate to break away from it: Revolutionary France, Revolutionary Russia and Cold War United States. It was during this last period that George Balanchine, a Russian emigre old enough to remember the Imperial traditions and teachers but open enough to synthesize the energy of his adopted country, finally resolved the question about how dance could tell a story. Balanchine's answer: by making dance its own language and elevating beauty to a meaningful message in and of itself as opposed to an ornament.

Lingering over the entire 550-page story is whether ballet as we know it is dying. Homan's answer is yes, although she admits that she hopes she's wrong. No one was able to step in to replace Balanchine after his death in the Eighties. Having seen ballet done a certain way to such successful commercial and artistic effect, choreographers who followed him have been, perhaps, loath to reinterpret his work. It is also not a coincidence that a diminution of the importance of dance has come with a decrease in available funding for the arts in general.

etccdb Oct 25, 2015

fascinating, but a slow read

Mar 20, 2012

I just finished this book a month ago and had to rent it again! This was an amazing book about the history of ballet. It was very in-depth and I got a lot of information out of it for my research project. It's also cool because my dance teacher (Jennifer Owens) new Jennifer Homans personally.

Sep 22, 2011

Lovely book on the history of ballet

sandy5958 May 23, 2011

A wonderful book about how ballet evolved; written by a gifted dancer, Apollo's Angels is dance history seen from the inside. A wonder how much this accessible beautifully crafted book reveals about the times and places in which ballets were made; it makes culture come alive.

madame_librarian May 10, 2011

Some may ask, "How many people could possibly be interested in such a lengthy and erudite history of ballet?" I certainly cannot offer an exact number, but as a confirmed balletomane (i.e., ballet geek), I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this 600 plus-page book was chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2010. The library's copy has had a hold list for it since its release last fall. Homans is an unlikely creature--a talented ballerina, a thorough historian, and a skilled writer.

She takes us back to the court of the "Sun King," Louis IV (1638-1715) whose balls, pantomimes, and galas--highly stylized and extravagantly presented--evolved into the performing art we now recognize as ballet. In the course of creating the timeline of classical dance, Homans also presents us with a cultural history of Europe, since dance, along with literature, painting, architecture, and music, followed the interests and trends of the times just as it does today. Politics and nationalism played their parts, too. Since ballet developed under the auspices of a monarch, each nation had its particular "school" of dance. The spread of the art form to the middle class further influenced the different styles and content. One needs a good deal of imagination to conjure up what it must have been like to see ballet in the court theaters of the 17th and 18th centuries, but as Homans brings us to the modern age of dance, there are exquisite photographs to help you grasp the nuances of the art. And, if like me, you have attended your fair share of live performances or seen some of the excellent PBS specials now available on DVD, Homan's descriptions of the world of dance in the modern age will strike a chord (or should I say pose) in your mind.

-Madame Librarian

debwalker Jan 24, 2011

A National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalist 2010

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Jul 06, 2013

La_Danseuse thinks this title is suitable for 15 years and over


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sandy5958 May 23, 2011

Excellent historical evolution of classical ballet up to the latest 20th century techniques... Every dancer should live withthis book, of course, but every person who loves lit and history, who is word-struck and story-addiscted, should give themselves a treat and treasure this trreasure.


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sandy5958 May 23, 2011

"At the origins of ballet lay two ideas; the formal mathematical precision of the human body and the universality of human gesture."


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