Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★

This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.

Apollo’s Angels begins its story in France, tracing the very origins of classic ballet. This is probably the most exciting part of the book. The year is 1530, and then 1580, when the ballet de cour flourished. The French royalty championed it, elevating it to the highest display of taste and grace. It is at this time that the dance “was invested with its seriousness…and even religious purpose,…[with people] linking it to French intellectual and political life” [Homans, 2010: 32]. The thing to remember here is that ballet has always been viewed as linked to the social hierarchy and social etiquette. There were certain rules and procedures to be followed in front of a king, and all the graceful and elegant movements, as well as ways to stand in front of the royalty, found its way to the dance. More than that, ballet later had to tell a story and always had to be performed with a mathematical precision, even going so far as to implicitly demonstrate the human connection to the universe and the purpose of life: “at the origins of ballet lay two ideas: the formal mathematical precision of the human body and the universality of human gesture” [Homans, 2010: 135].

It was the author’s 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 techniques as we now know [them]” [Homans, 2010: 8].

Marie Taglioni as Flora in Didelot’s Zéphire et Flore. London, 1831

Homans tells us how Louis XIV made ballet “integral to life at court” [2010: 8], precipitating the popularity of dancing schools. Later, the desire to promote and imitate the French culture meant that ballet spread far and wide, its influence encompassing the whole of the continent of Europe. The famous five positions of Pierre Beauchamps became the ballet’s cornerstones, and the rise of women danseurs also changed the ballet’s structure and performance, with it slowly becoming more of a narrative dance. The author then tells us how the aristocratic root of the ballet became to be challenged, and, with Napoleon as the head of state, the dance became almost militaristic in quality, “in accordance with principles Napoleon legislated across his realm: professional rigour and a meritocratic ethic jointed to military-style discipline” [Homans, 2010: 122]. The Italian commedia dell’ arte would still sometimes find its way into ballet with its coarse jokes and overly-theatrical movements, but the classical ballet was slowing turning into something more serious and refined. The nineteenth century saw the rise in popularity of romanticism, and the romantic imagination found its centre in the ballets of La Sylphide [1832] and Giselle [1841], that are now considered to be the first “modern” ballets. In this period, Italian ballet dancer Marie Taglioni (1804 –1884) became the first person to stand on pointe shoes.

“Words….often failed, or else they served as a cover, masking a man’s true feelings. The body, by contrast, could not dissimulate: faced with an anguishing dilemma, the muscles instinctively reacted, twisting the body into positions that conveyed inner torment with greater accuracy and pathos than words could ever muster”, Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 – 1810), a French ballet master.

The great thing about Apollo’s Angels is that it not only talks about different ballets in some depth, commenting on their history, but also takes each country in turn and elucidates on its ballet intricacies and social history. In that vein, we read about Carlo Blasis (1797-1878), one of the founders of the Italian school of ballet, and the innovations introduced by Danish ballet-master August Bournonville (1805-1879), who is famous for his La Sylphide and will always be remembered for his “egalitarian” choreography, which does not make major distinctions between male and female roles. Naturally, Homans talks a lot about the Russian ballet, before and after the coming of Marius Petipa, the great French choreographer, in 1847 from Paris to St Petersburg, Russia to “revive” and “revolutionise” the art. Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter [1862], La Bayadere [1877] and The Sleeping Beauty [1890] are still staged today to a great acclaim and public success. New paths in the Russian ballet were also opened thanks to the work of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), the founder of the Ballets Russes, and later, the coming of Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) and her techniques further ensured that the ballet, as envisaged by Marius Petipa, continued to be taught and performed successfully.

I cannot agree with Homans’s pessimistic conclusion that the new, younger, generation does not have sufficient interest in ballet so that this dance is preserved and continues into the future. This is certainly not the current position in Russia, where it could even be said that the number of children and young people interested in joining ballet in some capacity grows annually. The fact that the ballet The Nutcracker [1892] continues to be so popular nowadays, with sold tickets often exceeding the capacity, is the testament to the enduring power of ballet, and the fact that it is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future).

Although Apollo’s Angels is too long a book and contains too much detail, it is also a very thorough work which makes very important links between ballet and the social and political histories of countries. It is fascinating to learn through this book how the core rules governing ballet remained unchanged since the times long past and this is because ballet as a dance was first born out of strict etiquette and social hierarchy. Seeing it in this vein, it can be said that ballet and history are interchangeable, ballet is history. Thus, it remains very important, and even essential, to preserve this unique and beautiful dance, which remains the most elegant and graceful on this planet.

13 thoughts on “Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

    1. Yes, it is interesting. As the quote says, because bodily motions are more often than not instinctive, bodily movements can reveal real and deeper truths about the state of a person than words or words alone. Movements are also much more expressive – thus the performance is so much more awe-inspiring. Fascinating!

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  1. This sounds like a fascinating book Diana. I had no idea of the mathematical element to ballet. Thinking of ballet as history of nations and cultures is really interesting too. I think I would really enjoy this book. Thank you for the review 😊

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    1. Thank you for reading! It surprised me how much I enjoyed this book. There were some interesting insights there that I had no idea connected to ballet, including links between the philosophy of positivism and ballet development.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I attend quite a few ballet performances (when allowed) and do worry about the age of the audience. But then tickets are expensive. There needs to be more investment in the arts at a governmental level I believe.

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    1. I completely agree that there needs to be more investments. Like opera, ballet can be a very expensive outing and I have heard that sometimes there are special discounts available for under 25 year olds and students to attend – that could definitely boosts its popularity.

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  3. Beautiful and in-depth review, Diana. 🙂 This seems a thoroughly researched book. I have always found ballet to be a beautiful dance form. To read about its history and in the process also learn about the history of so many nations seems a rewarding experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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