Book review: ‘Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet’ in paperback


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‘Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet’

(Random House)


Jennifer Homans’ book, “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” has had a remarkable run. Published in November 2010 -– and just out in paperback –- the 550-page authoritative history of ballet is a bestseller, according to publisher Random House.

Homans, a former professional dancer and professor with a PhD in modern European history, explores classical dance’s beginnings and development through an expansive background. She puts the art form in a fascinating context of politics, religion, economics, and social movements. The journey began at the French court of Henri II in 1533 and continued as ballet flourished throughout Europe and into the New World. Homans ends her story with the death of the 20th century genius, George Balanchine.

Most striking is how ballet has been subject to a never-ending metamorphosis and mutation, almost from the moment the five basic body positions were written down in the second half of the 17th century. Many of the tensions that roil the artistic waters today provoked similar disruptions centuries ago too.

Ballet “reform” has been on ongoing idea. Pantomime, for example, was favored as a way to transform this court dance into a serious and cohesive art form, worthy of telling stories of significance. Modern choreographers believed pure movement was language enough and pared away the mime. Now, reconstructions of 19th century classics have restored it, deeming it authentic. Perhaps the fiercest disputes, though, have been over just how athletically showy classical dance should be. Do bravura jumps and spins cheapen it, disqualifying it as art? Or do they make it more exciting? These questions have been debated ad nauseam, and few could, or can, agree.

In Homans’ controversial and much-discussed epilogue, she determined that “ballet is dying.” Given how persuasively the author shows that ballet has been no one fixed thing for centuries, it’s a death too soon foretold.


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