Sunday, 2 October 2016

REVIEW: "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" by Jennifer Homans

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400060603
Copyright November 2010
Hardcover, 672 Pages

Apollo's Angels is a brilliantly written, astoundingly erudite, and unbelievably well-researched book expounding the wondrous and boundlessly fascinating history of ballet. Its extraordinary writing is beyond impressive. With its immensely educational quality, along with the highly captivating, engrossing, and enjoyable reading experience it offers, the book qualifies as a salient contribution to the body of dance literature. It is a must read for serious dancers, choreographers, and dance teachers, and a valuable resource for students and lovers of history and performing arts.

Prominent choreographers and impresarios pivotal to the history of ballet were excellently explored. Iconic choreographers such as George Balanchine and Marius Petipa are certainly expounded upon. The “greatest oeuvre in the history of dance” and of course, the founding of the New York City Ballet was attributed to Balanchine, whose ballets were considered “godlike” and to be the “jewel in the crown” of 20th century dance. Petipa, on the other hand, was the mastermind behind the celebrated masterpieces The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

The book also outstandingly examined an eclectic range of other pertinent choreographers comprising of for example, Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario behind Ballets Russes, probably “the most renowned company in the history of ballet;” Jean-Georges Noverre, the French ballet master whose vigorous emphasis on pantomime was said to bestow upon dance an unprecedented “dramatic raison d'etre;” Vaslav Nijinsky who modernized ballet in a way that garnered evocative accusations of him as committing “a crime against grace;” or Antony Tudor whose ballets revolutionarily spurred “a new generation of artists eager to make ballets about serious themes—war, sex, violence, alienation.”

And of course, the Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine, Danish choreographer August Bournonville, the legendary classical ballet teacher Enrico Cecchetti, and choreographer Luigi Manzotti—one identified by his “meretricious and bombastic” dances—are but more examples of awe-inspiring ballet personalities discussed in the book.

Esteemed ballerinas were spotlighted, especially those who epitomize profound milestones along the historical timeline of the discipline of ballet. Anna Pavlova for example, was designated the “prototype” of the new Russian ballerina; Galina Ulanova was credited for steering “the Russian classical tradition away from the acrobatic modernism of the 1920s;” whilst La Camargo's fearless exhibition of her skills marked a shift “away from modesty and toward a bolder and more openly seductive way of moving.”

The book is also richly comprehensive in terms of delivering and presenting the enrapturing narratives and storylines of notable ballets. Examples of celebrated ballets painstakingly detailed include La Sylphide along with its principal dancer Marie Taglioni, the perfect “Restoration” ballerina whose dexterity “transcended virtuosity;”Giselle, as choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot; Symphonic Variations which is a potent exemplification of the “social democratic ballet;” and Agon, the “clearest statement yet of Balanchine's modern style.” Successful operas such as Robert le Diable was also extensively detailed, in this case as it is credited for opening ballet to “the world of literary Romanticism.”

The notion of transformation is a predominant theme dealt with in the book; the transmutation of ballet through the eras is beyond intriguing. Ballet evolved from being a symbol of “refinement and elegance” to coming to stand for “decadence and decline,” while thereafter becoming the beneficiary of the idea that “dance could tell a story better than words” which emerged from the French Enlightenment, and then finally successfully achieving the milestone of being recognized as a “self-sufficient art.”

The book conducted an exhaustive examination of the history of ballet contextualized within the geographical boundaries of countries such as France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States. There were investigations of for example, the French court ballet—or ballets de cour—and sub-forms such as the comedie-ballet, and King Louis XIV's focal role in expanding the symbolism, significance, concept, and institution of ballet; the exploration of the development and even flourishing of Russian ballet especially during the repressive, authoritarian rule of Joseph Stalin; the roles played in the development of British ballet by the likes of Frederick Ashton, De Valois, and even John Maynard Keynes; or even documenting ballet's eventual elevation to the status of “icon of high modernism” in America despite the way classical ballet initially seemed antithetical to the country's values.

The book also additionally covers an assortment of fascinatingly riveting pieces of information. There are discussions of the Italian grotteschi dancers and their dance specializations, interesting allusions to the Feuillet dance notation system, thought-provoking considerations of the Leningrad school and style of ballet, references to the “extreme training” of Vestris's methods, and even the survey of dram-balets.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

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