Book Review: Apollo’s Angels, A History of Ballet

Choreographer George Balanchine and (muse) Suzanne Farrell dancing in a segment of "Don Quixote" at New York State Theater.(Photo: Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer)
Choreographer George Balanchine and (muse) Suzanne Farrell dancing in a segment of "Don Quixote" at New York State Theater.(Photo: Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer)

Many years ago I worked for a company that booked Russian dance troupes on tours of North America. This involved endless phone calls to college campuses and presenters from Nome to Newburyport, Massachusetts.

You want the kids from the Bolshoi School? You want the Kirov farm team? Recorded music in drafty high school gyms? Many did. We did good tours.

At one point it involved your obedient servant driving a tour bus cross-country filled with Russian adolescents, any four of whom were hitting puberty at the same time. But my goodness, they could dance! I was impressed, and I don’t know a plie from a peanut butter sandwich.

Before reading Apollo’s Angels, A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans, I could at least tell a swan from a sugar plum fairy. Those with even a passing interest in dance will be enthralled by this book.

It is what it says it is: a history of ballet from the 16th century to the death of George Balanchine in 1983.

The book runs well over five hundred pages and I was afraid of being bored, but Homans writes with passion and an encyclopedic knowledge tracing the development of ballet from the etiquette bound court dance of Louis XIV through Russia, Italy, France and Denmark.

The explosion in British ballet is warmly discussed with delightful-and probing -profiles of Dame Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Ashton’s ultimate nemesis Kenneth McMillan. Ashton was the dreamer with a penchant for fairy tale ballet, McMillan was the tough guy (somewhat.)

The 1960s  dance explosion is credited to the pairing of Margot Fonteyn, (born Peggy Hookham) in her forties and thought to be at the end of a magnificent career, and the 20 something Rudolf Nureyev. Having seem them together in my youth I’m here to tell you….magic.

And then it ends. Homans is not optimistic on ballet’s future as she ends this thorough study.

We are mired in the past, pretty dances or athletic jumps with no inner meaning. Homans laments the lack of true connection to be found today, a generation after Balanchine,  Ulanova, Farrell, McBride, d’Amboise, Nureyev and Baryshnikov.

Her “downer” ending has been very controversial among balletomanes, but this tubby neophyte has been converted. I’ll be running to see dance at the next opportunity.

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