Monday, April 18, 2011

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

The New York Times proclaimed Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans to be one of the ten best books of 2010 and some have described it as the definitive work on the history of ballet. I'm only four chapters in and I'm utterly enchanted. This book was clearly a labour of love for the author who was once a professional dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

Tracing ballet to its roots in the as the dance of kings and courtiers in the 16th century, Homans follows the development of ballet over the centuries into its current form. Although the book is dense and requires careful reading, true lovers of ballet won't mind devoting time to this exquisite work.

Every chapter provides evidence of the author's painstaking research over ten years.  One example of her attention to detail is evident in this passage about Marie Antoinette:

"In these painterly tableaux the dancers often froze in a snapshot image before moving on, and Noverre even thought to introduce pauses into his ballets to focus attention on "all the details" of these "pictures". 
It was not an original idea: tableaux figured prominently in Diderot's ideas for a new dramatic theater, and Parisian lawyers had also taken to using dramatic poses and tableaux as rhetorical tools to strengthen the presentation of an argument. Nor did the persuasive power of these techniques go unnoticed in high circles: when the dauphin married Marie Antoinette in 1770, the celebrations featured set pieces in which actors froze in prearranged painterly scenes, each marking an important symbolic moment in the festivities. Fashion followed suit, and staging "live paintings" became a popular salon activity in the late eighteenth century from Paris to Naples, especially for women." (page 75)

This book is an important work that defines the cultural history of dance and is an absolute must read for true balletomanes.

Title: Apollo's Angels, A History of Ballet
Author: Jennifer Homans
Publisher: Random House, New York
Category: Non-fiction, history, ballet
Number of pages: 643