By Erich Yetter
Not quite everything is beautiful at the ballet, as the song from A Chorus Line would have us believe. In fact, there is real trouble amid the tutus, tiaras, and tunics these days, according to the dance historian and critic Jennifer Homans, whose new book Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet has earned rave reviews for her cogent synthesis of dance history and artistic insight. She raised a few eyebrows as well for her pronouncement in the closing paragraphs that “Something really important is over. We are in mourning.” In essence, she argues, ballet is dying.
Homans’s diagnosis comes not only from years of watching, and reading and writing about, this most ephemeral art form—she is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University—but also from having been a professional ballet dancer herself. Trained at the School of American Ballet, associated with the renowned New York City Ballet, she performed with sterling dance companies like San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. The passion she harbored for working in the studio eventually nudged her to ponder the genesis and meaning of this transformational art form, leading her from the stage and into the research library.
“Ballet, of course is not just the life of the body, but it also has a whole set of ideas and beliefs and feelings that over history have made it meaningful,” she told me in a recent interview. “Although they (professional dancing and academia) seem in some respects to be polar opposites, one is very physical, the other very cerebral, there is an interesting connection between them.” The loneliness of daily work and sweat at the barre is, it seems, akin to the hours of solitary reading, transcribing, and evaluating.
As Homans delved deeper into her research, her travels took her across the globe. “I worked a lot at Archives Nationales de France, the Paris Opera, I went to Denmark, to Sweden, Vienna, London … and then I worked quite a bit at the New York Public Library which has sources from all over the world, especially … good Italian archives here,” she said.
Since ballet is passed on through a largely oral tradition, Homans had to piece together some of its history by immersing herself in the culture of the various eras. “As I put together this book I tried to have conversations metaphorically with each of the great historical figures in ballet,” she recalled. These (mostly male) ghosts of the past came to life for her as she dug deeper into the material, though, in the absence of copious reference texts, it was not an easy reconstruction.
“You have to take it from many different sources, try to construct some image of what it was like coming at it from different directions. What was his life like? What are the images that we have? What were the things that he wrote about? What were the beliefs that other people of the time were writing about? What did critics say about him and his dances? What did other dancers say … ? Are there any notes? Theses things and more help you to understand where it all fits. It’s like a giant mosaic.”
Investigating the literature, Homans began her journey at the most logical mecca of classical dance, the Paris Opera House. L’Opera National de Paris bears a historical pedigree which includes the oldest extant ballet training on earth, the celebrated Académie Royale de la Danse, authorized by Louis XIV in 1661.
“The reason I started with Louis,” Homans said, “is that’s where the codification takes place, which to me is an important moment, when things kind of crystallized. You could from that point call ballet an art, a theatrical art, because it moved from the ballroom to the theatre. In the course of his reign it was in both places, but by the time his reign was over it was firmly established as a theater art.”
While at the Paris Opera, Homans was surprised how swiftly she was guided to other sources, most notably the French national archives. “During the revolution there was a lot of suspicion of the Opera House as a sort of hold out of the aristocratic regime because ballet in particular was associated with the noble classes.” The archives hold a wealth of documentation from the turbulent revolutionary period of the late 18th century, and it was there that Homans found invaluable material in the form of correspondence between dancers, ballet masters, and theater management, as well as from police records.
American Colleges Have Slighted Ballet’s History
As Homans poked her way through libraries and reference centers, she observed that European institutions of higher education exhibited a developed sense of the history of classical ballet, an area in which she believes American colleges have a lot of work to do.
“I think that universities across the board should have a kind of core course in culture and history of dance,” she said. “When one studies to receive a liberal education and become a well-educated person, we expect them to take some kind of introductory course in the history of literature, the history of music, the history of the arts. We should also be thinking about where dance fits in that picture.”
Of the roughly 150 dance programs offered by American universities, two-thirds of which are public institutions, only a handful are regarded as having reputable or prestigious ballet programs. Homans notes that in college dance curricula across the country, and for a variety of reasons, ballet is often marginalized. “Modern dance has a much bigger foothold in the university system,” she said. “A lot of programs are focused around modern dance, and ballet—which is, after all, a major western European and American art form; it’s part of our civilization—is not getting the time or position it merits.”
In addition, Homans perceives that postmodern theory in dance tends to overshadow other genres in higher education. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on everyday movement and the connection between the street and the stage, while increasingly popular on university campuses “is really only one approach,” she said. “And it’s one which is often inaccessible to a lot of people because it has a kind of language that comes with it that is difficult to read and is a bit obscure.” To argue that ballet can be equally inaccessible, with a language equally obscure, is to ignore its curricular clarity and artistic longevity, she said.
Another focal problem Homans perceives with higher education’s instruction of ballet is the persisting controversy over whether to approach it from a technical or an analytical perspective.
“From what I know, there’s a tension in the university system between practice and, well not exactly theory, but sort of culture and history. Are you going to teach people how to dance or about dance? Putting those things together is difficult,” she said. “It’s the difference between a professional academy where you’re training dancers to perform and a university where you’re trying to understand the art form and examine it, and trace its history.”
Ballet is struggling to capture the hearts and imaginations of a new generation and Homans feels that dancers today, though unquestionably more technically brilliant than their forbears, appear artistically and motivationally adrift.
“There isn’t that much interest, willingness, desire, I’m not sure what the motives are, but the results are that dancers are not taking the kind of chances [as previous generations] and they don’t have the same kind of openness and audacity, in a way, to just be themselves and push to the edge of both the music and their own capabilities,” she said.
Homans wonders if there are bigger social problems at the root of this dilemma, whether perhaps dancers today have different concerns, desires, and ways of looking at dance that prevent them from totally giving themselves over to their art. “I don’t know where the break is or why it’s happened,” she said. “You would think that the very dancers from those incredible [past] performances are now teaching, and consequently, there is no break in the tradition, it is all being passed along. So what’s the problem?”
Choreographers, too, appear to be creatively stifled. Homans admires some of the current crop of ballet makers, such as Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, but said their historical stature has yet to be proven due to the inconsistency of their work. Their maturation, however, may have more to do with staying put than with pursuing the muse.
“They do what everybody does today, they don’t sit anywhere in particular. They travel everywhere so they work with different dancers all the time. This creates a whole different kind of dynamic,” Homans said. “When you’re sort of staging ballet for a month and then you move on it is quite a different thing than, for instance, George Balanchine having his company for 40 years and developing a body of work with a group of dancers who are experimenting with you, where there’s an experimental collaboration going on. The same was true in Britain with Frederick Ashton, in Moscow with Yuri Grigorovich, in Stuttgart with John Cranko … but that is not how it is now and that difference has consequences.”
‘We Shouldn’t Take Ballet for Granted’
Homans refuses to prognosticate about ballet’s fate. “I’m not interested in forecasting which way it will go,” she said. “What I am interested in is what is powerful, what is emotionally and theatrically interesting. I am interested in the drama of ballet. By that I don’t mean I have to have a story, I mean that it has to have a dramatic force which connects it … to what is important in being human.”
Homans is skeptical of today’s shallow culture, which she sees to be a driving force behind the apparent demise of classical dance. “Ballet is against the grain right now,” she said. “The things that ballet stands for, and has stood for across its history, are not things that we’re very interested in these days. We live in a very informal, fast-paced, unhierarchical society that’s bent on quick production. The kind of devotion, the manners, the civility, the decorum, all those things which are so essential to ballet (even if you’re starting with those things and taking them into some radical direction); you still have to start with these concepts, accept them as the basic premise of the art form.”
A remedy she suggests for reviving ballet is as simple as it is ambitious: that performers and choreographers regain a passion for beauty and expressive intention.
“What I always come back to is that ballet’s resurgence has to come through the power of the dances,” said Homans. “People, I think, want to have theatrical experiences. They are drawn to theater because it’s live, it’s human. It’s the present, it’s here and now. It’s a community, you’re together in a group, you’re not sitting alone in front of a computer. It’s a tremendously valuable and invigorating and social experience, as well as an aesthetic one.”
Homans views her book as a cultural tool or resource that can be used to invigorate fresh curiosity and study.
“The thing about dance and ballet in particular is that, unlike many subjects people approach in history today, it’s a field that is largely intact,” she said. “There is so much primary research waiting to be done … we just need people who are trained in some aspect of it; in history, in dance, in languages even (French, Russian, Italian). … We shouldn’t take ballet for granted. It’s a very fragile art form as well as being a very profound one. It depends very much on the commitment of individual dancers and choreographers as you go forward, and it doesn’t have a body of text so you can’t let it lapse for 50 years and then go back to it. It’s gone.”
She perseveres in her faith that ballet will again find favor among the masses. She views the small artistic successes across America as glimmers of hope in a bleak artistic landscape, provoking the thought that subsequent ballet blossomings may occur in regional, less grandiose centers of creativity. Maybe China or India will be the next big influence on classical dance.
“You never know, right?” Homans says. “You never know where it’s going to come from. … Who in the 18th century would have thought that in the early 19th century a group of very passionate and important writers would have attached themselves to ballet and found it to be one of the most important things in their world? Nobody knew that was going to happen, and it gave new life to the art form, it’s what gave us Romantic Ballet. Or who in 1890s St. Petersburg would have dreamt that the next major flowering of this art form would be in New York and London? The future is wide open, but I think it’s worth thinking about.”
Erich Yetter is a visiting faculty lecturer in ballet at the University of Akron, Ohio, where he choreographs and teaches ballet history, ballet technique, pointe, and viewing dance.
Jennifer Homans is the author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House, 2010), and the dance critic for The New Republic. She was a professional dancer, trained in ballet, modern, and jazz techniques at the North Carolina School of the Arts and The School of American Ballet. She performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and has danced a wide repertory ranging from the 19th-century classics to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Homans holds a B.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in modern European history from New York University. She is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University, where she teaches the history of dance.