Ballet News Reviews | Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

Ballet News Reviews | Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

Jennifer Homan’s history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, is told from the perspective of a former dancer (trained at the School of American Ballet, performed with Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet & Pacific Northwest Ballet) who “grappled with the knotty interpretative dilemmas of the various national styles being taught.”  Homans quickly realised that she’d never be able to master them all because of the sheer physicality of ballet and because it has rules – “conjugations and declensions.”  At this time she enjoyed George Balanchine’s work, believing it to be ‘present’ in a way that wasn’t classical necessarily but, importantly to her, wasn’t dated.


Homans believed a choice had to be made between these styles: to jump neatly like the Danes by dancing towards the ball of the foot or to jump high like the Russians which meant that you had to, occasionally at least, put your heel down.  Why do these national differences even exist ?  On this pretext, Homans explores the very beginnings of ballet, noting that it doesn’t matter how ‘old’ the repertory, ballet is by necessity performed by young people.

Art or history ?

Is ballet an art of memory or history ?  Homans is inclined towards memory, because ballet is passed on by word of mouth in a physical state where it is stored in the bodies of dancers, which roots it to the past. Homans says that this is one of the reasons that the ballets of the 17th Century have suffered; notation, such as it was, died out in the 18th Century.  La Sylphide premiered in Paris in 1832 but that version was lost.  The ballet we know today originates from Denmark in 1836.  Coppelia, a ballet from 1870, is the only French ballet still widely performed as originally intended – more or less.

In the beginning

The birth of ballet can be traced back to the marriage of the French King Henri 11 to Catherine de Medici, a Florentine, in 1533.  Celebrations were far grander in Italy and Catherine brought with her knowledge of elaborate horse ballets with hundreds of cavaliers.  In fact, ballet master Guglielmo Ebreo recorded in 1463 that their banquets were so extravagant that there were peacocks roaming freely on the tables.

In 1490 Leonardo de Vinci staged ‘Fests de paradiso’ featuring :

  • the Seven planets along with Mercury
  • the three Graces
  • the seven Virtues
  • nymphs
  • the god Apollo

The social dances by the Italians were called balli and balletti; the French called them ballets.

Many Kings have been fine dancers, for example Louis X111, who regularly performed in his own court ballets.  His son and heir, Louis X1V refund ballet and made it integral to court life, where previously ballet had been a display of power and opulence.  Louis founded the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661; at that time dance was one of the three principal exercises of the nobility (along with fencing and riding).  The Academy elevated dance beyond music, where its purpose became that of perfecting the etiquette required of high birth. Ballet masters, who were not usually from noble families, were crucial in helping the nobility to perfect these artifices, and with the Academy they were awarded special access to the king, who granted them the gift of membership. To dance badly at court became a source of huge embarrassment.  Dad dancing, anyone ?

Ballet masters and notation

One such ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, was ordered by the King to invent “a way of making dance understood on paper.”  He wanted to spread the influence of the French culture for which he was known.  Sadly, Beauchamps’ five columns of notation were lost and it’s not clear whether they were ever made public.  Worse, he failed to obtain the necessary permission to print his work and his system was taken up by a Parisian ballet master by the name of Raoul Auger Feuillet, whose work did become influential even though it primarily focused on solos and duets.

Throughout this time, men ruled ballet.  Women did dance in the Queen’s ballets, but in the King’s ballets the female roles were always danced by men en travesti until the 1680’s.

Codifying ballet proved pivotal – did you know that second position of the feet was devised so that the dancer could move from side to side without turning his body away from the king ?  (Second position during this time is feet horizontally apart, separated precisely by one foot).  Later on, the positions would show the turnout to 180 degrees that we see today; for now it was restricted to 45 degrees.  Arms were never raised above the shoulders because the distortion signalled distress or loss of control.  Only furies or other devilish spirits raised their arms !

By 1715 ballet had spread throughout Europe – Sweden, Britain, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Russia and Poland.

Change, the French Revolution & the English style

The eighteenth century was very much about reform, and women left behind supporting roles – this is when the ballerina came to life.  Paris was easily the most important hub for ballet, but the biggest reforms took place elsewhere, with productions returning to the Paris Opera stage once they’d made it big.  The English didn’t share the French prejudice against work; they favoured land ownership instead of the formalities and constraints of city & court life.  English people worked.  Charles 11, in 1660, sent members of his court to France to see what was going on, and many kings and queens followed him but generally they lacked cultural interests and had little taste for opulence.

London’s population grew massively between 1670 and 1750, and became a cultural hub.  In 1706, ballet master John Weaver translated Feuillet’s notation; he made successful pantomime ballets but these eventually fizzled out.  The French dancer Marie Sallé moved to London, where she was better paid.  Marie-Anne de Cupisde Camargo took on men’s jumps and turns around 1730, and won notoriety through technique.  More famously still, she shortened her skirts and showed off her feet, which were still considered hugely important (small feet were prized).

In Paris, women employed by the Paris Opera were under control of the king and their freedom contrasted sharply with that of other women in French society.  Their independence gave them the courage to take risks, but not necessarily security.

In the late eighteenth century the aristocracy began ‘dressing down’; the Paris Opera was in financial crisis.  Louis XV1 wasn’t interested in ballet and his box was frequently empty.  At this time, seating arrangements within the theatre (which had always been configured to suit the aristocracy) changed, with sightlines becoming a concern for the first time.  The Queen moved her box to better see the ballet. The opera house burned down in 1781 and was rebuilt to accommodate the changing attention of audiences, which meant that the boxes no longer faced directly into the theatre but were slightly at an angle, again, to improve sightlines rather than securing social visibility.  See, rather than be seen.

Homans says that it was during the French Revolution that ballet changed forever; women dressed in simple white at the festivals and they became the first corps de ballet as we know it today.  In the 1790’s they still didn’t dance on stage, but the people danced – the carmagnole quite often (named after the red jacket worn by the Marseille rebels). During this time another step forward could be seen – men and women embraced on the dance floor during the waltz.  Dance masters found work plentiful following the crowning of Napoleon, who liked to see professional rigor, and the Paris Opera School was re-organised.

Male dancers

Male dancers started to turn away from the French noble style and towards virtuoso dancing, and it might be surprising to us to know that it wasn’t always a popular style, with turnout now at the more familiar 180 degrees.  As the three dance genres (serious or noble, demi character and comic) melded into one, notation too collapsed.  The steps were more complex and numerous, and harder to record.  Pointed feet started to appear; made possible by the new Grecian style shoes.  Ballet barres were slowly introduced where previously there had been a rope hung from the ceiling to balance on.  But by melding these styles together, ballet expanded.

The barre – but not as we know it

And barre exercises were nothing like they are today.  Sometimes the dancers would have their feet or legs tied to the barre, to improve technique, and it wasn’t unlike a form of torture.  Eventually this gave way to a slower, proper muscular training, but the initial barres were not always looked upon as they are now.  The exercises themselves were rigorous – Homan’s gives an example :

48 pliés, 128 grand battements, 96 petits battements glissé, 128 ronds de jambes sur terre plus 128 en l’air, and we are not finished there.  128 petits battements sur le cou-de-pied finished off this section of the ballet class.  Or the dancer !

En Pointe – or not ?

In 1832 Maria Taglioni become ballets first international celebrity with La Sylphide.  She wasn’t the first to dance en pointe though.  Grotteschi Italian performers danced on pointe in what was really nothing more than a stunt – Taglioni turned the movement into a graceful art.  However, she was not ideally proportioned for ballet; she had a rounded back and used her technique to hide her physical weaknesses, to the point where she could hold a pose for 100 counts.  Try that today !  Actually, she never danced on full pointe – she stood on a very high half point, which is an incredibly uncomfortable position anyway.

There follows chapters on ballet in Denmark, Italy, Russia, Britain and America. For over two centuries ballet had been French, Italian, Danish and Russian, but never native English.  Music halls thrived at the turn of the twentieth century and Russian dancers began to arrive – Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova.  In 1911 the Ballet Russes arrived for their first tour in London at the Royal Opera House.  There follows accounts of ballet during World War 1, the Vic-Wells Ballet and Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton (“a child of the British imperial diaspora”) and Margot Fonteyn.

The Epilogue of this book, where Homans laments the demise (as she sees it) of classical ballet, has received many column inches for its ten pages (the book has 639 of them) and I’m not going to dwell on them here.  What I will say is that Homans’ assertions that “today’s dancers have fewer half-tones than their predecessors”; that “the overall level of technique is falling”; that “few dancers are exciting or interesting enough to draw or hold an audience” are not observations that I can agree with.  I see Liam Scarlett, David Bintley & David Nixon, to name three, choreographing new classical ballet which is, importantly, not just new but successful. I see Kenneth Tindall, Hannah Bateman, Tobias Batley, Yonah & Carlos Acosta, Steven McRae, Marianela Nunez, Vadim Muntagirov, Martha Leebolt, Steven Monteith, Leanne Cope, Venus Villa and Tamara Rojo to name a handful from companies around the UK who exemplify all of the qualities a great dancer needs, from virtuoso to emotional. If you look further you can see crystallising stars in the schools around the country too – dancers and choreographers.  Neither would I agree with Homans that dancers of today are not committed to the choreography and are “fudging” steps as a result.  Homans credits the use of video to learn ballets with producing “dull, flat-screen dances and dancers,” though she does recognise what I also hear from notators – that learning a new ballet from a video is akin to watching a film before reading the book – once the image is set fast in the dancers mind, it is more difficult for them to see that the ballet was actually intended to be performed differently.  Homans feels that ballet has once again, as it was during the time of Louis X1V, become exclusive and largely available to the rich, because tickets nowadays are expensive.

Whatever your feelings on the future of ballet, which is, I think, a different debate than the subject of this book where the author has spent 10 years looking backwards to cover the history of ballet; I doubt that anyone involved with or interested in ballet can afford to be without this book.  The level of research and detail, all in one place, is commendable and though it is jam packed with tiny, fascinating historical details it is not in any way desiccated or dry.  On the contrary, Apollo’s Angels is a fabulous, absorbing read and allows you to put ballet in the context within which it was created, through the centuries.

I wonder what sort of history book will be written of ballet in our time ?

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Hardcover)

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