Last month I read Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century by Jennifer Homans. Here are a portion of my thoughts-
This book is a masterpiece. If you have been into ballet all your life you will treasure it, if like me, you have never seen a ballet you will be overwhelmed by the extreme cultural depth of the world Jennifer Homans has presented. The cast of characters is immense, fascinating. The story begins in pre-revoluntunary Russia,suffers through the fall of the Tsar,with young George eating rats, lingers for a while then proceeds to Paris, travels in Weimer Germany, spends a bit of time in London then settles in New York City with some interludes in Hollywood.
If I had know what a great historian Jennifer Homans was I would have first read her 2010 work, Appolo's Angels: A History of Ballet.
Just as a history of American literature must include an account of the society so a history of Ballet requires the incorporating of European history since the birth of Ballet in 16th century France up to the social conditions that Homans convincingly specifies that what she sees as the causes of the precipitous decline in contemporary ballet.
From the Enlightenment and the story-ballet, she takes us to the late-1700s and the French Revolution.At the Paris Opéra, was born the first modern corps de ballet, a group of maidens in white, the colour of revolutionary purity and virtue.
"When king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal alliance, and it is here that the history of ballet begins. The French court had long reveled in tournaments, jousting, and masquerades, masquerades, but even these impressive and lavish entertainments fell short of those traditionally mounted by the princes and nobility of Milan, Venice, and Florence: flaming torch dances, elaborate horse ballets with hundreds of mounted cavaliers arranged in symbolic formations, and masked interludes with heroic, allegorical, and exotic themes." From Apollo’s Angels
Just as in the French Court, everyone had a rigidly defined place, ballet very much mirrored this. Elaborate dance Preformances were for the enjoyment of the elite. There were no Ballets in the Australia Bush or in the American frontier days.
Homans shows us how The French Revolution impacted ballet-
"Was was a perfect artifact of seventeenth-century French aristocratic culture: an amalgam of the rules and regulations of court life, of chivalry and etiquette, codes of noblesse, le merveilleux, and baroque spectacle. All of these things were written into its steps and practices. Moreover, if ballet seemed—as the Ancients claimed—to cleave to baroque flattery, decepdeception, and bombast, or to be locked in the straitjacket of court ritual and artifice, we should remember that it also articulated high ideals and formal principles. Because the etiquette elaborated at Louis’s court strove for symmetry and order, and drew from deep currents of Renaissance and Classical thinking, ballet was imbued with an anatomical geometry and clear physical logic that also had transcendent implications. As an art, it was pulled between the strong poles of classical and baroque style. It was a vision and defense of nobility—not as a social class but as an aesthetic and way of life." - Appolo's Angels
In one of the most fascinating to me aspects of the book she goes into marvellous detail about the history of ballet in Russia. (She also covers the History of Ballet in Denmark, England, and elsewhere in Europe.) She begins with Peter the Greats efforts to throw off old Russian ways.
Before Peter the Great there was no ballet at all in Russia. Indeed, it is worth recalling just how isolatedand culturally impoverished the country was before Peter came to power in 1689. For centuries, church and state had been inseparable: the Russian tsar was an Orthodox prince and Moscow was cast as a “third Rome.” Western Europe went through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution, but Russia remained cut off and bound up in the timeless liturgies of the Orthodox faith. It had no universities and no secular literary tradition; its art and its music were almost exclusively confined to icons and sacred songs. Musical instruments were considered sinful, and dance was something peasants did. Court ballet did not exist." - Appolo's Angels
Homans takes us from the Bolshoi Ballets, where ballerinas often were mistresses of Granddukes, where the Tsar had a private box (think Anna Karenina) up through the revolution to Nakita Krushev bragging that Russian Ballet was far superior to American to George Balanchine’s immigration. (I smiled when I learned he used to cook his own meals in kitchen of The Russian Tea Room in New York City.)
Homans details the history of Ballet in America. American ballet was dominated by Russian emigrants.
There is a delightful collection of photographs and an extensive bibliography.
"When I first began work on this book, I imagined it would end on a positive note. But in recent years I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting. With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality; theaters feel haunted and audiences seem blasé. After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying. The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember...Honor and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback. We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set of ethical principles. Our contemporary infatuation with instability and fragmentation, with false pomp and sentiment, would have to give way to more confident beliefs ..But Beauty is not only about sleep and awakening, the court and classical ballet; it also tells of fragility and breaks in tradition—of sleep that may not wake. Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language: Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers"- Appolo's Angels
Written 12 years ago, in the current state of American culture I am completely convinced of this. In a very affluent American community where I have family ties Ballets are sponsored by the extremely rich, with expensive tickets.
JENNIFER HOMANS was a professional dancer. She was trained at the North Carolina School for the Arts and The School of American Ballet and performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Currently the dance critic for The New Republic, she has written for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books, and The Australian. She earned her B.A. at Columbia University and her Ph.D. in modern European history at New York University. She is currently a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University.