Homans, a former professional ballet dancer and a dance critic, set herself to the formidable task of telling the history of ballet from its inception through to the modern day. Her book is meticulously researched, insightful, and well presented.
She begins, just as ballet does, in France. Telling the story of the court dances of Louis XIV through Louis XVI as the foundations of what we would recognize as the essence of ballet. As the courtiers of Louis XVI were replaced by professional dancers, and the revolution decimated their ranks, the nascent Paris Opera Ballet struggled against itself and outside forces to be recognized as an art form in and of itself, rather than a minor element of Opera.
As the ascendancy of the male dancer was falling by the wayside in France, the story (and book) moves to the Danes and their retention of the conservative movement and focus on restraint of Bournonville, all the way through to the modern day. The story then moves to the antithesis of Danish restraint, the flamboyant virtuosity of the Italian ballet. Blending the traditions of commedia dell’arte with the court dances developed in France, the Italians, lead by Manzotti, increasingly created larger and more spectacular spectacles. They developed a training system that led to their dancers being able to perform amazing feats of athletic prowess…but left the art form as little more than empty pageantry.
With money to entice, and an active pursuit of Westernization, Imperial Russia took over the mantle of the home of ballet in the late 1800’s. The aristocracy hired French, Danish, and Italian ballet masters to teach them to dance. They eventually created ballet schools that blended the elements of the different schools of dance, the virtuosity of the Italians, the male dance tradition of the Danes, and the regal, ephemeral beauty of the French ballerina. The Russians gave all to this art, treating it, much as the French ballet masters had desired, as an art form in its own right, on par with painting and opera. As the 20th century dawned, with the beginnings of modern dance, the Russians created the first truly “Classical” ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. The rise of the Soviets, with their ironic adoption of ballet (the art of courtly manners) as the art of the proletariat, was both a blessing and a curse to Russian ballet. Training in the USSR was, and still is, legendary. Poor and often orphaned children would be plucked from the entire Soviet Union and set to train in the Kirov or Bolshoi schools. Local schools were also developed, and the entire people understood ballet as an element of life in a way no one had before. The classical dances were preserved against the movement of modernism…and the art form was stifled under the extremes of the totalitarian state. As Homans points out, the Soviets did not have agitators within their system. Their dancers and choreographers either fell in line, or defected to the West.
The loss of some of the Soviets best and brightest, was to benefit the British and American dance traditions. The Royal Opera Ballet in Britain, and both ABT and NYCB benefited from the talents brought by these defectors. It is in this era, contemporary to the author, that the books tone shifts from the more purely historical presentation of the earlier chapters, to the views of the author as critic. It is obvious that she is in thrall to Mr. B (George Balanchine) and not a single word of criticism against him is presented in the book. Having read Dancing on my Grave by Gelsey Kirkland ( a former protege of Balanchine with some positive, but many negative memories of the man), it is hard to see Homans as an objective presenter of history when it comes to this particular era. The final chapter is a disgrace to the rest of her book. Homans essentially dismisses all ballet since her retirement, claiming it is vapid and devoid of personality and depth. She even claims that ballet is in its final death throes. It is the point of view of a critic and not of a historian, and one would think, having seen the “death throes” of ballet declared in each period her book explores, she may have been able to see the fallacy of her own proclamation. Perhaps she is right, perhaps ballet is stultified in America and Europe, but, one would think she of all people would recognize, that this may simply mean that it is to rise again elsewhere in the world.
The book has three sections of images inset. Most of these images are black and white and, as such, I would have preferred they be placed in the body of the text (as some images are). This would allow a lay reader, who perhaps doesn’t understand the more technical terms in the text, or have ready memory of the art or artists she mentions, to have access to those corresponding images as they encounter the information. Although I know what a pirouette is, or what Nijinsky looked like, some other readers might benefit from the visuals being included within the text. All in all, this is an excellent work, totally readable, and presents the topic with enough depth, considering its brevity, to capture, as the subtitle presents, the history of the ballet.