Monthly Archives: October 2013

Apollo’s Angels: History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

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.

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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray

Front CoverYou know when you have dessert and you’re able to give yourself permission to enjoy it? No, I mean, really enjoy it…lick the container at the end enjoy it? That is this book. It is my favorite kind of book, so well researched (and cited), so in depth, with a risk pace meant for a lay reader to be able to get into. Originally published in 1977, the book was re-printed in 1995 in paperback (the cover above and the copy I have).

Caught in the Web of Words tells the story of James Murray, a self-taught scholar of a variety of topics. He studied botany, geology, geography, literature, and on and on. He was able to attend some school, but his main source of knowledge was voracious reading on the vast number of subjects that held his interest (a kindred spirit), and his personal observations. He was Scottish, and his early travels with his family impressed him with how little difference there was between people ( a deep cut in the earth between Scotland and England revealed the same dirt on both sides) and yet, how different the people and their languages were. As an adult, he taught schoolboys and girls and commenced his studies of etymology, the development and use of words and the changing meaning of said words through history. He was also still involved in his other interests and politics as well.

Moving to London in the late 1860’s on advice of doctors treating his wife, he had to give up his teaching and began working in a bank. His first wife, along with their child, died in London…yet Murray did not return home. He continued his philological studies (this is a great book for learning new words) and Ada, his formidable wife who bore him 11 children, was his faithful partner through many years of financial hardship, and ran the household, while still finding time to aid him in his work. He finally returned to teaching after 10 years, leaving London for Mill Hill. He was a member of many learned societies, yet felt inferior for his lack of University degree.

One of the members of the Philological Society, Frederick Furnivall, had launched, many years before, a drive to gather definitions and etymological development for a new dictionary. In 1876, through a fair bit of trickery, he convinced Murray to resume the work and edit a new, unabridged, dictionary of English. The dictionary was meant to contain common and uncommon words, quotes that showed their usage in literary and non-literary (read, newspapers and magazines) work, the etymology of words, and, controversially, phonetic pronunciation. The latter part was controversial for several reasons. The spelling of words was still not standardized, and many though this purpose should e more important than pronunciation. The presentation of phonetic pronunciation, likewise, was not yet standardized, many people putting forth their own particular pet system. Also, Murray was willing to print various pronunciations of a word, rather than one “correct”- presumably London Learned British, rather than Scottish, Irish, or any of the other derivations of the tongue. The undertaking was overwhelming, the kind of task one takes on because one is not entirely aware of the scope of the task. 30 years of volunteers reading volumes from different periods in history, hunting down quotations for various words throughout time, left plenty of gaps. Murray had to make a call for new readers, and several hundred people in Britain, and America, answered the call. Their work was, as is wont to be with volunteers, uneven. Hundreds of thousands of slips of paper had to be alphabetized, culled, deciphered, organized, chosen, further researched, all while under pressure from the Philological Society and Oxford University Press to get more printed, faster, and cheaper. Eventually, Murray would give up the majority of his other pursuits in order to focus exclusively on the dictionary. Assistant Editors, mostly hired by the Press and imposed on Murray without consultation, were eventually brought on. In the end, Murray did not live quite long enough to see the work completed.

I read the book with awe and extreme interest. Murray did an astonishing amount of research for this book, building on some preliminary genealogical research done by her father. She presents the information in an interesting, generally chronological form, while allowing herself to periodically follow a topic to it’s conclusion, then returning to the time addressed prior to exploring that topic. My only qualm is that, during the period of time Murray spent writing the dictionary, Ms. Murray concentrated all the focus on dictionary work, giving the impression (which James Murray himself did), that his life was nothing but dictionary all the time. She then uses one of the final chapters to tell about the rest of his life while compiling the dictionary. I would have preferred to see this contrast within the description of the dictionary work, rather than segregated from it. Licking the container? That’s me reading the end citations, eating up the bits of extra knowledge tucked away back there!

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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Book Reviews


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