During this end-of-the-year holiday season, numerous presentations of The Nutcracker ballet are being performed with ballet dancers dressed as sugar plums, candy canes, waltzing flowers, and other holiday treats. Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels: a History of Ballet is especially wonderful to read right now. It will be of interest to everyone, not only balletomanes who may think they know everything about this dance form, but for those who know nothing about it, and in particular for those who have preconceived notions about men in tights performing daring leaps into the air and women in frilly tutus delicately dancing about in toe shoes. As dance critic for The New Republic and a former professional dancer, Homans provides a rich cultural history based on extensive research and offers fresh insights.
All types of dance have existed for centuries, but the ballet we know today has its roots in the Renaissance French court of Louis XIV. Over time it changed with new steps and movements that became codified and soon required different types of artists to provide music, sets, costumes, shoes, make-up, masks, special lighting, and seating arrangements. Ballet was one part of the development of various performing arts that became popular in western Europe, Great Britain, Imperial Russia later the Soviet Union, and the United States. And, we are reminded that ballet was elitist in origin and state supported by either royalty or elected officials. This history highlights key dancers, choreographers, patrons, courtiers, kings and political leaders who left their marks on the development of ballet.
Throughout the history of ballet it is the Greek god Apollo who is dominant as both a symbol and as a character. The roots of ballet are in the Renaissance which looked back to fifth-century Athens where Apollo, “. . . is the god of civilization and healing, prophecy and music . . . he is moderation and beauty, man as the measure of all things . . . the leader of the Muses . . . they represent poetry and the arts, music and pantomime and dance (Terpsichore).” It is the direct line of idealism, perfection, and moral imperative that has been the basis for ballet and kept it vital and alive for four-hundred years. Homans is concerned that ballet is dying because it is now lacking those attributes. Her conclusion about the present state of ballet may somewhat resonate in other arts: “ . . . ballet has always been an art of order, hierarchy and tradition. But rigor and discipline are the basis for all truly radical art, and the rules, limits, and rituals of ballet have been the point of departure for its most liberating and iconoclastic achievements.”