One of the most beautifully written and joyful books of last year was Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homan. The first reference I heard to the book was on public radio. I’m not sure who was interviewed and exactly what they said—it might have been Homan herself. I only caught a few minutes of it. What excited me was the idea of dancers aspiring to fly, to go up. I liked the reference to moving up, I guess, because it seems to me a spiritual aim, and yet here it was at the heart of the most physical of arts. It also explained something about ballet to me. In her book, Jennifer Homan writes about its title:
If Apollo is physical perfection, human civilization and the arts, the angels are the dancers’ desire to fly, but above all to ascend; to elevate themselves above the material world and toward God.
More recently, I discovered Toni Bentley’s review in the November 28 issue of the The New York Times Book Review (I get to them late!). It was probably the most ecstatic discussion of a book I’ve ever read.
I’ve never known too much about dance and especially classical ballet. I remember meeting a ballerina once and hearing about her physical hardships, and especially dancing en pointe (that is, on the toes). My friend Wes, who had been another kind of dancer for years, was a friend of Margot Fonteyn’s and exchanged Christmas cards with her. I still have two or three. I’ve only seen three ballets live, I think, or at least three that meant something to me: of course, I’ve gone to a few Nutcrackers. I was deeply moved by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and a friend in New York took me to see an amazing program of some Robbins and Balanchine a few years ago. All in all, I know next to nothing.
But this history of ballet is a look from a very different perspective at Western history and culture. When Jennifer Homan became a ballet dancer she discovered that it was:
a system of movement, as rigorous and complex as any language. Like Latin or ancient Greek, it had rules, conjugations, declensions. Its laws, moreover, were not arbitrary; they corresponded to the laws of nature. Getting it “right” was not a matter of opinion or taste: ballet was a hard science with demonstrable physical facts. It was also, and just as appealingly, full of emotions and the feelings that come with music and movement. It was blissfully mute, like reading. Above all, perhaps, there was the exhilarating sense of liberation that came when everything worked. If the coordination and musicality, muscular impulse and timing were exactly right, the body would take over. I could let go. But with dancing, letting go meant everything: mind, body, soul. This is why, I think, so many dancers describe ballet, for all its rules and limits, as an escape from the self. Being free.
Homan describes the history of classical ballet—a history that takes place largely in the royal courts of France and Russia, and culminates in New York City in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. That ballet is hierarchical and elitist, ruled by the past, and full of artifice makes it even more interesting: how extraordinary that its latest manifestation was in the United States where democracy and pluralism are bi-words, the natural is all the rage, and the future guides nearly every action.
Ballet, says Ms. Homan is “an oral and physical tradition, a storytelling art passed on, like Homer’s epics, from person to person, that it is more and not less rooted in the past.”
It’s all about memory which is partly why it interests me.
Ballet, then, is an art of memory, not history. No wonder dancers obsessively memorize everything: steps, gestures, combinations, variations, whole ballets. It is difficult to overstate this. …. These are physical memoirs: when dancers know a dance, they know it in their muscles and bones. Recall is sensual, like Proust’s madeleines and brings back not just the steps but also the gestures and feel of the movement, the “perfume,” as Danilova said, of the dance—and the older dancer. Thus ballet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries: it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.
Ms. Homan predicts the end of classical ballet for many reasons, but at least partly because of our focus on the “real” and the natural, the overwhelming presence of technology, our haste, our cynicism. Ballet is romantic and idealistic. I can’t pretend to judge whether she’s right, but how sad, if true. Because, it seems to me, there should be room for an art that’s so profoundly rooted in the past, so bounded by discipline, so physical and mental—even mathematical, so filled with the ideal of “up,” of aspiration, of inspiration.