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Apollo's Angels : A History of Ballet by…

Apollo's Angels : A History of Ballet (2010)

by Jennifer Homans

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Finally! This was a good book, impressively researched, and I'm glad I read it (although I'm not going to deny that there were moment when I wondered whether a detailed analysis of ballet in Italy in the nineteenth century was really the best use of 45 minutes). But I'm glad I'm done, too. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
More like 3.5. Great retelling of ballet history, though the stories of the choreographers all seemed vaguely the same. Learned more about ballet than I'll ever possibly need to know. However, I thought it was somewhat off-putting that she ended the book by saying it was dead. Ballet, that is, not the book. It depressing, and made me question the value of the book a little. ( )
  gossamerchild88 | Mar 30, 2018 |
Finally! This was a good book, impressively researched, and I'm glad I read it (although I'm not going to deny that there were moment when I wondered whether a detailed analysis of ballet in Italy in the nineteenth century was really the best use of 45 minutes). But I'm glad I'm done, too. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
Last year, I heard an interview with Homans on Fresh Air (NPR) and knew I had to read this book. The first half of the book focuses on France primarily, with diversions to Denmark and Italy. Homans discusses ballet's role in society, politics, and the arts, but can't truly make the reader see what ballet must have looked like because it simply isn't known. I think she describes it as well as anyone could, but it's still hard to visualize.Ballet is a hard topic to write about for the same reason that it didn't really get its cultural footing established until the 1900s - because it has never had a reliable notation system. For that reason, it was only handed down by mentor to student and seems to not have been able to build upon itself or add rich resources and influences from other cultures. I was definitely surprised and dismayed to see how tied up ballet was with pantomime - really, most of it sounds like it would have been just ridiculous to watch. When I started reading this book, I wondered why, as a person having a Masters in music, I couldn't really recall much about ballet and its music (except for Gluck) until you get to the 1900s and Russia. Well, now I know it's because the music wasn't really that great or the focus. Once ballet left the aristocracy and court life, it was more about trying to pantomime a story and used simple form music or street music.

In the second half of the book, the focus shifts to Russia. Here is where ballet as we think of it really takes hold. Tchaikovsky begins to compose for ballet and some of the most famous ballets (Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty) are created. This tradition is followed by great composers like Stravinsky, Prokoviev, Debussy, Ravel, Bernstein, Copland, Delibes, etc. Some of these composers create specifically for ballet, and some have their music "appropriated" later. For me, knowing the music really helped me to envision the dancing innovations she describes. And, of course, starting as early as the 1940s, you can find clips online of many of the dancers and choreography that she describes. This really added to the experience of reading this book. The final chapters of the book describe the different schools of ballet in America, with an overwhelming emphasis on Balanchine (over people like Jerome Robbins, Joffrey, etc.). In this section, I started to really feel the author's personal biases. The manner in which she describes and critiques dancers, ballets, and choreographers starts to feel more personal and less historical. I guess this is partially to be expected; she is after all an American ballerina and lived and performed through this era. In some ways, the tone made the section more readable, but I was a bit uncomfortable not knowing enough about ballet to completely understand the bias. Also in this section, Homans sticks to describing ballet performers and ballets rather than talking much about the tradition of learning ballet. It's a topic that she discusses a lot in the first section. I wondered if it was maybe too personal for her to write about? She also doesn’t talk much about recording ballet, and the lack of a notation discussion ends, but instead she focuses on the thought that ballet reflects the period it’s written in and dancers it’s written for and really can’t truly be reproduced accurately. Balanchine definitely believed this and passed the thought on to his students.

And that thought leads to the Epilogue. The Epilogue may be the main reason this book has been talked about as much as it has. In it she states that ballet is a dying art and that she sees no way for it to be revived. There is a lack of innovation and talent and lack of interest from the public and she sees it all coming to a close. Today's ballet companies soullessly reproduce old works instead of coming up with new works to reflect their generation.

This is a much longer review than I normally write, but I really enjoyed this book and found it very thought-provoking. I know that many people will be turned away from it because they don't know much about ballet. I'd just like to say that I know very little (I've only seen The Nutcracker and The Rite of Spring live) and it still really meant something to me. I do think you need some knowledge of the arts to truly appreciate the book. My music background definitely helped me a deeper understanding of many of the ballets she writes about, but Homans does a good job, particularly in the first half, of tying ballet to many different aspects of life such as literature, visual arts, music, politics, court-life, and government, and knowledge of any of these areas will aid in understanding and connecting with the book. I highly recommend this book and will be passing it on to several friends. ( )
5 vote japaul22 | Jan 10, 2012 |
This well written history of classical ballet suffers from the author's frustration that her story arc does not pay off. In her view, ballet was born in France (helped by an Italian midwife). At the end of the 19th century, the Russians took up the torch and even through the Soviet years carried ballet forward. Finally, the winners of the Cold War and God's chosen country, the United States of America was supposed to take over the mantle and reign supreme in the world of ballet. Alas, it didn't happen. Despite all the struggles of George Balanchine, ballet never became an American art. This might have given pause to the author and venture into a deeper analysis of the success factors of ballet.

One factor is structural. Ballet requires high inequality to thrive, an impoverished mass to supply the bodies to be trained, a factor well matched in the US. The next factor is barely achieved in the US: A localized court that dominates the fashion and entertainment discourse. The cultural influence of New York, Chicago, LA and Washington D.C. on the rest of the country is trivial compared to the magnetism of Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow in their heyday. Americans coming to town are much more likely to watch a musical or go to Radio City Music Hall. a classical ballet is a hard sell. Most audiences, furthermore, lack the necessary knowledge to appreciate the dancer's skills and moves beyond an emotional reaction. Even in Europe, ballet tickets are usually shuffled into opera season tickets. Finally, the training of ballet dancers requires government support to dedicated institutions. The end of the Cold War has reduced the need for the US government for showcase investments.

Given the limited contemporary influence of classical ballet, one way out of the dilemma would have been to develop the connections of ballet to modern dance and the supporting function of ballet dancers in opera and musical productions. The smaller venues of modern dance allow for more artistic and innovative expression. Homans, however, restricts her view to the wedding cake part of ballet, the big stand alone evening attraction. Her own book shows that for most of its history, ballet was always integrated into a wider show business block. Like classical music, ballet is pushed either towards established repertoire fare or into a supporting function.

A chapter about modern European ballet is certainly missing, as is a chapter on the early renaissance spectacles in Italy. Read it for the non-American chapters. ( )
3 vote jcbrunner | Jul 17, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
So what is one to do now, having seen, having known, a thing of such beauty that is facing imminent extinction? Jennifer Homans has put her mourning into action and has written its history, an eloquent and lasting elegy to an unlasting art. It is, alas, a eulogy.
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...I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.

Wallace Stevens
"Angel Surrounded by Paysans"
A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Cornford
For Tony
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Book description
This title presents a fascinating history of classical ballet which takes us from its origins in 18th century France through the Italian influence in the 19th century, the dominance of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century, up to the present and ballet's uncertain future. It begins in the courts of old Europe, where ballet began as an aristocratic etiquette and moved from Italy and France to Britain, Denmark, Russia and contemporary America. Homans argues that the evolution of steps, technique and choreography can only be understood in light of the great political and intellectual movements of the past 200 years. Homans shows how dance and dancers were influenced by the Renaissance and French Classicism, by Revolution and Romanticism, by Expressionism and Bolshevism, Modernism and the Cold War. Her book ends with the contemporary crisis in ballet now that 'the masters are dead and gone' and offers a passionate plea for the centrality of classical dance in our civilization.
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Unique among the arts, ballet has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. A ballerina dancing today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements recall a lost world of courts, kings, and aristocracy, but her steps are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. From ballet's origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France's Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through the courts of Europe, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. Jennifer Homans, a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer, traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them.--From publisher description.… (more)

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