A history of ballet: It's not all tutus and sugar plums

By Marie Arana
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:26 PM

APOLLO'S ANGELS: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. Random House. 643 pp. $35

Ballet begins at the barre. It is hard work, rigorously disciplined, unforgiving. It takes brute physical strength, intense mental focus and a donkey's will. Even the most accomplished dancer begins her morning with five simple positions. By day's end, she will be defying the limitations of her anatomy, flouting gravity. She will become Apollo, a winged creature, a god. For all the fleet, fugitive beauty of one performance, a lifetime of excruciating labor will have gone into it. There is no artistic career more physically and psychologically challenging - or more heartbreakingly ephemeral - than hers.

Though ancient rituals imbue this art, few dancers understand its long, complicated history. Filled with kings and courtiers, dictators and dissidents, rich and poor, the story of ballet offers a singular perspective on the evolution of our culture: a fascinating mirror on the arts. Nowhere is this narrative told more amply or more compellingly than in Jennifer Homans's triumphant "Apollo's Angels."

Her book is a delight to read, massively informed yet remarkably agile. As with the gravity-defying feats she describes, a lifetime of work is behind it: Homans is a former ballerina, a dance critic for the New Republic and a distinguished scholar at New York University. In this opus, she blends extensive research and a trouper's experience to deliver nothing less than a cultural history of the past 400 years.

She begins by telling us what every dancer knows: that little in this art form is explained, that much depends on a teacher's memory - that, though it is a mute art, ballet is meant to be alive and present, not packed with a ponderous past. But a past it most certainly has. A precursor emerged in Italy in the 15th century, although the practice of ballet was not taken up in earnest until two centuries later - and only because it was the favorite of a French king. Imagine, if you will, your head of state as the star of a dance festival, arrayed in diamonds, bursting onto the carnival grounds on a magnificent white horse, then leaping to Earth to execute fancy pirouettes and intricate gambols. This is precisely how ballet was born.

The king in question was Louis XIII, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Molière, and a uniquely gifted dancer. He choreographed all the ballets himself, designed the costumes and assumed the leading roles in his dazzling spectacles. Often, he was seen as Apollo, grabbing at the sun. These were hardly pompous affairs: They were part burlesque, part acrobatics, filled with "outlandish obscenities."

But Louis XIII's famous son and heir, Louis XIV, soon raised the art to a higher level. Perhaps because he had shapely legs and a comely face, young Louis's performances acquired a noble air. Magnificently staged and elaborately costumed, these were not bawdy shows. Louis XIV took dancing very seriously. Meant to convey supremacy and power, the king's ballets became matters of state.

La belle danse, in short, began as a manly art. Learned alongside riding and swordsmanship, it became part of a man's obligatory regimen - an adjunct to the military - and, in the process, a ballet master became as essential to a 17th-century nobleman as a personal trainer might be to a Wall Street executive today. A courtier had to look good, after all. Dancing badly was not just embarrassing, it was "a source of deep humiliation."

But as one century slipped into the next, kings lost interest, courtiers no longer danced, males ceased to play female roles en travesti, and ballet masters began to cede the stage to ballerinas. By the 18th century, the Paris Opera's ballet dancers were all famous beauties, some of them doubling as notorious courtesans. One of them, Marie Sallé, transformed the art by substituting a new eroticism for the old pomp and gravitas. She dressed in skimpy costumes, writhed "in disarmingly natural ways" and moved ballet from the court to the boudoir.

By the 1750s, ballet was transformed again by an intellectual named Jean-Georges Noverre, who pulled it back into a serious realm. Noverre had begun by performing with Marie Sallé, although he was 20 years her junior - much as Rudolf Nureyev would one day perform alongside an older Margot Fonteyn. Eventually, Noverre became a star in his own right, a prodigiously talented choreographer and ballet master in Marie Antoinette's court. It was Noverre who separated ballet from opera, establishing it as a full-fledged art, and it was Noverre from whom the ballet as we know it would spring.

Homans invests her captivating chronicle with a deep knowledge of what it means to move a body in novel ways. She recounts how Noverre's successor, Auguste Vestris, instituted the exaggerated foot positions that came into vogue after the French Revolution. That strictness and extremity of position altered the balletic body, molding its joints and limbs in ways that would have lasting effects on dancers. A joining of the heels - the feet making a loose, informal vee, all too easy to achieve - now became a draconian straight line, which had the effect of realigning the knees, hips and torso. Nowhere was the quest for precision taken more seriously than in Russia, where dancers eagerly submitted to this extreme. Eventually, Russians - obsessed by the art's architecture and physics - would make ballet utterly their own.

Finally, "Apollo's Angels" proceeds to an engrossing tour of ballet in its most glorious century. Here is the masterful Marius Petipa choreographing "Sleeping Beauty" to Tschaikovsky's flamboyant score; here is the genius Sergei Diaghilev in carnal love with his own pupil and creation, Vaslav Nijinsky; and here is the immortal George Balanchine, stealing rations in the bone-chilling cold of a St. Petersburg winter. Here, too, are Jean Cocteau's chic sets and Pablo Picasso's clunky costumes, and the privileged Frederick Ashton competing against a butcher's son, Antony Tudor, to win British audiences away from the Russians. Homans explains how, for all the hardships and privations of communism, it was the Soviet Union that ultimately produced ballet's shining moment. The glories of the Bolshoi and the Kirov, and the emergence of one Russian star after another - Ulanova, Markova, Baryshnikov, Makarova, Plisetskaya - were so exhilarating, the pride so pervasive and national, that the Kremlin itself became involved. Even Stalin was an ardent fan.

As time passed, America came to inherit many a Russian star, including Balanchine, who single-handedly transformed ballet in this country. Homans's comprehensive history does not stint on this part of the story: She includes Jerome Robbins, Arthur Mitchell, Maria Tallchief, Martha Graham, Fred Astaire. A rich arc of history issues from first page to last, and it is impossible to do it justice in this review.

In the end, Homans's book is as much elegy as celebration. "In recent years," she writes, "I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting." The art, she claims, has become all too timid, imitative and insecure. Audiences sense it. For ballet to make a comeback, she adds, "we would have to admire ballet again," reach for its noble origins, grab at the sun.

Never mind the gloomy parts. It's like a ballet, really - say, "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "Firebird," "Jewels" or "Astarte." No matter who dies, we know that beauty, nobility of the spirit and pure love will prevail. An art that celebrates such abiding human values cannot possibly be swept away with the scenery.

Or can it?

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post.

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