Many ballet dancers, writes Jennifer Homans, 'are suspicious of words, and understandably so: they spend their lives working with their bodies and with music, and words are simply not their trade'. All the more impressive, then, that two former dancers write so beautifully about their art. The first lady remains Royal Ballet trained Julie Kavanagh, with her compelling and superbly researched biographies of Ashton and Nureyev. Now Homans, who started out at the School of American Ballet, ticks many of the literary boxes with an ambitious popular history of the art, Apollo's Angels.
She has enlightened me about so many aspects of ballet that I'd barely given a thought: the intellectual rigour with its roots in the classical belief of human perfectability through the body's geometric proportions, the striving to reach the heavens and 'the great Ballet-master' (as the Abbé Mersenne called 'the author of the universe' in 1636). Later the Jesuits taught the 'mute rhetoric' of dance, gesture and declamation. But it was at the court of Louis XIV, of course, that ballet reached its first, painstakingly stratified plateau. Like his predecessor but with far greater discipline and devotion, the future roi soleil devoted himself to the art and appeared in some 40 ballets. There's no escaping the celebrated image of Louis as Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit, with suns great and small all over his costume (I fear this image is back to front, but as it's wikifree, it'll have to do).
Just how lively the court ballets could be we heard on Friday night in an orchestrally and chorally superb performance of Phaëton, Lully's 1684 tragédie lyrique, zestily conducted and played at the harpsichord by that great animateur Christophe Rousset: there's a chaconne to conclude the second act which you feel could go on for ever. Homans tells us how the gravitas of Louis's beloved Courante gave way to the toujours gai Minuet preferred by Lully. Around 1800 we get the waltz, but that's to jump over the Enlightenment development of story-ballets and the French Revolution.
Homans is brilliant, at first anyway, in connecting the art to the times. There's a chapter on the democratisation of dance with the advent of the Revolution. Its later artistic celebrations with women in white as paragons of reason and virtue were a far cry from the scabrous Carmagnole caricatured here in Fred Barnard's Victorian illustration for Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.
There are portraits where Homans goes straight to the anecdotal heart of the matter: of Marie Sallé hitting London in the 1730s, according to one witness 'without hoopskirts , or corps, dishevelled and with no ornaments in her hair...just draped in chiffons on the model of a Greek statue'; and of Marie Taglioni, no beauty, using rigorous self-discipline to steer the dance away from male domination in the 1800s with her embodiment of sylphdom and Gautier's romantic maxim that 'ballets are the dreams of poets taken seriously'. Here's her Sylphide appearing to Scots dreamer James in the French ballet that Bournonville was to immortalise in Denmark with his own special style (it still has a conservative hold, in the best sense, on ballet in that country today).
Diligent in her coverage of how ballet advanced, or not, in other countries through the 19th century, Homans gives us fascinating insight into the proto-Fascist pageants of Luigi Manzotti in Italy: the hugely popular Excelsior (1881), an allegory of Progress, 'boasted a cast of more than five hundred, including twelve horses, two cows and an elephant'.
In Homans's Russian chapters, we are back on the serious tack. The imperial bolstering wasn't news to me, but I hadn't appreciated quite how much Tchaikovsky's later scores 'brought out a whole new range and tone-colour in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus and Pugni could never inspire'. All this, in The Sleeping Beauty, in spite of the essentially court-dictated spectacle of it all (photo from original 1890 production).
As Homans moves into the 20th Century, she is less ready to take the rough with the smooth, the earthy with the idealistic. On the plus side, there's a pitch-perfect journey through the highs and lows of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with a special pleading for Nijinsky both as dancer, bringing a 'fragrant androgyny' to redefine male dancing 'and put the danseur back at the centre of ballet' (below, in Le Dieu Bleu)
and as choreographer; Le Sacre du Printemps was 'a bleak and intense celebration of the collective will...a coldly rational depiction of a primitive and irrationally charged world...the first truly modern ballet' (Roerich's costume design for the Chosen One below).
Can you believe Le Sacre only had eight performances before being lost to the world? In her epilogue, Homans excoriates Millicent Hodson's 'reconstruction' as 'a travesty' rendering 'a radical and shocking dance...tame and kitschy'. How she could be so sure about the original I don't know, but 'kitschy' was certainly my experience of a recent Maryinsky performance.
Also on the plus side is Homans's delightful potted history of Ashton's progress, growing out of the surprising intellectual beginnings of British ballet proper in the 1920s - Ninette de Valois's Rout, for instance, kicked off with a dancer reciting a poem by German political activist Ernst Toller - and experiencing a miraculous sweet renaissance against the spirit of angrier times with La Fille mal gardée in 1960. On the minus side is her disapproval of Kenneth MacMillan's later plunge 'into the depths of his own damaged personality and dark obsessions'. Shattering Mayerling, for instance, is dismissed with implied disapproval in a sentence (pictured, Johan Persson's image of Mara Galeazzi with the astounding Edward Watson in a recent Royal Ballet revival) .
still wowing us in the latest personification of Russian masculinity, Ivan Vasiliev (photo by Damir Yusupov for the Bolshoi Ballet, originally included in the Arts Desk review to which I've linked).
Homans rises to the challenge of surveying three great American-based careers: those of the violence-prone Anthony Tudor, of whom I knew little, of Jerome Robbins and above all of the great archangel George Balanchine: such a career that was, from his first great choreography of Stravinsky's music, Apollo, in 1927 - you might see why he changed the look of it in later years -
to the dying man's 1981 vision of the Adagio lamentoso in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. Detailed reflection on Agon (1957), with Stravinsky's musical time-machine whizzing us from the court dances of Louis XIV through to the dodecaphonic era, returns us full circle to the intellectual beginnings of ballet.
Then the epilogue has to go and spoil it all. Sure, there have been no giants like Balanchine since his death. But nor has ballet itself snuffed it, as Homans implies. What, not a word of today's choreographers, like Ratmansky revitalising the Russian tradition or our British-based live wires, like the pair who have so enchanted my hard-to-please colleague Ismene Brown in her review yesterday of the Ballet Boyz? Homans also has not a word to say about recent hybrids which, it's true, have an eye on the market (why shouldn't they?) but keep their integrity, like the companies of Alvin Ailey (his troupe's phenomenal Samuel Lee Roberts pictured by Paul Kolnik) and Matthew Bourne?
It seems to me that Homans's anxiety to keep her ballet chronicle tied to a cultural history, which is frequently a strength, leads her to see black and white patterns where the truth is somewhere in the middle. Still, hers is a gripping, readable study, which everyone with the slightest interest in ballet should read.
I've been slow to catch up on writing about other reading here. January and February saw a pleasurable return to Iceland. First was Halldór Laxness's typically skewed wit and (I suspect very native) sense of fantasy in The Fish Can Sing, a tale of growing up and falling under the spell of a 'world singer' - or not - in the developing days of Reykjavík's history. Who could fail to be enchanted by this?
It's neither as long nor as sombre as Independent People, which is of course a more epic kind of masterpiece, and infinitely more readable than World Light, which I had to give up on. No readability problems, though, with the thrillers of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Since being engrossed by My Soul to Take - covered in that same blog entry where I referenced Laxness for the first time - after falling under the spell of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, I'd been longing to catch up on her three others to date. I began this time with Ashes to Dust, a magnificent - and educational - mix of the gruesomely personal with the volcanic eruption on Heimaey, the largest of the Westmann Islands, back in 1973 (slightly grainy picture from that time below).
The result of which is, of course, I'm itching to visit the island. Just as evocative in its sense of place is the latest thriller, The Day is Dark, with its baleful evocation of an isolated part of Greenland and its people. Then I went back to the first of Sigurðardóttir's books, Last Rituals, set mostly in the capital but with a creepy investigation into witchcraft on Iceland.
Indeed, you learn a lot about the country. But the best thing about these books is the disparity between the utterly down to earth, likeable and only mildly dysfunctional protagonist, attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, and the bizarre and often stomach-churning cases with which she's involved. There's plenty of mileage in the character yet, so I look forward to more.