NYU Alumni 
Magazine Spring 2011


Barre None

Jennifer Homans presents ballet’s untold story

by Amy Rosenberg

In a 1965 article for Life magazine, world-famous choreographer George Balanchine wrote, “In ballet, a complicated story is impossible to tell. We cannot use words. We can’t dance synonyms.” This may be true, but the story of ballet itself—its role in history, culture, and politics, its significance, and its development over time—is indeed complicated. Now, with the publication of Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House), that story has been fully told.

Named one of the 10 best books of 2010 by The New York Times and called by one Times critic “the only truly definitive history” of ballet, Apollo’s Angels traces the evolution of the art from its origins in the courts of Renaissance France, through its embellishment in 19th-century Russia, to its most recent apogee with the New York City Ballet in the late 20th century. It goes further than that too: The finale of its more than 500 pages is an epilogue titled “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” In it, Homans (GSAS ’08), a distinguished scholar-in-residence who danced professionally for many years, observes that Balanchine’s death in 1983 marked the start of a slow decline for ballet, a collapse into present-day mediocrity. “[B]allet seemed to grind to a crawl,” she writes, “as if the tradition itself had become clogged and exhausted.” The art, she concludes, is dying. Her remarks set off a fierce debate on blogs and in print, with critics, balletomanes, dancers, and scholars all passionately arguing either that ballet is dead or that it is vibrantly alive.

For her part, Homans is just glad that people are talking about it. Denounced for her grim predictions (one critic accused her of “living in the past”; another of “railing against [her] own mortality”), she says no one hopes she is wrong more than she does. As she puts it: “I have spent my life devoted to this art form. I, of all people, am going to be standing up when I see something worth standing up for.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that ballet has been her life’s devotion. Homans, who grew up in Chicago, began dancing when she was 8 years old. She liked it and “just kept going,” she says. Like most professional ballerinas, she did not attend college immediately. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and then moved to New York and studied at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, dancing a range of 19th- and 20th-century classics. When she was 26, Homans suffered an injury that kept her off the stage and in bed for a while. That’s when her focus began to shift.

“During that period, I spent all of my time reading,” she explains. “Having come from an academic family”—both of her parents taught at the University of Chicago—“I’d always had reading as a part of my life. Also, this was in the mid-’80s, and the dance world was in an uncertain state. I found that I wasn’t getting the kind of stimulation I’d been getting earlier on.” Homans made the difficult decision to stop dancing professionally. She enrolled at Columbia University, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in French literature, and then went on to get her PhD in modern European history from NYU.

But she couldn’t move away from ballet entirely. “It was still a passion,” she says, “and studying history made me realize how little I knew about its past.” She began to try to find out more but had trouble locating compelling accounts. “There aren’t many good books about the history of ballet,” she says. “The more I read the more I realized that what I was looking for just wasn’t there, and maybe I could write it.”

Fourteen years later, Apollo’s Angels is proof of the extraordinary effort that went into doing so. The same critics who took issue with Homans’s dire outlook praised the depth of her research, her “piercing intelligence,” and the “heart” and “feeling” in her words. The bulk of her research took about 10 years, carrying her to archives throughout Europe—but a large portion of her work took place at the barre, too. “In order to tell ballet as an intellectual history, you have to get behind the steps and understand their organizing principals,” she says. “For many of the periods I studied, I took ballet masters’ notes and fragments I found in the archives and tried to visualize and concretize the dances, to feel what it was like doing them.”

Getting behind the steps allowed Homans to place the dances in context—to understand, for example, how the movements changed after the French Revolution because new animosity toward traditional, aristocratic male dancers created unprecedented opportunities for ballerinas. This, Homans believes, is what knowledge of ballet’s history should do—increase our understanding of the nuances of history in general. That’s why, in her classes on European and Mediterranean culture, she focuses on dance: “It’s a marginalized subject within the humanities,” she says. “There are introductory courses for literature, art, and theater, but dance has not had a place as a serious academic field.” But the story of ballet, she believes, is a crucial part of the story of Western civilization. “In fact,” she says, “dance in general is part of our civilization.”

Photo © BNF

In 18th-century France, dance fashions followed court dress, including this costume inspired by Marie Antoinette.