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Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011
672 pp., $22.00
An Invitation to the Dance
Within the fixed positions and steps of classical ballet, many of its finest practitioners found freedom—from their own flawed bodies, from repressive regimes, from turmoils, public and private. Marie Taglioni, the beloved 19th-century ballerina, practiced relentlessly, acquiring such mastery over her own movement that she became beautiful onstage despite her unlovely face and figure. Her daily six-hour workouts included, among other feats, holding poses while counting to one hundred. A century later, Galina Ulanova, an upstanding Soviet citizen and cultural ambassador, still managed to be an artist first through her poignant renditions of socialist-sanctioned roles. Jennifer Homans highlights these two compelling performers, among many others, in Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, her sweeping account of how revolutions, upheavals, nationalities, and personalities have shaped a highly ordered art form over four centuries.
Homans danced professionally for a time, and if she danced as well as she writes, she must have been very good. We already knew, for example, that Anna Pavlova was important, but Homans tells us why, and does so superbly. Like Taglioni, Pavlova—skinny and frail—seemed physically unsuited to ballet. Her liabilities became assets, we learn, because her "tremulous, fragile" style looked "spontaneous and elusive, as if painted from nature—like Impressionism applied to dance." Moreover, Pavlova's legendary performances as the Dying Swan gave rise to the new naturalistic manner of dancing championed by the Swan's choreographer, Mikhail Fokine. "[Pavlova] skimmed the floor on pointe or stepped through an arabesque, bending deeply at the waist or through the back, arms fluid but broken-winged," Homans writes. "The power of the dance lay uniquely in the expressive quality of her movements and in the way she showed the expiring life force, the draining of energy and spirit from a creature of great strength and beauty …. As Pavlova ...