A magisterial and often moving history of the silent art by a former dancer and current journalist.
New Republic dance critic Homans confronts her historical problems immediately—most ballets are lost. Because of difficulties with notation, the evanescent nature of movement itself and the relatively late arrival of visual-recording technology, we will never really know how Vaslav Nijinsky moved—or how his many other predecessors created, defined and refined the dance. The author also expresses her fear that ballet is dying, a theme she revisits in a sadly valedictory section at the end. After stating these admonitions and worries, Homans leaps into European history, beginning with the 16th-century French, whose lavish court entertainments fathered the art. Later, she notes that Charles Perrault’s 1697 story “Sleeping Beauty” would achieve enormous significance in ballet history (it was Balanchine’s earliest and last dance experience). The author examines the increasing importance of story in ballets of the 18th century and credits Marie Antoinette for aiding ballet’s success. In the 19th century, the ballerina began to soar in importance (here the author tells the story of Marie Taglioni). The scene then shifts to Denmark, where August Bournonville inspired a dance revolution. Next is Italy, where the art flourished before political and military matters fractured it. Unsurprisingly, Homans devotes many pages to the Russians, whose techniques of training and staging were dominant for decades. She looks at the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nijinska, Ulanova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and other luminaries known and forgotten. The British had their (brief) time in the sun, but Homans shifts her focuse to Balanchine (who deservedly dominates the final sections), Joffrey, Robbins and many others in the American school.
The author artfully choreographs a huge, sometimes unruly cast, producing a work of elegance, emotion and enduring importance.