It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in “Apollo’s Angels.” She has written the only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet, this most refined, most exquisite art of “aristocratic etiquette,” this “science of behavior toward others,” as a 17th-century ballet master put it, in which lovely young women perch upon their 10 little toe tips (actually, it is really just the two big toes that alternately support the entire body’s weight: think about it) and waft about where the air is thinner – but heaven is closer. She has taken this world where wilis, virgins, sylphs, sleeping princesses, the “women in white” embody the eternal – the eternally unattainable – and set it into the fabric of world history, and we see, miraculously, their pale tulle and satin pointes peeking out from the crevices of war, of revolutions, of political machinations, and on the Âstages of the monarchies and empires of the kings and czars who gave birth to this improbable art.
Homans’s accomplishment is akin to setting the most delicate and beautiful of all the imperial Fabergé eggs into a fissure high on Mount Rushmore and tracking its unlikely survival. And the question of ballet’s survival lies at the core of Homans’s moving story. “Ballets,” Théophile Gau tier wrote, “are the dreams of poets taken seriously.”
The tale of the tutu is indeed the story of a bunch of crazy dreamers, dancers, warriors of anatomy who have worked ludicrously hard to formulate, shape and perfect the highest form of the human physique, and the result is a glorious paradox: the manifestation of morality in muscle, truly Whitman’s body electric. What a noble and superb cause! What folly in the face of guaranteed evanescence!
Ballet is the body divined, and it is not by chance that all the work started at the royal court in France in the mid-16th century. Homans begins with what has long been considered the first ballet, “Ballet Comique de la Reine,” which had its premiere in 1581. It was an extravagant six-hour affair, performed among the guests – elevated stages did not yet exist – in a large gallery at the Petit-Bourbon, and told an allegory of “the enchantress Circe vanquished by the powerful gods Minerva and Jupiter,” ending with Circe presenting her magic wand to the king himself before a ballet of naiads, dryads, princesses and a queen. The purpose of the ballet was nothing short of elevating man, “to raise him up a rung on the Great Chain of Being and bring him closer to the angels and God.” So the bar was set for this new art – and it couldn’t have been higher; ballet is about Highness – and the angels of Homans’s title take their first flight. Ballet became so revered in France that by 1636 the Abbé Mersenne, a contemporary of Descartes and Pascal, referred to “the author of the Universe” as “the great Ballet-master.”
Thus ballet was born as the dance of kings. Louis XIII designed costumes, wrote librettos and danced leading roles, being particularly fond of portraying the Sun and Apollo, god of music and poetry. His son, Louis XIV, made his debut in 1651 at 13 and studied with his ballet teacher, Pierre Beauchamps, daily, for more than 20 years. The dancing master in MoliÃ¨re’s “Bourgeois Gentilhomme” declares that “all the misfortunes of mankind, all the disasters of which history is full, the bungling of politicians and the mistakes of great generals, all come through not learning to dance.” Where, I ask you, is Obama’s Beauchamps?
It was Beauchamps who first codified the five positions of the body, providing “the crucial leap from etiquette to art,” and they remain to this day the beautiful base of outwardly rotated feet and legs from which classical ballet rises and expands centrifugally. Homans documents this passionate path with impressive grace – she was herself a professional ballet dancer and is now the dance critic for The New Republic – across Europe from its birth in France, with stopovers in Italy, Denmark, Germany and Austria, landing in Russia in the mid-19th century and then returning to Western Europe in the early years of the 20th century, and finally, here, to America, where it reached its apogee in the last half of the century.
The stops along the way often provide great charm. It was the enchanting French ballerina Marie Sallé in the mid-18th century who introduced the novel idea, with her revealing drapery and sensual movement (she was much admired by Voltaire and Montesquieu), that women, including ones of humble origins, might dance, not just men and kings. The history of ballet is also a story of class; ballet is a language of vertical ascent, physicalized nobility. “Ballerinas,” Homans writes, “acted like aristocrats even when in real life they most emphatically were not.” But mix they did, and more than one young dancer rose – or descended – to positions other than an arabesque in the famous corridors of the Paris Opera, “the nation’s harem,” as one police official termed it, where wealthy men trolled for pretty girls with limber limbs.