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The Tutu's Tale: A Cultural History Of Ballet's 'Angels'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's kind of ballet season, with lots of companies performing "The Nutcracker"
for the holidays and with the new film "Black Swan," a psychological thriller
about a ballerina preparing for her leading role in "Swan Lake."
But you don't even have to be interested in ballet to be fascinated by the new
book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet," by my guest, Jennifer Homans. Her
story of how ballet evolved from the 16th century is rich with history about
class structure, gender, costume, shifting images of the ideal body and ideas
of what the body is physically capable of. Yesterday, "Apollo's Angels" was
named one of the top five nonfiction books of the year by the New York Times
Sunday Book Review.
Jennifer Homans used to a professional ballet dancer. She performed with the
Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest
Ballet. She's the dance critic for The New Republic and teaches the history of
dance at NYU, where she is a distinguished scholar in residence.
JENNIFER HOMANS, WELCOME TO FRESH AIR. LET ME START WITH SOMETHING I FOUND VERY
INTERESTING. YOU WRITE: BALLET IS SEXUAL, BUT DANCERS INFREQUENTLY EXPERIENCE
THEIR ART AS SEXUAL, EVEN WHEN THEIR LIMBS ARE WRAPPED AROUND EACH OTHER OR
THEY ARE ENJOINED IN AN IMPASSIONED EMBRACE. AND I WILL ADD TO THAT THAT SOME
OF THE LIFTS IN BALLET REQUIRE SOME PRETTY INTIMATE TOUCHING. SO WHY ISN'T
DANCE EXPERIENCED AS SEXUAL?
Ms. JENNIFER HOMANS (Author, "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet"): Well, I
think it depends on who you're talking about. The dancers themselves I don't
think experience the art as sexual, and the reason for that is really that it's
work. And when you're in a state of high concentration over, you know, are you
on the music, is the step being done properly, what is the feeling behind it,
even if it's a sexually sort of loaded scene, it's not sexual between the two
people who are dancing.
Whether it's sexual or not for the people watching it is another story all
GROSS: SO DURING, LIKE, SAY A LIFT THAT'S SO BEAUTIFUL AND GRACEFUL AND MAYBE
EVEN SEXUAL TO THE AUDIENCE, IS THE DANCER EVER THINKING, WERE YOU EVER
THINKING WHEN YOU WERE A DANCER: IS HE GOING TO DROP ME?
Ms. HOMANS: Well, you know, I never was thinking that because within the flow
of the movement, you have complete confidence, hopefully, in the partner that
you're working with. And so, you know, those kinds of considerations are not to
Now, if you're working with somebody you don't quite trust, or there's a lift
that's particularly difficult, you know, then I think there can be a certain
tension. And that's something you want to try to get rid of in a performance, I
One of the great ballerinas once told me: When you start to have a dialogue in
your head when you're performing, that's when you know it's going wrong. In a
way, you want to get rid of those words and sort of enter a kind of different
way of existing for the time that you're on stage. So instead of thinking
GROSS: A WAY OF THINKING ABOUT YOUR MUSIC AND MOVEMENT?
Ms. HOMANS: That's right. You know, so instead of thinking about what you're
going to have for dinner that night, which you could do because dancers know
their steps so well, and they are so second nature that your mind can wander.
But, you know, to sort of shift into another dimension, as it were, so that
you're not thinking about that, but you're in a kind of close synchrony with
GROSS: BEFORE WE GET INTO HOW THE IDEAL IMAGE OF THE DANCER'S BODY HAS CHANGED
OVER THE CENTURIES, CAN YOU JUST DESCRIBE WHAT THE IDEAL BALLERINA'S BODY IS
Ms. HOMANS: You know, that's a tough question, and people always ask that
because there is the concept of ballet as something that strives towards
perfection and towards a perfect body, that you must have, you know, long legs,
turned-out hips, arched feet, preferably some people even say a small head.
But I think that's actually really a misunderstanding and a misconception.
Dancers do come in all sizes and shapes. Yes, it helps if you have the facility
that the technique requires, but the main quality that makes a great dancer is
not the perfection of their body but really the luminosity of it.
It's a quality of illumination. You know it when you see it. You know, two
dancers doing the same step, one might have a perfect body and perfect
technique. The other one might be much less perfect but much more interesting
to watch. So it's not straightforward, as it might seem.
GROSS: NEVERTHELESS, IF WE COMPARED A BALLET DANCER'S BODY TODAY WITH A BALLET
DANCER OF THE 16TH OR 17TH CENTURIES, WOULD WE SEE A BIG DIFFERENCE?
Ms. HOMANS: Yes, we would. The dancers of the 16th and 17th century were, in
the case of the women, more - well, they were just, they followed the aesthetic
of their own time. And in a way, you could say we do, too. It's a sort of the
far end of the extreme of our time, but there are those images of fashion and
models and, you know, the ideal sort of elegant and graceful body.
And that's the, I think, the unifying theme throughout so that even the
technique allowed you to modify your own, perhaps, imperfect proportions.
You know, if you're too tall, maybe you would lower your arms a bit so that you
don't quite appear so high up. So you might bend them a little bit if they're
too long. So you could sort of try to craft your own image.
And the other thing to remember about that is that the dancers in the very
beginning, in the 17th century, it was the man, not the woman, who was the
privileged performer. It was really a male ideal at the beginning, and it was
only come the 1830s that women started to be the central focus of the dance
GROSS: WE'LL GET BACK TO THAT IN A MINUTE. BUT, YOU KNOW, YOU WRITE ABOUT HOW
DANCE WAS ORIGINALLY A VERY ARISTOCRATIC ART. IT WAS PERFORMED FOR KINGS, AND
THAT THERE WAS CONSIDERED TO BE A CONNECTION BETWEEN POSTURE, NOBILITY AND
CHARACTER. SO HOW DID THAT SENSE OF BALLET BEING AN ARISTOCRATIC ART AFFECT
WHAT WAS EXPECTED OF HOW THE DANCERS LOOKED AND HOW THEY CARRIED THEMSELVES?
Ms. HOMANS: You know, ballet began as a social art. It was a dance that was
done by courtiers. It was done by kings and princes, not people in the street
but aristocrats. So it was done at court by people in social situations. It was
not a theatrical art set off from social life.
So, you know, the ways that people moved were - had to do with the ways that
they moved in their lives. Like for example, if you have a reverence, a bow,
which is still performed today in classical ballet, both in dances but also at
the end of most dance classes, that's the same bow that you would see in a
painting of courtiers leaving their king. And how far they bow, how deep they
go was a sign of respect for the monarch or for the person they were
GROSS: SO WHEN YOU SAY BALLET WAS PERFORMED BY PEOPLE, YOU KNOW, IN PALACES AND
STUFF, AS OPPOSED TO IN THEATERS, SO - BUT THEY DIDN'T LEARN ALL THE KIND OF
COMPLICATED STEPS THAT WE KNOW TODAY.
Ms. HOMANS: Well, they did, actually.
GROSS: They did, really?
Ms. HOMANS: They did. You know, Louis XIV was himself a wonderful dancer. He
worked very hard at his dance, especially in his earlier years. And he
practiced on a daily basis and performed regularly in his own spectacles and
So, you know, people did achieve a fairly high level of technique. And it was -
a lot of time was spent on mastering these noble forms. And really the reason
for that it was proof of your stature. So it was very important to be able to
present yourself in these ways convincingly.
Now, the tradition really separates out, and you start to have a more difficult
technique that even the most diligent aristocrats can't keep up with sort of by
the end of the end of the 17th century. And then dances are becoming
professionals, and that's when you have more and more separation between the
aristocrats who are watching the dance, increasingly, and the people who are
And the dancers at that point are much more exclusively drawn from the lower
orders of society, which is in itself an interesting thing when you think about
it because they are learning, in a way, to become aristocrats. On stage, they
appear as noblemen, even if they're, in society, emphatically not.
GROSS: SO REALLY, THE DANCERS WERE DRAWN FROM THE LOWER CLASSES OF SOCIETY?
Ms. HOMANS: They often were, you know. Once you moved away from the kings who
were performing, dancers were drawn from the lower orders of society. In
Russia, for example, in the origins of ballet in Russia, the dancers were
They were serfs on estates and their owners paid vast sums of money to have
them trained in this European, West European dance form so that they could
perform for their masters on a, you know, on a summer's evening in the estate.
And in this area, especially with women, there was a very close line between
dancing and prostitution and...
GROSS: BETWEEN BALLET AND PROSTITUTION?
Ms. HOMANS: Between ballet and - maybe I shouldn't say prostitution so much,
but these landowners would sometimes ask their serfs to take off their clothes
at the end of the performance or things like this, where, you know, the line
between ballet and art and sex was very thin.
Clean up end of breath @ 929
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Homans. She's the author
of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." Let's take a short
break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Homans, and she's the author of the new book
"Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." She teaches the history of dance at NYU
and is the dance critic for The New Republic.
SO THE FIVE POSITIONS OF BALLET WERE CODIFIED IN THE LATE 17TH CENTURY BY
PIERRE BEAUCHAMP, WHO WAS A BALLET MASTER WHO BECAME THE KING'S DANCING MASTER
IN FRANCE AND WAS LATER APPOINTED HEAD OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF DANCE. SO WHAT
ARE THE FIVE POSITIONS OF BALLET, AND HOW DID BEAUCHAMP GO ABOUT CODIFYING
Ms. HOMANS: Well, the five positions of ballet are the same positions that any
child would learn today: first, second, third, fourth, fifth positions,
positions of the feet, in this case, in particular. And, you know, Louis XIV
realized that if his art form, this great, noble art form, was going to be sort
of disseminated throughout his realm and even to other European countries, he
would have to learn a way to write it down.
And so he asked Beauchamp to find a way to write it down, and one of the things
that Beauchamp did was to write down these positions. He did also invent a
notation. But the positions themselves are the grammar of ballet, they're the
ABCs, the building blocks of classical ballet. So this was a vitally important
moment when they were actually codified and recorded.
What do they do? The positions of ballet are - if you think of first position,
it's really a noble position. You stand, in this case the feet were not 180
degrees, they were more sort of 90 degrees. So you're standing at ease, with
grace, with control, with a sense of symmetry and precision. This was the...
GROSS: SO YOUR HEELS ARE TOGETHER, AND YOUR FEET ARE 90 DEGREES APART?
Ms. HOMANS: That's right. That's right, and your arms are in a relaxed but
gracious way to the side. So, you know, this is the position of the high
nobility. And the first position is a kind of resting place, a stopping point,
the tonic, as one would say in music, of ballet.
And the other positions simply map the directions of the body in the ways in
which you might travel or move in an efficient and graceful way, without any
jarring or awkward movements.
GROSS: SO HOW DID DANCING EN POINTE, DANCING ON YOUR TOES, START?
Ms. HOMANS: That's one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet
because it's really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of
high operatic, high balletic art.
Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of
pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at
the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these
sort of Commedia dell'arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.
And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade
around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet,
most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of
just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody
who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the
earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the
angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.
GROSS: THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATION IN YOUR BOOK OF MARIE TAGLIONI EN POINTE, AND
YOU POINT OUT THAT HER CALF MUSCLES ARE BULGING. WOULD A BALLERINA TODAY HAVE
THOSE BULGING CALF MUSCLES?
Ms. HOMANS: Ballerinas today have more calf muscles than you might realize and,
GROSS: BUT WOULD THEY BE BULGING, OR ARE THEY SHAPED DIFFERENTLY?
Ms. HOMANS: Not maybe bulging quite the way hers were. And one of the reasons
for that is that the early toe shoes were not supported in the same way that
the toe shoes are today, so that the technique and the demands on the legs were
Marie Taglioni's toe shoes actually still exist. There is a pair in the
archives at the Paris Opera. And you can go there and hold them. And they're
not new shoes, they're old shoes, which is quite important because you can see
where she stood, where they're scuffed, how she danced and where she danced.
And the important thing there is that she danced just on the tips of her
metatarsals, not quite on the full pointe, the way dancers do today, and that
the shoes were soft, very soft like a soft ballet shoe, and darned around the
edges, so that she had to support the full weight of her body on this
metatarsal with no extra glue or, you know, hardened materials, which is what
support dancers today.
So her calves were doing the lion's share of the work. And it's not just her
calves. Her entire legs are very beefy. So she's - in spite of her ethereal,
fleeting image, she was actually quite hefty as a physical type.
GROSS: SO WHICH TOES ARE YOU ON WHEN YOU'RE ON TOE?
Ms. HOMANS: You're really on the first two. That's - the main weight is being
carried on the first two toes. And that's because when you're standing en
pointe, that's the axis straight up through your spine so that you actually
have more strength if you're balanced towards those first two toes than if
you're sort of edged more towards the pinky toe. If you were on the pinky toe,
if you think about, you'd fall off pointe just because your ankle would bend
the wrong way.
So dancers are trained to be mainly on those first two toes, maybe three
depending on the foot.
GROSS: NOW, IT'S VERY INTERESTING TO READ HOW THE ROLE OF MEN AND WOMEN IN
BALLET CHANGED OVER THE CENTURIES. AND YET, YOU SAY THAT EARLY ON IN BALLET -
AND I GUESS YOU'RE TALKING 17TH CENTURY, LATE 16TH CENTURY HERE - MEN WERE
GIVEN TO VIRTUOSITY WHILE WOMEN WERE EXPECTED TO EXERCISE RESTRAINT. YOU SAY
THE RELATIONSHIP WAS CHIVALRIC. AM I SAYING THAT RIGHT?
Ms. HOMANS: Yep.
GROSS: WITH THE MAN PERFORMING TECHNICAL FEATS IN HONOR OF HIS DEMURE LADY. SO
WHY WAS IT THE MAN WHO WAS TAKING CENTER STAGE AND BEING, I GUESS DOING MORE
PHYSICAL FEATS THAN THE WOMAN?
Ms. HOMANS: Well, I mean, this really goes back to the court origins that we
were talking about earlier. I mean, these are the men who are thought to be the
highest members of society. And they are the kings, they are the ones in
control. And the women are meant to be sort of the same but less.
So the women perform, but they don't do the same kind of extravagant and
intricate footwork that the men do. And you can think of it partly as costume,
as well. The women, of course, are wearing very long, heavy skirts.
To actually get off the ground or beat your legs or weave intricate steps with
your feet would be very difficult in those kinds of costumes, whereas the men
have free legs, and you can see them. So all of this worked towards the man
having the more prominent (unintelligible) role and the women being more
GROSS: SO HOW DID BALLERINAS BECOME STARS?
Ms. HOMANS: Ballerinas became stars when men, when the male aristocratic dancer
was really discredited. And this happened in France. France was the center of
the ballet world at this point.
And when the French Revolution came, this was the key moment for women. What
happened? Well, the hatred and bitter animosity towards the aristocracy during
the French Revolution had direct consequences for ballet, which after all, was
an aristocratic art.
And so, you know, the day before the storming of the Bastille, the people of
Paris stormed the opera. Why should you have this aristocratic art? If you're
going to take down the aristocracy, let's take down ballet too?
So the men who were performing this art gradually became less admired, and they
started to become sort of more acrobatic and to pull more and more from popular
forms. The technique changed. And by the, you know, 1830s, 1840s, men are
reviled on stage. You know, they're thought to be a disgrace.
Well, what steps into the void? Marie Taglioni, other female dancers who take
the ideals that had existed in the aristocratic art form and turned them into a
feminine ideal of which they are the masters.
And so then you get this image of the ballerina on toe, in these more Romantic
era ballets of unrequited love and the romantic themes that carried ballet into
the 19th century.
GROSS: My guest, Jennifer Homans, will be back in the second half of the show.
Her new book is called "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jennifer Homans. Her new
book, "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet," was just named one of the top
five nonfiction books of the year in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
It's about how the art of ballet evolved; shifting ideas about gender and the
ideal body; and how kings, courts, and revolutions have influenced the
development of ballet. Ballet started in the courts of French kings.
YOU KNOW, YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT THE ARISTOCRATIC BASIS OF BALLET. BUT IN THE
COLD WAR, PERIOD IT WAS RUSSIA THAT WAS CONSIDERED TO BE THE CENTER OF BALLET.
AND THE BOLSHOI BALLET WAS REVERED AROUND THE WORLD, AND EVEN WHEN RUSSIA WAS
AMERICA'S ENEMY, THE BOLSHOI WAS SUCH A BIG DEAL IN THE UNITED STATES. SO HOW
DID RUSSIA, WHEN IT WAS A COMMUNIST COUNTRY, RECONCILE BALLET WITH ITS
Ms. HOMANS: Yeah, that's a fascinating moment because, you know, as you say, I
mean you've got a court art that is very much associated with, you know,
Nicholas II and, who after all, is the - has an affair with one of the dancers.
And when the revolution comes, Lenin, actually, takes over this ballerina's
house, ransacks it and uses it as his headquarters, as a kind of symbol that,
you know, that the court is over and I'm in control. So you would think that
ballet would have gone with the Imperial Court. But in fact, it becomes the,
sort of centerpiece of cultural life in the Soviet state, or certainly a very
But the other thing is that ballets really did change and they reworked them to
the new socialist image. So you had a period where there were lots of what they
call tractor ballets. These were ballets about workers with shiny tools
remaking the socialist state.
On the other hand, you also had classical ballets, Petipa ballets, that were
redone. You know, some of the aristocratic etiquette was wiped out, so you
didn't have the same kind of emphasis on pantomime and gracious manners, and
instead you had more bravura variations, a kind of muscular quality added to
these dances so that they would, in fact, reflect the image of the Soviet
And, you know, the other thing is that ballet is an art form where you don't
need the language in order to appreciate it. So, you know, the Russian leaders,
or the Soviet leaders, could take diplomats of all kinds to the ballet. They
didn't need to understand Russian in order to be impressed. So the ballet
became a place where foreign dignitaries would be entertained and shown the
great cultural life of the Soviet Union. When the country finally opened up a
little bit and the Bolshoi, as you said, toured to the West, they were an
absolute sensation. I mean the lines around the block, the cries of wonder and
amazement at this extraordinary art form and at the dancers who performed it
was part of the Cold War political story.
GROSS: AND, OF COURSE, THERE ARE SEVERAL RUSSIAN DANCERS WOULD BECOME EMIGRES
TO THE U.S. AND TO MAKE A BIG IMPACT HERE: BARYSHNIKOV, NUREYEV, NIJINSKY.
Ms. HOMANS: That's right. You know, the Russians, before and after the
Revolution, were leaving Russia in great numbers and - I mean Russian dancers -
and coming to the West, and they were the ones that really sort of ceded the
tradition here. And many of them, in particular, George Balanchine, became key,
key figures in the establishment of what then became an American art form.
GROSS: NOW GEORGE BALANCHINE, THE GREAT CHOREOGRAPHER, WHO CAME TO THE U.S.
FROM RUSSIA, YOU DESCRIBE HIM AS THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN OF 20TH CENTURY DANCE.
AND YOU SAY FOR HIM THE BALLET WAS AN ART OF ANGELS, OF IDEALIZED AND ELEVATED
HUMAN FIGURES, BEAUTIFUL, CHIVALRIC, AND ABOVE ALL, STRICTLY FORMAL.
DID THAT MEAN FOR DANCERS IN TERMS OF WHAT THEY WERE TAUGHT ABOUT HOW TO
APPROACH THE ART OF THE DANCE?
Ms. HOMANS: I think what that meant for dancers was that their formal training
was very, very important. So they spent a lot of time perfecting their
techniques. Precision was valued enormously, so that, you know, Balanchine was
actually a very, very fine teacher and he did work a lot in the classroom with
his dancers. That's where he did some of his most radical experimentation, was
actually trying things out on dancers in the classroom. But, you know, a
Balanchine class was famed - he was famous for giving multiple repetitions of
very basic steps until they were, you know, just ingrained in the body in a way
that you could never forget them. So, you know, the sort of very deep formal
work was an extremely important part of making a Balanchine dancer.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Homans and she's the
author of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." She's also a
former ballet dancer and she teaches the history of dance at NYU.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Homans, author of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A
History of Ballet." She's a former professional ballet dancer. When we left
off, we were talking about the Russian emigre choreographer George Balanchine
and how he changed dance in the 20th century. He founded the New York City
Ballet. She studied there.
AND YOU SAY BALANCHINE SAW BALLET AS A PHILOSOPHY OF AN APPROACH TO LIFE.
YOU STUDIED AT THE NEW YORK CITY BALLET, WHICH WAS FOUNDED BY BALANCHINE. WHAT
DID THAT MEAN TO YOU WHEN YOU WERE STUDYING?
Ms. HOMANS: Well, you know, I was a kid from Chicago and I, you know, had not
grown up in a theater world. My father was an academic and my mother worked in
the university, so I had very little exposure to theatrical people. And when I
arrived in New York at Balanchine's school, there I was in this kind of little
Russia. I mean they all spoke Russian. Danilova, one of my main teachers, you
know, would appear at class, you know, dressed in sort of pastel chiffons and
false eyelashes curled and elaborate makeup and hair do's and there was like a
kind of very, very old world perfume and etiquette to the life there. So for me
it was quite an extraordinary experience. It was one I struggled with at times
because there was also, you know, with that a very, very clear sort of, as I
saw it at the time, authoritarian impulse so that, you know, you were really
expected to do what you were told and you were not meant to ask questions. And,
you know, I remember facing one of my teachers and saying, well, I just can't
do it that way because I had some theory about why I couldn't do it that way.
You know, and she just looked at me with her stick and sort of just prodded my
legs and said, you know, Jennifer, more.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HOMANS: And that was it, you know? Just do it my way. And so, you know,
there was that element to it as well.
GROSS: I CAN ONLY IMAGINE BECAUSE I THINK THIS WAS LIKE THE LATE 60S WHEN YOU
Ms. HOMANS: Yeah. It was actually the mid-70, but...
GROSS: The mid-70s. OK.
Ms. HOMANS: It was the mid-70s but, you know, there was still enough of that
left, right? So...
GROSS: I MEAN THERE HAD BEEN A PERIOD OF LIKE REBELLION AGAINST AUTHORITY. THE
WOMEN'S MOVEMENT WAS, YOU KNOW, STILL PRETTY ACTIVE STILL, YOU KNOW, THESE LIKE
OLD-SCHOOL TEACHERS WITH THE CURLED EYELASHES AND THE CHIFFON AND
AUTHORITARIAN, AND IT DIDN'T FIT IN WITH THE TIMES AT ALL I'M SURE.
Ms. HOMANS: No, it didn't and I mean, you know, we all wore our T-shirts and I
was very much part of that whole world of feminism and, you know, doing what
you want when you want and all of those, the beliefs that we all kind of
carried around with us all the time. So this was quite a different life. But
the thing about it was that it was so interesting and I could see that there
was something incredibly exciting and valuable there. So, you know, I ended up
sort of deciding that, you know, you go along and then you see what happens.
You know, (Foreign language spoken). It was like that. You know, OK, well, you
have to decide to sort of take the plunge, believe and trust what they're doing
and then let's see what comes of it. And, you know, indeed, sort of whole world
to do open out from it.
GROSS: IF THERE WAS AN AUTHORITARIAN SIDE TO BALANCHINE'S COMPANY IT SOUNDS
LIKE THERE WAS ALSO A VERY SPIRITUAL SIDE. HE WAS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX AND YOU SAY
THAT PARTLY BECAUSE OF HIS FAITH, HE BELIEVED THAT MUSIC AND DANCE WERE SACRED
ARTS AND THAT ONE FINDS GOD THROUGH THE SENSES. DID YOU EXPERIENCE THAT WHEN
YOU WERE DANCING?
Ms. HOMANS: Oh, very much so. I mean that was the - that was the reason to
dance, and that's the main thing that one experienced on a sort of daily basis.
You know, there is something almost religious about ballet and about being a
dancer. It's a commitment, the ritual of going to class everyday, of being with
people and performing these great works. And when you work very hard and you
achieve a kind of coordination and skill in the body, there is a way in which
it sets you free. And, you know, if you're doing these beautiful movements to
music and you manage to get it all right, which doesn't happen all the time,
but when you do, it is an extraordinary and transcendent experience.
GROSS: AND YOU SAY THAT BALANCHINE HAD THIS UNCOMPROMISING EMPHASIS ON NOW, NOT HOLDING BACK, DOING IT ALL, GIVING YOUR ALL NOW. WHAT DID THAT MEAN FOR YOU AS
Ms. HOMANS: You know, as a dancer it was really a kind of concentration. It's
much harder than it sounds to focus your energy now and not be thinking about
what I'm going to do in five minutes or in five hours or what happened before
and was it OK or, you know, so-and-so made me angry or wasn't that a nice thing
for them to say, to just put everything aside, focus on this movement here, now
and really sort of throw your full self into it, in a way that's not just
throwing but intelligent, is quite a discipline. So, you know, there was that
side of it.
I think the other thing it did was it did sort of - it didn't occur to me to
think about ballet's history at that time because we were all worried about the
now, you know? I never took pictures or had any sense of the, you know, the
future or, it was all what we were doing right there. It was very peculiar in a
way but it was very engrossing.
GROSS: YOUR BOOK ENDS WITH YOU SAYING, SOMETHING IMPORTANT REALLY IS OVER. WE
ARE IN MOURNING. CLASSICAL BALLET HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN ART OF BELIEF. IT DOES NOT
FARE WELL IN CYNICAL TIMES. IT'S AN ART OF HIGH IDEALS AND SELF CONTROL IN
WHICH PROPORTION AND GRACE STAND FOR AN INNER TRUTH, AN ELEVATED STATE OF
BEING. TODAY WE NO LONGER BELIEVE IN BALLET'S IDEALS. WE ARE SKEPTICAL OF
ELITISM AND SKILL WHICH SEEM TO US EXCLUSIONARY AND DIVISIVE.
SO DO YOU THINK IT'S OVER AND YOU THINK THAT HAS TO DO WITH THE TIMES THAT WE
Ms. HOMANS: I do think that something very big and important is over. You know,
the whole era that we've been talking about, this great 20th century modernist
moment is no more. I mean and, you know, that's not a criticism, it's just a
historical fact. I mean a lot of the people who are, who were important to it
have died and we do live in a sort of different kind of aesthetic era now.
If you look back over the history of ballet and you see that at certain points
in the history, ballet has been really, really central to culture, a kind of
very important thing that people talk about, that matters enormously. I think
one of the problems is that it is, in fact, more conservative today than it has
been in a very long time. You know, we are very concerned today with preserving
the classics, with sort of holding on and making sure that they are in good
shape and being performed well. That's - there's nothing wrong with that.
That's sort of the tradition and we need that.
The problem is that that's not quite enough. And the new work it seems to me,
to be very, very overwhelmed with steps, with a kind of athleticism and bravura
that doesn't move people particularly and, you know, I'm not sure where the
vision is or where it's all going to go. It may pick up and find a new spot,
and that's certainly, you know, I will be the first person to be on my feet
applauding if that were to happen.
GROSS: YOU DANCED UNTIL YOU WERE 26. WHY DID YOU STOP?
Ms. HOMANS: I stopped because although I still - I mean, I loved to dance. It
was an absolute passion with me, and I think I still loved to dance when I
stopped, but it was almost a message from my own body in a way. I mean I just -
I had had an injury. I, during the injury I had done a lot of reading and I had
kind of developed a routine for myself where I would read and write and I had
my kind of control of my own time and I had my own schedule and, you know, when
I went back to dancing, I just, you know, it was almost like physically I just
couldn't do it anymore. I just didn't really want to as much as I loved to
dance. It sounds strange but I just kind of reached a brick wall.
And I think part of what was going on was that I was always pulled sort of
towards the life of the mind as well as the life of the body, if you want to
put it that way and, you know, I knew that I wanted to study and to read more
and resume my education. I had not been to college and so, you know, I think I
saw it as an opportunity, really that here was a moment where I could stop
dancing and I could start something brand new at an age where I was still young
enough to be able to make something of it without too, too much difficulty, and
so I did that. I have to say that stopping was much harder than I thought it
GROSS: Well, Jennifer Homans, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. HOMANS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Jennifer Homans is the author of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A
History of Ballet." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz talks about attending an
85th birthday music tribute to Pierre Boulez in Berlin. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
In Berlin, A Musical Tribute To Composer Pierre Boulez
TERRY GROSS, host:
Listeners to FRESH AIR may have noticed that our classical music critic, Lloyd
Schwartz, is even ardent admirer of the French conductor and composer Pierre
Boulez. Lloyd's reviews have focused mainly on Boulez's work as a conductor.
This fall, Lloyd was in Berlin where he heard part of a two-week festival
devoted to Boulez's own music.
(Soundbite of music)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: I was lucky to be visiting Berlin just in time to catch the
last five concerts in a two-week music festival celebrating the music of Pierre
Boulez, in honor of the 85th birthday of the great composer, conductor and
cultural icon. Such an in-depth exploration of the work of a living composer
is, to put it mildly, extremely rare here. The concerts were in Berlin's
controversial modern concert hall, the Philharmonie, and its next-door chamber-
music hall, which has equally wonderful acoustics.
The night I arrived in Berlin, Boulez was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic,
which many people consider the world's greatest orchestra. It was the only
program he himself conducted, and it was an astounding event. He opened with
his own extraordinary "Explosante-fixe," a title he explained before the
concert as a mixture of the completely spontaneous and wild, like an explosion,
and something stable, static and fixed.
This piece, from the early 1970s, is a memorial to Stravinsky and in turn
quotes from Stravinsky's haunting "Symphonies for Winds," which was his
memorial for Debussy. With its electronic component and its major role for solo
flute, dazzlingly played in this concert by the Berlin Philharmonic's famous
flutist, Emmanuel Pahud, it's a mysterious and moving work and thrilling to
hear Boulez himself bringing it to life in a rare live performance.
(Soundbite of song, "Explosante-fixe")
SCHWARTZ: That Berlin Philharmonic concert ended with Boulez conducting
Stravinsky's magical early opera, "Le Rossignol" - the nightingale - based on a
Hans Christian Andersen story. Boulez said that he had heard this as a child,
and it was the piece that made him want to be a musician.
Boulez's own compositions are famously difficult, serial music that avoids the
traditional thematic repetitions most concertgoers depend on to follow a score.
Yet piece after piece mesmerized me.
Boulez the composer, is notorious for constantly revising and expanding his
previous work and this festival certainly emphasized that aspect. At one
concert, the gifted Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki, leading the Ensemble
InterContemporain, the chamber group Boulez himself founded, followed an early
solo piano piece, "Incise," with its latest incarnation, the exquisite "Sur
Incises," which extends and redevelops the original with three pianos, three
harps and three percussion instruments.
(Soundbite of song, "Sur Incises")
SCHWARTZ: Boulez's friend, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, ended
the festival by playing five of Boulez's very early and delicate piano
miniatures, called "Notations," and after each one leapt from piano to podium
to conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera,
in Boulez's stunning later expansions for full orchestra. He brought down the
house. I'm sorry no recording of this concert is available.
Of the concerts I heard, only the Berlin Philharmonic was completely sold out,
but the other ones had remarkably full houses. Boulez himself was always around
and was easy to approach by members of the audience. He remarked how old some
of these pieces seemed to him, and how old he himself seemed to be. Yet his
conducting had all his familiar energy, precision and passion. And after the
last concert, when Barenboim insisted that he come on stage to take a bow, he
reluctantly accepted the ovation everyone was dying to give him.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the
2010 Musikfest Berlin's 85th birthday tribute to composer-conductor Pierre
We're grateful to German radio Kultur for allowing us to use their live
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.