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Ballet in Peril: A Conversation With Jennifer Homans

by Emilia & Linda on December 23, 2010

Is ballet ready for its close-up? Is it indeed bursting with vitality; the art form to watch in 2011? We reach the end of 2010 with mixed messages. On one hand, some positive signs: NYCB’s Architecture of Dance Festival and its seven premieres (four of which “narrative” ballets), Alexei Ratmansky’s new works for ABT and the Bolshoi, Christopher Wheeldon’s new Sleeping Beauty and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Closer to home creative forces like Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett and Kristen McNally (we recommend her well-thought out blog post on the future of narrative ballets) to name but a few.

On the other, alarm bells: we are having a pallid autumn/winter ballet season in London. Too many Cinderellas and Swan Lakes have made us question our own position as classical ballet audience. We have also been wondering to what extent lavish ballet reconstructions steal the thunder of new works. All these issues have given us much to reflect on (watch this space over the coming months) and a few weeks ago we had the opportunity to exchange views on where the art form is heading to with ballet personality of the moment Jennifer Homans, whose new book Apollo’s Angels – with its much debated “ballet in peril” epilogue – has been chosen as one of the best of 2010 by the New York Times:

TBB: Let us start with your book, which we both found fascinating. Is it true you committed 10 years to it, where did it all start?

JH: 10 years… well, these are lifetime projects. It started when I was a dancer, just wanting to read a book like this myself and wondering where it all came from, how it all began? I was passionate about dance, I didn’t think very much about its history, I wasn’t educated in it, it’s not part of dance education. Oddly, to study the history you have to self-educate, it’s not like in the music academy world where you are forced to take history of music to understand where the sound came from, so I was curious about it. And then when I stopped dancing and I became a historian, I couldn’t quite get it off my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about dance. As you probably know there are histories, but they are not as broad as what I was looking for, or very specialised, a study of French ballet, or Russian ballet, but not all in one place, trying to understand the connections with politics and culture.

TBB: Yes indeed, like Ivor Guest’s books on French ballet or certain compilations of essays. These can be very rhetorical and very dense, whereas we get the sense you’ve written Apollo’s Angels in a way that it might be easier for dance fans as well as other reader demographics to pick up. How was this transition from dancer to historian because you just don’t wake up and say “I want to be a historian!”…

JH: No, you wake up five to ten years later! Like most dancers I had not gone to university, so when I stopped dancing in my mid to late twenties I went back to university and then started this long road. I spent four to five years doing that and then I did a doctorate in history. During the course of that, realising I now had the tools of a historian, I thought “what if I could write this history that I always thought should be written” and I set out to do it. Did my motives change? I am not sure they did. What I found changed the way I saw the history, but I approached it like a dancer, every day at the barre, every day at the computer…

TBB: How did you reconcile your position as a historian with that of dance critic? Because as a historian, you can research, talk to people and reconstruct a puzzle, explain how something evolved, but then in the later part of your book you talk about things that you’ve seen and were involved with. And you were already in that environment, so you have an opinion and that might make a difference…

JH: I am not sure it does actually, it’s definitely different as you say, but I was very aware throughout the writing, it was extremely important to bring my critical eye, whatever that is, to the history, because history without a critical position, without an interpretive idea, it’s just a bunch of facts, it’s just stuff. You have to attempt, even though I admit it, it is incredibly hard, so many dances of the past, we don’t know what they looked like, we can’t see them, so I am working from fragments, from accounts, images, a variety of sources, trying to paste them together in my mind. In order to know where it fits in the history, you have to evaluate it critically.

So those tools are really always playing back and forth; the historians say “well this matters because it happened in a certain time and a certain place.” But does it really matter? Was it any good? How did people see it? How do we evaluate it? So it is true that is clearer and easier for works of my time, like Balanchine, Ashton and MacMillan, and some of the Bolshoi work, late 20th century work that I lived through and saw. Then I can write with great confidence because I was there and I know how it looked like. I might have tapes or the works are still performed. So it’s hard but I tried to apply critical tools throughout the book even though it’s a history.

TBB: Have you been following all the buzz about Apollo’s Angels? That initial article that came out in the New Republic was widely circulated across social media channels…

JH: I’ve read some of the discussions on the New York Times’s ArtsBeat blog. I would love to know more about what people are saying elsewhere.

TBB: Well, on Twitter for example, you had opinions from all the different dance tribes. The dancers, for instance, were saying “how can ballet be dead? This is what we are doing!”

JH: But I don’t say that “ballet is dead.” In fact in the second to last paragraph of the book, I say “I hope I am proven wrong”. I, of all people, want to be proven wrong, and I leave the door wide open, I say “this art form has renewed itself across its history and we are in an uncertain moment, we don’t know what’s going to happen, let’s not take it for granted.”

TBB: True, and you do say in the beginning “when cycles change it is worth looking back and taking stock”… But we think there are various ways of reading all this, depending on whether you are a critic, a dancer or an audience member; to some it might have looked as an attack…

JH: I think if people really read it in the spirit of the book, they will see that I am trying to be as tough with the art form as it is with itself. When you say something is dying and people get all worried about that, you know you’ve touched a nerve, there is something amiss today. What I say is “bring it on! I’ll talk about it, let’s discuss it!” Already just the fact that I’ve asked the question has put it right back in the centre and I’ve been in every BBC program they have on the radio for the last two days. Partly because of this epilogue. I didn’t plan it that way, believe me! But if it opens the discussion and it makes them want to talk about ballet, it is all good.

TBB: Maybe the problem in discussing is seeing it objectively; those who are very passionate about ballet might wonder “if I think too much about it then that passion will somehow vanish…”

JH: Or maybe they just genuinely like it that way. Maybe they don’t feel anything is wrong.

TBB: We were discussing this yesterday. There are many ways to approach classical ballet. There is a joy of course in seeing something many times, but there comes a point when you’ve seen it  a zillion times in a very short span. Then you question why companies have to keep bringing things back (“not another Cinderella!”). However there are many fans who will go every single time, no matter what.

JH: Well, there is nothing wrong with that, ballet has always had its balletomanes, just like opera. There are fans who just want to take in every detail and every moment, whatever is being offered. I am not challenging that or saying that there is anything wrong with that. People may think “who is she to say this thing we love, is not loveable any more, is in peril”. My response to that is only “open your eyes to another way of seeing things.” What I am saying is that the tradition has been preserved with a lot of care and detail, there is no peril in the sense of the old ballets in how they are performed; they are probably performed more magnificently than they were ever performed before outside of Russia, but ballet needs more than that, it also needs new works and a kind of vital connection to the culture that is holding it.

TBB: Since you mention opera… In the opera world they’ve managed to keep certain works relevant via reinterpretation from a psychological angle; the further you go into Europe, the more layers of interpretation. There’s no room for Valkyries in winged helmets nowadays, whereas classical ballet has tried to keep traditional production values. Do you think this could be a solution or a way for ballet to open itself and evolve?

JH: I think the ballet world needs to open itself up. It is more conservative right now than it has been in a hundred years; it is more conservative today than it was when I first came into ballet. They were far more radical elements then, today it is very conservative and I do think it would help. I’m not an artist so I don’t know what the solution is; it’s my job to say “this is what I see, let’s think about where we are.” But I think you are right, why not opening up? Bring in poets, and painters, they do to some extent, but it is all very adventureless.

TBB: Hasn’t John Neumeier tried to do that, to an extent? Sadly we don’t get to see much of his work here, but what is your take on him?

JH: I think he is part of a Continental, German tradition in a way. They have a more expressionistic sensibility. Personally I find his work a bit pretentious, but that’s my personal opinion, I am not saying it has no place in the dance world, it is just like MacMillan, we don’t have to like everything in order to say that it has a place. People who love the art can disagree and that’s important…

TBB: He seems like someone who has tried to take ballet to new directions, tried to give it more symbolism. For instance, he invites us to look at Swan Lake from a different angle.

JH: All of this is valuable. Whether it works or not, it’s a critical judgement. For me, a more important figure is Forsythe, he was hugely influential.

TBB: Does his work fit within your definition of ballet as a set of well-defined principles?

JH: Yes, and I heard him talk about this as well. Forsythe really took ballet and figured out a way to deconstruct it, take it apart, turn it upside down. And when you do that, you still keep the principles, they are there, because it is opposed to, so I do see it as ballet. But now he has moved more and more towards theatre, his work is less dance based. He has deconstructed ballet to a point where there is nothing there anymore, to really hold on to and build from. I think it was the natural conclusion to what he was doing, and then he ends up with theatre and his work is still very interesting but the dances in there are almost destructive, very disjointed, like pulling apart the meaning.

TBB: Perhaps for ballet, new works should mix languages, be less explicit and blend with other art forms… like theatre exactly. For instance, budding female choreographer and Royal Ballet dancer Kristen McNally mixes a lot of different elements: high heels and mini skirts with classical arms. Maybe this is a path which ballet can explore to evolve?

JH: It is funny you should bring this thing up, because I was having a conversation with somebody the other day, and I went away thinking, can’t we get rid of these categories “narrative and abstract”? Why do you have to commit to one? Those categories came out of a desire of people to define their own position at a certain moment in post-war history, and to defend artists. Balanchine was never an abstract artist, his work is incredibly theatrical, a lot of it is narrative or includes narrative forms, so for me it is a false distinction. One of the things I hope the book can do is to show that these categories have a history too and there are lots of options of how you can mix them, match them and experiment. Balanchine used to say “everything has already been invented you just have to remember it again” or something like that, but there is a way in which a musician or a painter can go back to 16th, 17th, 18th century work and find inspiration or a new way to use it in their art, ballet hasn’t had that so far.

TBB: We recently saw Black Swan. In the beginning, one of the dancers says “No one comes to see Beth Macintyre anymore”, to which another one retorts “Nobody actually comes to the ballet, full stop.” What do you think of the way Aronofsky portrayed ballet in the movie?

JH: That’s right, it does sort of recognise what’s happening. I think Aronofsky is a very skilled filmmaker, Natalie Portman is great actress – though she is not a dancer and that is very clear to anybody who knows ballet, her arms are not dancers’ arms – The movie brings out everything that is horrific and awful about ballet and magnifies it to the nth degree. There is no question that it is a story of self-mutilation and self-destruction, but it’s also a portrait of an art form that has lost its soul.

Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Photo: Fox Searchlight ©

TBB: It’s been interesting to see the movie generating such strong opinions in the dance community! You have people saying how they think it is great and others who say it is silly and unrealistic. For instance, many objected to the fact that the AD is trying to seduce Natalie Portman. But the way we read it had more to do with him putting on an act to provoke an artistic reaction. It made us think about your account of Antony Tudor breaking his dancers…

JH: Everything that Aronofsky picked out on the movie, is there in the ballet world. But what he lost, what he wasn’t interested in – I don’t think he doesn’t know it, I think he just wasn’t interested on it – is that there is no poetry, there is no sense of joy. “Why would anyone be a dancer?” If you just watch that film you would run a mile away! There is no joy, she doesn’t love dancing, she is only attached to it.

I’ll tell you which film I really enjoyed. It was Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse. I thought it was a very fine film, of course a documentary. I thought it was a very moving portrait of what it’s like to be a dancer, the kind of work that’s involved. So I thought it was quite magnificent to be able to do it, it is not as easy as it seems with so many clichés, to have something just kind of down-to-earth. I thought it was very insightful.

TBB: What do you think about ballet on the internet?

JH: I think is great, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be ballet on the internet. It doesn’t mean people won’t go to the performances. On the contrary, I think they would go more. I am always on YouTube, it is a great research tool. The Balanchine Foundation has severely limited what is available, but for me it’s a great pity, it is a mistake. Of course, I don’t know what are the legal and financial implications are, but it is a great resource. You can go online and watch Margot Fonteyn, and how great is that? You are never going to see her live, so you can at least watch her on film!

TBB: Coming back to Apollo’s Angels, there is another thing that has been creating buzz in your epilogue, mainly the fact that you mention a few names…

JH: Well, it was not intended to be a list. They were supposed to be examples and I say “there are others, but there aren’t many others”; I don’t think there are many truly great artists. These are names of people I admired and have followed quite closely.

TBB: And the ones you didn’t mention…

JH: There were 2 reasons for that, and I thought about it long and hard. The first is that this is a history of 400 years of dance up to the present, and a lot of people were left out. Only the people I think are really the great artists of their time were included, and some that should be included are not because it’s a story, and it has to have a shape, the point is more the argument than who gets this credit or who gets that credit. So if you look back over 400 years, the present is a sliver, a tiny sliver at the end, just because we are living it, it doesn’t mean that is huge. The artists of the mid/late 20th century, Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, Robbins, etc. these were great great masters. We don’t have people today that are yet in that category. And that’s the second point. We are in the present. The end of the book shifts back to a more personal tone. The very beginning has a personal note, and the end is more personal. But before the idea is to try to paint a larger picture of where we are today and what the trends are, so I precisely didn’t want to get into a who’s who, or a fighting match. I wanted to try to outline some of the trends, that the national traditions are dissolving. It is not a critical assessment of each artist, that wasn’t the place for that. I’ve done some of that in my criticism, and people can go back and read what I have to say about Wheeldon. They can go back and read what I have to say about Ratmansky. But in the book there wasn’t a place for that, it is too early and it was the wrong note to end on.

Jennifer Homans. Photo: Christina Holmes ©

TBB: But there’s also the fact that people like happy endings…

JH: I know, and the book is kind of a fairy tale in a way, but it doesn’t have a very happy ending of sorts. It is more that the story is still unfinished. But a fair critique of an art, is a defense, not an attack, and the end of the book is not an attack, it is a defense of a great art form that we all love. You can’t just go along and say “it’s all the best of the best” when it’s not, you have to be honest and face your own experiences and feelings.

The question that I’m trying to ask is actually a bigger one. It’s not really is this artist good, or is that one failing or is this one succeeding, it is more that our world has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, explosion of visual culture, vast globalisation, communication; it’s transforming everything. We clearly live very fast, uncentered lives, the national traditions have pretty much evaporated, choreographers are moving between urban centres. So what I am saying is “let’s look at the boundaries that are behind classical ballet, do they have a place in the modern world?” This is where my real worry comes in. It’s not so much “Is Christopher Wheeldon a good choreographer?” Well yes, he is very talented but something is not working. What is it? Culture throws up great artists, it nurtures them in some way and right now I think the challenges for artists are huge.

TBB: So what’s next? You have devoted 10 years of your life to such an enterprise, it must feel sad in a way or maybe you are glad that it is over for now?

JH: I am sure I’ll write another book but I need time to think, I have some ideas and I teach too, so I’ll be going back to University and try to develop these courses on the History of Dance. You’ll hear from me soon!


What do you think dear readers? Is ballet in peril? Weigh in on the debate

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{ 6 comments }

La Darina December 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Loved reading this. I do agree the art form is in peril… how can we better promote it/ nurture all these artists? And yes, London’s winter dance season has not brought much hope…

Daniella December 24, 2010 at 5:18 am

Excellent interview. Congratulations!
I don’t think ballet is in peril. I think (or maybe hope) that it may be going through a readjustment phase. Take for example painting. Sorry if I am oversimplifying things here, but there was a moment when people thought that photography was a threat to painting and that painting would eventually be put aside as an old art form… and we all know what happened. Genius like the impressionists revolutionised the whole way painters looked into their subjects and the art world as a whole benefited so much from all that. I think ballet is in a moment like that, waiting for some strike of new geniuses.

David December 27, 2010 at 2:50 am

“But ballet needs more than that, it also needs new works.” — I think that there should be some new works. But I got to say that I loooooove seeing classical ballets such as A Midsummers Night Dream. That is the true heart of ballet for me.

Recently, I saw this 2.5 hour long documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet and I had to fast forward through parts of it that were making my eyes, ears and stomach ill. The documentary tended to gravitate toward NEW modern (contemporary) dance pieces because the leaders of the ballet wanted to take the company in a newer, more modern direction. Students didn’t want to dance these pieces or even take that classes so they required some encouragement.

And I really mean this when I write this … the choreography for a few of those pieces … I could have made it up AND danced it. I think that I actually have made that choreography when I was drunk a few times. The choreography looked like a combination of 60′s hippie / breakdancing / contortionism / physically handicapped / overly artistic 80 music video / etc, etc. The movement didn’t say anything and seemed to only be there to fill time and space.

So, I am more for bringing people into ballet as a high standard and not subverting it to reach the lowest common denominator.

Danja December 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Lovely interview! I have only read an excerpt of Dr. Homans book so far (I am going to buy the actual book this week), but I do understand her controversial point. While old classical pieces move me in many ways, the new, “modern” pieces rarely do that. It is the combination of movement, music and costumes that just leaves me indifferent and sometimes annoyed. We are living in strange times, and I think confusion and lack of direction is present in life overall. So perhaps, when we emerge from this crazy tunnel into a post-capitalist/post-consumer future, ballet will come out of the tunnel oo.

Adam Lopez January 2, 2011 at 11:17 am

I agree that ballet is dying as an art-form, and especially as a theatrical presentation (for the most part). It has become a cross between sport & mathematics. This is primarily because the need to achieve precision in academic technique has swallowed up everything else, & in no other form is the line between technique & art so clear. I am not saying that one must sacrifice technique in order to achieve art, & one could certainly argue that “technique for technique’s sake” can be art, but the technique of classical ballet has become the focal point in our time.

For the last 50 years or so characterization has taken a back seat to form in technique. Although most young dancers might agree with this intellectually, the really don’t understand it. Their art-form has become an exercise in vulgarity, a contest to see who can get their leg high, who can do the most pirouettes, who can twirl 100 times in the air.

Matthew February 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I wish some one had said what you have said a long long time ago. Art is dying all over the board, one of the reasons why ballet will find it hard to revitalize itself (convincingly to the audience) is because it has become industrialized, dancers have become copies of an original idea. In times gone past it has been the individuals experience of life that has help humanity understand the realities of his existence. Meaning that ‘the new’ is created by specific individuals, then leading humanity into its future. Presently the ballet world only seems to exclude, making it harder for individuals with life changing vitality to enter for which the life of all art exists. In the same way that we power our technologies via electricity the ballet world must reconnect it self with its own humanity, if it cannot do this it will truly and surely die.

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