Ballet is dying. Maybe already dead. Impossible, you say, I’ve got tickets to a show! Alas, dear reader, I’ve just learned the grim diagnosis in Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans’ account of the classical tradition. Pack up your toe shoes, ballerinas. Shutter the theaters, artistic directors. “The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember,” Homans declares in her epilogue. “Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture.”
I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the critical impulse to proclaim an art form kaput. I understand it even less bookending a 550-page tome dedicated to that same form. Perhaps it is best seen as a railing against one’s own mortality. Critics age, too, and for some of them the world that helped inspire their creative identity diminishes as they do, replaced by new generations who depart from what they held most dear. Accepting this gracefully, in life or on the page, is surely no easy thing. In Homans’ case, it has engendered an unfortunate form of hubris: an attempt to have the last word, which conflates her own very personal experience of ballet with a sweeping historical summation.
Homans, the dance critic of the New Republic, is a former dancer herself. She studied at the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 by the great neoclassical choreographer George Balanchine. It is his oeuvre as embodied by the New York City Ballet that is the culmination of her book—and that has been ground zero for partisan squabbling over The State of Ballet since Balanchine’s death in 1983 at the age of 79. Homans clearly feels she has earned her perspective from the inside out, and, indeed, her affectionate account of this training constitutes the book’s most engaging writing. But she has a way of mistaking her own subjective pronouncements for Olympian truth.