Interview: Ballet historian Jennifer Homans

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Interview: Ballet historian Jennifer Homans

Jennifer Homans

Jennifer Homans brings the bones of a dancer, the sinews of a scholar and the muscles of a critic to her recently published Apollo’s Angels: The History of Ballet. The book, named one of 2010's ten best by The New York Times, sometimes reads like a chat with the author, as she leans forward to make a point about 16th-century life in Italy or relate a rollicking tale about the off-stage life of a noted prima ballerina.

A dance critic for The New Republic, Homans earned her Ph.D. in modern European history at New York University, where she is a distinguished scholar-in-residence, teaching the history of dance. In an earlier incarnation, she was a professional dancer, performing with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet.

“When I was myself a dancer looking for things to read, I did not find a cultural history that was broad about politics, ideas and the arts as well as about dance,” Homans said in a phone interview about Apollo's Angels, which was 15 years in research and writing. “So when I stopped dancing and became an historian, over time I realized I had the equipment, the training and experience in dance and history, to write the book I always wanted to read.”

High sales and widespread media coverage are proving others agree there is a need to explore ballet within the economy, history, culture, and socialization of our society. “I am encouraged by this interest in ballet by people who want to know what it is about, why it matters,” she said. “This is what I will talk about at Butler.”

Homans points out that while ballet started in France with specific references to late 16th-century life, over 400 years it has spread globally and has been imbued with local references to serve as “a universal, physical language involving the body. Ballet is able to grasp the imagination of people across cultures. It wants to be understood and admired by people around the world.”

Homans set out “to reach everyone in a way that is clear and interesting” much as she wanted to dance with transparency: “Inclusiveness is a very interesting word. People think ballet is somehow elite, exclusive.” She insists that ballet has the capacity to inspire everyone through “a universal idea that we should, that we can, aspire to gain and appreciate accomplishments that take lots of work to make the body skilled, artful, expressive.”

But our society's disinterest in devoting time and energy towards developing that universal idea has led Homans to conclude ballet has lost its calling and soul — in part because civility, which is central to ballet, no longer is the cornerstone of our way of life. Apollo's Angels thus closes with Homans' resigned observation, “I now feel sure that ballet is dying.”

Homans draws on a culinary metaphor to state her case: “Balanchine used cooking as a metaphor for ballet—you have to know the ingredients and what happens when you put them together.” In a similar sense, ballet needs more intelligent, informed audience members “willing to stick with it even when attending a less than exhilarating program, willing to be involved in the process of a performance in the same way we are when attending a sports event.”

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