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Excerpt: 'Apollo's Angels'

Apollo's Angels


Masters and Traditions

I grew up in the intensely intellectual milieu of the University of Chicago, where both my parents worked.  I'm not sure why my mother started me in dance, except that she liked to go to performances, and ballet perhaps also appealed to her Southerner's appreciation of etiquette and form. I was enrolled at a local ballet school with an old couple who had danced with one of the Russian ballet troupes that toured America in the immediate post-war years. Theirs was not, however, your average dance school. There were no annual recitals or Nutcrackers; no pink tutus with matching tights. He had multiple sclerosis and taught from a wheelchair -- patiently, exasperatedly, describing steps in intricate verbal detail as we tried, with his wife's help, to put them into movement. For him, ballet was something serious and urgent, even when it was also -- and he communicated this too -- a great joy.

The teacher who set me on the path to the profession was a physics doctoral student at the University of Chicago who had himself once been a professional dancer. Ballet, he made me see, was a system of movement as rigorous and complex as any language. Like Latin or ancient Greek, it had rules, conjugations, declensions. Its laws, moreover, were not arbitrary: they corresponded to the laws of nature. Getting it 'right' was not a matter of opinion or taste: ballet was a hard science with demonstrable physical facts. It was also, and just as appealingly, full of emotions and the feelings that come with music and movement. It was blissfully mute, like reading. Above all, perhaps, there was the exhilarating sense of liberation that came when everything worked: if the coordination and musicality, muscular impulse and timing were exactly right, the body would take over.  I could let go.  But with dancing, letting go meant everything: mind, body, soul. This is why, I think, so many dancers describe ballet, for all its rules and limits, as an escape from the self: being free.

It was at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York that I first began to glimpse the world that had made ballet what it was. Our teachers were Russians: exotic and glamorous ballerinas from another era. Felia Doubrovska (1896-1981) had been born in Russia in the 19th century and had danced at the Maryinsky Theater in Imperial St. Petersburg in the years before the Russian Revolution. She later joined the Ballets Russes in Europe and eventually settled in New York City to teach, but we all knew that some part of her was still elsewhere -- in a world far from ours. Everything about her was different.  She wore heavy make-up, long false eyelashes and sickly sweet perfumes, and I remember her bejeweled and dressed in a deep royal-blue leotard with matching scarf, chiffon skirt and pink tights that showed off her unusually long and still impressively muscular legs. Her movements, even when she wasn't dancing, were gracious and ornamented, elegantly conveyed in ways that we, American teenagers, could never quite replicate.

There were others too: Muriel Stuart, an English dancer who had performed with the legendary Anna Pavlova; Antonina Tumkovsky and Helene Dudin who were both from Kiev and had emigrated to the States after the Second World War (Dudin's feet were crippled; it was rumored the Soviets had broken them); and perhaps most striking of all, Alexandra Danilova, who had fled Leningrad in 1924 with Balanchine.  Danilova was like Doubrovska: a former Imperial dancer inclined to pastel chiffons, spidery false-eyelashes and fragrant perfume. She had been an orphan in Russia but we never for a moment doubted her aristocratic pedigree: she coached us on carriage and comportment – in dance class but also in life -- no t-shirts, slumping or street-food -- reminding us that our training and chosen profession set us apart; dancers do not look like 'the rest'. All of this seemed to me at once perfectly normal and extremely alien. Normal because we knew that these were the masters and understood that they had something important to convey. Besides there was something about standing so straight, about the body working so beautifully and about our dedication and intense desire to dance that did set us apart. We really were, or so we thought, an elect.

But the whole thing was also alien: nothing was ever really explained and the teaching seemed arbitrary and authoritarian.  We were expected to imitate and absorb, and above all to obey: "please to do" was all the Russians could muster and "why" was met with bemusement or flatly ignored.  Inquiry was stifled and we were forbidden to study elsewhere (one of the few rules we blithely ignored). None of this sat well: we were children of the 1960s and this insistence on authority, duty and loyalty seemed outrageously old-fashioned and out of place. But I was too interested in what these Russians were doing to quit or go away.  Finally, after years of study and watching, I realized: our teachers were not just teaching steps or imparting technical knowledge, they were giving us their culture and their tradition.  'Why' was not the point and the steps were not just steps; they were living, breathing evidence of a lost (to us) past -- of what their dances were like but also of what they, as artists and people, believed in.

Ballet, it seemed, was another country. I had queued (with my mother) to see the Bolshoi and the Kirov; stood squashed in standing room at the back of the Metropolitan Opera House to see American Ballet Theater and Baryshnikov; crowded into class to watch Rudolf Nureyev execute a ballet barre. And it was not just ballet: New York at the time was a dynamic center of dance and we studied and saw everything: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor; jazz, flamenco, tap; the small experimental troupes that performed in the city's studios and lofts.  But to me there was one overriding reason to dance: the New York City Ballet.  These were the final years of Balanchine's path-breaking career and the artistic and intellectual vitality of his company was electrifying. We knew that what he was doing was important and we never for a moment questioned the primacy of classical ballet. It was not old or 'classical' or dated: to the contrary, dance was more intensely alive and present than anything we knew or could imagine. It filled our lives, and we analyzed its steps and styles and debated every rule and practice with almost religious zeal.

In the ensuing years, as I joined the profession and danced with different companies and choreographers, I learned that the Russians were not the only ones. I worked and performed with Danes and with French and Italian dancers, tried the Cecchetti Method (developed by an Italian ballet master) and attempted to unravel the intricacies of the syllabus set by Britain's Royal Academy of Dance. There were other Russians too: Soviet dancers whose technique differed sharply from that of Doubrovska and the Tsar's former dancers. It was a curious situation:  the language and technique of ballet appeared ideal and universal, yet these national schools were so utterly distinct. Americans trained by Balanchine, for example, raised their hip in arabesque and engaged in all manner of distortions to achieve speed and a long, aerodynamic line; British dancers were horrified and considered these distortions in poor taste; they favored a more restrained, reserved style. The Danes had pristine footwork and quick, light jumps, achieved in part by dancing neatly towards the balls of the feet; but if you didn't put your heels down you would never gain the soaring elevation and leaps that characterized the Soviets.

The differences were not merely aesthetic:  they felt different -- moving this way instead of that could make a dancer, for a moment, into a different kind of person; Swan Lake (1895) was a world apart from Agon (1957).  It was impossible to master all of these national variations; dancers must chose. To further confuse matters, each 'school' also had its heretics: dancers who had discovered some better way of organizing the body and had 'split off' with their own coterie of followers. Who you studied with – which master or sect you followed -- determined who you were and what you wanted to become.  Sorting through these debates, with their Jesuitical distinctions and knotty interpretative (and personal) dilemmas, was intensely absorbing -- and very physical.  It was only later that I began to wonder how and why these national differences had come to be.  Did they have a history?  What was it?

Printed with permission from Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans, Random House, copyright 2010.

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Jennifer Homans