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Finalist, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
Named one of “The 10 Best Books of 2010” by the editors of the New York Times Book Review
A 2011 Choice "Outstanding Academic Title"
A 2012 American Library Association Notable Book for Adults (Nonfiction)
For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements recall a lost world of courts, kings, and aristocracy, but her steps and gestures are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. Ballet has been shaped by the Renaissance and Classicism, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Bolshevism, Modernism, and the Cold War. Apollo’s Angels is a groundbreaking work—the first cultural history of ballet ever written, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told.
Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. The steps are never just the steps—they are a living, breathing document of a culture and a tradition. And while ballet’s language is shared by dancers everywhere, its artists have developed distinct national styles. French, Italian, Danish, Russian, English, and American traditions each have their own expression, often formed in response to political and societal upheavals.
From ballet’s origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France’s Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through the courts of Europe, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. It was in Russia that dance developed into the form most familiar to American audiences: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker originated at the Imperial court. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and in Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance.
Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo’s Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo’s Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.
“The only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet . . . an eloquent and lasting elegy to an unlasting art.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A delight to read, massively informed yet remarkably agile . . . The story of ballet offers a singular perspective on the evolution of our culture: a fascinating mirror on the arts. Nowhere is this narrative told more amply and compellingly than in Jennifer Homans’s triumphant Apollo’s Angels.”—The Washington Post
“Here is a book of immense ambition—a one-volume history of ballet—and of considerable accomplishment. Jennifer Homans, whom we know primarily as The New Republic’s provocative dance critic, shows herself to be both dogged and graceful as a historian—a rare and welcome combination of qualities.”—The New York Review of Books
“Intellectually rigorous, beautifully written, brilliantly structured.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Magnificent . . . [a] monumental work.”—The Boston Globe
“Each page of this luminous work delights, enlightens and beckons. Every dancer should live with this book, of course, but every person who loves literature and history, is word-struck and story-addicted, should give themselves a treat with Apollo’s Angels. Treasure this treasure.”—Jacques d’Amboise
“This is a wonderful book about how ballet evolved. Written by a gifted dancer, Apollo’s Angels is dance history seen from the inside. The wonder to me is how much this accessible, beautifully-crafted book reveals about the times and places in which ballets were made; it makes culture come alive.”—Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsman
“A dancer who is also a historian—who ever dreamed of such an improbable creature? But here is Jennifer Homans and her indispensable book. She puts the understanding of ballet on a whole new footing. Finally the delicacies of ballet have been restored to the indelicacies of history, and the art seems even more wondrous for it. Apollo’s Angels is an enlightenment, a remarkable feat of scholarship and sensibility, an affecting mixture of criticism and devotion, an intellectual joy.”—Leon Wieseltier