Is Ballet Really Dying?

Don’t believe the diagnosis in a new history of the classical tradition.

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.

The trail any historian of ballet has to follow is often a ghostly one. Dance writers, more than other chroniclers of the arts, must grapple with mythology. The art form is forever disappearing: Even today’s sophisticated recording technology is far from perfect when it comes to capturing the nuances of choreography. Notation systems remain of limited value. And when dealing with work made before the advent of film and video, the footing gets even more perilous: photographs, lithographs, written accounts, nostalgia-riddled memory. Some of our greatest icons, including Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer of Ballets Russes fame, survive only as legend. We have no films of performances; his Rite of Spring, which inspired such an outcry at its 1913 Paris premiere, exists now only as a reconstruction—a vague approximation at best. 

We are left with the impressions of those who were there—a reliance on others that makes Homans uneasy. In her introduction, she at first rejects the idea “that it is the reception rather than the creation of a work of art that determines its meaning.” But how a work is received says so much about its meaning, especially within the wider cultural contexts that Homans explores in the course of her history. And then, having repudiated “this tyranny of the beholder,” Homans announces that she will serve as our beholder. You can feel the strain in her quest for more objective assessment: “[W]e must still try, in good faith and with open-minded attention to the evidence we do possess, to establish a critical point of view—to say that this ballet was better than that one, and why.” There is an implicit hierarchy here, according to which Homans’ evidence (already a subjective idea) privileges her perceptions beyond “mere opinion.”

At her best, Homans brings a welcome wide-angle view to her account. She traces the cross-cultural influences that have shaped national ballet traditions—now called “schools”—over the course of almost four centuries. Ballet first grew out of court entertainments in France and Italy, developing to embody aristocratic comportment and coming to full fruition during Louis XIV’s reign. By 1715, the year of his death, the dance had spread throughout Europe. Taken up by local elite and often taught by French experts, it mutated as it encountered disparate cultures. Under August Bournonville at the Royal Danish Ballet in the 1800s, it flowered in isolated, pastoral grandeur; today that dance culture still emphasizes clean, buoyant phrasing where technically demanding but non-showy steps unfurl in integrated ribbons of movement. Russian Imperial ballet reached its apotheosis under the guiding hand of the French-born Marius Petipa, who arrived in 1847, bringing with him a wealth of international traditions. In the 20th century, England and America came to the fore; lacking long balletic traditions, both nations gave their artists more freedom to plunge ahead in the modern world.

Homans argues convincingly that ballet, from its origins, has been very much a matter of state, a genre whose emphasis on convention and hierarchy was ideally suited to reinforcing the given values of disparate regimes. Ballet, for her, can’t be understood apart from the larger movements, both artistic and political, that influenced its development. Her discussion of French ballet’s allure to the Romantics in the wake of the 1830 revolution, for example, offers a strong sense of the art’s wider import. But Homans sometimes overplays her hand. The Royal Ballet’s rapid evolution into a world-class company during the 20th century marked a notably fertile period, one deeply enmeshed in the country’s wartime struggles, but to call it “Britain’s finest cultural hour” may be stretching it. And you won’t find many thought-provoking insights in her treatment of New York City Ballet or the Royal Danish Ballet. (You may wonder at her missteps on some well-known points: She states, for example, that the 1870 Coppélia is “the only nineteenth-century French ballet still widely performed in its (more or less) original form” when the version audiences almost always see now is Petipa’s.)

Throughout, Homans stresses that ballet “is a deeply conservative and insular art that resists change,” linking it to beauty and nostalgia and noble ideals. But this truth is not the whole truth. As Homans herself documents, ballet was continually adapting, even as it retained certain core values. The Russian courts, for example, mimicked French high culture under Peter the Great, importing (and inevitably altering) ballet as a key element of a larger Westernization campaign that stretched from fashion to language. Roughly 200 years later, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev electrified Paris with his star-laden, modernist-thinking Ballets Russes, in part offering the French an exotic fantasy of Russia.

The Russian-born Balanchine was part of this heady Ballets Russes cocktail. He spent the bulk of his game-changing career in New York, forging a new, American tradition—one that grew from his roots in Imperial Russia but soon encompassed a radical modern aesthetic. His choreography incorporated the speed, sexiness, and wit of his adopted city, drawing ballet into an exhilarating conversation with great composers like Stravinsky. In doing so, he forever changed the larger classical tradition.

It is fitting that Homans give this towering figure his due. But her writing at times tips into hagiography and leaves little room for American developments beyond New York. She devotes barely a paragraph or two to modern-dance choreographers like Twyla Tharp who have made some of the more culturally attuned contributions to ballet in recent decades. Perhaps Homans feels these hybrid examples fall outside her very narrow definition of the classical tradition, which increasingly backs ballet into the airless little corner she bemoans in her epilogue. (Likewise, she gives almost no mention to much more widespread European developments in combining the two dance genres.)

Of course, in a survey of this sort, one must always pick and choose. But Homans declines to include any post-Balanchine developments except to vaguely lament today’s “unimaginative imitation” and “strident innovation” as indicative of ballet’s demise. Here, indeed, we see the tyranny of the beholder.

Chief among her omissions is the American choreographer William Forsythe, who is widely acknowledged to have changed the face of contemporary ballet at the end of the 20th century. By using (and often dismantling) the language and conventions of ballet itself, he pushed the form forward technically and intellectually, demonstrating how ballet could speak to a fractured world at a time when the great modern giants were going or gone. One can love or revile him for his dizzyingly layered worlds, where explosive, slippery movement is increasingly only one aspect of a larger theatrical exploration. To barely acknowledge his existence is mind-boggling. (Homans includes him in one footnoted aside.)

And what of the newest generation of choreographers: the Russian Alexei Ratmansky, who is pushing the muscular Soviet tradition in intriguing directions, mixing it with Western ideas in ways that would have been impossible to imagine during the Cold War? Or the Englishman Christopher Wheeldon, an heir to Frederick Ashton and Balanchine, who is searching for new ways of telling stories through abstraction? We don’t yet know if what these artists are doing will stand the test of time (that dubious phrase). But in their hands, ballet—now far from a matter of state, and thank goodness—remains a mutable, livinglanguage.