Transcript for Jennifer Homans on "Apollo's Angels"

Jim Fleming: For people who love ballet, there is nothing like Russian dance. Of course there are other national ballet traditions. But, for decades, centuries even, the Russian school dominated. Many of ballet biggest stars were Russians, think of Nijinsky, and Baryshnikov. Many of today’s most popular ballet is the Russian too, like “Swan Lake” and “The Nut cracker”. Jennifer Homans grow up with ballet, and perform professionally. Today she is the dance critic for the New Republic.  And the author of acclaimed new history of the ballet called: Apollo’s Angels. She told Anne Strainchamps what made “The Nut cracker” one of the world most popular ballets.

Jennifer Homans: What is mantricle about “Net Cracker” is score. It was not spectacular choreography or anything, but score is just a pleasure, at every moment to move to. I think that score is part of the makes “The Nut Cracker “Indoor. But of course “The Nut Cracker “is also part of that story of the Russian ballet coming to, in this case in the US, and becoming American. One of the first “The Nut Cracker “, not the first, but one of the first, was George Balanchine the Nut Cracker at the 1950s, and he had a seen ballet in Russia when he was a child, and he remember it. And we can even look back and see that are some things that he lifted directly, from the choreography that he saw as a child.

Anne Strainchamps: Really, like what?

Homans: …and recreated. Well, for example, one of the things that was so striking to me was, when the see the picture of the early 1892”The Nut Cracker “ in Saint Petersburg ,the snowflakes are dressed almost identically to the New York city ballet snowflakes in the 1950s,with little pom-poms, and white skirts, you are even might sat, okay that is just the idea of snow, but it is really a very striking similarity with one very notable exception which is the Balanchine put little imperial crowns on his dancers. As if to make the point, that he was paint in comish, to that past, that he had a lot a nostalgia for it, and admired greatly, “The Nut Cracker “ has all of that history in it. And I think that people can feel that when they go to see it.

 Strainchamps: And there is another Russian ballet that is popular might again “Swan Lake “.Lot of that thanks in the movie with Nathalie Portman in it. What would you say that is part of the brilliance of “Swan Lake”? I know you written that one of the things that are so remarkable is the way of quarter ballet moves. They move kind of the one during “Swan Lake”. Is that one of the things is the especially brilliant to added?

Homans: Yes, I think that “Swan Lake “is one of those things that are just, it has so many elements, and it has great sort of internal life. It has an interiority that people can access, and that really comes from those lake side scenes, the scenes you are talking about, where the swans are all there, and there is a quarter ballets, and everybody’s moving to this extraordinary music. And you have a scent of comment peace and quiet, and of the inner life. And then you also have, and you count a point of that, these very formal court scenes. To me, what makes the “Swan Lake “so special is the dancing, more than the story. The story is a romantic tragedy, but it is not unusual, or somehow very compelling, and often it is hard to follow in ballet, anyway because ballet is, work throw pantomime and you are not involved in the details of narrative. You really just are being washed by feeling, and movement and music. It is nonverbal; it is kind of almost instinctive experience.

Strainchamps: In of a many ballet lovers, Russian ballet is not so much about the choreography, as it is about dancers. And if you think about famous names of Russian dance, as Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov, there is a kind of mystique to them. Why is that?

Homans: Well, I think that mystique is different in each case. The mystique of Nijinsky is that he was an extraordinary charismatic and powerful individual, who had a technic; a dance technic, that I think was genially revolutionary. Nijinsky was known for going high his sister rights, that he would go into the studio, and he would do a classical ballet bar, but he would do an accelerated pace. And with kind of intense muscularity, that he was trying to achieve something different. But he also had very unusual body, very thick long thighs. His suites even had to be specially made to fit his thighs in, because the standard size didn’t work. He had very long neck, and sloping shoulders, long torso. Actually not very long legs, shortish legs. So this was a kind of almost grasshopper body that could just leap into the air and apparently to the extraordinary effect. So there was that, but there was also -- The part of the mystique was that the when Nijinsky arrived in early twenty century from Russia in Paris the ballets that he did were like Scheherazade. For example were like this kind of Russian exotic, deliberately exotic dances. That was very sexy and very erotic as well. So that all of that, that Russianness, he was from the east, he was an animal like he was. All of these, what we now think is stereotypes were sort of attached to Nijinsky and he played them to great effect. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. Nureyev did a little bit of that, but his sort of mystique and that of Baryshnikov’s as well come a long from the cold war. The fact they defected. And they were the tremendous artists without the cold war. But the cold war, made them into something, into symbols of both of the defection, of the desire for freedom, which dance could also express. These were great dancers. They could fly, they were a symbol of how powerful Russia was. At the same time as they were symbol of how awful it was, and people were leaving. So their fame and their dancing itself I think was, sort of, informed by this whole context.

Strainchamps:  Well then what a coup for the US!

 Homans: What a coupe for the US.

Strainchamps: To have these great artists come and bring the power of their art to US.

Homans: That’s right.

Strainchamps: Speaking of the cold war you write really interestingly that dance actually flourished in Stalinist Russia. That in some strange reason the repressive police state actually wind up creating good conditions for ballet. You would think that wouldn’t be the case.

Homans: Everything that logic has to say, you know, when the Russian revolution came ballet should have gone. Because it was absolutely a symbol of court culture. And indeed the theatre in 1917 originally was ransacked the imperial insignia was torn down and there was a lot of debate in the country at that time over what should happened to the ballet. And there were people who thought it would just end and there shouldn’t be any funding for it and it should just go away. But there were also people like Lunov Trotsky who was the culture minister under Lenin and he really believed in the older art forms. And he believed that the proletariat could take these over and make them into something of their own. And, so, he was, almost singlehandedly, responsible for maintaining for the opera houses at that time in Moscow and in Sent Petersburg, well in Leningrad as it became. And then, you know, what really happened over that revolutionary period into the Stalinist period is that the Russians decided, the soviets decided that ballet was the perfect people’s art. Here was the art form that you didn’t need to be literate in order to appreciate it. And everybody could go. It was immediate, you could… It was also very valuable as a diplomacy tool, because no matter what language your visitors spoke they could come to the ballet. And it was a sort of a great Russian tradition that could be transformed in to a revolutionary tradition. So that there were a lot of ballets that made it in the thirty’s that were then called tractor ballets. You know they were about workers and…

Strainchamps: But that sounds like a oxymoron…

Homans: Yeah. I know, it does indeed. But here they were, you know, they were on a farms and making with shiny tools and making communism work, these were portraits of Soviet society as it should be. So the sort of idealism of ballet, the natural aspirations and the senses of wanting to be more noble were kind of trans posed into a Soviet ideology, quite successfully.

Strainchamps:  The end of your book is kind of sad. You write about your doubts about whether ballet would continue to survive, or at least will it continue to be a living art. Why are you so pessimistic about the future of ballet?

Homans: You know it’s funny, I’m not actually that pessimistic. But I do think that we are in the now of cultural decline and it’s not just ballet, it’s kind of crossed the arts. But ballet it’s very particular because it has this kind of, it has certain ethic to it. It has a kind of moral geometry, it has. It aspires to Nobility. The things that ballet is about are the things that run against the culture today, you know  we are very interested in things that are a messy, uneven, that don’t cohere, that are fragmented and broken., and kitschy and. All of this, kind of. They questions of taste and taste today is not necessarily the values in the kind of taste that ballet has. That sad I don’t see any reason at all why somebody cant sort of mobilize the cultural impulses that we have into another great ballet moment . There’s no reason that that can’t happen. I just don’t think it happened yet, and that’s what I was trying to say. You know it is a historical point. You know, look back over the last 400 years as I did it in this book and remember that the epilogue is the epilogue to the book it’s not just free standing essay. It’s really meant as a historical marker. To say that there’s a times and places in the course of history of ballet when it mater tremendously , Russia in the 19. century, America in the 20. Century, Britain in the 20. Century, France in the 17 and 18 century. And there are the times and places where it falls away and it is not as important. And I think we’re kind of in one of those moments where its fallen a way bit.

Fleming: Jenifer Homens studied with Ballen Sheen at the American ballet theatre and performed professionally, she’s the dance critic for New Republic and distinguee scholar and resident at New York University.


Comments for this interview

Russian Ballet (Lawrence, 05/21/2012 - 2:20am)

The world would not know Igor Stravinsky's music if it were not for ballet. His "Rite of Spring" caused riots in the opera house in Paris when it was first performed. His other ballets are still performed without dance accompaniment by many symphonic orchestras.