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Lifestyle

October 11, 2012

The trouble with ballet

Dancer and scholar Jennifer Homans reflects on the art's past and future

We think of ballets as fantastic pageants, danced by ethereal creatures, and based on magical fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty.”

But in her talk Sunday afternoon at Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead, dance critic and historian Jennifer Homans will plant the toe shoes of ballet on the firm ground of history.

“I’m interested in politics and society,” said Homans, who teaches at New York University and published “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” in 2010.

Her talk, “Why Art Matters,” is being sponsored by the North Shore Civic Ballet and the Marblehead School of Ballet.

“In a way, the talk could be ‘When Art Matters,’” she said. “What I’m going to be talking about are those moments when an art form matters enormously to a society.”

The history of ballet begins in 1533, according to Homans’ book, when the Italian and French courts were brought together by royal marriage. The art form reached its most recent peak in New York City around 30 years ago, when George Balanchine was serving as ballet master of the New York City Ballet.

“There are moments when ballet really matters; it’s at the center, the core of everybody’s life,” she said. “There are other moments when it slips to the periphery and takes a back seat to other art forms, or other forms of popular culture.”

The ballet evolved within several national cultures — French, Russian and Danish, English and American — but surprisingly few dances have been preserved, according to Homans. We can only guess at the exact steps with which Nijinsky, for instance, danced “Afternoon of a Faun” in 1912, one of the most revolutionary ballets of the 20th century.

But even as our technical ability to preserve dances has been enhanced by film and video, ballet itself is in decay, along with the values that it represents, Homans said.

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