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.
Homans trained as a dancer long before she studied dance as a scholar, or wrote about it as the regular dance critic for The New Republic.
She was a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, American Ballet Theatre and Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York and later performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
When she was learning to dance, Homans wanted to understand what she was being told to do and asked questions that were not always well-received by her instructors.
“Nothing was ever really explained,” she writes in the introduction to her book, “and the teaching seemed offensively authoritarian.”
But even after leaving dance for a scholarly career, and earning a Ph.D. in modern European history at NYU, Homans remained intrigued by ballet.
“It kept coming back, and I finally realized I could use the skills I had acquired as a historian to describe this art form that I loved so much,” she said.
She realizes now that, in her instructors’ minds, the rigorous training of ballet was connected to cultural values — often those of imperial Russia — that were above reproach.
“It is an art of high ideals and self-control in which proportion and grace stand for an inner truth and elevated state of being,” she writes at the end of “Apollo’s Angels.”
That insight also allows Homans to realize that vital connections to the culture at large are precisely what is missing in contemporary ballet.
The new works being produced seem lifeless to her, and have for many years. At the same time, she says, dancers and choreographers have become overly obsessed with tradition, in a way that stifles creativity.
These observations, which appear in a personal epilogue to her book, have been controversial, Homans said. But they suggest where people need to look for answers, if ballet is to be saved.
“Ballet may be dying,” she said. “If ballet’s in trouble, it’s something about public culture and etiquette and aesthetics.”
IF YOU GO What: "Why Art Matters," a conversation with Jennifer Homans When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. Where: Tedesco Country Club, 154 Tedesco St., Marblehead Tickets and more information: $55 per person at 781-631-6262 or www.havetodance.com/marblehead. Copies of "Apollo's Angels" for sale.