, Salem, MA


October 11, 2012

The trouble with ballet

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


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 Copies of "Apollo's Angels" for sale.

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