The grainy film jerks about as it reveals a ghostly slip of white twirling against an all-black background. It’s a small glimpse of Pavlova (one of the world’s greatest ballerinas) dancing her famous solo, Dying Swan. A short piece telling the symbolic story of one so full of life struggling against, and finally succumbing to, the power of death. It is one of the most eerily beautiful things I have ever seen, for in this tiny piece of footage I was able to peer behind the curtain of time into the past of an art form I have never known much of. But this sensation was heightened while I was reading Apollo’s Angels because that curtain was opened up and I was able to take in the vista of this spectacular world of ballet.
Whenever anyone used to say the word, “ballet,” instantly images of pink tulle, top knot hair-dos, hard to pronounce Russian names, and something vaguely about sugar plums filled my mind. But these are just small facets of the art, and from page one of the book I was swept up into many of the other dimensions of its unique world. My journey began hundreds of years ago amongst the French aristocracy where dance was a part of decorum as well as a way to narrow the space between heaven and earth and diminish the distance between the angelic and the human. From there, against the backdrop of history and nations, I continued watching how the art form intertwined with and grew from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Scandinavian cities and Italian countryside, Tsar’s whims, World Wars, ever tightening Soviet control, British properness, American folklore, and 60s turmoil. I met great men and women, the troubled and the triumphant, the visionary dreamers and the practically skilled, the lovers of ideals and the lovers of grit in this wide sweeping tour of time and an art.
It was a journey that took my breath away and to describe it in depth would be impossible. But I can say that I will never view ballet in the same way again, as well as that reading Apollo’s Angels was like watching Pavlova’s Dying Swan, because for a few brief moments I was able to catch a glimpse of one of the most eerily beautiful things I have ever seen – the spirit of ballet.
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
By Jennifer Homans