Nijinsky as that scandalous faun.
I don't enjoy going to the ballet nearly as much as I love--make that adore--the backstage world of the ballet. I can never pass by The Red Shoes or The Turning Point if they're on TV, and some of my favorite books as a child were Noel Streafeild's "Shoes" books, many of which are set in dance schools. I like clothes and shoes influenced by dance, and am fascinated by how dancers looked in other time periods. I took dance classes for many years to no avail--I am an outright awful dancer. But that never diminished my interest in the other aspects of dance.
So I was thrilled to read about Apollo's Angels, a history of ballet written by Jennifer Homans. In the end, though, I feel more glad that I read it than excited by it.
The good: This is an exhaustive, well-researched history; I doubt there are many other available books that rival its scope and detail. If you need a history of ballet, this will set you up for further research. Homans's country-by-country approach allows readers to see how national character influenced the developement what was supposed to be a universal art form; to this day, even with dancers crossing borders regularly and dancing the same pieces, you can probably still tell which country a company is from. She does important work in explaining the way politics affected the style and growth of ballet--this isn't just a cultural history. Homans is admirably not shy with pointing out what is wrong with the world of ballet and when the art form has gone off the rails. The numerous photos are gorgeous and could be a book on their own (actually, the photos tell my previous point about "when ballet goes bad" as well as the text).
The bad: For something as lively and visceral as dance, I found the book to be somewhat quiet and occasionally static. The thing it's most missing is lively characters and first person stories, especially in the early parts of the book. I don't know if this could be helped, though; there may not be many surviving letters and diaries from people involved in the early days of dance in the 17th and 18th century. In the later periods Homans does devote time to the personal lives of important figures such as Diaghilev and Balanchine, but even these sections still feel a bit remote; probably the liveliest sectin of the book is the story of the rise of Rudolf Nureyev and his landmark defection to the west, although that also curiously lacked Nureyev's own voice. I don't think there was a quote from him at all. And this is typical of the book. I wonder--and this is a huge generalization, so don't hate me dancers (because I don't hate you!!)--if dancers may not have been historically the people who inclined towards writing down everything about their lives, experiences, and everyday battles. However, there are dancer memoirs, especially in the last few decades, but Homans doesn't really go into them. Maybe she just thought that since those were available, she was better off spending her time covering some of the other topics I mentioned above. I do wish, though, that someone would uncover a treasure trove of letters from an 18th century ballet dancer.
I also felt that Homans did not give movies their due. I don't think you can underestimate how ballet on film--not filmed ballets, but Hollywood, narrative features that incorporated ballet--helped people become interested in ballet, especially in the US. She touches on The Red Shoes, and mentions Fred Astaire, maybe Gene Kelly even more briefy (sorry, it's been a few months since I read this), but doesn't really discuss how these two stars--and others--were passionately committed to the idea of bringing dance to the masses (and in Kelly's case especially, also committed to making the point that dance was as viable a choice for boys as athletics). You could write a whole book on dance in film, and I'm sure more than a few people have. But even in a comprehensive history like this where there is so much to cover, I thought film deserved a bit more. But this is just my own personal axe to grind, I guess.
Still, Apollo's Angels is more than worth your time for dance historians or anyone just interested in dance or the history of the arts. You won't get the glitter, lights, sweat, and stardust found in a good backstage story, but you'll get a lot of other worthy pieces of information.