Amazon Review of Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels (a new history of Ballet)

Guaranteed not to appear in Homans’ History

It is unfashionable today for an historian to ask, prior to getting down to the facts, what she’s about.

The Prologomena is considered pedantic. Bo-ring.

But, dammit, what is ballet?

To get started on defining ballet, from “set theory” let’s take the simple concepts of intensional and extensional definition. An intensional definition would be “an apple is a red fruit”. An extensional definition would be pointing to examples of apples. Intensional definition describes the set: extensional definition enumerates the set, providing a list of members.

Homans’ book extensionally defines the very subject she’s talking about simply by focusing on some dance works and giving a very short “shrift” (what ever that is, perhaps a dancer’s tunic?) to others.

Mr B (George Balanchine) gets quite a lot of coverage (but not at all on his troubling relationship with Suzanne Farrell). The Joffrey Ballet might as well be on the moon, dancing whatever it is they dance. Martha Graham? Who’s she?

It’s true that Martha Graham explicitly stated that her form of dance was not ballet. However, the Joffrey “Ballet” includes the “contested signifier“ in its name. It is an act of intellectual sadism of Homans’ part to give almost no space to the Joffrey, which was founded to enable different bodies to be part of “ballet”: different sizes, builds and especially races.

The question (what is ballet) is not asked, but it is implicitly answered mostly by silences that objectify and victimize dancers who might wish to be considered ballet dancers (with the cultural capital added by that word) by way of using their body to expand our understanding of dance…as it was expanded after the Baroque by the waltz craze of the 1820s, the Danish movement later on, and Mr B himself despite his traditionalism.

Homans shows how these changes have been driven in the past by changes in political power (both in power’s increase and decrease), whether that of France in the 17th century, where an increase in power created a need to distinguish French culture from Italian, the bourgeois when its political rebellion of 1789 was disempowered and transformed into the cultural revolution of the waltz, or even Denmark’s defeat by Bismarck which caused its frustrated energies to change to cultural energies in the same manner as the waltz (or the culture of the late 1960s, for that matter).

Alvin Ailey, his Joffrey company and many other voices of the 1960s dance world questioned why ballet has changed only due to power struggles at the top among men none of whom (with the signal exceptions of Louis XIII and XIV) danced or choreographed. Why couldn’t ordinary people change the dance? Homans rejects this.

Other questions are not asked. For example, can a corps de ballet in a traditional dance, that is recognized universally as a ballet (such as Swan Lake), be racially integrated? Race-neutral casting is becoming more and more common in theater (I saw Denzel Washington play Shakespeare’s Richard III as long ago as 1990).

Also in theater, gender neutral casting is increasing. I played “Sheldon Levene” in a mixed-gender production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross in 2011: as one of the two males in an otherwise female production I linked that production with Mamet’s stated intention that GGR be about men in cities: but the addition of women and mixed races made the production far more relevant to Hong Kong of the twenty-first century.

The answer seems to be a tacit, sotto voce but resolute “no”: a Google image search for “ballet” turns up whites and Asian dancers. It’s accepted that a member of an ensemble dance or star may be Asian. An Asian dancer is considered in other words to subscribe, even more so than whites, to Homan’s admirable but uninterrogated aesthetic of Apollonian discipline in the contempory Thomas Friedman mythos (that whites have a lot of self-discipline, well, not as much as they used to, but Asians are picking up the baton: this mythos is so oversimplified as to be useless).

But a black dancer…will not likely appear. Her skin color would send the wrong message no matter how hard she tried. Sports were racially integrated a long time ago: ballet is still segregated.

In this connection, a story, possibly based on reality, is told by someone far afield from ballet. That’s George MacDonald Fraser, the engaging and unpretentious “Flashman” novelist, who also wrote stories about life in the British Army of the 1940s.

In one of Fraser’s McAuslan stories, a black African soldier in a Highland regiment wants to play bagpipes in the regimental band, which sends the Pipe major, the Regimental Sergeant, and the Adjutant into a tizzy, since “we can’t have a black man in a pipe band”.

We just can’t (even though he can die for the regiment at el Alamein or in Korea, in the latter throwing bully beef tins at Chinese after running out of ammo in one celebrated instance far afield from yet curiously related to ballet by way of the story of the Little Tin Soldier which unifies two signifiers).

Of course, today, black soldiers march in pipe bands and are spotted in Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s birthday with no problem but ballet dancers generally speaking remain white or Asian (honorary whites in terms of bodily ideal and repression).

This is because of a paradox in the definition of ballet which Homans does not address; she does not theorize ballet and so she doesn’t spot it.

If we do not theorize or define “ballet” it retains an oral, folkish and as above, extensional defiinition. Ballet is what we’ve seen. Ballet is an extensional list of famous ballets. Ballet is what Barbie dances and Ken watches.

It’s “skinny white girls dancing to classical music under an unfamiliarly strict oral tutelage”…unfamiliar because, as we can confirm in Homans, ballet cannot be learned from notation nor even from a video, being in the latter case, as Homans takes pains to show, two-dimensional and thus inadequate to ballet which is three dimensional.

But this doesn’t meet the ethical precondition of an art, that its definition not create victims.

Sez who: sez me: in a way that’s too deep to go into here, I regard aesthetic value, based on the Holocaust, as “lexically” inferior in Rawls’ sense to ethical value, in that for the question as to whether a work of art is aesthetically value cannot be posed, much less answered, if its creation commits a (significant) ethical wrong, so sez me at this time.

The folkish definition creates outsider-victims as an ethical (and therefore aesthetic) flaw because non-white girls other than Asians “cannot”, to the folk, perform a Danish ballet.

But if we define “ballet” as highly structured and pre-planned dancing to classical (written or orally fixed by way of a guru system) music (not necessarily Western) anyone can do it as long as they meet its exacting standards.

Homans does not claim that ballet is only for white or Asian girls but by deliberately narrowing her focus she in effect evades the question and thus answers the question in silence as is the case with most American liberalism, especially the faded “liberalism” on tap at the New Republic.

[Parenhetically the sexual issue is not relevant nor is there a slippery slope between allowing women of color to be Wilis and allowing me to be one. You can insist on a uniformity of body type (fat soldiers are a rarity even in the American army) related to the mission (a war or a dance demands fitness, and sex roles are far deeper than colour). But uniformity of skin color is less important.]

Nor does Homans address how ballet came to be if it’s structured dancing to written music other than to characterize it, factually and extensionally, as a French reaction to Italian theater and opera. But, of course, world ballet, especially in India, pioneered the oral tradition of dancing to classical (but non-written) music where we can slightly expand the definition of classical music to mean music that is effectively written down by a strong and continuous oral teaching tradition (the tradition that made India’s classical music “classical”: being what Derrida might call arche-writing if I understand De La Grammatologie whch I may not, although I’ve read it).

If you define world ballet in this way and then restrict it to countries from the only constructed continent (Europe, the only continent defined by culture and not by surrounding water) then you have Homan’s subject matter because in the Volkische definition, highly structured and demanding dancing to classical music doesn’t exist outside the categories she uses: here they are:

1. The French Baroque starting, not with Louis XIV but rather with his father, as Homans points out…and dying out with the ancien regime and what Homans, of course, regards as an unqualified degringolade (conveniently ignoring the fact that while the sans-cullottes may have danced the carmagnole, the jeunesse doree whipped the sans-cullotes after the end of the Terror in the streets)

2. The Russian from the late 18th century through the Tsarist era, the Soviet era and today: to Homans’ credit she admits that the privileges of Soviet dancers were built on terror, but fails to mention that the same is the case under capitalism if economic terror counts.

3. The Danish from the mid 19th century to now

4. The 19th century French

5. The Italian after Garibaldi but before the twentieth century

6. The British appearing between the Wars and dying out or merging with global ballet by the 1990s

7. The American emerging after WWII with the influx of European talent

But this extensional “shortlist” of what constitutes “ballet” as a subset of “dance” guarantees the decline that’s lamented by Homans in the final chapter of her book. If the ballet has to look like a ballet on the shortlist, innovation cannot occur.

Indeed, it makes you ask another question. How could a traditional art have a history, which would necessarily involve change, growth and development, if it didn’t also have a theory, implicit or explicit as to what it was?

Contrast opera. Enacting a stage play by singing to music is more difficult than “dancing” per se, therefore there’s an intensional definition of opera (“enacting a stage play by singing to music”) and no need as there’s in ballet to use a word (“ballet”) to partition an art (“dance”) into “ballet” and everything else. Chinese opera was recognized as conforming to the intensional definition of opera therefore it could be given this name but the only Chinese ballet is ballet that self-consciously imitates Western models imported from Russia.

Because Homans did not do her homework, and devise an intensional definition of “ballet”, it becomes what it is in the classist and racist mind: what skinny white girls do. This created a history of types of dance characterized only by their class position.

Homans to her credit is Apollonian, and she believes in Apollonian discipline. But the basic gesture of ballet is the reverse of Apollo. It is simultaneously the release of emotion and its taming as is all of music for Adorno: Apollo and Dionysius were not in the last analysis separate gods, but topoi of an idea: the fact that the classicizing rage can coexist in the same body with the Dionysian frenzy and that the two not only inform one another, they are the same, two poles of the same continuum. In my direct experience, African dance is just as hard as ballet: its expectations are unknown but that doesn’t mean they do not exist. My own dance practice at this time is pretty hard for I have to avoid reinjury and therefore learn from Indian dance practice and fuse it with the faded memory of ballet.

This is as difficult as being humiliated and demeaned, whether by a Great Man such as Mr B, or some ballet master in the hinterland. The Apollonian has to confront and cleanse its own darkness, implicit in the Dionysian flaying of the satyr Marysas for playing the bagpipes at a song contest. Otherwise, post Holocaust (among other things an in-your-face white aesthetic just like the “hate metal” of that clown who opened fire this month on Sikhs) ballet may not deserve to exist, if aesthetics is lexically posterior to ethics as I so claim above.

Let the love parade begin and bring on the one star ratingss. I don’t care. Both of my sisters could have done very well in the ballet but were pushed out by folk and village Apollonians, the sort of yokels who claim only to be Apollo’s Angels merely because they’ve never served Dionysius, which was, wasn’t it, King Pentheus’ error in Euripides’ The Bacchae; when he tries in drag to hide in a tree in the finale he’s a joke. If you eliminate the Dionysian, which New Republic liberals eliminate when they get all silent about the Sixties and its todt undt teufel as named by James Baldwin in 1960, you have no claim to the Apollonian. Apollo’s Angels are also Dionysian.

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