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23.6.11

À mon chevet: Apollo's Angels

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
For the real truth was that ballets did not belong to the rigorous and rational world of classical theater, and would always exist at the edges of the liberal and fine arts. Rather, the province of ballets was the more inchoate world of le merveilleux. This expansive arena, with its pagan and Christian resonances and fascination with miracles, magical, and supernatural events defying material logic and human reason, seemed purpose-made for opera and ballet, and had long been associated with court spectacle. All the more so since for many at the time, le merveilleux was not an unreal or imaginary world outside of daily experience: belief in enchantment was commonplace, and spirits, fairies, ghosts, and vaguely religious ideas of devilry, witches, and black magic inhabited the minds of even the most educated people.

In theatrical terms, le merveilleux meant machines and ballets: deus ex machina, spectacular effects in which men and gods were transformed and seemed to fly up into the clouds or disappear suddenly through trapdoors, and scenery that suddenly revolved, transporting the spectator to exotic lands in the blink of an eye. Charles Perrault explained that effects and fantastical creatures, so frowned upon in tragedy or comedy, were perfectly dignified in opera, which took le merveilleux as its subject tout court. Similarly, La Bruyère reflected that opera could "hold the mind, the eyes and the ears under the same spell."

It was in this spirit that in 1697 Perrault published what would later become an iconic text for ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. [...] Today, we often forget that The Sleeping Beauty was not merely a children's story: it was a tribute to Louis XIV, le merveilleux, and the modern French state.

-- Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, pp. 44-45
This book was widely recognized as a much-needed, authoritative look at what ballet is all about from a historical perspective -- not only because it came at a moment when ballet itself, as the author herself acknowledges, may be on the brink of an ultimate decline. The early chapters, which draw connections between what we see in modern ballets and the court ballet of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, are particularly revelatory.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Homans' book is somewhat hampered by her fierce allegiance to the Balanchine ethos (she was a member of the NYCB). There are some unnecessary snide comments about ballet companies and styles that, fifty years ago, may have been competitors to NYCB (the Soviet Russians and European companies all get a putdown). However a history requires a little more distance. Still, it's an indispensable book.

Herman

Charles T. Downey said...

An interesting point. I'll look at the later chapters again with that in mind.