The Story Of Ballet, Danced By 'Apollo's Angels'

Ballet is a storytelling art that has no written language. It is classical and modern, intellectual and emotional, athletic and cerebral, and, for many, the embodiment of joy in movement. Host Scott Simon speaks with Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. The two are also joined by Jacques d' Amboise, a long-time principal dancer for the New York City Ballet.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ballet is a storytelling art that has no written language. It is both classical and modern, intellectual and emotional, athletic and cerebral, an art for kings, an entertainment for peasants, and for many the simple embodiment of joy in movement.

Jennifer Homans has a history of that art that's often hard to define, but irreplaceable in the heart, "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." And with "The Nutcracker" season upon us, Jennifer Homans joins us from New York.

She's danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet among others, also earned a PhD in Modern European History at New York University, and now writes about dance for the New Republic, and is also Scholar in Residence at NYU.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JENNIFER HOMANS (Ballet Dancer, Historian): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And joining us in our studios here, just one of the great dancers in history, Jacques d'Amboise, who was principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, founder of the National Dance Institute, a McArthur Fellow, and a Kennedy Center honors recipient.

Thanks so much for being with us, Jacques.

Mr. JACQUES D'AMBOISE (Ballet Dancer, Choreographer): My joy. My joy.

SIMON: Jennifer Homans, let's begin with you. As you know, classical Greeks didn't have ballet, but you see Apollo as a kind of symbol for ballet.

Ms. HOMANS: That's right. Apollo is a symbol for ballet because dancers over the ages have looked back to the Greeks, even though the Greeks themselves did not, of course, perform ballet, which has its origins in the European courts of the Renaissance in the 17th century. But the idea of Apollo as a perfectly proportioned beautiful human figure is something that's inspired people for ages. So, you know, Apollo is a recurrent theme throughout the history. Louis XIV, when he was performing at his height, often liked to portray Apollo. And he would dress in great plumes and Greek or Roman dress and he would perform the "Sun King," which gave him his own identity and showed his own power in court in France in the 17th century. So the idea of Apollo through the ages has been very, very powerful.

SIMON: You trace the origins of ballet to the French court.

Ms. HOMANS: Yes. The French Court is where ballet was first codified. There were shadows of it before and it was a social dance evolving, but it was only in the French court of Louis XIV that the positions were first given their names and that they were first actually written down in this case, and we still do have some of those drawings and writings.

SIMON: Jacques d'Amboise, so the story about you has always been New York City street kid, seven years old, your parents send you to a - was it your sister's dance school, to keep you out of the clutches of gangs?

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Yes. 'Cause if she left me on the stoop, I'd be with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'AMBOISE: ...Washington Heights and - but that's was pretty terrific. The teacher was Madame Seda, who was a kind of Armenian giant of a human being, a Gypsy woman with red and black and drama and passion, and she got me into it. And then at the end of maybe, I guess, 16 lessons, summer came and my mother said to Madame Seda, Madame, save a place for my children - my sister Ninette and me, right - save a place for them. We'll be back in the fall. And Madame Seda said no, ma'am. Madame, there is no place for your children here. And, of course, my mother almost fell over with Sarah Bernhardt drama, right. And then she handed my mother a piece of paper and it said School of American Ballet, George Balanchine, and she said there are better teachers than I am.

SIMON: Oh my gosh.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Take them here. Isn't that terrific? She gave up her only boy, and my sister was the best in the class.

SIMON: Oh my gosh.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Yeah. And then I was performing right away, at eight years old. Balanchine was doing a little thing for some rich man's party in the summer and I was Puck in "Midsummer Night's Dream," and I got 10 bucks. So that's very seductive.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Especially, by the way, Scott...

SIMON: Yeah?

Mr. D'AMBOISE: My father's salary was $35 a week.

SIMON: Oh my, yeah.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Bringing up four children. There were four of us. It was...

Ms. HOMANS: It's such an interesting example to me because, you know, Jacques was an American kid and he came into this world, it was really this little Russia right there in the middle of Manhattan.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HOMANS: I mean these teachers were all born in the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg...

Mr. D'AMBOISE: And great.

Ms. HOMANS: ...and then this meeting of these two forces, right there. That's one of the things that made such tremendous ballet.

SIMON: The great Jacques d'Amboise. A question about the Russians in ballet, Jennifer Homans. How did it happen that this art of the czars, if you please, became a kind of important icon during the Cold War?

Ms. HOMANS: You know, that's one of the most fascinating stories that I encountered. As you say, I mean an artform which was very much in the court and the epitome of the courts - reminds me, there was a great Russian ballerina who was also the mistress of Nicholas II. You know, this is how closely knit this artform was with the court in people's eyes. And so when the Revolution came, it seemed logical that the whole thing would be torn down and gotten rid of, because why would they want to have that if they were going to build a worker's state? Lenin was very skeptical.

But you know, there were people who loved the ballet and who really believed that the culture could be transformed. And so it was preserved. And the classical ballets were actually preserved as well. And that transition, though, that you are talking about, between just preserving them and actually making up the centerpiece of the Soviet state, I think happened through this idea of the ideal. And this is all there in the Soviet ideology: You're working, you're building, you're going to reach the paradise. It's not that different from "Swan Lake" and other ballets that are always fighting for an ideal. So I think that transition in fact took place, even though it seems very unlikely.

SIMON: And let me get you both to talk about George Balanchine your (unintelligible) sense, godfather.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: I was lucky to be in his hands when I was eight.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: And then I performed with Ballet Society, which was a precursor to New York City Ballet. And then when I was just turned 15, in July, I come after my 15th birthday in September and Balanchine - would you like to join New York City Ballet? I had had one year of high school, so I quit high school and went right away and within less than a year we were dancing in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and Balanchine was giving me lessons: If we do have tea with the queen, this is the way you drink tea. Diaghilev showed me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'AMBOISE: So there was more passed down in the tradition than just a first position in plie. There was how you drink tea with the queen.

SIMON: Well, that's important. Yeah, that's important.

You say that ballet is built around the universality of the human gesture.

Ms. HOMANS: You know, there are two sides to ballet. They are the steps and the formal aspect of it, the positions, the movements, and then there's also a side of it which is move towards pantomime. So dancers over the history of ballet have always pulled from both. They've pulled from this more abstract art, which had very much to do with classical rules of symmetry and restraint and nobility. And then they were also drawing from a tradition of pantomime, which focused on gesture and expression and the ways in which movement can tell a story.

SIMON: Wonder what you think about that, Jacques?

Mr. D'AMBOISE: I think that ballet is an artform that is aerial. It's the art of the aerial. It's off the earth. It's off the ordinary. It's the extraordinary. And it's not about, oh, I'm getting a divorce and my heart is broken and - it has to do with making better what human beings are. It's the art of betterment.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: And somehow or other it doesn't matter, the choreography. The scenery can move, it's moving - how the body moves beautifully an elegantly to express an motion.

Ms. HOMANS: Yes. Absolutely. You know, I mean the things that Jacques is saying are, they're very true to the origins of the art as well. I mean that's what I meant by angels in the title, because ballet has always been an artform that has tried to lift people up out of the more bestial or physical side - it's a real paradox - and into a sort of more elevated and spiritual way, but it does it through the body. It's quite extraordinary. The idea is to lift yourself one notch up towards God, towards the angels and God.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Jenny, Scott, when we'd finish sometimes a pas de deux and Balanchine would come backstage all excited, either Allegra(ph) or Suzanne(ph) or Diana or somebody, Kay(ph), I was dancing with, and he would come all -right, curtain is closed, we've done our bows, and he would say, you know, you are in ionosphere.

Ms. HOMANS: Exactly.

SIMON: That's beautiful. The great Jacques d'Amboise, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and Jennifer Homans. Her new book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." Thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Hey, Scott, love being here.

Ms. HOMANS: Thank you.

Mr. D'AMBOISE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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