Ballet is a dying art, according to Jennifer Homans’s bestselling history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels.
Ballet is a dying art, according to Jennifer Homans’s bestselling history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels. Sensationalist as it may sound, this claim is cogently argued at the end of the book, which turns dreary ballet history into an engaging narrative. Inevitably, the statement has ruffled many feathers, particularly among those ‘hyperspecialists’, ‘balletomanes’ and ‘insiders’ who, she says, speak an ‘impenetrable theory-laden prose’ and have reduced dance to a ‘recondite world’.
Indeed, the worrying demise of classical theatre-dance depends greatly on the mental onanism of some scholars, as well as on the art-less vision of teachers and artistic directors who seem to ignore the fact that ballet is not a revolting display of hyper-extended muscles. But I do not share fully Homans’s view about the ready-for-burial state of the art, as I prefer to be one of those who like to believe that, in her words, ‘ballet is not dying but falling instead into a deep sleep, to be reawakened — like the Sleeping Beauty — by a new generation’.
Such optimism stems from practical experience. Evening after evening of ballet-watching has taught me that signs of vitality can still be detected — now and then. And when that happens, the soul, the mind and the heart are duly rewarded for sitting through endless and unnameable crimes committed in the name of dance-making.
Take, for instance, the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, a perfect example of how a 19th-century classic can still come across as a lively, engaging, moving theatre experience, contrary to Homans’s justified pessimism. Apart from the uniqueness of individual artists’ performances, what really makes this an all-round theatre experience is the richness of detail that characterises this particular staging. Such richness not only allows viewers to interact constantly with the dramatic side of the ballet — a vital component, given that the work premièred as a ballet-pantomime — but also provides artists with a wide range of interpretative choices. Hence the aura of constant renewal this production seems to possess, an aura that adds greatly to the theatrical vibrancy of each performance.
There have certainly been changes through the years, much to the disappointment of diehard traditionalists. Yet none of these has managed to dent the fluidity of the narrative, which draws upon a perfectly balanced combination of performance tradition and historical accuracy. It is possibly this respectful, though never constraining take on the ballet’s own history and tradition that provides interpreters with endless opportunities to fine-tune their response to the text — as was evident in Marianela Nuñez’s stunning performance the night I went. Of all the stagings of the 1841 ballet that I have seen, this is without question the only one that makes me believe in the old Romantic story, for it alone makes the old Romantic story readable and accessible to a contemporary audience — offering a much-needed escapist plunge into Romanticism. And for as long as a ballet company is able to weave this kind of magic, ballet will be anything but a dying art.