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Helice Koffler's picture

An Interview with Jennifer Homans

 

The paperback edition of Jennifer Homan's well received book, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet was issued by Random House in November.  I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Homans about the use of libraries and archives in her research process, as well as her reactions to the book's reception.  Below are some excerpts from that interview; the full version will appear in the January issue of Performance! (the newsletter of the Performing Arts Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists).


What was your inspiration or motivation for writing Apollo’s Angels

In a way the book came out of my own biography. When I was a dancer I wanted very much to read about the history of ballet, and I didn’t find the kind of books that were both historical in terms of dance, but also broader culturally. That was kind of lingering in my mind all of the years that I was dancing, and when I finally stopped dancing and then did a Ph.D. in modern European history, it all came together. It didn’t come together all at once. But I one day realized, “Oh, I could write that book!” 

When you were studying dance was dance history a part of the curriculum at the School of American Ballet at all?

It was not a part of the curriculum. That was another way in which there was a sense in my mind that there was a hole here.

Do you feel that studying dance history would be beneficial as a component of dance training?

Oh I do think so. Yes, I think it’s very important for dancers to have training in the history of their art form. It pleases me very much when I hear of dancers who are reading the book because I feel it is almost a resource tool. I found things in the history that people can use. Just the way musicians look back and they say, “Here’s a composer that we haven’t thought about for a while. Let’s look at that music and see what it can give us or how it can inspire us.” We can’t quite do that in dance because we don’t have the adequate notation and source material. But I hope that in this history I’ve been able to capture something of the projects and ideas that people in the past have been interested in that might end up being relevant to dancers and choreographers today.

Where did you primarily conduct your research?

Well, it took me all over the place, but there were a few places that were more important than others. The first was the archives at the Paris Opera. The second was the Archives Nationales.

The other library that was really important was the New York Public Library, which has an amazing dance collection and is very accessible.

Were you able to find things yourself or did you rely on librarians or archivists?

Oh, I think librarians are key. I relied heavily on librarians who knew the materials and the sources obviously much better than I did and so would steer me towards things. For example, when I was at the Paris Opera at one point, I asked [the librarian], “Do you happen to have any of the shoes of Marie Taglioni?” “Oh yes!” he said, “in fact we do.” And took me downstairs to the basement and into a part of the collection which I don’t think is normally accessed, and showed me all of these things that were there, not just the shoes, but costumes and other things they held, which turned out to be very important to how I made sense of the material. So I think that librarians can often be vital.

Dance books are hardly ever noticed in the mainstream press or media. Were you surprised by the book’s reception?

I was surprised. I spent fifteen years in the archives working on this alone. I’d often come home and I’d think, “I’m the only person in the world who thinks this is absolutely fascinating stuff!” So when the book came out and received so much attention, I was, of course, delighted. I would have written it even if I had known it wouldn’t receive the attention, but it was very nice that it did. And I think it was very good for the dance world to have the art form recognized as something important and something with a long and valuable history -- as part of our civilization.

What are some of your own favorite dance history books or most influential books?

I’m very fond of [Tamara] Karsavina’s memoir, called Theatre Street. I also like the memoirs of Alexandra Danilova, of Allegra Kent. But I have to say that I relied less on dance books than I did on general history books, cultural histories of the period –- of any period I was working in. If we stick with the early nineteenth century example, I drew heavily on the work of Ivor Guest, who did a lot of the very important primary work in that field. But I also was reading widely from [François-René de] Chateaubriand and [Théophile] Gautier and other cultural figures from the period and from historians who had studied them, as well as the dance.

Are there any major revisions or additions to the paperback edition?

There are a few corrections that people very kindly pointed out to me, which I tried to incorporate. There are one or two that won’t go into the paperback, but will go into the next edition. But not very many. And I did not change anything of substance.  My view is that a book is also a product of its time and this book had a certain integrity. Whether I’ve changed my mind about something since then is a different question, but the book itself stands for what it is and what it said in 2010. Because it too is a historical document in the end, right?