As a species we have been dancing since the dawn of time, but the art of ballet is but an infant in historic terms. The Ballet Comique de la Reine of 1581 is the generally credited date of its rather spectacular birth but it was only when theatre going became more democratic that the balletomane evolved. The early beginnings of dance are well documented, but in the mid-twentieth century, ballet companies proliferated, ballet attained a global reach to be later revisioned by those of non-Western heritage. This makes into any standarised history of modern ballet hugely problematic.
Add to this, what is ballet in the new millennium? Many contemporary choreographers rely on the ballet-trained body to interpret their ideas and many ballet choreographers deviate radically from the accepted ballet form.
Into this minefield has stepped a very brave Viviane Durante, the editorial consultant on a new book, Ballet: The Definitive Illustrated Story. Definitive, it is not, but it is certainly a handsome book that will grace any library shelf. It’s packed with photos, a number of which are unusual and interestingly sourced. There is a determined effort to show diversity and the photos, introducing the sections, combine dancers from The Royal Ballet and Ballet Black, Fumi Kaneko and José Alves. Durante’s introduction to Ballet Black may well have come through the company’s collaboration in her Kenneth MacMillan project, Steps Back in Time. Indeed, much of the material in the book seems to be the result of similar serendipitous meetings and the use of personal connections or experience.
The book does not claim to be encyclopaedic in its scope, and space constraints restrict any chance of pleasing all the readers all of the time, indeed a great deal of its charm is coming across unexpected items tucked in between the more canonical material. It is an intriguing book to browse through as the ordering of material apart from the chronology has an eccentric method of categorisation. In no particular order, a dancer follows a choreographer, an opera house or an original description of ‘character dances’ or ‘ballet method’. The very brief Glossary has an eclectic selection but doesn’t explain this phrase, “unrivalled height of her double flips” with reference to Sylvie Guillem (p.296), which left me puzzled.
It is inevitable in any ballet history or dictionary that names will be mentioned of dance artists, popular at the time, whose fame did not last. This is a chance one has to take, and I wished there had been more daring shown. I find there is a great deal of exciting and interesting new ballet in this millennium and these recent decades are sparsely covered. The focus of the book is predominantly, and not surprisingly, on the English-speaking Western world, with special consideration for the Royal Ballet in London.
Christopher Wheeldon is, understandably, given extensive coverage but others, possibly because they work more outside of the UK are less favoured, notably Liam Scarlett, David Dawson, Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Ochoa has her name mentioned under a photo of her ballet, Broken Wings, p.330 but doesn’t get an entry in the index, and Jonathan Watkins, choreographer of the award winning 1984, only warrants an incorrect mention under a photograph of Eric Underwood on p.321.
Apart from the briefest of mentions Beryl Grey is omitted while there is a double page on Nadia Nerina (admittedly one of my favourites) but certainly not as influential. While the early history of ballet is given extensive coverage there is no mention of the revival of Baroque dance by Mary Skeaping and Ivó Cramer at Drottningholm Court Theatre. In fact, there is no mention of the Royal Swedish Ballet the world’s fourth oldest company.
Back to the diversity issue, it is important to credit Alvin Ailey and his iconic Revelations, but, it is a contemporary work and Arthur Mitchell who established the Dance Theatre of Harlem would have been the more balletic choice. Where Mitchell is briefly mentioned, his photo is captioned as Mitchen (p.225) and this spelling is oddly repeated in the index.
It is noteworthy that Nicolette Fraillon, one of the few woman ballet conductors, is included (p.343) but I couldn’t find any mention of living dance composers for example Szymon Brzóska, Mikael Karlsson, Thom Willems or Vincenzo Lamagna.
This is not a book for academic reference, but if you are looking for a present for a ballet lover, it is an excellent buy, lots of lovely photographs, accessible language and published at a very reasonable price. Dance lovers could happily curl up and browse this well-presented book that offers such an eclectic choice of material.
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Ballet: The Definitive Illustrated History
Consultant: Viviana Durante
Hardcover: 360 pages
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley, September 6, 2018
Dimensions: 25.8 x 2.9 x 30.4 cm
List price: £25