Ballet, Jennifer Homans rightly insists, is an ‘art of memory’ rather than history, recorded more profoundly inside the bodies of dancers than it can ever be on the flat page. Nevertheless, her survey of the 500 years over which this elusive art form has evolved brings us close to the heart of the matter. It will doubtless come to rank as the standard and authoritative work in the field, its scope, scholarship and intellectual ambition far exceeding that of modestly scaled textbooks such as Ivor Guest’s The Dancer’s Heritage or vade mecums such as Robert Greskovic’s Ballet 101.
Homans – a professionally trained dancer with an academic background – writes a clean, lucid and disciplined prose which happily reminds one of the rigour and precision of the classical barre. Keeping a firm grasp on broader cultural and social contexts and weeding out inessential names and detail