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On Wings of Joy (paperback, 2003)

Four hundred years of ballet are explored in this lively, concise history, a chronicle of the major dancers, choreographers, composers, designers who influenced the development of the art. Beginning in the glittering 16th century French court of Catherine de’Medici, this informative narrative traces ballet as it evolved throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, in Czarist Russia, in England and America in the 20th and early 21st centuries. There are details about dance classics such as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, Afternoon of a Faun, Serenade, Dances at a Gathering, and other works, as well prominent figures as Taglioni, Tchaikovsky, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Farrell, Bournonville, Petipa, Diaghilev, Ashton, Balanchine, Stravinsky, Robbins. Fascinating facts about contemporary dance companies and personalities, how toe shoes are made, costumes, makeup, lighting, what a dancer’s day is like, comparison of the basic techniques of classical and modern dance, the meanings of mime, and poetry about dance add spice to this highly praised book for readers of all ages interested in the dance.

A Selection of Reviews

“A lucid and interesting history that reads like a novel.” -- Kirkus Reviews

“A truly fascinating look at ballet. The author has done an excellent job of weaving historical events into her discussion of dancers and their art. A very readable, enjoyable book.” -- Booklist

“It is wonderful to finally have a complete and comprehensive history of dance that is accessible to young people and equally valuable for parents, experienced dance goers, and other adults. How important to have this easily readable exposure to dance to help counterbalance the disappearance of arts education in our schools.” -- Edward Villella, Artistic Director, Miami City Ballet

“A wonderful accomplishment that strikes that perfect balance: it is great if you know nothing about ballet and it is terrific fun even if you know a great deal….My copy is going up on the shelf with Denby and “Choreography” by Balanchine, so it will be one those books to which I always turn.”
-- Carol Landers, Director of Research, New York City Ballet

“Parents will find this book to be excellent: it can easily cross over to appeal to fiction readers and ballet enthusiasts of all ages.” -- Bookwatch

“Covers an enormous amount of material in a readable and comprehensive manner without missing a beat.”
-- School Library Journal

“A lively new history.” -- Dance Magazine

“A unique history of ballet.” -- Dance Teacher Now

“Recommended…easy-to-read and informative.”
-- Attitudes and Arabesques

Brief Excerpts from "On Wings of Joy"


When Marie Taglioni [1804-1884] was a little girl, no one could have guessed that she would become one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. She was a prim little child, skinny and pale, with plain, sharp features. She was stoop-shouldered and had a very long neck and arms. Her early teachers didn’t think she had any talent, and her classmates taunted her as “that little hunchback.” One ballet master suggested to her mother that she learn to be a dressmaker because she would never be a good dancer. But Marie was destined for the stage: her Swedish grandmother was a well-known singer, her Italian grandfather, aunts, and uncles were distinguished dancers [as was her younger brother Paul], and her father, Filippo Taglioni, was one of the era’s foremost dancers, teachers, and choreographers.

Filippo, known for his single-mindedness and iron discipline, took over his daughter’s training when she was seventeen. Because Marie’s body did not match the ideal for the voluptuous ballerinas of the day, her father began a grueling program of exercises and preparations to overcome her so-called physical “handicaps.” Marie practiced six hours a day, every day, to the music of a violin. [Until the twentieth century, the violin, not the piano, was the instrument used to count out the beats and measures during ballet practice.] Her lessons often ended in tears of exhaustion. Sometimes Marie nearly fainted with fatigue, but the exercises gave her very strong legs and feet, enabling her to extend the techniques of pointe dancing. To improve her adagio technique, she would hold a pose on demi-pointe to the count of one hundred. She would practice unsupported pirouettes over and over. Her technique was so strong that during her soaring elevations, she seemed to hover in the air, defying the laws of gravity. It was said that it took her just three leaps to bound across the stage of the Paris Opera. To camouflage her long neck and arms, Marie’s father devised poses [elbows bent, wrists crossed, head tilted to one side or arms folded across her chest] that ever since have been associated with the Romantic ballerina and Romantic ballets.

Marie Taglioni was not the first ballerina to dance on pointe, but she was the first to make it truly magical. She did not perform in the blocked toe shoes of today but in fragile, narrow tubelike slippers made of silk ribbon with paper-thin soles. She moved toe dancing beyond a display of garish acrobatics and tricks with wires and pulleys into a lofty realm that led the London Times to declare that ballet was now “an art to rank with poetry and painting.”

During her long career, Marie Taglioni danced in hundreds of ballets, appearing in all the great capitals of Europe. She was the most famous performer of her day. After a triumphal appearance in Russia -- the czar came every night -- her adoring fans cooked her ballet slippers and served them in a sauce. She was the first ballerina to be showered with flowers at a curtain call. Following one performance in Paris, the curtain was unable to come down because of the thick carpet of roses, camellias, and violets thrown by adoring fans.

Marie Taglioni retired in 1848, at the age of forty-four. In 1860, she returned to the Paris Opera to choreograph her only ballet, Le Papillon [The Butterfly], to Jacques Offenbach’s first ballet score. Although she had made a fortune during her career, her last years were spent in genteel poverty, teaching dancing and deportment to young ladies in London. The ballerina who had been worshipped and adored while she danced died penniless in Marseilles in 1884.


Swan Lake, the last of the great Tchaikovsky-Petipa-Ivanov ballets, was actually the composer’s first ballet score. In 1875, he had received a commission from the Moscow Imperial Theatre [now called the Bolshoi Ballet]. He was paid 800 rubles for a new ballet, a sum that was nearly half of what he earned during a whole year teaching at the Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky, who thought that ballet was “the most innocent, the most moral of all the arts,” suggested the libretto [story] for Swan Lake. Years earlier, for a family entertainment, he had composed a short ballet based on a Russian fairy tale about a wicked sorcerer who turns young girls into birds. He expanded this story into Swan Lake, a moving ballet of romance and tragedy. Enchanted by sorcerer Von Rothbart, Odette, the Swan Queen, assumes her human form only between the hours of midnight and dawn. It will take the pledge of eternal love by a man who has forsaken all other women to break this spell. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette but is tricked into proposing marriage to Von Rothbart’s daughter, Odile. Although his betrayal seals the Swan Queen’s fate, she forgives him. The lovers triumph over the evil magician by throwing themselves into the lake --their self-sacrificing love frees the Swan Maidens from the curse and destroys Von Rothbart’s power forever.

The first performance of Swan Lake took place in Moscow in 1877, and it was a dismal failure. The staging was done by an uninspired choreographer whose work was dull and routine. The conductor didn’t like the music, and the ballerina who was to play Odette had declared that the score was too difficult to dance to, so she felt free to insert her favorite music and choreography from other ballets. Swan Lake was soon dropped from the repertoire, and Tchaikovsky, who blamed his music for the failure, would not write for the ballet for another twelve years.

Tchaikovsky died in 1893. He was by then a respected composer whose achievements were hailed around the world. He had also done more than any other composer to elevate the quality of ballet music in the 19th century, making it the equal partner of the choreography. For a special memorial service honoring him, the director of the Maryinsky Theatre and ballet master Marius Petipa, who knew just how wonderful the Swan Lake score really was, wanted to revive the ballet in a new production. There was, however, only enough time to prepare one act. Then Petipa fell ill, and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, was given the task of choreographing The Flight of the Swans, the lakeside scene in which Prince Siegfried first encounters Odette. Czar Nicholas II was so impressed that he ordered the entire four-act ballet to be produced, specifying that Ivanov’s choreography was to be kept for Act II and an added Act IV. Petipa would stage Acts I and III, set at the prince’s court.

The new Swan Lake premiered on January 27, 1895. It was easy to see that the ballet had been choreographed by two people with different ideas about dance, but this did nothing to detract from the ballet’s beauty and magic. Ivanov used his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s music to extend the dramatic potential of ballet d’ecole, the academic style. He created inspired lyrical dances filled with emotion for the Swan Queen and the corps of Swan Maidens. He gave Odette fluttering winglike arm and hand movements, tremulous foot beats, and preening gestures -- she was truly a woman trapped in the body of a bird. He used the ballerina’s technical skill and arching arabesques to convey the yearning love of the Swan Queen for the prince. Ivanov’s two lakeside scenes have a dramatic intensity and magical grace that links them to the ballet blancs [white ballets] of the earlier Romantic era, but his corps is an active and animated ensemble that interacts with the soloists.

Petipa’s acts, set in the real world of a royal court, contrast sharply with the emotional, poetic passages for the swans. Here, the choreography follows the standard formula for Russian ballets of the period. The story is told in alternating scenes of mime and dancing, and the choreography includes brilliant solos, duets, trios, national dances [Spanish, Hungarian, Neapolitan, and Polish], and divertissements.

The first Swan Queen was Pierina Legnani [1863-1923], an Italian prima ballerina assoluta [ a title awarded in Russia only to the very best ballerinas]. She had made her Russian debut two years earlier, amazing the audience with a technical feat they had never seen before. Legnani was the first ballerina to execute a series of thirty-two consecutive fouettes. She had amazing strength and could remain steadily in one place on one leg while performing these whipped turns. Understandably, Legnani was protective of the secret that allowed her to do those multiple turns without getting dizzy, and she would not allow anyone to see her practicing them. A Russian ballerina, Mathilde Kchessinska, solved the mystery by hiding in the wings during a rehearsal. Legnani was spotting -- focusing on a specific fixed object while spinning in her pirouettes. During each turn, she looked for as long as possible at that fixed point before snapping her head around to look at that object again.

Petipa knew a crowd pleaser when he saw one, so he inserted the thirty-two fouettes into the third act “Black Swan” pas de deux in which the prince, thinking that Odile is Odette, proclaims his love for the evil imposter.

The dual role of Odette-Odile is considered one of the most challenging in the ballerina’s repertoire, not only because of its technical difficulty but because the dancer must, in alternate acts, display both purity and evil with equal skill.

Swan Lake was the last of the great nineteenth-century Russian ballets. New works were produced at the Maryinsky, but none could match that collaboration in emotional intensity, inventive choreography, and glorious music.


Choreographer George Balanchine [1904-1983] and composer Igor Stravinsky [1882-1971] were two artistic geniuses of the twentieth century. Their work together over four decades is one of the great collaborations in ballet history.

Music was the starting point of all Balanchine’s ballets. A talented pianist, he sometimes studied a score for ten years, picking it apart note by note, before creating choreography to it. “I couldn’t move without a reason,” he said, “and the reason is the music.”

The two men shared the view that their respective art forms should express balance and harmony. For Stravinsky, music was “order, measure, proportion….all those principles that oppose disorder.” This was Stravinsky defining music, but it could as easily have been Balanchine defining ballet.

Balanchine and Stravinsky were both innovative artists who took apart the vocabulary or building blocks of their art and reassembled them in new ways. Over a period of forty-three years, they worked together on more than thirty ballets, including such masterpieces as Apollo [1928], Orpheus [1948], Violin Concerto [1972], and Symphony in Three Movements [1972].

In the 1950s, the styles of both the composer and choreographer became sparer, more economical and angular. Stravinsky was beginning to explore a twelve-tone, not the usual ten-tone, musical scale; Balanchine was attempting to stretch classical technique even further. In 1957, they collaborated on Agon [Greek for contest], a ballet in twelve movements using twelve dancers, which visualized the complex and changing rhythms of Stravinsky’s twelve-tone serial score. Stravinsky based the music on a dozen old French melodies. Balanchine, taking as his starting point a seventeenth-century French manual describing galliards, sarabands, and branles, made these old court dances as contemporary as the music. As in all Balanchine ballets to Stravinsky scores, Agon is punctuated with quirky steps and intricate movements. Although Agon lasts only a little more than 20 minutes, it is so densely packed with movement that it contains more steps than ballets four times as long. Balanchine called it a “construction in space” and once compared it to an IBM computer. It is a ballet that is perfectly in sync with the tension-filled, high-speed, high-tech second half of the twentieth century.