The Young God Grows Up
In 1928 when Diaghilev furiously said he felt like not renewing George Balanchine’s contract as choreographer for the Ballets Russes (even after the success of the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballet Apollon Musagète) he could not have foreseen what a long-lived ballet that would become—or that Balanchine would become, in the line of Petipa and Fokine, the most prolific and well-known ballet choreographer of the 20th century.
This is the tale told by the régisseur S.L. Grigoriev. He pointed out to the impresario that Balanchine’s contract had expired. Then:
Diaghilev said that Balanchine would be visiting him in Venice and that he would renew it then. Yet when we all met again in Paris after the holidays, and I enquired whether he had remembered to do so, he astounded me by fiercely abusing Balanchine: he felt very much, he said, like not renewing the contract at all! What the cause of this sudden change was I could not fathom. But I forebore to ask questions and merely said that all I wished to know was whether he proposed to retain Balanchine or not. If he did, then I would arrange the contract myself. “Do as you like,” said Diaghilev, after a pause—and so to my relief, since with Massine gone, Balanchine was our sole stand-by for choreography, the contract was safely renewed.
Balanchine had originally joined the Ballets Russes in 1924, along with three other dancers who had all trained at the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg: his wife Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, and Nicolas Efimov. Grigoriev recalled:
They were all excellent dancers, and though at first somewhat provincial in manner, soon adapted themselves to our more sophisticated ways. They had no pretensions and willingly danced anything they were given. This was an attitude that appealed to Diaghilev; and we, for our part, were all very pleased to welcome them as colleagues.
Because Nijinska had just left the company, Diaghilev was glad to learn that Balanchine had already done some choreographing, and he soon put those talents to work. Among the results were dances within operas plus the ballets L’Enfant et les Sortileges (to music by Ravel and with a libretto by Cocteau); Le Chant du Rossignol (adapted from Stravinsky’s opera); Barabau (to a commissioned score by Vittorio Rieti); La Pastorale (to a commissioned score by Georges Auric); Jack in the Box (to music by Erik Satie, orchestrated by Darius Milhaud); The Triumph of Neptune (to a commissioned score by Lord Berners); and La Chatte (to a commissioned score by Henri Sauguet).
Then came 1928 and Apollon Musagète (Apollo, Leader of the Muses), with a score commissioned from Igor Stravinsky by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. There were to be three more Balanchine ballets before Diaghilev’s death in August of 1929: The Gods Go Begging (to long-existing music by Handel); Le Bal (to a commissioned score by Vittorio Rieti); and The Prodigal Son (to a commissioned score by Sergei Prokofiev).
Although Stravinsky had thought of his music for Apollon Musagète as a ballet all along, yet the premiere was not with Balanchine, since Mrs. Coolidge had commissioned it specifically for a festival of contemporary music at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., where Adolph Bolm provided choreography for its single performance in a tight space. Subsequently Balanchine’s choreography for Apollon Musagète was first presented in Paris by Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes with Serge Lifar in the lead role.
Apollo (as it has come to be called since the 1950s) was certainly a departure from Stravinsky’s rich scores for the story ballets Firebird and Petrouchka, and from the perceived harshness of Le Sacre du Printemps and Les Noces. There are no harsh repeated rhythms with dissonant harmonies as in Sacre, nor blips and bleeps as were to come much later in Agon. Both the music and the choreography of Apollo are classical, lyrical, focused on the pure beauty of dance with only a minimal touch of a “plot.”
In years following the premiere 1928 performance, Balanchine always considered that his version of Apollo was pivotal in his work as a choreographer. In an essay he wrote in 1949 the choreographer spoke of the effect that Stravinsky’s score had upon his own craft:
Apollon I look back on as the turning point of my life. In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate. In Apollon, and in all the music that follows, it is impossible to imagine substituting for any single fragment the fragment of any other Stravinsky score. Each piece is unique in itself, and nothing is replaceable.
I examined my own work in the light of this lesson. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be multiple possibilities to the one that is inevitable….
It was in studying Apollon that I came first to understand how gestures, like tones in music and shades in painting, have certain family relations. As groups they impose their own laws. The more conscious an artist is, the more he comes to understand these laws, and to respond to them. Since this work, I have developed my choreography inside the framework such relations suggest.
Apollo in the ballet
In Greek mythology, Apollo was one of the most important gods. He was the son of Zeus (leader of all the gods) and Leto (daughter of two Titans). When Zeus’s wife Hera found out about the pregnancy, she made all possible birthing places inaccessible to Leto, except a floating island—which was portrayed in Balanchine’s ballet as a platform reached by a stairway. Leto originally was on top of the platform; the young Apollo underneath, his upper body in swaddling.
Apollo came to be considered the patron god of music and poetry. In the ballet we see his youthful initiation into these arts by two Muses, along with Terpsichore for dance. He has a long solo with a kithara—an early stringed instrument, focusing on his coming patronage of all music. However, the god is most frequently thought of in connection with the sun. There is a wonderful symbol of that in the ballet, with the Muses positioned like horses and Apollo behind as if in a chariot ready to cross the sky just as the real sun does.
Over the course of many years, Balanchine’s Apollo saw many revisions, with a streamlining of the libretto, the scenery, and the costumes. You can see old b & w films of some of these, notably one danced by Jacques d’Amboise, and in the later film Baryshnikov Dances Balanchine, you can see how not only Leto but even the staircase is gone.
The core idea remained, however, only becoming more accentuated. The young god has a lot to learn, with the help of three Muses: Calliope (symbol of poetry and rhythm); Polyhymnia (mime); and Terpsichore (poetry and gesture in dance). There are playful dances and various combinations of the characters, with those particularly striking moments when the three Muses are positioned as if they are horses and Apollo the chariot, and when all four characters begin their ascent up the staircase to Parnassus. The ballet ends with a musical restatement of the theme from the ballet’s beginning, with all four dancers silhouetted as they remain motionless on the staircase.
After Balanchine moved to New York, he cast some leading male dancers who gave memorable—but differing—performances. The first was Lew Christensen, who performed the work with the American Ballet, at the Metropolitan Opera House. Later, with New York City Ballet, the leading male dancers included Jacques d’Amboise (who notably gave the most performances over many years); André Eglevsky, Edward Villella, Ib Andersen, Peter Martins, Peter Boal, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. When this last dancer, the Russian superstar, was to perform, Balanchine trimmed the prologue and a male variation allegedly because he did not want audience attention to focus on the dancer’s technique instead of on the flow of the choreographed dance itself. Stravinsky was angry about these cuts, because the music at the ballet’s beginning returns at the end, and he felt strongly that the conclusion didn’t make sense without the beginning reference being there. The omitted sections were later reinstated.
Jacques d’Amboise wrote of his own experience in his published memoir:
Apollo had become legendary; every male dancer wanted to star in it. When I was twenty-three, Balanchine revived it for me. It would be the turning point in my life as a dancer.
This dancer’s memoir also includes reproductions of his drawings showing the evolution of the sets for Apollo. The Ballets Russes production had begun with a small hill symbolizing the way that Apollo would ascend to Mount Olympus, and originally his birth was shown symbolically. In a DVD of Jacques d’Amboise and the New York City Ballet, you can see Apollo being literally unwrapped after birth, and the scenery was minimized to being a staircase. By the time Peter Martins was cast in the role, the look was even sparser.
Although Stravinsky had originally envisioned harp and piano as part of the orchestra, he scored Apollo for strings alone because there was no room for the larger instruments in the pit at the Library of Congress. The string sections were divided to play the additional melodic and harmonic lines that the composer wanted. Overall, the music is sparse and arresting from the very first chords, and the sounds heralded a distinct departure from Stravinsky’s former rich style of orchestration heard in his earlier Russian ballets for Diaghilev’s company. This new style (actually introduced in the composer’s earlier works such as Pulcinella and the Octet) came to be described as “neoclassic,” and it was the path that Stravinsky followed for many years in both concert music and ballets.
Writing about the score to Apollo, Baird Hastings offered this high praise:
Purely as music this thirty-minute masterpiece is one of the most beautiful works of the twentieth century. As ballet its place is assured; in this most ephemeral of the arts it is likely to last as long as there are dancers to perform it….Stravinsky realized that Balanchine not only had the professional expertise to train his dancers to execute his visions, he had a technical training in music that enabled him truly to understand Stravinsky’s musical ideas and their gestation.
In the recent book Stravinsky and Balanchine, musicologist Charles M. Joseph wrote: “Like the myth itself, Apollo engenders a transcendental beauty that touches the core of our spirit in ways that are at once personal and universal.” Introducing his chapter on this ballet, the writer commented:
Apollon Musagète embodies the essence of classicism. At one level, the ballet is an achievement of sheer visual beauty, asking little beyond what our senses instantly tell us. At another, the work’s lyrical music and classically steeped dancing represent the purest of Stravinsky and Balanchine’s neoclassic masterpieces.
In his detailed study, Professor Joseph charted rhythmic permutations found in Apollo, basing his analysis in part on his unusual access to the composer’s original manuscripts and sketchbooks now held in Switzerland. In a non-technical summary, he suggested:
Apollo was not “spun out” in some uninterrupted linear procedure. The compositional process generally followed three distinct phases: the composer first made a central point, such as a particular melodic or rhythmic idea that would serve as the principal idea for a section; next he developed the materials, often times by subtle variations; then he composed “around” the passage, writing additional music that functions in either a preparatory of compensatory fashion. Each layer of this tripartite gesture is composed and timed separately.
Sometimes the composer is quite tentative in determining the overall sequence of musical events. At times he will circle two or three measures to be transferred, or add the Russian word for insert with arrows pointing the way, or remark in the sketches that he has found “the solution,” further demonstrating his efforts to determine the best order for the passage.
The ten sections of the ballet move along without interruption, but the musical variety marks different dances. The first arresting theme is a grand dotted-note statement, very reminiscent of the opening of “French overtures” heard in the courts of Louis XIX when Lully was composing. The second part introduces an unaccompanied violin solo that certainly suggests the bewilderment of the young god. Next, when the Muses enter, there is a beautiful melody, and contrapuntal lines in all the strings bring that dotted rhythm to life again. Calliope (Muse of poetry) also dances to another dotted rhythm, and Polyhymnia (Muse of mime) has a broader theme, but still dotted, then fast light running notes. Terpsichore has yet another dotted motif. But then, unmistakably, there are grand chords in a declamatory way to announce Apollo’s variation. He does a pas de deux with Terpsichore, Muse of dance, to a lovely melody. Finally comes a grand introduction for the coda with all four dancers. There is a reintroduction of the original theme, and as the strings ascend in pitch, so too the dancers ascend the staircase towards Olympus.
Offering a suggestion of how Stravinsky’s hand-notated manuscripts mirrored the clarity of the music’s construction and neoclassic textures, a former music critic of The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, commented:
Everything about Stravinsky pointed to an intellectual tidiness, and that included his work habits. Those were tidy to the point of compulsion. In 1916, the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz, who was working with Stravinsky on L’Histoire du soldat, looked at Stravinsky’s work table and marveled:
“Stravinsky’s scores are magnificent. He is above all (in all matters and in every sense of the word a calligrapher….His writing desk resembled a surgeon’s instrument case. Bottles of different colored inks in their ordered hierarchy each had a separate part to play in the ordering of his art. Near at hand were india-rubbers of various kinds and shapes, and all sorts of glittering steel implements: rulers, erasers, pen-knives, and a roulette instrument for drawing staves, invented by Stravinsky himself. One was reminded of the definition of St. Thomas: beauty is the splendor of order. All of the large pages of the score were filled with writing in different colored inks—blue, green, red, two kinds of black (ordinary and Chinese), each having its purpose, its meaning, its special use: one for the notes, another the text, a third the translation; one for titles, another for the musical directions. Meanwhile the bar lines were ruled, and the mistakes carefully erased.”
notes and explorations:
Miniature score to Apollon musagète, Boosey & Hawkes, the revised version of 1947.
The quotations are from S. L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929, pp. 248-49.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leto Greek mythology about Apollo’s mother.
George Balanchine quotation, from “The Dance Element in Stravinsky’s Music” in Minna Lederman, editor, Stravinsky in the Theatre (New York: Da Capo Press: 1975 republication of the work first published in 1949 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) pp. 81-82.
“Apollo (The Apollo of Madison Square Garden)” in Jacques d’Amboise’s delightful and informative memoir, I Was A Dancer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) The quotation is from p. 181. The drawings which d’Amboise did of the sets for Apollo are on pp. 188-89.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvNpSQJxQ20 Interview in 2016 with Jacques d’Amboise about his experience with Apollo; led by noted dance critic Alastair Macaulay. The dancer shares most unusual observations in detail.
The quotation from Baird Hastings is from Choreographer and Composer: Theatrical Dance and Music in Western Culture (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983) p.129.
The praise from Charles M. Joseph is from Stravinsky and Balanchine: a Journey of Invention (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) p. 123. The summary of analysis is from p. 103. For readers who want considerable more detail there is chapter 4: “From Delos to Paris: The Voyage of Apollo, pp. 73-93, and chapter 5, “The Evolution of Apollo: Poetry, Musical Architecture, and Choreographic Equilibrium,” pp. 94-123. Also see Joseph’s book Stravinsky’s Ballets, with his exceptional way of weaving in pertinent information on world events, artists’ careers, personal relations, religious and other feelings as they were related specifically to this score.
The quotation about Stravinsky’s work habits is from Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, third edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 revision of work originally published in 1970) p. 486. No attribution given for quotation from Ramuz, but in Minna Lederman’s book Stravinsky in the Theatre [p. 124] there is a different translation, by Dollie Pierre Chareau, from the 1917 essay by Ramuz, as published in Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky, 1946, Mermod Switzerland.
Canadian television broadcast a complete performance of Apollo starring Jacques d’Amboise, in 1960, in black and white. It can be seen on a Video Arts international DVD issued in 2014. Included on the DVD for interesting comparison is the coda filmed three years later, in color for Bell Telephone Hour. (Vol. 5). John Clifford mounted the Canadian film on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFJRt1DVa0I It has the original section of birth of Apollo, with the music that comes back at the very end to signal the moment that the young god realizes he is being summoned to climb to Mount Olympus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXj7yqSR2I0 the 1963 color film.
Mikhail Baryshnikov comments about Apollo in 1989 and then performs, along with ABT dancers Christine Dunham, Stephanie Saland, and Leslie Browne. Begins with Apollo playing his instrument. Ends with group profile (no staircase). While you are on this link, also enjoy Baryshnikov with Dunham, Browne, and Deidre Carberry in Balanchine’s Who Cares (music by George Gershwin, arranged Hershy Kay, with Paul Connelly conducting Danish Radio Concert Orchestra).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kr00uM_Z-A Paris Opera Ballet version with Mathieu Ganio. As with the Baryshnikov films, begins with Apollo solo with instrument; ends with pose for four, but no staircase. Excellent film.
There are a number of CD recordings of Apollo. Among these, Stravinsky’s long-time colleague Robert Craft conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in 1995, now on a Naxos compilation that includes Agon and Orpheus, under the title Three Greek Ballets.
SONY Classical has Apollo available on Vol. 2 of their recordings of Stravinsky conducting his own ballets.
The affinity that George Balanchine (1904-1983) had with Stravinsky’s neoclassic works undoubtedly sprang from his understanding of musical details. In Russia, the choreographer had training in classical dance and performed onstage from a young age. But he also studied music at the Conservatory in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and could follow scores and play them at the piano.
In Russia, Balanchine had choreographed a production of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella in 1920. (He was to mount his new version many years later with the New York City Ballet.) In 1924 Balanchine left Russia forever and was fortunate in becoming Diaghilev’s last ballet master, creating in all ten ballets for the Ballets Russes, including Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol. But it was the 1928 dance then titled Apollon Musagète that almost instantly became a landmark.
It is interesting to read what the young Balanchine (then only 27) told Dance Journal in 1931 concerning his thoughts on using music, and on teaching his dancers. This was reprinted by Cyril W. Beaumont in his Complete Book of Ballets. It is worth our attention now, because Balanchine’s statements seem to summarize the way he continued to work during his long career, and his remarks here were echoed by his dancers who told of their experiences many years later.
It is pertinent to point out that only four scores were commissioned from Stravinsky specifically for Balanchine to choreograph. The other Stravinsky compositions set by Balanchine were mostly written as concert works, therefore already complete when the choreographer set to work with his dancers. Balanchine spoke of working both ways in regard to music:
When I am about to produce a ballet I approach the task in one of two ways; either I begin with the idea and then look for suitable music, or I hear a certain piece of music which inspires me with an idea.
In the first case, I much prefer to have the music specially written for me; and to be in constant touch with the composer while he is writing it. I must be able to convey to him exactly what I require, so that the music accords with my action and harmonizes with my movements. In the second case, I familiarize myself with the music and try to fathom what the composer had in mind when writing it, or endeavor to conceive a theme which will harmonize with the mood of the music.
Before beginning any rehearsals I map out an outline of the ballet and the general scheme of the action. I never arrange any of the dances or movements until I am actually rehearsing the artists….I do not discuss the ballet with my dancers.
When I start to rehearse I do not even tell them the plot or anything about the ballet….My dancers do not know what they will have to do, or what the characters they will be called upon to portray.
I have no fixed method or procedure. Sometimes I arrange the end of the ballet first; sometimes I commence in the middle. I have the outline in my head—I never make notes—and then I work out every movement, showing each dancer what he or she must do to the slightest movement, and I expect everyone to copy me in the smallest detail.
…I must make them see a movement as I see it, as if they saw it through my eyes. I do not tell them what they have to portray in the roles, because that would prejudice their conception of them. I make them drop naturally into their parts, so that they gradually come to live them. Nothing is left either to principals or corps de ballet to do for themselves; I show them every tiny movement and the least mimetic action; and I count every step.
From 1957 to the late 1970s, Jacques d’Amboise danced the role of Apollo around the world, and also staged the ballet. In his memoir he wrote about being on the receiving end of the choreographer’s teaching:
Whenever Apollo was staged, Balanchine would coach, refine, and demonstrate. He loved dancing every part himself….Balanchine was beautiful to watch. In the course of the next twenty years dancing the role, I received more time and guidance from him than Lifar or anyone else….Balanchine would demonstrate and all paled in comparison. He wrung tears from your heart.
And offering an emotional response to both Apollo and Agon, concerning 1957 performances, when one was done in revival as the other was being premiered, d’Amboise observed:
The serenity of the music and purity of the choreography brings Apollo, in his apotheosis, into the sunlit sky. It was a perfect prelude to Agon, itself stark, etched in black and white. The new Apollo seemed thoroughly modern, as if the thirty years since its creation had vanished with the snap of a finger.
notes and explorations:
The long quotation from Dance Journal is condensed a bit, taken from Cyril W. Beaumont, Complete Book of Ballets (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938), 792-93.
Jacques d’Amboise’s comments are from his memoir I Was a Dancer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) pp. 181, 191.
Understandably George Balanchine had a lot to say about Apollo in the book done with Francis Mason. (Balanchine’s Complete Book of the Ballets, 1977 edition) pp. 22-28. The authors give a warmly emotional account of the action, the costumes, lighting, the poses and specific dance steps, with descriptive characterizations of the music at certain points. They go on to quote Stravinsky’s pleased reaction to the premiere, and offer a later evaluation by Lincoln Kirstein in relation to classical traditions in ballet.
About Balanchine’s description of how he choreographed every little detail: that was perhaps accurate as he saw things earlier in his career. A number of his dancers later on have described their being expected to add some small linking sections—for instance, as told by Bettijane Sills in her lovely memoir written with Elizabeth McPherson, Broadway, Balanchine and Beyond (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2019). Sills tells the story of her unusual childhood as a child actress on Broadway, how she became a dancer, joining New York City Ballet as a corps member, afterwards as soloist, and later as teacher at Purchase College and her mountings of Balanchine ballets. In her final thoughts, she considered the 1960s as the “golden years” of New York City Ballet.
Another book recounting those “golden years” in detail and a childhood in Hollywood show business is the memoir by John Clifford, Balanchine’s Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back (University Press of Florida, 2021). He offers an account of his experiences as dancer with New York City Ballet (1966-74) and choreographing his first of eight ballets for the company at age 20, later going on to stage Balanchine’s ballets on other companies for 50 years, and his decade with his own company in Los Angeles. Early on, Clifford was being groomed by George Balanchine to be a ballet master and was close to him personally, with Balanchine as a father figure in addition to being mentor.
https://www.youtube.com/user/jcliff26/videos John Clifford’s You Tube channel mountings, include his December 2021 choreography for students of Portland Ballet, of A Christmas Carol, and several “chats” about his book and experiences with New York City Ballet. In one 2018 chat he offers observations on Balanchine and Music—including the comment that he felt Balanchine created new melodic lines in what the dancers did. His You Tube connection also offers videos of his own choreography, (including the unusual Sitar Concerto), some clips of his youthful performing, and excerpts of other dancers that he finds noteworthy. He even shares a film of himself doing a barre in January 2021 during the pandemic.
Also recommended is Jacques d’Amboise’s autobiography I Was a Dancer (Alfred A. Knopf 2011). He was trained at SAB (School of American Ballet, associated with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet) and then went on to perform with the company professionally for decades. He offered many insights into Balanchine’s technique and methods. (See this website’s chapter 17 for more.)
Going back further in Balanchine’s world is the autobiography of Maria Tallchief (1925-2013) the first prima ballerina with the company, and for a time Balanchine’s wife. Born in Oklahoma, her heritage was Osage on her father’s side, and Scottish-Irish on the side of her Kansas-born mother. She had double talent with music, and even wondered about a career as a concert pianist. The book co-written with Larry Kaplan, is Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (Henry Holt, 1997) offers throughout many first-hand accounts of how Balanchine would work with his dancers—not only those in leading roles, but also the corps and children.
Tallchief considered Firebird her biggest success among the roles that Balanchine choreographed on her. But (p. 322) the critic Arlene Croce also observed:
Tallchief was also Balanchine’s Odette, his Sugar Plum, his Sylphide, his Raymonda. She was “woman in ballet,” and she became herself the ballerina archetype of her generation.
The entire book is highly recommended. Here is a taste of Maria Tallchief’s comments concerning Balanchine’s use of music (p. 39):
George was choreographing a formal ballet to selections from the Grieg Piano Concerto for Song of Norway’s final curtain….the Concerto was familiar to me, and the way George was using it was remarkable. He was the first choreographer in my experience who approached a score like a musician. He had the same steps and vocabulary of movement to work with as everyone else, but he broke down the inherent rhythm of the music to make the steps more exciting. It is this element of phrasing—the way the dynamics of a step relates to the tempo of the music—that makes the dance fit the score so beautifully. When I saw what he had done, I was astonished. Everything seemed so simple yet perfect: An elegant ballet fell into place before my eyes. The musicality of the man was magical.
For a brief summary of Tallchief’s life and career, see this 1993 obituary https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/arts/dance/maria-tallchief-brilliant-ballerina-dies-at-88.html
https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-xpm-2013-04-12-ct-ent-0413-tallchief-obit-20130413-story.htmlAnother obituary, with a lovely photo of Maria Tallchief in older age, and information about her work with ballet in Chicago.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cHNnwPnu78 In 1999 Jordan Levin interviewed Maria Tallchief for the Balanchine Foundation. Very brief excerpt, but they do talk a bit about Balanchine’s procedures.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvT4zgNt3jo Another interview, with Francis Mason and Nancy Reynolds, when Tallchief was coaching a revival of Scotch Symphony. She emphasized how Balanchine would choreograph to bring out specific talents of each dancer comfortably, and how he demonstrated rather than talking about what he wanted. Again, filmed for the Balanchine Foundation.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqQz1JPLDgw another 1995 interview, with Nancy Reynolds and Arlene Croce, discussing Pas de Dix (Raymonda variations). Enough physical details to suggest Balanchine’s style and musicality.
Unfortunately, there seem to be only a few old black and white brief clips on You Tube of Tallchief performing. Just do a google search.
There is one DVD compilation of some of the ballerina’s performances: The Art of Maria Tallchief, issued in 2003 by Video Arts International. It offers color films from the Bell Telephone Hour programs, from the early days of TV. Pretty clear filming for the times. Included are: Balanchine’s setting of the Adagio from Scotch Symphony (Mendelssohn) with André Eglevsky; the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote (Minkus, ch. of Petipa) with Erik Bruhn; pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano (Halsted and Pauli, ch. Bruhn after Bournonville) with Rudolf Nureyev; Allegro brillante(Tchaikovsky 3rd piano concerto, ch. Balanchine) with Nicholas Magallanes; and the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev, ch. John Butler) with Conrad Ludlow. Donald Voorhees conducted the “Bell Telephone Orchestra.”
The other half of the above DVD is in black and white, from telecasts by Radio-Canada from 1954 to 1967, orchestra conducted by Jean Deslauriers. Included is the pas de deux from Les Sylphides (Chopin, ch. Fokine) with partnering by Royes Fernandez; Pas de dix (Glazunov; ch. Balanchine after Petipa) with André Eglevsky; and scenes from Act II of Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky, ch. Balanchine after Ivanov), also partnered by Eglevsky.
Finally, many insights about Balanchine’s procedures can be found throughout the autobiographical account of the dancing career of Suzanne Farrell, Holding On to the Air (Written with Toni Bentley; University of Florida Press 2002 paperback republication of the work first published by Summit Books in 1990). Farrell, cited over and over for her musicality, was Balanchine’s last muse, joining New York City Ballet as a young teenager and quickly rising in the ranks to be cast in many leading roles until her retirement in 1989. She also danced with the company of Maurice Béjart for six years, and went on to teach and to form her own company which performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In her very personal memoir, she touches upon physical and musical aspects in both the preparations and performances of specific ballets. Among the interesting observations is her account in the final chapter, of being the one to mount Balanchine ballets in Russia, and her discussion with a former prima ballerina there concerning the differences between the Russian approach and that of Balanchine in regard to both expression and technique.
For the same life story told directly and including performance clips, see the 1996 documentary film nominated for an Academy Award, Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse, available on Winstar DVD.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JyT_XxMqhA The 2014 Kennedy Center Honor Awards hosted by her frequent New York City Ballet partner Jacques d’Amboise includes a brief video biography of Suzanne Farrell and performance by her own company in Divertimento 15 to music by Mozart, staging of work originally choreographed by Balanchine.
more about George Balanchine:
For readers who want to explore further, the following resources are suggested.
Balanchine a Kultur DVD. A documentary first seen on PBS American Masters series. Follows his life and career, with clips from Apollo, Agon, and other ballets. 156 minutes. Highly recommended.
ht tps://www.nycballet.com/Explore/Our-History/George-Balanchine.aspx New York City Ballet’s website has a good succinct biography, beginning with this paragraph which emphasizes the choreographer’s considerable musical training:
George Balanchine, regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet, came to the United States in late 1933 following an early career throughout Europe. The son of a composer, Balanchine early in life gained a knowledge of music that far exceeds that of most of his fellow choreographers. He began studying the piano at the age of five and following his graduation in 1921, from the Imperial Ballet School (the St. Petersburg academy where he had started his dance studies at the age of nine), he enrolled in the state’s Conservatory of Music, where he studied piano and musical theory, including composition, harmony and counterpoint, for three years. Such extensive musical training made it possible for Balanchine as a choreographer to communicate with a composer of such stature as Igor Stravinsky; the training also gave Balanchine the ability to reduce orchestral scores on the piano, an invaluable aid in translating music into dance.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd9R9S6-9E4 New York City Ballet performing Serenade, to music by Tchaikovsky– Balanchine’s first ballet done in the U.S. (in White Plains, NY). The only DVD is in b&w: V. 1 of the VAI series in Montreal. Includes a 1960 performance of Orpheus as Balanchine set it to music by Stravinsky.
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/abe626f0-ef93-0133-df89-60f81dd2b63c The PBS Dance in America films are not available on DVD, but one place you can see digital copy of Serenade is the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, onsite.
An excellent overview of Balanchine’s life and work is in the entry by Arlene Croce in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, V. 1 pp. 255-273. Among the details she provides is the fact that early in life, Balanchine worked as a pianist accompanying dance classes and performances, and in movie theaters as well. She went on to call him “a musician’s choreographer,” with many specific descriptions.
Bernard Taper, Balanchine: A Biography (University of California Press, updated paperback editions since 1996; first published by Times Books, 1984). Appendix includes chronological list of the choreographer’s ballets. This is the one book to read! The author originally watched Balanchine working with his dancers in the studio for six weeks before they had a conversation. Then followed six years during which he had many unique conversations and watched the rehearsals for 29 new ballets. The resulting biography is an engaging account of Balanchine’s life and work. Also includes information on his will and the Balanchine Trust. Highly recommended!
George Balanchine and Francis Mason, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Revised and enlarged edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1977). Still available used. The writer Francis Mason was the main author and researcher, but this edition has an essay titled “How I became a dancer and choreographer” plus many sections throughout in which Balanchine’s experience and voice are clearly reported.
https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/arts/dance/27mason.html Obituary of Francis Mason, written by Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times.
Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalog of Works (New York: Viking; updated publication, Eakins Press 1984). With casts and other information.
Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, edited by Sean Yule (University of Florida Press, 2006). Illustrated explanations by one of Balanchine’s leading artist teachers.
Robert Gottlieb, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (New York: Harper Collins 2004). A very accessible brief introduction to the life and career of Balanchine, Because the author was focusing on specific people and the challenges of developing an ongoing professional company, there is really no exploration of the music, except to mention repertoire titles. Gottlieb was for many years a member of the board of directors for New York City Ballet, and so he had close contact with the choreographer as well as Lincoln Kirstein and other important figures. Also offered information from then-unpublished memoirs of some of the dancers.
Even if you have already read other biographies of George Balanchine, this most recent volume is highly recommended. Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century (New York: Random House, November 2022). The author not only chronicles the choreographer’s career, but also provides information about his childhood and training in both ballet and music during horrendous times of war and revolution in Russia. Drawing from both published and unpublished writings as well from her own extensive interviews, she offers a fresh and selective account that is very readable for all. Highlighted are profiles of key people in Balanchine’s life and art, including Lincoln Kirstein (whose determination and financial backing were so pivotal in the founding of New York City Ballet). There is also information about the dire health concerns that Balanchine faced: nearly fatal TB, heart bypass, and at the very end, devastating effects of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Her reminders of turbulent times frame her detailing of New York City Ballet’s precarious beginnings. The author herself had technical training at SAB and danced professionally with Pacific Northwest Ballet. She devoted ten years to this book!
Homans mentions her intentional lack of analysis about musical aspects and suggests Stephanie Jordan’s writing. [See Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in Twentieth-Century Ballet (London: Dance Books, 2000.) Chapters 1 & 2 offer a general introduction to music theory and analysis in relation to ballet. Chapter 3 offers a focus on Balanchine’s ballets.] Despite Homans’ disclaimer, nevertheless there are passages in her own book that do provide insights about the relation of the dance movements to music. Additionally, coming from an experienced ballet dancer, her descriptions of preparations and performances of selected Balanchine ballets are especially riveting.
She suggests that comments published under Balanchine’s name in 1947 didn’t convey the best idea of how he worked. [See p. 249]:
George’s original piecemeal notes, neatly filed and never published, are the only surviving evidence we have in his own hand of how he thought about making dances. They show a self-consciously analytic and philosophical, if idiosyncratic and religious, mind and a man engrossed in the relationship between dance, time, and God.
Homans goes on to give us some excerpts from Balanchine’s thoughts about “eternal time,” how we measure time, how dance can show the passage of time, and what “materials” go into dance. Along the way, the author stresses music as the choreographer’s most vital source, and describes both his attraction to American jazz and his work for Broadway and Hollywood. Summing up Balanchine’s merging of the two arts which he had mastered, Homans wrote:
The point was not to mimic or paint the music with movement but to range through it, matching, contradicting, displacing, anticipating musical motifs and themes in unexpected ways. He was building a counterscore, intricately bound to the original. [p. 316]
For a favorable review by Dwight Garner that will give you a longer overview of Homans’ book, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/31/books/jennifer-homans-george-balanchine.html
For another overview, here is link to John M. Clum’s review for the New York Journal of Books at https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/mr-b-george-balanchines-20th-century He includes some unflinching remarks about Balanchine’s coercive and cultish power relationships with his women dancers, as reported by Homans.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tSV-MlrP4E This is a video from Jennifer Homans’ interview event at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, after the publication of her biography. Conversation with Pamela Newkirk.
Among the sources from which Homans drew concerning the choreographer’s early years in Russia is another recommended book: Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). The “lost muse” was Lidia Ivanova, a school classmate and friend who died mysteriously in 1924 just before she had planned to travel out of Russia with Balanchine and other dancers of his “Young Ballet” group hopefully for touring performances, supported by the former opera singer Vladimir Dmitriev. (The dancers who did leave with Balanchine were his wife Tamara Geva, along with Alexandra Danilova and Nikolai Efimov.)
The true facts about Ivanova’s death were never discovered, but the author presents a great deal of documented information that she located about the family and early childhood of George Balanchine: how his mother won the lottery, how his father (a recognized musician from the country of Georgia) frittered that fortune away with bad investments; how his mother enrolled him at age 9 in the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg; what the training was like there; and most horrifying, how the school was threatened and closed during the 1917 revolution, then reopened under the Bolsheviks after their 1918 takeover. The author interviewed George Balanchine personally in 1981, but drew on many sources in Russian to remind us of the deprivations, deaths, and repressions suffered in St. Petersburg during World War I and the Russian revolutions. She also informs us of the changing aesthetic tastes and economic challenges in the artistic world during the time of the Soviet New Economic Policy.
Perhaps of most interest in Kendall’s chronicle is the story of how (when he was given only minor roles as a performer) Balanchine turned to choreography in 1923 after his completion of ballet training—and how rather quickly he became applauded around St. Petersburg for this talent of making dances for other performers. His earliest ballets were set to existing music by European composers of classical music, performed on piano alone.
Trained also in piano, composition, theory, and orchestration at the Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg, Balanchine depended on his musical skills to support himself during harsh times. For a number of years he accompanied ballet classes three hours a day. Additionally, he accompanied his Young Ballet colleagues in both concert performances and appearances at cabarets and nightclubs.
As the author stresses: “What made the friends unusual was not just their rebelliousness but their simultaneous reverence for old art.” [p. 181.] She goes on to comment [p. 207]:
Young Balanchivadze wasn’t a Bolshevik; deep down he was still the boy drawn to the rituals of the Orthodox Church. But in the winter of 1923-24, as he approached twenty, he was alight with new ideas, part of an adventurous group of youth just like him. Culturally, they lived almost in an idyll. Russia hadn’t yet closed in on itself. The vision hadn’t faded of a vibrant Bolshevik arts milieu in dialogue with the rest of the West….
By the winter of 1923-24, Georges had become the city’s go-to guy for new choreography, or one of them. As always, though, the pull towards experiment was mixed in his psyche with loyalty to the ballet traditions he’d trained in.
When the small group of young dancers left on their European trip, they went first to Berlin then London and found difficulty in finding suitable artistic work. But in Paris, everything changed when Diaghilev auditioned the dancers and immediately hired them to join the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo starting in 1925. Kendall gives us information about specific ballets that Balanchine created: “all with different music by various modernist composers.” [p. 231.] She leads us up to Stravinsky’s Apollo, the seminal work from which Balanchine’s subsequent career took off—as described in this website’s essay above.
https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/books/balanchine-the-lost-muse-by-elizabeth-kendall.html Review by Claudia La Rocca while sympathetic, also points out some of the areas of conjecture or missing information.
https://newrepublic.com/article/116171/george-balanchine-elizabeth-kendalls-biography-explains-his-contextMuch longer review, both praises the book and acknowledges its shortcomings because of information not available now.
Both these volumes offer many insights into the cultivating traditions that influenced Balanchine’s life-long tastes in music as well as his practical procedures of creating dances. Though Petipa was already gone, yet as a young student Balanchine danced small parts in many performances of that leading choreographer’s works. The progressive style of Fokine also became an indelible part of Balanchine’s development and attitudes as an artist. Additionally, there was the unusual and not well-received setting by Fedor Lopukhov, of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony—with the ballet movements then newly titled “Life in Death and Death in Life, Thermal Energy, The Joy of Existence, and Eternal Movement.” As Kendall commented (p. 177):
At the very least Tanz Symphonia gave its participants, especially Balanchivadze, a switch in perspective they might not have encountered without it. Balanchine’s later ballets turn on this belief that energy patterns can trump narrative in dance construction….Watching Lopukhov earnestly plotting dance onto his precious orchestral scores, Georges might have seen that he could do that too, but without the fuss.
Jeu de Cartes (Card Game)
What’s the big deal? Well, first of all, this Igor Stravinksy score was one of only four that were specifically commissioned for George Balanchine to choreograph. (The others were Circus Polka in 1942; Orpheus in 1948; and Agon in 1957). Jeu de Cartes was funded by Edward Warburg for the American Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein the go-between, and first presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1937 with the composer conducting. In 1940 it also had a production by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Stravinsky himself had devised the “book,” along with some input from Nikita Malaieff (a friend of the composer’s son). The composer had actually written much of this music before the commission was offered, and Balanchine apparently had conceived much of the choreography before Stravinsky arrived to witness the studio rehearsals with dancers.
The theme is a poker card game in three hands. Balanchine explained:
The characters in this ballet represent the cards. There are 26 cards for the whole ballet, representing portions of the four suits, plus the joker. Fifteen of these cards—one always the joker—are dealt out to make up three separate hands of poker for each of the scenes in the ballet. The ballet is prefaced by this translation from a poem by La Fontaine:
One should ever struggle against wrongdoers.
Peace, I grant, is perfect in its way,
But what purpose does it serve
With enemies who do not keep faith?
In Card Game, Stravinsky and I attempted to show that the highest cards—the kings, queens, and jacks—in reality have nothing on the other side. They are big people, but they can easily be beaten by small cards.
The score is immediately catchy with a lively fanfare. As it moves along, one might easily recognize a “take-off” on Rossini’s overture to his opera The Barber of Seville. The musicologist Charles M. Joseph attests to a little Ravel and some snatches from other composers as well, but mostly the score sounds like pure Stravinsky in neoclassic style.
After reading Balanchine’s own thoughts about how he usually created his ballets (essentially in rehearsals with the dancers themselves—not before), it seems absolutely astounding to read Lincoln Kirstein’s account of how Stravinsky carried on during the preparations for Jeu de Cartes. One gets the impression that Stravinsky’s attitude was that since he devised the theme and wrote the music, he should also be in charge of the dance! As reported by Kirstein, Stravinsky would show up for rehearsals and stay for six hours. Then:
During successive run-throughs of the ballet he would slap his knee like a metronome for the dancers, then suddenly interrupt everything, rise and, gesticulating rapidly to emphasize his points, suggest a change….
When he writes dance music he literally sees its ultimate visual realization, and when his score is to be achieved in action he is in a position to instruct the choreographer not by suggesting a general atmosphere but with a detailed and exactly plotted plan….
As with the music and dancing, so with the costumes and scenery. Before his arrival we had been attracted by the idea of using a set of medieval playing cards and adapting them in all their subtle color and odd fancy to the stage….Upon seeing the sketches Stravinsky insisted they would place the work in a definite period and evoke a decorative quality not present in his music. He called for the banal colors of a deck of ordinary cards, forms and details so simple as to be immediately recognizable.
The composer seemed to expect that anything that didn’t jibe with his preconceived ideas—whether it had to do with the physical movement of the dancers, casting, scenery, costumes and more—would be changed. How could Balanchine have put up with such things? Normally we think of music being in service to the dance. But was Balanchine, because of his extreme musicality and musical training, more open to Stravinsky’s input than other choreographers might have been? The scholar Charles M. Joseph offered his opinion:
That Balanchine silently internalized at least some modicum of resentment for the composer over the course of a forty-year association seems unsurprising. But without such tolerance, without the forbearance to “accept,” could anyone have enjoyed a successful artistic partnership with the willful composer? Balanchine seemed willing to acquiesce. Surely he must have winced at some of Stravinsky’s suggestions, but from a technical viewpoint at least, he would have had no trouble making balletic alterations quickly. It was the speed with which he choreographed and adjusted that many of his dancers remember most. Nor did he feel the need to fuss over every measure, every gesture, often entrusting his dancers to “make up a little something to fill the time”—an approach as antithetical to Stravinsky’s as one could fathom. It was precisely the foil needed to match an always-punctilious composer who fretted over every detail of every passage.
However, it does seem that Stravinsky was also willing to add or change some of his music during the rehearsal period, and that he would work into the evenings to make things right. Furthermore, Balanchine’s biographer Bernard Taper presents a kinder explanation for how the collaborations went:
Though they had respected each other since the days of Le Chant du Rossignol, the friendship had its real inception when they worked together on the Card Game for the Stravinsky festival at the Met in 1937. As Russian émigrés, schooled in the subtle artistic ferment that was Paris after World War I, and now settled in America, the two men shared a common past as well as a similar outlook and aesthetic. For Balanchine, it was to be the most important personal relationship of his life. Throughout their friendship, it was always Igor Stravinsky, as the elder man (he was, after all, forty-two and Balanchine only twenty when they first met)…who played the dominant role.
That said, the biographer presented a different impression when talking about Balanchine’s viewpoint as the collaborators were working on Orpheus (which was premiered in 1948):
At one point during their plotting of the action the previous summer, Stravinsky came up with suggestions for dance movement. Balanchine replied—firmly, respectfully, cheerfully—“You compose the music. I will do the dancing.”
Taper also reported:
Orpheus was actually the first work that they collaborated on from beginning to end. Kirstein wrote that the Orpheus collaboration was one of the closest in ballet history.
Since information about that ballet was presented in the earlier essay here, on “Orpheus through the Centuries,” the next section will move along to the final ballet collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine: Agon.
notes and explorations:
brief film clips:
Still photo from New York City Ballet showing the costumed dancers in Jeu de Cartes. https://www.nycballet.com/discover/ballet-repertory/jeu-de-cartes/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf2am7over8 A five-minute teaser: Staatstheater Braunschweig excerpt from Jeu de Cartes. No indication of choreographer or version, but one gets a nice impression of the scene and general thrust. One of the main ideas is that the joker can become any card, of course.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG3woM3PP5Y Little more than a minute preview teaser of Alexei Ratmansky’s 2011 version, the section where you will hear the excerpt from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Pennsylvania Ballet.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj4bdWzTMCk This is the London Symphony—audio only—performing Jeu de Cartes with Claudio Abbado conducting.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlrqdMXM0u0 St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra plays overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
There are a number of CDs of Jeu de Cartes available, but listeners seem particularly pleased with the sound quality of the Decca 2-CD set with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and then the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Included are Jeu de Cartes, Sacre, Petrouchka, Apollon Musagète, and the suite from Firebird.
Lincoln Kirstein’s short essay “Working with Stravinsky” is in Minna Lederman, editor, Stravinsky in the Theatre(New York: Da Capo Press, 1975) pp. 136-40. The quotation is from p. 139. The essay was reprinted from Modern Music, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1937.
The first quotation from Bernard Taper: from Balanchine, a Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press: 1996 edition) p. 219. The quotations about 1948 are from pp. 222 and 220.
Charles M. Joseph, Stravinsky and Balanchine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) pp. 139-40 explains how Stravinsky had sketched a work without a clear ballet in mind, and nearly completed it when Lincoln Kirstein approached him about a score for Balanchine. The author examined Stravinsky’s notebooks and has many observations about Jeu de Cartes.
When Igor Stravinsky was 75, he was finishing up his first ballet score to use twelve-tone techniques in some sections. It was to be his last score written for George Balanchine.
Here is a brief explanation of serial 12-tone technique (also called dodecaphony). First of all, in the “equal-tempered tuning” system that we’ve had for several hundred years in Western classical music, there are 12 equally-spaced pitches. If you play the white-black keys on a piano in order for one octave, that’s actually a “tone row.” But you could choose to sound those pitches in any order, and you have made up another “tone row.”
If you are going to play by the invented serial “rules,” you will use up all the pitches in your chosen row before you begin again: same order of pitches every time. You can make them have any rhythm you want, and you can repeat any pitch immediately as many times as you want…but don’t skip any pitch in the right order. Oh—and in a melodic line, you could assign any of the pitch letters to any instrument, and place it in any register, high or low. So your ostensible melodic “line” could sound as if it were jumping all over the place.
You could also play the row backwards (retrograde) or turn it upside down (mirror image or inversion) or transpose the pitches but keep the same interval relationships. You could elongate the timing or make it shorter. Those are pretty much the basic procedures to play around with. Also, by changing rhythms, one can make a tone row sound really jazzy, or classical, or like a hymn. Depends on the dynamics too: if you make some pitches very soft and very fast, they won’t be noticed much…and so you can actually make an avant-garde tone row sound “tonal” in the old-fashioned sense. Needn’t be all strident avant-garde thrusts.
Well, that’s just if you have one melodic line. Now if you are going to have harmony—so the audience hears more than one pitch simultaneously—then you still have to adjust your chords to the “rules.” That means you stick to using up all the tones in your original order, but you can combine them at any time in any chords, and it won’t matter which one is higher or lower just as long as they are played together. That counts just fine.
That’s it! Those procedures give the composer a framework for time and space to fill. Very intellectually challenging, and a departure from centuries of harmonic practice in which there were expected relationships between the pitches, all centered around a feeling for a “home” pitch or “key.”
The composer usually credited with this new system was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). Surprisingly enough, he had also written an excellent textbook on traditional harmony. Some of his concert pieces (both tonal and atonal) became known because of their use in choreography: for instance, his Transfigured Night was famously set by Antony Tudor as Pillar of Fire in 1942. José Limón used Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony for his Exiles in 1950; Robert Joffrey set Pierre Lunaire in 1955. And there are others.
It seems that the serial composer who most intrigued Stravinsky was Anton Webern—whose music was much more sparse than Schoenberg’s—and much shorter. According to the musicologist Charles M. Joseph:
…as Stravinsky’s archives establish, he often studied the Viennese composer’s scores, circling printing errors, tracing tone rows, marking passages of interest in red. He quickly became absorbed in the principles of serialism and dodecaphony….
Stravinsky’s conversion to dodecaphony was not only jolting; it was remarkably fresh and facile. He assimilated the technique deftly. From the coda to the end, with the exception of the work’s final, non-twelve-tone music, which is reprised to create a cohesive closure, Agon becomes a dodecaphonic composition.
While he was working on his score, Stravinsky was also exploring Renaissance forms of dance, and some of the sections of the music bear these headings: Sarabande, Galliard, Branle Simple. But don’t look for any dance movement that smacks of formal Renaissance courts. As Balanchine commented in his book of stories, the only thing “French” about the dances was the seventeenth-century dance manual that had been Stravinsky’s point of departure; and the only thing “Greek” about the dance is its name. Balanchine was right about our not being able to see anything “French” about these dances. But as far as the inspiration to the composer was involved, Stravinsky did seem to have been learning a great deal about Renaissance dances at the time he was creating Agon. This is documented in some detail by Charles M. Joseph in his book Stravinsky and Balanchine. The author points out in particular the rhythmic concerns. The composer’s interest was apparently sparked by Lincoln Kirstein sending him a copy of the 1623 treatise Apologie de la danse by Francois de Lauze. Stravinsky wrote back saying “I am studying it poco a poco”—little by little. But as Professor Joseph observed: “He did more than that: he studied it methodically, although he wouldn’t admit it.”
Professor Joseph was able to visit the Stravinsky archives which had been purchased by the Paul Sacher collection in Switzerland. Especially interesting to read are his descriptions of what he found in Stravinsky’s sketchbooks, which the composer had dated and saved. Professor Joseph was able to ascertain that indeed the ballet score was not composed from beginning to end, but evolved in sections over time, starting in 1953 and completed in 1956. The author also makes a strong case for the inspiration that certain Renaissance pictures of dancers may have had upon Stravinsky’s basic vision for his new work.
When Balanchine was presented with the score resulting from all the composer’s years of thought and writing, he had much to consider. As Professor Joseph suggested:
It is doubtful that even he, outstanding musician that he was, could have fully understood either the complexity of Stravinsky’s rhythmic transformation of the Mersenne [Renaissance] models or the composer’s manipulation of pitch collections. How could he? So deeply encoded was Stravinsky’s intricately woven web of diverse materials that today’s musical analysts continue to argue about how to untangle it. But there is no question that the choreographer was keenly aware of the work’s cryptography. He worked especially hard to decipher its many conundrums; for only by solving them could he, as the musician-choreographer he was, conceive of a synchronous visual complement.
resulting musical sections
The instrumental groupings are distinct and worth mentioning here, as identified by the conductor Robert Craft, who led the first performance, which was a concert for orchestra only in Los Angeles a year before the ballet premiered. The sections are:
Pas de quatre: orchestra except no bassoons or percussion.
Double pas de quatre: flutes, oboe, clarinets, bassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, strings.
Triple pas de quatre: flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, strings.
Prelude: flutes, bassoons, trumpets, harp, timpani, violas, cellos, basses.
Pas de trois, sarabande: violin solo, xylophone, trombones, cellos.
Galliard: flutes, mandolin, harp, piano, timpani, viola, cellos, basses.
Coda: flutes, trumpets, trombones, harp, piano, mandolin, one violin, one cello, one bass.
Interlude (same as Prelude)
Pas de trois, branle simple: flutes, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, harp, piano, strings.
Branle Gay: castanets, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, harp, strings.
Branle de Poitou: flutes, clarinets, bassoons, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, piano, strings.
Interlude, same as Prelude
Pas de deux: strings and violin solo.
–piu mosso: horns, piano, flute.
–L’istesso tempo: flutes, strings.
–refrain: flute, horns, piano.
-coda: trumpet, trombone, harp, piano, timpani, violins, violas, cellos.
–doppio lento: mandolin, harp, timpani, violin, cello.
–quasi stretto: horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, piano, strings.
Coda—same as pas de quatre
Four duos: violas, cellos, basses, trombones.
Four trios: violins, violas, cellos, basses, horns, trumpets, trombones.
the ballet itself
Another point of interest at the time of the premiere was the casting of the dancers. It is not clear if Balanchine, by pairing the African-American Arthur Mitchell in a long pas-de-deux with Diana Adams, originally intended to make any sociological statement or not. But the fact is that the 1957 ballet Agon was performed without any scenery; the men all wore white shirts and black tights and white shoes; the women, black sleeveless leotards, light colored tights and also white shoes, so the stark color contrast was there too. In the larger public life, U.S. television would not broadcast this dance precisely because of prejudice against seeing a white woman dancing with a black man onstage.
In an appropriately black-and-white film of Agon made from a Canadian telecast in 1960, the host asked Balanchine (in French) what Agon was “about.” “It’s about dance,” the choreographer replied quite simply. On the DVD the original cast is seen performing—including Arthur Mitchell, Diana Adams, Violette Verdy, Todd Bolender, Francia Russell, and Richard Rapp. The music still is not something you go away humming; there are few moments of what you might consider as traditional “melody.” But the use of different instrumental groupings for each of the brief episodes lends diversity in the sounds, and although there are plenty of what the author of the DVD liner notes called “splintered blips and bleeps,” still the way they were set off by Balanchine’s inventive choreography makes everything work.
Onstage the classically-trained dancers in the available DVD present a fascinating mix of pure classical movements and poses, but every now and then most unexpectedly there will be a quirky quick footstep. Or just when you are expecting Arthur Mitchell to let go of Diana Adams and allow her to stand alone in arabesque, lo and behold he, without letting go of hands, slips down on his back, and the duet continues ingeniously.
As Balanchine said so pointedly, it’s a dance about dance. The whole thing is what the dancers do: different groupings of four men and eight women, different poses, different relationships (sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes supporting each other, sometimes in synchronization, sometimes symmetrical, sometimes asymmetrical, sometimes showing off). Indeed, the word agon means contest, and one charming moment of the dance is when two of the competing men face off at the end of their duet, with folded arms: so there! It is easy to also be reminded of childhood games of “knots” where you hold hands, never let go, and see what shapes you can twist and turn into. Particularly in the pas de deux there’s a lot of that, elevated to a professional level.
How did audiences respond to Agon? Well, the esteemed critic Edwin Denby reported: “Some people found the ballet set their teeth on edge.”
Reactions were not always that bad, but at that time, there were many concerts of “new” music, and all too often there seemed to be a sense of sameness partly a result of the lost sense of “home base” that listeners were so accustomed to expecting in concert music. And then there was a new style of melodic lines jumping all over. In the 1950s and ’60s there were many articles written by music critics about how the concert world was losing its audiences because of the sounds being turned out by academic intellectuals (with a lot of the blame being put on serial music). However, some years later when Dance Theatre of Harlem performed an excerpt from Agon for school children, how did the young audience react? Well: with cheers!
Sharing his own first impressions of the music, Balanchine also had words of praise for Agon:
When we received the score, I was excited and pleased and set to work at once. Sounds like these had not been heard before. In his seventy-fifth year Stravinsky had given us another masterpiece. For me it was another enviable chance to respond to the impulse his music gives so precisely and openly to dance.
Music like Stravinsky’s cannot be illustrated; one must try to find a visual equivalent that is a complement rather than an illustration….
I was fascinated by the music, just as I had been fascinated and taught by Stravinsky’s Apollo in the 1920s.
And finally, reflecting further on the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaborations, Professor Joseph commented:
Balanchine was, of course, Stravinsky’s most sympathetic collaborator. Perhaps more than any of the composer’s many collaborators, he understood—and more to the point actually “saw”—what the composer wanted to say. Together they created, or perhaps Balanchine would have preferred “erected,” what the choreographer referred to as “the most perfect ballet.” Agon is justly hailed as a masterpiece of abstraction, of stark, powerful contrasts producing a cohesive, wondrous musical-balletic unity. That the power of this innovative work owes its genesis to sources as distant as the Renaissance is befitting. For in the estimate of both Balanchine and Stravinsky, the pathway to the future could never be separated from the achievements of the past.
notes and explorations:
The 1960 Canadian telecast of Agon is on a Video Artists International DVD, 2014, New York City Ballet in Montreal, Vol. 2. The liner notes were written by Joel Lobenthal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNTvHRlorQw John Clifford mounted a copy of this film. Though not the most clear images, yet it is historically of considerable interest.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud8zVcHPnuM Agon 1993, with Peter Boal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppICC_6yMXo John Clifford mounted this 1984 documentary about Balanchine made for PBS American Masters. 1 hour 54 minutes. Among the many clips are some from Apollo and Agon. The DVD can be purchased on amazon. An extraordinary “must see” film!
It should be noted that Agon was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The miniature score to Agon was published in London by Boosey & Hawkes (copyright 1957) and is still available. If you want to follow along with a recording, there is a good CD on Music Masters Classics: American Stravinsky, The Composer, Vol. IV performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Robert Craft in 1991.
For those who are not familiar with Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018) he was the second African-American dancer to join New York City Ballet (in 1955). Only one year later he was made a principal. Balanchine choreographed the long pas-de-deux in Agon specifically for him, and shamefully it must be reported that although Mitchell danced it in many locations with white ballerinas, U.S. commercial TV did not allow it to be shown until 1968. Arthur Mitchell went on to found a dance school in Harlem with Karel Shook and subsequently to form the stellar Dance Theatre of Harlem company. Among the many awards made to this artist was the United States Medal of the Arts.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Asv8DaYoB90 Arthur Mitchell, interviewed by Anna Kisselgoff, talks about partnering in Agon for Balanchiine.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/19/obituaries/arthur-mitchell-dead.html Obituary of Arthur Mitchell that Jennifer Dunning wrote for The New York Times of Sept. 19, 2018.
Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration by Judy Tyrus (who danced with the company for 22 years) and Paul Novosel, pianist/composer who was a staff pianist for the company as well as assistant archivist (Dafina, an imprint of Kensington Books, October 2021). A highly recommended book that chronicles the challenges and efforts by Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018) and Karel Shook (1920-85) to found this unique ballet company with its affiliated school Many color photos, plus an alphabetical repertoire list that unfortunately does not include musical credits.
https://exhibitions.library.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/mitchell/dance-theatre-of-harlem–compa/repertory-list This is a chronological list of DTH repertory 1969-2004 compliled by Lynn Garafola for an exhibition at Columbia University Library. It includes names of dances plus credits for choreography, music, scenery, costumes; also locations and dates of premieres. Some early ballets choreographed by Arthur Mitchell used music by Duke Ellington, Edvard Grieg, Tania León, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Shostakovich. To see the rather phenomenal range of musical styles used by an equally phenomenal list of choreographers, it is worth scrolling down this list!
What the new book does offer is an informative story of how Dance Theatre of Harlem came to be, rose to international fame, suffered financial difficulties leading to a six-year hiatus, was reorganized, refunded, and since 2010 has been reborn under the direction of former leading ballerina Virginia Johnson. The company was groundbreaking in offering both New York and touring opportunities to dancers of color.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKXMl0XTmPc Walter Rutledge interviews artistic director Virginia Johnson in 2012 about the renewal of Dance Theatre of Harlem performances after long hiatus. Discusses neo-classical ballet styles.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsEASrOhoXc Part 2 of the interview. Touches upon minorities in ballet, changes in views, creating opportunities, and what it is to “embrace diversity.”
Agon was not the first twelve-tone score choreographed by Balanchine. In 1954 he set as Opus 34 the 1930 Schoenberg score Accompaniment to a Motion Picture. The composer titled his sections “Threat; Danger; Fear; Catastrophe.” Described in Edwin Denby’s review in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Dance (New York: Pantheon, 2008) pp 202-206.
For effects of total serialism that included not only pitch but also durations, timbre, intensity, tempo and dynamics, see Harold Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers (New York: Norton, 1997) p. 600: “…the most organized kind of music that ever existed…nevertheless sounded chaotic and disorganized. All that mighty intellectual effort had gone into creating a kind of music that the public, and many professionals too, found incoherent.” And on p. 601: “One serial work tended to sound like any other serial work, no matter its provenance.” Stravinsky, however, did not go that far in Agon. Listeners feel his score still manages to sound like Stravinsky.
The Denby quote is from his essay “Three Sides of Agon” from his collection of essays Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets (New York: Horizon Press, 1965) p. 119. Denby goes on to offer a wonderful and positive description of the ballet.
For a section-by-section description of Agon (including information about the grouping of dancers and the instruments) see Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, pp. 14-15. The brief quotation is from p, 14. And although he acknowledged that he could not read even a piano score, yet Lincoln Kirstein obviously had an attentive ear as an audience member. His book Fifty Ballet Masterworks is a handy reference to have for basic information about when ballets were created and first performed. Both Apollo and Agon are among his choice of top masterworks.
Especially for musicians, heartily recommended is Charles M. Joseph, Stravinsky and Balanchine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). For insight about Agon, see chapter 10. The quotation about the treatise is from p. 230; concerning the serial aspects of Agon, p. 249. The quotation about Balanchine is on p. 259; the final remarks, p. 276.
Adding to his opinions, in his 2011 book Stravinsky’s Ballets, p. 186, the author wrote:
In tracking these internal operations, one begins to discover Balanchine’s coordination of Stravinsky’s score with his choreographic techniques….Balanchine was far too perceptive to illustrate every pitch rotation and every retrograde-inversion with a matching physical gesture. Still, there is no question that he understood the basic compositional principles at work. Armed with that knowledge in a way no other choreographer could be, he fashioned a ballet that would provide a fitting match for the music. It was a choreographic parallel that could be grasped only through understanding the complex interior network of Stravinsky’s intricate score.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_fi_g1XvOA 2012 Interview by Charles Joseph with Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo, about Stravinsky and Balanchine. Mentioned in passing that there were places in Agon duo that were not possible to count. Balanchine suggested they don’t count, just listen for the “blings” that came now and then!
Review by Elizabeth Kendall of Professor Joseph’s book on Stravinsky and Balanchine.
Another pertinent source of information is Robert Craft, Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories (Naxos Books, 2013). Craft, when he was still a student, became immersed in Stravinsky’s music, and after meeting the composer, he was soon organizing the composer’s papers; conducting his works in public performances; writing 23 books (some based on conversations with the composer); living with Igor and Vera Stravinsky in California; and after being of great service to the composer, continuing to share information about this artist and his music; and recording Stravinsky’s complete works.
In this latest volume before the author himself passed on, Craft recounts the originally admiring relationship between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, later progressing to outright animosity. Concerning the twelve-tone system, Schoenberg was quite assertive in maintaining his invention. Craft provides surprising evidence on pp. 9-10, in which Schoenberg expected the author Thomas Mann to give him credit for this “invention” in every copy of his novel Doctor Faustus. (Even though you cannot “own” a musical system; there is no legal copyright or patent for a compositional procedure.)
Robert Craft did illuminate a great deal about the composer’s own working procedures, in his many books of essays. Here is a brief quote (from his 2013 book) he gave in translation from a 1929 article in a Budapest magazine. This was what Stravinsky said then, but it seems that he continued this basic approach throughout his career:
This is the essence of creation: to select the material and then purify it. Usually one problem occupies my mind and I build my work around it. Often I start with technical problems, together with spiritual and philosophical ones which reinforce or develop one another. Frequently a certain grouping of instruments attracts me, and I imagine that I will try to create something with a defined instrumental combination. But I am never in a hurry….Composition begins with an appetite or taste for discovery, and the emotion is borne after the discovery, following rather than preceding the creative process.
Margalit Fox wrote The New York Times obituary of Robert Craft, published Nov. 14, 2015.https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/arts/music/robert-craft-stravinsky-adviser-and-steward-dies-at-92.html
https://www.rcisfoundation.org/ Website for the Robert Craft Igor Stravinsky Foundation, with information about both artists, including biographies, list of recordings, bibliography, other resources. For some of the Naxos recordings, you can click on individual tracks and hear samples.
The British teacher/writer on dance Stephanie Jordan conceived and wrote information for the DVD Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky, which has a major focus on Agon. With dancers and musicians from New York City Ballet. Available for viewing only through limited libraries with permission of the Balanchine Foundation. For locations of library copies go to https://www.worldcat.org/title/music-dances-balanchine-choreographs-stravinsky/oclc/743434183&referer=brief_results
The Stravinsky Festivals
George Balanchine had a long professional and friendly relationship with Igor Stravinsky, setting a total of 39 ballets to the composer’s music. And so after Stravinsky’s death in 1971, New York City Ballet planned a most ambitious tribute. The festival (which took place June 18-25, 1972 at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center) presented 31 ballets choreographed to music by Igor Stravinsky—21 of them brand-new!
Balanchine was not the only choreographer. Works were also created by Jerome Robbins, Richard Tanner, Todd Bolender, John Clifford, John Taras, and Lorca Massine.
Conductors for the New York City Ballet Orchestra were Robert Irving and Hugo Fiorato, and pianists Gordon Boelzner, Jerry Zimmerman, and Madeleine Malraux performed as well as the violin soloist Lamar Alsop. Stravinsky’s long-time associate Robert Craft also conducted several purely musical works.
A charming little volume was published the following year, written and edited by Nancy Goldner with facsimiles of the program pages, brief descriptions of every piece performed, and representative black and white photographs, as well as a selection of review excerpts and some brief remarks culled from the past of Stravinsky, Kirstein, and Balanchine. This book offers an overview—much more than we can cover here, which is going to be simply a list. Notable among the performances was that on the next-to-last evening, Agon was presented—as already discussed, the last personal collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine. Another memorable dance was Pulcinella, jointly choreographed and performed by Balanchine and Robbins as a costumed duet.
Ten years later, the New York City Ballet scheduled another, less ambitious Stravinsky Centennial festival. For that one, the new ballets choreographed by George Balanchine were Tango and the Élegie for solo viola. He also reset his previous choreography for Variations for Orchestra. In all, there were 55 Stravinsky works presented at this festival, eleven of them new. This turned out to be the last ballet activity that Balanchine was able to be involved in.
Ballets presented at the New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival.
World premieres are marked with an *
choreographed by Balanchine:
- Symphony in Three Movements
- Violin Concerto
- *Danses Concertantes
- Divertimentso from Le Baiser de la Fée
- Scherzo a la Russe
- Duo Concertante
- Movements for Piano and Orchestra
- Monumentum Pro Gesualdo
- *Choral Variations on Bach’s “Von Himmel Hoch”
- Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra [Rubies section from Jewels]
Ballets choreographed jointly by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins:
Ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins:
- Scherzo Fantastique
- The Cage
- Circus Polka
- *Dumbarton Oaks
- *Requiem Canticles
By John Taras:
- *Concerto for Piano and Winds
- Ebony Concerto
- Scènes de Ballet
- Song of the Nightingale
By Todd Bolender:
- Serenade in A
- *Piano Rag Music
By Richard Tanner:
- Concerto for Two Solo Pianos
By John Clifford:
- *Symphony in E Flat
By Lorca Massine:
50th anniversary festival
Marking the 50th anniversary of the first Stravinsky festival presented by New York City Ballet, the company offered a two-week celebration in 2022, featuring ballets to music by Stravinsky, with choreography by Balanchine, Robbins, and their current resident artist Justin Peck. In addition, choreographer Silas Farley and composer David K. Israel collaborated for a ballet titled Architects of Time, based on an acrostic birthday poem that Balanchine himself had written (with a little melody too) for Stravinsky. (Farley, a former member of the NYCB corps, is currently dean of dance at The Colburn School in Los Angeles.)
Included in the programs were several works originally choreographed by George Balanchine for the 1972 festival: Symphony in Three Movements, Violin Concerto, and Scherzo à la Russe. The anniversary festival concluded with the three of Balanchine’s “Greek” ballets: Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon (all highlighted in these website essays). Apollo is the oldest ballet by Balanchine in the company’s repertoire, first performed by New York City Ballet in 1951. Orpheus, premiered in 1948, was one of three works commissioned from Stravinsky for Balanchine. Agon, also commissioned, was the last collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine.
The talents of the company’s resident choreographer Justin Peck were brought in for his 2016 setting of Scherzo Fantastique and for Pulcinella Variations. And reviving choreography by Jerome Robbins was his Circus Polka plus the restaging of Firebird that he had done with Balanchine, with designs by Marc Chagall.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/03/arts/dance/silas-farley-stravinsky-festival.html Long article by Roslyn Sulcas about the unusual collaboration between choreographer Silas Farley and composer David K. Israel, for their new ballet Architects of Time, which drew on a poem and melody that Balanchine had written for Stravinsky’s birthday! The title was based on a quotation from Balanchine himself: “Composer is architect of time, and we have to dance to it.”
https://www.vogue.com/slideshow/new-york-city-ballet-spring-gala-2022 This is more of a fashion and society report, with photos, some even of dancers, about the fund-raising gala during the Stravinsky festival. This is among the efforts it takes to keep a ballet company going!
https://www.nycballet.com/discover/ballet-repertory/agon/ Two-minute narration by dancer Maria Kowrowski commenting on clip of pas de deux from Agon in which she dances with Amar Ramasar (in his farewell performance).
https://www.nycballet.com/discover/stories/a-conversation-with-nycbs-music-director/ Transcription of interview that Madelyn Sutton and Mark Winslow had with the conductor Andrew Litton, eliciting his comments about the upcoming Stravinsky festival. April 28, 2022.
https://fjordreview.com/new-york-city-ballet-spring-gala/ The dance writer Marina Harss was among the first to publish a report on the 2022 festival, opening her column by declaring:
The 1972 Stravinsky Festival at New York City Ballet is one of those mythical moments people speak of with glowing tones of wonderment: 30 ballets! 20 premieres!
Going on to comment about the latest festival and the new Farley/Israel ballet she wrote:
The score [by David K. Israel] reflects the dancyness and rhythmic propulsion that are typical of much of Stravinsky, with syncopations and frequent variations in meter. Like Stravinsky, too, it favors clarity and the featuring of single instruments—there is a section dominated by high strings, another by the flute, or the trumpet. But Israel’s language tends to be a little bit richer, friendlier, less spiky, than Stravinsky’s….
[The choreographer Silas] Farley has combined this structure with an intimate knowledge of the company, and of its style. “Architects of Time” is fluid and fluent, with an elegant sense of space and the way bodies travel through it. Often the dancers are part of a fluidly-moving maelstrom, from which they peel away, alone or in smaller groups. It is not unusual to see several clusters of activity at once. Dancers enter and leave the fray with fluidity and ease. Farley shows confidence in his handling of structure; you immediately feel you are in good hands….
As a first ballet for City Ballet, “Architects of Time” is admirable.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/28/arts/dance/stravinsky-festival-new-york-city-ballet.html In her column for The New York Times, titled “To Igor, With Love and Masterpieces, George,” Roslyn Sulcas both applauded the 2022 festival and presented some reflections from dancers who had performed in the first Stravinsky festival a half-century ago.
Balanchine’s attitude towards his ballets
At one point in his conversations with Balanchine, biographer Bernard Taper attempted to get Balanchine to talk about which were his “favorite” works, and what he felt those ballets might be like in the future. Balanchine’s responses were very telling in reflecting his general attitude towards his own work and the music. Taper noted:
Increasingly these days Balanchine resists giving his ballets any title other than the one the composer gave the music. “What is Balustrade?” he says now. “Stravinsky never wrote Balustrade; he wrote Violin Concerto. The ballet should be announced as what it is. Then the musicians can come, the young people who love music and want to hear the composition—they’ll know what they are getting. They don’t have to look at the ballet if it bores them, they can just listen to the music. And that’s fine with me, that’s wonderful. For just a dollar and seventy-five cents they can go upstairs and close their eyes and hear a marvelous concert—of music nobody else is playing.
When the conversation turned to the future preservation of Balanchine’s choreographic works, Taper reported:
He denies any interest in that. He says he doesn’t want his works preserved. “For whom?” he asks me. “For people to see that I don’t even know what they’re like, that aren’t even born yet? And are my ballets going to be danced by dancers I don’t know, that I haven’t trained? Those won’t really be my ballets. The choreography, the steps—those don’t mean a thing. Steps are made by a person. It’s the person dancing the steps—that’s what choreography is, not the steps by themselves.
I’m not interested in later on. I don’t have any later on. We all live in the same time forever. There is no future and there is no past. So always I say when people talk to me about the future, “What’s the matter with Now? Now is when it is good. Now is when it is beautiful. Now there are all these wonderful dances to be seen that I have worked like mad on. So, public: come in, fill the theatre—Now.”
* * *
For people who did fill the theater, those dances were wonderful to see at the time. For theater-goers in the present, some of the ballets are in fact being handed down by members of the New York City Ballet—both to the company’s new crop of dancers, and to other companies actually around the globe. Despite his stated disregard for the future, George Balanchine did leave the rights to his various ballets to specific dancers. This has not only given them a source of income as they mount the works on other companies (and sometimes on student or apprentice groups); it has proven a way for successive generations of dancers to perform Balanchine’s choreography and for audiences to see these ballets. Granted—as Balanchine was so strongly pointing out: when you change the dancers, the ballet is not the same.
Similarly with all the works being explored in these essays: when we “revive” dances from the past, they are never the same as the originals. Not infrequently, it may be the performance of the musical score itself that will be closest to a past production—precisely because (as Balanchine so strongly maintained) different dancers not trained by the creative choreographer could change the look of any original choreography to a great extent. Somehow the individuality of different dancers onstage seems more noticeable and important than, for example, the different tones of changing second oboe players within the texture of an orchestra performing in the pit. The sounds of the performing instrumentalists are more apt to seem consistent to audience members. So changing personnel matters less with the musicians than with the dancers. (Assuming the individual musicians are playing their parts accurately and well!)
notes and explorations:
Source for the festival list: Nancy Goldner, author and editor, The Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet (New York: The Eakins Press, 1973).
The quotations about Balanchine’s attitudes toward his works are from Bernard Taper, Balanchine: A Biography(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987 edition) p. 321.
Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works (New York: Eakins Press Foundation, Viking Press, 1984 edition). A most useful reference.
More than a decade ago, quite a stir was made by the pessimistic conclusion in Jennifer Homan’s book Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, 2010) She presented her personal opinion that after Balanchine, the traditions of classical ballet were coming to an end, along with support from audiences. I doubt that Balanchine himself meant to imply any such thing when he voiced little concern for what would become of his ballets after his passing. Rather, he simply acknowledged what has happened to other dances historically—that each performance, each dancer, will be different, especially if the original choreographer is no longer in charge, and the dancers not trained by him. Also, audience tastes do change, and choreographers develop new styles. In any case, contemporary ballet will never be as popular in America as football!
The former dancer Toni Bentley wrote a near ecstatic review in The New York Times that is so long it serves as a summary of the entire book. She also seems to agree with the opinion of Homans that classical ballet was a declining art a decade ago. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/books/review/Bentley-t.html Yet among the vigorous contrary opinions was this one published in Slate, review by Claudia la Rocco: https://slate.com/culture/2010/11/don-t-believe-the-diagnosis-in-jennifer-homans-apollo-s-angels.html
In connection with what the Slate reviewer pointed out as a major omission regarding contemporary ballet, viewers can sample William Forsythe’s ballets via You Tube. Here are clips of his Playlist performed by the English National Ballet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLBpVsBpah0 The music is Lion Babe’s Impossible remixed by Jax Jones. Immediately noticeable is the strong rhythmic impetus created by the use of ostinato (repeated short patterns).Certainly a different kind of music from anything used by Balanchine!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN2MJ1zhUsU A 3-minute introduction to Forsythe’s way of working and presenting ballet. A longer look at what the choreographer was doing earlier in this century is the 2007 Kultur video containing From a Classical Position and Just Dancing Around.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtgpH_SN9Y4 A 2016 interview (40 minutes) for the Houston Ballet with William Forsythe in which he comments on how he grew up playing classical music on the violin, his career (43 years in Germany at that point), his way of working with dancers, the music he uses (including Bach) and even physically demonstrates! Along the way, he talks about his admiration for Balanchine ballets, his work in Paris, sensations of dancers loving to perform, and how he feels they are “singing with their bodies.” Recommended!.
As an indication that the dance historian Jennifer Homans may have changed her mind since she wrote Apollo’s Angels,she attracted considerable funding and founded the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU in 2014. (For information go to https://balletcenter.nyu.edu/ ) So perhaps readers may want to consider only the fully-packed informative historical chapters of her book and downplay the concluding harsh pessimism—or simply interpret her remarks to observe for ourselves that at the time ballet styles were indeed changing, sometimes radically, and that things just weren’t quite the same without Balanchine.
But judging by the current perseverance of professional dance companies even during the pandemic, and the continuing existence of thousands of ballet studies and performances in dance departments in colleges as well as in conservatories and community schools—well, ballet certainly seems to be surviving despite unforeseen health challenges and with expanding international styles. Readers might enjoy the further evidence of World Ballet Day films, some of which are linked in the After-Words of this website.
scholarly database and books:
Stephanie Jordan and Larraine Nicholas under the aegis of the University of Roehampton in London mounted the online database “Stravinsky the Global Dancer: A Chronology of Choreography to the Music of Igor Stravinsky.” In 2019 it covered 99 scores and 1252 dances by 703 choreographers. The database can be searched by dance title, choreographer’s name, musical title (both chronologically and by name), company, and country. The introduction explains the methodology and the sources of information. All this is accessible at: http://urweb.roehampton.ac.uk/stravinsky/index.asp A “work in progress” since choreographers continue to add their information on new settings.
Also in the new scholarly vein of “choreomusicology,” Stephanie Jordan wrote the detailed analytical book Stravinsky Dances: Re-Visions across a Century (Alton, UK: Dance Books, 2007). Taking off from a startling generalization about the “general plundering of his concert music alongside the scores specifically written for dance” [p. 83] the book presents early trends extracted from the database described above.
An unusual double study by Stephanie Jordan is Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in Twentieth-Century Ballet (London: Dance Books, 2000). The author brought her background as both professional dancer and musician, to offer many clear suggestions about different ways of regarding general relationships between music and dance—with detailed analysis and examples from the theatrical art of Duncan, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Fokine, Massine, Balanchine, Ashton, and Tudor.
A theoretical approach was embarked on by Paul Hodgins, Relationships between Score and Choreography in Twentieth-Century Dance: Music, Movement and Metaphor (Lewiston NY and Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press,1992). His study includes Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon, though he acknowledges that it is “difficult to analyze something as intrinsic and ineffable as the dance-music partnership.”