La boîte à joujoux
When the painter/illustrator André Hellé approached the composer Claude Debussy with the idea of doing a children’s ballet about a box of toys, the composer was most enthusiastic, especially because he had a seven-year old daughter. Debussy’s original vision was that children themselves would be the dancers—or marionettes; but in any case not adults. There would be allusions to songs that children would recognize; there would be effects such as bugle calls, and moments that would sound like music boxes. Oh—and even a bit of Debussy’s own pseudo-rag piano piece. He told his publisher in advance that there would be no need for a ballet master because the children would be doing simple natural movements, much as in a pantomime.
Debussy set to work and by 1914 he had a piano score started; by 1917 it was still only partly written. And so after the composer’s death in 1918, the orchestration was completed by André Caplet. The first performance the next year was danced by adults. The Swedish Ballet mounted their version in 1921, and there have been other choreographed performances in other countries since then—some even danced as originally intended, by children.
The sections include: the toy box asleep; the toy box; doll’s waltz; the field of battle because the soldier doll has fallen in love with the pretty female one, but so has the polichinelle; a sheepfold for sale; after making a fortune; epilogue. A detail in the plot is that the pretty doll nurses the soldier, then marries him, and they have many children!
notes and explorations:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ki8M5TGtI The story told in French, with piano accompaniment played by Christian Ivaldi.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuFCg_0C6Yk A very pleasant concert piano performance by Alain Planès, 2018. Illustrations from the book are shown.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k3pZmQnYa0 Orchestral performance by Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit; just the opening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk3ER–a_6Y Well, this is what Debussy might have had in mind: a performance by children in costume, with piano accompaniment. Maka Makharadze Dance Studio; Eteri Andjaparidze, pianist also in costume. Followed by Poulenc’s Story of Babar the Elephant. (Starts after 7-minute intro.) Nicely done!
There are a number of CD recordings of La boîte à joujoux, including one conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and one conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Some orchestral performances available via MP3.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_bo%C3%AEte_%C3%A0_joujoux This brief description includes a b&w photograph of the cast of an early perfomance.
https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1442&context=gc_etds Attention to this little ballet is not usually given in academia, Mirna Lekić wrote her dissertation at the City University of New York in 2014 and has kept it downloadable at the above link. It provides information about the collaboration between artist and composer, a detailed musical analysis, and little known information about past performances.
Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus commissioned George Balanchine to choreograph a polka for elephants, in 1942. The circus especially wanted to feature Modoc, an elephant with particular performing talent. When in turn the choreographer spoke to Igor Stravinsky, the composer allegedly asked how old the elephants would be. “If they are very young, I will do it,” he promised.
That circus retired all its elephants to Florida in 2016. (See notes for information.) So nowadays Stravinsky’s music would accompany only human dancers. That said, the history is given by Balanchine in his book Complete Stories of the Ballet. He reported that what Stravinsky did “served our purpose very well, and our ballet for Fifty Elephants and Fifty Beautiful Girls, staged by John Murray Anderson, with costumes by Norman Bel Geddes, and with Vera Zorina riding at the head of the troupe at the first performances, was done no less than 425 times.”
Stravinsky had composed his music for piano, including a borrowing of Franz Schubert’s well-known March Militaire. The piece was transcribed for the circus wind band by film composer David Raksin, and in 1944 the composer scored his own version for full orchestra.
Following the elephant events, Stravinsky’s Circus Polka accompanied a human dance that is still being performed, by young children. Jerome Robbins choreographed his short work for New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972, with 48 students from the School of American Ballet “obeying” his commands, for he good-naturedly portrayed the ringmaster in top hat and traditional swallow tail coat. Some of the children marched in while pretending to be playing instruments heard in the music, and when all were onstage, they obeyed the ringmaster’s commands to bend and then form concentric circles marching in opposite directions. At the end, the children lined up to form Igor Stravinsky’s initials. Balanchine reported: “The ballet was such a hit that the whole piece had to be repeated at once.” And as one audience member observed: “The sight of children, some of whom could have been no more than eight years old, performing with discipline and gaiety made Circus Polka something more than beguiling.”
Circus Polka was performed outdoors one summer during a New York City Ballet matinee at the Saratoga Festival in upstate New York. Enthusiastic young dancers attracted audience members of admiring parents and other relatives, of course. And as with the premiere performance years ago, the ringmaster of the day wore a top hat and swallow-tail coat and carried a whip. The audience’s faces wore smiles, and the there was hearty applause.
Adults returned for the evening gala, both men and women in formal attire, setting up tables outdoors complete with linens, champagne, crystal goblets, gourmet meals on real china plates…and then enjoying a truly special finale as Darci Kistler and the company performed Balanchine’s waltzes onstage to the music of Strauss and Brahms, followed by fireworks.
Perhaps when the little children who performed in Circus Polka that day grow up, a couple of them might have already appeared on that festival stage dancing waltzes. In any case, one hopes that many of them become part of the summer audiences that keep on enjoying both a new generation of children in Circus Polka and the adult dancers in New York City Ballet as they perform in the large repertoire of ballets by both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
Update! In January 2018, Dance Magazine writer Lauren Wingenroth reported on a new cast for Circus Polka, and also posted an online clip of the children performing in Miami with Miami City Ballet director Lourdes Lopez:
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. “Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired,” says Lopez. “I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us.”
But when Lopez was planning MCB’s Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend’s birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins’ Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself. They said yes, setting Lopez on track to be the first woman the Trust has ever allowed to perform the role.
notes and further explorations:
The observation about the 1972 festival performance was from Nancy Goldner, The Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet ( New York: Eakins Press,1973) p. 116.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2016/10/27/the-big-exit/?utm_term=.d79eeb88e0f4 This is a very long article from The Washington Post about the last performances by elephants in Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and about their retirement. To read about another refuge for previously restricted elephants in captivity, go to www.elephants.com (This one has 2,000 acres in Tennessee. Donors receive their informative Trunk Lines newsletters.)
https://forumangelcorella.weebly.com/circus-polka.html A darker report of the elephant polka, fire in the tent, and more. With pictures of Balanchine and Zorina and elephants.
Dance Magazine article plus performance clips. Showed enough of the dance so you could see the entrances and the pattern of circling as seen from above. The smiling Lourdes Lopez looked delighted in her red ringmaster’s jacket and black top hat. This electronic music on the soundtrack doesn’t sound like what Stravinsky wrote. However by 2020 the Miami Ballet teamed with the New World Symphony to offer the Stravinsky score played live.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvRK4ixgs2s Lively rendition by Norwegian Radio Orchestra, conductor, Avi Ostrowsky. You can see instrumentalists playing their highlighted parts. Suggests lumbering elephants—though it should be noted that nowadays such elephant captivity is not applauded.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofW0XPJ0iO4 This is a good clip of the polka performed in its original instrumentation for wind band. Sinfonisches Blasirchester der KUG sounds more geared to elephants than the orchestral version. Very lively! And everybody should recognize the borrowed melody near the end.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Q92zsMrAY8 This is the President’s Marine Band playing the same piece.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkL9LS2ZfUE This is another performance of the orchestral version of Circus Polka, conducted by Elihau Imbal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnCvXBw0W88 The great virtuoso pianist Beveridge Webster playing solo piano version! (Audio only.)
Finally, here is a video of a two-piano version, which probably gives us a good idea of the sonorities that Stravinsky heard as he was composing Circus Polka in his original piano score. This is an excellent performance, by Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eXRvTBfoiY
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any DVD of the entire Circus Polka available to the public at this time. A 1990 film may be viewed at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York. The conductor was Gordon Boelzner.
There are several CDs available containing Circus Polka, including one conducted by Robert Craft, on Music Masters label, vol. 4 of their Stravinsky recordings.
To introduce young children to both orchestral music and ballet, there could be no better live performance to attend than Fanfare. It was originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1953 when Balanchine wanted to mount a celebratory evening in a nod to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and the ballet has remained in the active repertory of New York City Ballet—including as part of the company’s Centennial Celebration in honor of Jerome Robbins.
For music, Robbins chose a contemporary work, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Benjamin Britten (1913-76). This is a set of variations on a theme from the Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s incidental music to a play. Nothing could be more dramatic. First, the major instrumental groupings of an orchestra are introduced: woodwinds dressed in blue; brass in yellow; strings and harp in orange; percussion in black. Then the variations highlight individual instruments in by turns playful, noble, or classically romantic moods: flute and piccolo together; oboe; clarinet; bassoons; the strings from high to low: violins, violas, cellos, doublebass. The harp has a solo to accompany a ballerina in white. Then come the brasses: horns; trumpet; trombone and tuba together. After that you can’t mistake the timpani! Added by turns are small percussion: tambourine, triangle, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, castanet, and yes, a whip sound. The grand finale is a fugue, which Robbins set appropriately in his choreography reintroducing the instruments along the way, ending with a glorious restatement of the theme with all the dancers onstage.
notes and further explorations:
The original 1953 cast featured Yvonne Mounsey, Todd Bolender, Jillana, Carolyn George, Roy Tobias, Irene Larsson, Jacques d’Amboise, Brooks Jackson, Frank Hobi, Michael Maule, and Edward Bigelow.
Again, you will have to be on the look-out for live performances of the ballet; no DVD yet. But to acquaint yourself with Benjamin Britten’s music, there is a CD performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André Previn, who also narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf on the same Telarc disc.
Leonard Bernstein conducted a SONY recording in 1998, which also offers the Prokofiev plus Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals.
Miami City Ballet presented Fanfare for its 25th anniversary, and there is an ever so brief clip online from rehearsal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jzrq4w9CYA
Edward Villella (one of New York City Ballet’s lead dancers who then became artistic director of Miami City Ballet) gives a couple minutes’ commentary about Fanfare followed by a dancer’s appreciation of having a live orchestra for performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGLpcJ76ohM
https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/83091099 This is a description of a video (124 minutes) that can be viewed only onsite at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, of Jerome Robbins and his dancers rehearsing Fanfare in 1990 prior to a festival of the choreographer’s works. The names of the dancers are specified.w
The Houston Ballet mounted Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in 2014, choreographed by Stanton Welch. All the dancers—male and female—are dressed in tuxedos to evoke concert orchestras, and different groups come forward as the music changes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOgMO_WQXN4 is a very brief clip of the delightful beginning.
Tales of Beatrix Potter
For the very youngest of viewers, a charming British ballet was made specifically for film in 1971 and subsequently issued on DVD: Tales of Beatrix Potter, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, performed by members of the Royal Ballet, and with a delightful score consisting of both arrangements and original compositions by John Lanchbery. The ballet was a project that the choreographer took to his heart after his retirement as formal director of the Royal Ballet. Working closely with his long-time composer colleague, Ashton created dances that bring to life the personalities of the creatures in Beatrix Potter’s timeless books. And no—you don’t have to be a child or have children to love this ballet!
This collaboration between Ashton and Lanchbery sounds as if it was a pleasure, for they worked in tandem. Lanchbery searched for older salon pieces and light theater pieces from the Victorian and Edwardian eras and composed some of the dance music fresh. He described to the writer David Nice how he and Ashton developed the story line, then how he might play some music examples on the piano for Ashton to try out steps. He accepted the choreographer’s suggestions if more music was needed for the choreography here and there. And seeing the DVD today, one is aware of little moments where the sound absolutely supports the movement—often in the way music used to serve silent movies. But there are also lovely and spritely melodies, all orchestrated beautifully and conducted by Lanchbery as well.
The original film was made both in studios with fantastic sets, and partly outside in the beautiful Lake District of England. The film begins with Ashton himself portraying the hedgehog laundress Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, coming from a distance over the rolling green hills, dancing up a stone path to a house that very much resembles the artist Beatrix Potter’s much loved home Hill Top. Lanchbery accompanied this delightful opening with a catchy banjo melody (actually interjected because more music was needed and there wasn’t time to construct a whole new orchestral section).
Especially for families with young children, a visit to England’s Lake District and to Beatrix Potter’s home can be a pleasure. The home is open to the public in the artist’s memory, and is kept pretty much as it was when she was alive and working there. After her marriage later in life, Beatrix Potter stopped writing and drawing and concentrated instead on her farms, and on saving acres and acres of rural farmland. And so that is the beautiful landscape that visitors can continue to see, and which formed the backdrop for part of the original filming. The interior scenes also resemble the artist’s home in places.
As for the dancers, the animal characters are fully costumed after the style of the artist’s drawings, with animal heads—including Jemima Puddle Duck; Jeremy Fisher (leaping to a delightful polka); Pigling Bland partnering a black pig in an elegant waltz; the two bad mice; Peter Rabbit; and Squirrel Nutkin.
The portrayals are charming, but also amazing in the execution of patterns of classical ballet, especially considering that the dancers are in elaborate costumes from head to foot. For both the very young and the young at heart, the older DVD is worth searching for and viewing many times.
* * *
In 1992, Anthony Dowell produced Tales of Beatrix Potter for the Royal Ballet’s performances onstage. One of these performances was filmed, and that is also available on DVD, with the conducting by Paul Murphy. Ashton’s original role of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was danced by Victoria Hewitt. The backdrops are just enough to suggest Beatrix Potter’s artist’s settings—with such things as a dollhouse waiting to be ransacked by the two bad mice, a pond for Jeremy Fisher’s fishing expedition, and a giant owl to which the squirrels bring offerings. The posturing makes the animal characters seem real—and then there are amusing details such as the pigs on pointe in a pas de deux and the mice carrying their tails out of the way in coils and then playing with them. (One is reminded of Ashton’s extensive use of ribbons in La Fille mal gardée.) One of the challenges surely must have been for the foxy gentleman to dance with his bushy tail in the tale of how he seeks to boil Jemima Puddle Duck for supper. (Don’t worry; he doesn’t.)
For the grand finale, all the characters come back to reprise a little bit of their special dances, along with the cheerful music that John Lanchbery had either composed or arranged for them. All in all, a charming scene.
notes and further explorations:
Though the Opus Arte DVD with its 2007 onstage performance is delightful, yet even more highly recommended is the DVD of the original 1971 film especially because of Frederick Ashton’s portrayal of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and the settings of many scenes. The dancing in both versions is of course excellent.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jWhj59Bb0E Trailer for Royal Ballet film. Gives a good sample of the wonderful characters!
Sir Frederick Ashton as Mrs. Tiggy Winkle! (Including to the banjo music. His little dance!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbV4buehg5g
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6u0YNhBAwPA Jeremy Fisher the Frog.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQWh2v2JXec Pigs’ picnic and cat and mice dances plus reprise of Jeremy Fisher.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qibHPdw9xuQ Excerpts from Lanchbery’s music. From the Warner Classics CD. 15 minutes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7ehEyq9d5I Excerpts from the music for 1971 film 27 minutes.
New Jersey Civic Youth Ballet; choreography by Elizabeth Holochuk.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_gZQzRhrtY Part 2, using Lanchbery’s music and with some children on pointe; some clicking away in tap shoes. Nice to see.
An unusual book is Rumer Godden, The Tale of the Tales: The Beatrix Potter Ballet (London and New York: Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., 1971; reprinted 1976). Brief comments on the musical collaboration, pp. 25-28. The author’s story takes the reader from the initial conception of the film through the securing of permissions, and most intriguingly, through the making of the costumes involving the gluing on of individual feathers, and some of the challenges for the dancers inside the costumes. It includes reproductions of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations; sketches by Christine Edzard, the story line, short themes from the musical score, still photos from the ballet film, and photos of who the leading dancers were under all those marvelous costumes.
For pictures and information about the artist’s home and farm, see Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top (London: National Trust Guide Book, 2016).
The information that John Lanchbery shared with David Nice was quoted in the liner notes to the Opus Arte DVD.
Lanchbery arranged some of his original music for piano, published by EMI but now most unfortunately no longer available. The pieces are very nice!
Two informative books by Margaret Lane are The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography (London: Frederick Warne Publishers, 2001 edition); and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter (London: Frederick Warne, 1978). There have been many publications that have used her stories and presented them with drawings by other artists—but stick with the originals, which were Frederick Ashton’s inspiration.
When Richard Strauss was co-director of the Vienna Staats Oper, he both developed a libretto and wrote the score for his full-length light-hearted 1924 ballet Schlagobers (Whipped Cream). Choreographed by Heinrich Kröller (1880-1930), the ballet had a slight story, of a boy who eats too many sweets, becomes delirious, and has visions of marzipans, sugarplums, gingerbread men, chocolate pralines, liquor bottles and so on dancing. The entry for the choreographer in the IED had high praise; “At a time when ballet had uncertain prospects, Kröller gave new life and radiance to theatrical dance in Germany and neighboring countries.”
Some historians attribute the failure of the original staging of Schlagobers to the post-war recession. But over a decade, it did have 40 performances—then seems to have been forgotten. Until in our own time, when Alexei Ratmansky discovered a Japanese recording (available via amazon) of the music and set the entire score for American Ballet Theatre in 2017, with fabulous sets and costumes designed by Mark Ryden.
Wayne Heisler Jr. devoted an entire chapter to this ballet in his book The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss. He gives a great deal of detail describing the scenes and reporting public reactions to the original staging. Some critics apparently insisted on disparaging the Strauss score in comparison with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. But others suggested it more appropriate simply to regard the ballet as cheerful light entertainment after devastating wartime.
That was then. Years later Alexei Ratmansky obviously also had a positive reaction in choosing to set Whipped Cream for contemporary family audiences. Among the unusual aspects of what the choreographer and ABT created was the fact that the dancing itself maintained such a virtuosic classical style. Additionally, the simple story itself, plus the “over the top” costumes and scenery, are sure to appeal to young audiences—and how few classical ballet companies offer anything “age appropriate” plus top-notch artistry in performance?
An online search for “children’s ballets” brings up only short lists that include Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia and Nutcracker. Secondly, sophisticated stories understandable to teens (but probably not the very young) are Firebird, Don Quixote and Swan Lake. But then—good grief!—also included as “good introductions for young children” are Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. Nothing like adult romantic tragedy with a few stabbings to amuse young children?
Is it any wonder, then, that the ballet which is most popular with family audiences year after year continues to be The Nutcracker with music by Tchaikovsky?
The IED entry for Heinrich Kröller was written by Pia Mlakar and Pino Mlakar.
For a great many details about the creation and original production, see Wayne Heisler Jr., The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss (University of Rochester Press, 2009) Chapter 4 “Kitsch and Schlagobers” pp. 127-170.
https://www.abt.org/ballet/whipped-cream/ For a brief synopsis of the ABT production, plus a few still photos.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOfKZ7dOLm0 A tantalizing one-minute trailer gives a sample of this spectacular staging choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th9M0p1y5q0 Brief interview with Mark Ryden, creative designer of the costumes and scenery.
2017 Works and Process program over an hour at the Guggenheim exploring Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography for Whipped Cream. Includes performances and discussion with the choreographer, dancers, and conductor before opening performances by American Ballet Theatre. Charles Barker, conductor, points out that the original score had set forms such as polkas, waltzes, galops, marches, a Brazilian maxixe, menuet, and a passacaglia. He found the music “astoundingly deep and beautiful and sensitive.”
https://www.pbs.org/video/nyc-arts-full-episode-may-11-2017-9c9prp/ As part of PBS program New York City Arts in 2017, there are preview glimpses of preparations for Whipped Cream. Included are Ratmansky’s remarks—calling the music by Strauss “a wonderful score.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/arts/dance/review-ratmansky-whipped-cream-abt-gala.html In his 2017 review, Alastair Macaulay called Whipped Cream a “Candyland Triumph.” The dance critic commented: “Most astonishingly, the choreography brilliantly vindicates a score and libretto by Richard Strauss that have long been deemed ill-advised failures….this score is just abundantly, delectably satisfying, laden with varied dance rhythms and succulent melodies. All admirers of Strauss should see this production and reconsider where his best talents lay.”
The well-known dance writer Joan Acocella offered her personal description, commenting about one section that “Not since the death of Balanchine has anyone made a ballet routine so inventive.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-abt-whipped-cream-review-20170317-story.html And commenting on the music, Laura Bleiberg wrote in The Los Angeles Times: “In resurrecting Strauss’ programmatic score, the choreographer has music that helps him narrate the story. It veers from dramatic percussive solos and village brass band passages to whiny strings, dark dissonance and cheerful waltzes. It received a sterling performance from the Pacific Symphony under the spirited guidance of ABT conductor and music director Ormsby Wilkins.”
https://news.wttw.com/2019/04/12/whipped-cream-american-ballet-theatre-review Review by Hedy Weiss for WTTV following a 2019 performance in Chicago.
https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-whipped-cream-dance-review-0413-story.htmlWriting in the Chicago Tribune of April 12, 2019, Lauren Warnecke was absolutely delighted with the ballet, calling it “a gorgeous flight of fancy to behold for the brief hour and a half it occupies your imagination.” The Chicago Philharmonic performed the music, conducted by Charles Barker.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rV1-VIxRGts Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi performs 50-minute suite from Act I of Schlagobers. (Click on “show more” for timings and program notes.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w56XPBG5xM8 Suite from Act II.
The earlier CD of Schlagobers is on the Musical Heritage Society label, recorded in 1988 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under Hiroshi Wakasugi, whose career spanned both Japan and Europe. The liner notes give a detailed guide to the musical movements track by track, plus a few notated themes.
other ballets for children:
Pacific Northwest Ballet has offered family audiences some original productions appropriate for the very young. Choreographed by Bruce Wells: Pinocchio, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast, with their stories already familiar to young children. For music, Snow White drew on existing scores by French composer Jules Massenet. Pinocchio used music by 19th-century composer Amilcare Ponchielli as well as contemporary music by Nicola Piovani. Beauty and the Beast was set to excerpts from two Delibes ballets: Sylvia and Le Corsaire.And among favorites of the Seattle audiences for years is the company’s staging of Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to music by Felix Mendelssohn. Also in the company’s repertoire are continuing performances of their founder Kent Stowell’s 1954 setting of Prokofiev’s 1954 Cinderella. And Pacific Northwest Ballet first performed Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as choreographed by the English artist Ronald Hynd in 2000.
On their website, San Francisco Ballet suggests that children should not be taken to the ballet before age 8. For their school performances in recent seasons they have offered Don Quixote and Cinderella.
For quite a few years now, Houston Ballet has featured Peter Pan choreographed by Trey McIntyre, using music by Sir Edward Elgar as arranged by Niel De Ponte. With “spectacular” flying and giant puppets, it has pleased family audiences. And in the 2022 season, Houston Ballet offered a program titled “My First Ballet” especially geared for the very young. Titled Dancing in Texas, it showed the evolution of dance in that state through dances choreographed by Houston Ballet’s artistic staff and others. Accompanying the narration, dancers performed both classical and contemporary ballet, including excerpts from the Nutcracker, ballets inspired by traditional folk dances, and even a dance in honor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo! Performed by Houston Ballet II and Academy Professional Program dancers.
https://northernballet.com/ballets-for-children Touring from their home base in Leeds, UK, the Northern Ballet offers “Bite Sized Ballet for Children” both live and in cinema showings. They provide a live small sinfonia for most of their performances. Their offerings include 40-minute ballets with stories familiar to the youngest audiences: Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood, the Ugly Ducking and more! Website includes information about the choreographers, composers of the original music, the directors, and performers, with some clips showcasing the immediately engaging dancing, music, and charming sets. Looks as if they really know their very young customers!
Some of Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker was first heard with the composer conducting an orchestral suite that he had extracted, for a concert before the Russian Music Society in St. Petersburg, in March of 1892. The full ballet was premiered the following December at the Maryinsky Theatre, with Ricardo Drigo conducting, scheduled as the second offering following Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera Iolanta, which had also been commissioned for the occasion.
The ballet’s choreography was by the exceptionally musical choreographer, Lev Ivanov, after the original plan by Marius Petipa (who carefully structured each scene, but who had become ill just as rehearsals were starting). After that first performance, there were eighteen more in Russia during that season, and only five more the next year. The leading dancers at the Maryinsky were Antonietta dell’Era as the Sugarplum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Prince.
At this point today, there have probably been thousands upon thousands of performances of this now-classic ballet, with widely differing choreographies, performed by professional dancers, college students, and young children studying ballet in many countries. Additionally, the suite drawn from the composer’s score continues to be enjoyed in orchestral concerts.
The idea of mounting The Nutcracker originated with the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolojsky. He was quite drawn to the less macabre 1844 adaptation that Alexandre Dumas had made of some stories written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Vsevolojsky set the ballet master Petipa to working on a libretto. Petipa had considerable challenges to fashion the plot into something suitable for the theater stage. One source of discomfort (also with critics after the fact) apparently was that there were no big virtuoso pas de deux sections in the first act to feature audiences’ favorite dance artists. Nevertheless after several drafts of his libretto, Petipa was finally able to please the director. The ballet master then went on to write a detailed scene-by-scene and dance-by-dance outline for Tchaikovsky to follow in composing music.
It was not a particularly happy time for this usually pretty morose composer. His sister had just died. Moreover, Tchaikovsky, like Petipa, at first found the libretto a challenge. Very surprising, given the current popularity of The Nutcracker, is this passage from Roland John Wiley’s book on Tchaikovsky’s ballets:
If ever Tchaikovsky wrote an ill-starred work it was Nutcracker. Had he known what miseries he would endure while writing it, he would surely have refused; certainly when those miseries were most acute he considered withdrawing his services from the project. At the outset of the collaboration, however, prospects must have seemed bright. Fresh from the success of Sleeping Beauty, the same team was to produce another magnificently staged ballet based on a children’s tale.
Despite his initial misgivings and despite his lengthy travels to conduct performances around that time (including to New York for the opening of Carnegie Hall), Tchaikovsky was able to work right along and follow Petipa’s requests. He certainly delivered some delightful music!
Here, extracted from Wiley’s translation, are a few samples from the ballet master’s plan, variously indicating general mood, tempo, length, events in the plot, and even suggestions for the instrumentation.
Act I, No. 2. The tree, as if by magic, lights up brightly by the fire of the candles.
Sparkling music, 8 bars.
No. 4. The astounded and delighted children stop as if rooted to the ground. Several measures of childlike tremolo.
No. 15. Lullaby. 16 measures for the lullaby, which is interrupted by 8 bars of fanfares on the horns, trumpets, and other brasses. This is Fritz and his friends teasing Clara. 16 more bars of lullaby, and again the same noisy interference of the instruments—8 bars of very lively music.
No. 21. The Christmas tree becomes huge. 48 bars of fantastic music with a grandiose crescendo.
And so on, with requests for a polka, gracious march, battle music, and for the end of Act I:
No. 28. The snow which falls in thick flakes is illuminated by electricity. Scene.
A whirling waltz. In the third quarter of the waltz a furious burst of wind causes all the dancers to spin around.
It was this last scene that was to become one of choreographer Lev Ivanov’s most celebrated creations. The music is also unusual, for including an out-of-sight chorus vocalizing without words, as if just another instrumental group timbre.
Progressing to Act II in the Kingdom of Sweets, Tchaikovsky gave Lev Ivanov and performers of today some memorable music for national dances: a Spanish one for Chocolate; an “Oriental” one for Coffee; a “Chinese” one with little bells for Tea; a Russian trepak; a dance for little reed fifes; and one for Mother Ginger and her children. Then followed the by-now much loved Waltz of the Flowers, and the pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her consort. For this section, Petipa specified:
An adagio intended to produce a colossal impression—48 bars. Variation for the cavalier—48 bars in 6/8. Variation for the danseuse, 32 bars of staccato in 2/4. In this music it is as if drops of water shooting out of fountains are heard. End with a very fast 24 bars.
It was for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation that Tchaikovsky was pleased to search out a brand new instrument, the celesta, have his publisher order one from the inventor Auguste Mustel, and introduce it in Russia to sensational audience response (first in the orchestral concert and subsequently in the ballet theater).
Translating from a then-contemporary Russian article by Akim L’vovich Volynsky, the Tchaikovsky scholar Roland John Wiley gives us one reaction to Lev Ivanov’s entire staging:
He is an astonishing genius….In Nutcracker Lev Ivanov demonstrated his remarkable musicality….There is nothing in the music of Nutcracker, not one rhythm, not one bar which would not flow into dance. All onstage effervesces incessantly….
Perhaps most surprising in the story of choreographer Lev Ivanov’s life is the indication that he might well have become an important composer. As chronicled in the biography by Roland John Wiley, Ivanov never learned to notate music, yet even as a young dance student, he showed a marked talent. He would accompany classes by improvising music on the violin. Colleagues told stories of how he would listen to a piece played by others and then go to the piano and recreate it. What they most enjoyed and found at times awe-inspiring were his improvisations. Wiley gives us this dismaying account by someone who knew Ivanov:
His calling was not to follow along this path [to become a dancer] but to be a musician and in this sphere to be great, but the genius in him was broken by the coarseness and loutishness of people at that time….
But the management in those years…was loutish: instead of attending to the heart of the matter and making a Russian genius out of the child, the now-departed Director…cried out: “Knock the music out of this little brat with a strap! Look—such a musician out of the blue! And if, you little scoundrel, you ever sit down at a piano here again, if you play a single note you’ll get a whipping. But now, for the time being, go without lunch, and no holiday at home on Sundays.”
So instead of becoming a composer, Lev Ivanov from the age of 16 was a professional dancer, excelling particularly in character roles. Eventually he moved up to being second ballet master to Marius Petipa at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. And as such, judging by the many tributes and awards towards the end of his life, Ivanov was both admired and loved by his colleagues. His Nutcracker dances certainly gave audiences then something to love forever!
Tchaikovsky died just a year after The Nutcracker was introduced to the world. And it surely is too bad that he did not live to see his musical score used for many different choreographic settings and enjoyed by so many audiences of all ages around the globe.
The first performance of the entire Nutcracker in the United States was by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve, 1944, with choreography by Willam Christensen (who had advice from both George Balanchine and Alexandria Danilova, recalling their experience with the work in Russia years before). The Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by Gisella Caccialanza (wife of Lew Christensen and also god-daughter of Enrico Cecchetti who was known internationally for his ballet training methods). Since then, the company has mounted other productions, most recently one choreographed by Helgi Tomasson and available on DVD.
* * *
George Balanchine liked to recall how he came to know this wonderful ballet. As a boy performing at the Maryinsky Theatre, he had danced several roles, including a toy soldier, a candy cane, the mouse king, and when he was fifteen, the prince. Writing about his decision to mount the entire work in the United States, he said:
Years later in New York, when our company decided to do an evening-long ballet, I preferred to turn to The Nutcracker, with which American audiences were not sufficiently familiar. I accordingly went back to the original score, restored cuts that had been made, and in the development of the story chose to use the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, although keeping to the outlines of the dances as given at the Maryinsky. A prologue was added and the dances restaged.
An instant hit during the its first season in 1954, Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker became a sparkling annual event with New York City Ballet. Some years later, conductor Robert Irving could still comment enthusiastically: “I love it. I think it’s the best score by Tchaikovsky, and I’m always very proud, because we…do it in the correct manner.” Audience members number around 100,000 each year (except not in 2020 when the virus caused cancellation).
In a charming essay about The Nutcracker in its first season at New York City Ballet, the noted dance critic Edwin Denby offered an adult view of this ballet for the very young:
The Nutcracker is a fantasy ballet for children, like a toy that a grownup makes with thoughtful care. Grownups watching can slip back into a world they have left. The buried longings of it are there glittering still, but so charmingly, so lightly offered one doesn’t have to notice. It is enough to notice the amusing family bits in the party scene, the fun of the transformations, the jokes in the dream, the sweet brilliance of the dancing, the pervasive grace of the music. And there is the pleasure of seeing children on stage who are not made to look saccharine or hysterical, who do what they do naturally and straight.
Most productions of The Nutcracker do stay magically traditional, but there are some versions nowadays that depart from innocence, such as one choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theatre, which made the whole story seem a pre-adolescent dream of Clara’s. Balanchine observed: “This Nutcracker is not child’s play.” Nor was the one mounted by Rudolf Nureyev for the Royal Swedish Ballet—without any children in it. Then there is the Nutcracker without a nutcracker or indeed anything appropriate for children, the music usurped by Maurice Béjart for his personal story to mount on Béjart Ballet Lausanne.
Among other non-traditional versions there is the surprisingly brilliant one by the all-male Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo (choreographed by Pamela Pribisco) as well as Brooklyn-based Mark Morris’s campy satire for adults which he titled The Hard Nut.
More suitable for the whole family, a VHS tape was made starring the champion ice skater Dorothy Hamill, titled Nutcracker on Ice. Then of course there are excerpts: famously, the waltz of the flowers, conducted by Leopold Stokowski for a segment of the Disney film Fantasia. A production featuring designs by the illustrator Maurice Sendak was mounted in 1983 by Kent Stowell for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Some questions about the revamping of Tchaikovsky ballets were raised by critic Jack Anderson in his book Ballet and Modern Dance:
Productions of these classics can take many forms. Sometimes, productions will attempt to reproduce the original choreography as closely as possible. More often, staging will combine sections of traditional choreography—especially famous bits—with totally new choreography by the local ballet master. Elements of the story may even be changed, supposedly to suit the taste of contemporary audiences: thus, in our post-Freudian era, Swan Lake is occasionally staged as if it were the Prince’s symbol-laden and psychologically fraught dream. But the problem remains of how much alteration is artistically justifiable: when is Swan Lake no longer really Swan Lake?
The writer goes on to say that The Nutcracker has been especially “open to idiosyncratic interpretations…for little survives of Lev Ivanov’s original choreography.”
notes and further explorations:
For an enchanting confection from start to finish, highly recommended is the 2011 filming of the New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s choreographed version of The Nutcracker, issued on DVD in 2016 presented by Lincoln Center Movies, on the C Major label. Splendid performances by soloists and corps, and the children are featured in many dances—all excellent and charming. Sets and costumes a delight. Fine orchestral performance conducted by Clotilde Otrano, who herself had been a principal dancer in Brazil before her conducting career. See http://clotildeotranto.com/Bio.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLKhWl3tEkk Waltz of the Snowflakes from DVD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKcZL8q1eBw Waltz of the Flowers from the C Major film of New York City Ballet. Enjoy the samples!
There is an excellent version of the film by Emile Ardolino in 1993, New York City Ballet, on a DVD issued in 1997 by Warner Home Videos. Stars all, including Darci Kistler, Damian Woetzel, and of course the children. Staging adapted by Peter Martins from George Balanchine’s choreography. One and a half hours. With tasteful voice-over narration of the story, for young viewers.
Opus Arte DVD was released in 2008 of Helgi Tomasson’s production for San Francisco Ballet (which as noted was the first company in the U.S. to stage the entire work).
Many people also enjoy Peter Wright’s 2004 production by the Royal Ballet with Anthony Dowell and Lesley Collier in starring roles, on Opus Arte DVD.
The same Wright choreography was issued on a 2009 Opus Arte DVD performed again by the Royal Ballet, but featuring Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae. Koen Kessels, conductor. Music performed by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. DVD includes brief film of the children taking class and being coached by Peter Wright in rehearsal on his 80th birthday. Additionally, the choreographer explains his version of the story to the children—including the “back-story” of Drosselmeyer inventing a mousetrap, which led to a spell being cast on his nephew. A lot of points that explain why Wright opted to inject Clara and the Nutcracker Prince into so many dances—including the snowflake ensemble and various character dances.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpUkp2OQCVM This is a 2018 film that shows the behind-the-scenes work that goes into learning and performing Peter Wright’s version. Piano accompaniment gives an example of what kinds of sounds professionals have to rehearse to most of the time. 56 minutes. Royal Ballet.
American Ballet Theatre’s version featured Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov. 2004 Kultur DVD, as shown on PBS.
The Hard Nut choreographed by Mark Morris was released on DVD in 2007 by Nonesuch, more for adults. For online viewing:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jnj5DAjupZc This is a mounting of Part One. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX1Hm5kzc6s Part Two.
Some brief clips of the splendid film by the Bolshoi ballet may be accessed by doing a search online for “You Tube Bolshoi Nutcracker ballet.” The feature film was shown commercially on widescreen in theaters. A DVD performance choreographed by Yuri Grigoriev for the Bolshoi is available via amazon. A boxed set of performances is also available, Great Ballets from the Bolshoi, which includes The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and The Flames of Paris.
Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera Iolanta (premiered along with Nutcracker) can be viewed online via Met on Demand, with the leading role sung by Anna Netrebko. A totally adult story, about a blind princess and how she gains sight and love.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uybjyCJIrX0 The complete pas de deux from The Nutcracker as presented by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside. Spine-tingling performance! Filmed especially to please viewers during the pandemic.
Dover Publications has both the complete orchestral score plus a piano arrangement in large notation, by Sergay Taneyev, apparently also some of it by Tchaikovsky himself.
A short book that provides a lot of information about this ballet is Barbara Newman, The Nutcracker (London: Aurum Press, 1985 and Woodbury, NY: Barron’s, 1985). Chapters are on the plot, libretto, music, choreography, history of productions, designs, and even souvenirs. Illustrated.
For a scholarly treatment of interest to musicians, see Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985; reprinted New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), particularly the section about the orchestrations, with notated musical examples, pp. 222-241. Petipa’s directions for Tchaikovsky are in English pp. 371-76; in French, pp. 376-82. Information in translation about the Waltz of the Snowflakes, pp. 387-88. The quotation about the beginnings of the collaboration is from p. 193.
The only long biography of the choreographer is Roland John Wiley’s, The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007 edition reprinted from original 1997 publication). Includes the first publication in English of Ivanov’s own memoirs plus detailed findings from the biographer’s extensive research. The quotation about his piano talents is from pp. 23-24.
This biography is highly recommended for details which the author discovered in research. His translation of Ivanov’s modest recollections provide us with glimpses of the choreographer’s early life, good-humored student pranks, and sense of responsibility as well as his joy in performing onstage. In the biographer’s subsequent enlargement, there is information about finances and the procedures in the Russian ballet.
Not much is known about Lev Ivanov’s personal or emotional life, but Wiley traces the broad outlines of challenges in a first marriage dominated by a “nasty” mother-in-law; the death of a child, with another one a deaf-mute; separation from his wife; remarriage and more children; unspecified illnesses; urgent financial requests to directors; and death coming just as he was choreographing to the beautiful music of the Léo Delibes ballet Sylvia. His associates and friends found him to be a generous person, with a “rare and beautiful spirit.”
“Who did what in The Nutcracker?” is a major question posed by Roland John Wiley, who tries to provide answers. Sadly, however, he reports:
By the time of its first revival in Leningrad in 1923, staged by Alexandre Shiryaev and Fyodor Lopukhov, Ivanov’s choreography had lapsed beyond the physical memory of dancers, a loss much lamented by spectators familiar with the first production. [p. 148]
Geared to elementary school children is Chris Barton’s picture book about the Christensen family in San Francisco, The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (Minneapolis: Millbrook Picture Books, 2015). Illustrated by Cathy Gendron.
George Balanchine’s recollections are in his book co-written with Francis Mason, pp. 387-395.
The comment from Robert Irving is in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, p. 125, from a personal interview with the conductor in the New York State Theater.
The 1954 essay about New York City Ballet’s early “smash hit” Nutcracker is in Edwin Denby, Dancers Buildings and People in the Streets (New York: Horizon Press, 1965) pp. 90-97. The excerpt is from p. 93.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celesta brief introduction to the celesta.
For more detailed information about various productions of The Nutcracker, see IED, V. 5, pp. 9-12 entry by Alexander P. Demidov on settings in Russia; pp. 13-16 entry by Laura A. Jacobs on productions outside of Russia.
Also see the IED entry on Lev Ivanov (1834-1901) by Vera M. Krasovskaya (translated from the Russian) V. 3, pp. 560-68.
John Warrack, Tchaikovsky Ballet Music (London: BBC, 1979) p. 56. In speaking about the darker aspects of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the author commented that “there is an uncertainty as to whether the story is really meant for children or not.”
For a fascinating account of Tchaikovsky’s participation, see Carol J. Binkowski, Opening Carnegie Hall: The Creation and First Performances of America’s Premier Concert Stage (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016).
The quotation from Jack Anderson is from p. 260 of his book Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History. He goes on to identify some further departures from traditional mountings: Christopher Wheeldon’s was set as taking place at Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; Donald Byrd’s mounting as if in Harlem, with some of Duke Ellington’s arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s music; and Graham Murphy’s, which portrays an elderly ballerina in Australia as she recalls her past. [p. 261.]
https://seattlecollegian.com/review-of-pacific-northwest-ballets-the-nutcracker/ A very long and enthusiastic descriptive review of 2018 Nutcracker performance by Pacific Northwest Ballet, with new costume and set designs (not the Sendak version), a revival of Balanchine’s staging. Review written by Duncan Barlow.
Dancin’ Music for Children
Jacques d’Amboise (b. 1934-2021) performed in New York City Ballet productions of The Nutcracker for years. In his memoir I Was A Dancer, he chronicled his first experiences with New York City Ballet from age 12, followed by 33 years in the company, mostly as a principal dancer. He choreographed more than 20 ballets himself. But he also took pleasure in seeing his future wife, Carolyn George, up there onstage as well. They were married between matinee and evening performances of The Nutcracker. Later on, the couple’s children also danced in New York City Ballet performances of The Nutcracker: Christopher (who has gone on to his own substantial career in ballet); Charlotte (who also had roles on Broadway); and Cate. (Son George was in Don Quixote.)
Quite a few years prior to all that, d’Amboise had been cast by Balanchine in the role of Apollo—in which the young god learns about the arts as he plays with the Muses, to the sounds of Stravinsky’s music. Clips of that are part of a DVD interview (hosted by Howard Gardner), titled Extraordinary Minds. While also highlighting the dancer’s career, much of the film is devoted to d’Amboise’s approach to training children not only as future professional dancers, but also purely for the enrichment of their young lives,
This much-admired star stopped performing ballet at age 50. But towards the end of that career, he also served as dean of the Conservatory of Dance at SUNY Purchase and simultaneously became captivated by working with children. He founded the National Dance Institute in 1975, growing out of the classes that he had started originally as a way of involving his own and other young boys in dancing. At one of his early public programs with young students, he called for volunteer boys to go up onstage. They were given an instant lesson in how to jump higher and further, including over each other. Always an effective and enthusiastic teacher, Jacques d’Amboise at one point was hired by West Point to help their football team achieve similar jumping goals!
With NDI, at first d’Amboise and his team of colleagues went into public schools, choosing children to participate in dance sessions during school hours, with the goal of performing in the “Event of the Year” at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. The Oscar-winning 1983 documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ offered a sample of what their programs were like. The original film was made by Emile Ardolino and subsequently released as a VHS tape. (A truncated version can be seen online, as indicated below in the notes.)
As time went along, the project became also an ambitious and exciting way to effect student exchanges from around the world.
the role of music director
Initially, the music director for the gala events was composer/conductor Lee Norris. Subsequently, composer/pianist Jerome Korman has been with the National Dance Institute for some 20 years. Asked what stands out for him in all his experiences with the young dancers, he is quick to say: “I am forever thankful to Jacques that he insists on live music in the classroom.” A delightful clip of Korman himself at the piano playing his original music for NDI students can be seen through the link below, with the group dancing to illustrate “The Letter C: Choreographer” for the Muppets of Sesame Street.
Korman did not study dance himself. Yet soon after college (after focusing on jazz-related studies and performing in various popular and world music ensembles), he found himself accompanying dance classes at the Martha Graham School and at the Alvin Ailey center. His skills in improvising and talent for creating different moods and styles obviously stood him in good stead.
At the beginning of his professional career, Jerome Korman was modestly teaching piano lessons at an after-school program. Luckily for him, Jacques d’Amboise made an emergency call to the music school’s director, asking if there was anybody who could fill in as a substitute for a pianist who was not able to play. Korman was sent right over, and soon became one of NDI’s regular staff pianists (who now number around 20). When the position opened up, he was tapped as music director. Now his responsibilities involve not only playing the piano for many in-school programs and public events, but also composing and arranging pieces for specific choreographic needs. Additionally he conducts for public performances and has administrative duties training and supervising other musicians.
what’s happening “Now”
Since the years in which it was started (and since that award-winning film was made) the National Dance Institute has changed dramatically. For openers, explains Korman, away from a large product. They now have a permanent headquarters in Manhattan, with several studios and space for modest-sized performances. And instead of focusing on a gigantic annual Event of the Year that included thousands of 5thgrade children chosen through auditions, NDI now offers in-school programs in which the schools pick a grade, and all those children have the opportunity to experience dance with live music provided specifically for them, with experienced master dance teachers. NDI has also expanded to have affiliate programs across the country, reaching thousands of children annually.
The Event of the Year still takes place, but with hundreds rather than thousands involved. Each year has a different theme. Korman usually composes or arranges around half the music; the rest is composed or arranged by his staff. Although the composer/pianist obviously enjoys his involvement in the various NDI programs near home, his affiliation has given him some particularly unusual experiences traveling abroad and exploring “world music” styles and instruments, for instance in China and Senegal.
what impels children to move
What kind of music nowadays makes kids want to dance? Jerry Korman points out that the most important thing about providing music for dancers is that it be clearly rhythmical and delivered at the right tempo.
This comment brings to mind how Jacques d’Amboise’s mentor and ballet master (Balanchine himself), before beginning a studio class, would be apt to turn to the pianist and ask for just “wallpaper music.” For the professional dancers, of course they might actually hate to do their daily exercises to the musical repertoire which demands their attention during rehearsals and performances. They need music that is supportive but not distracting. Yet in less professional situations, some ballet teachers nowadays ask pianists that at least some of the musical accompaniment be based on classical music, commenting that for some young people the ballet class might be the only place students might be apt to hear such styles.
However, Jerry Korman suggests to his staff musicians that it is fine to introduce pop tunes with which the students are familiar. “But my goal is to push the envelope past that,” he emphasizes. Nevertheless, it does seem that some of the music that can get children moving and to “feel like dancin’” may be drawn from energetic pop-rock-jazz fusion styles. But Korman is quick to point out that “any kind of music that fits the moment and is played with clarity can and does inspire people to move!” He also observes that in their formal dance training, the more serious students do experience moving not only to different strains of jazz, but also to Western classical music and to experimental styles that draw from traditions of cultures from around the world.
appealing to young audiences
In regard to the question “What kind of ballets should children be taken to see?” the choreographer George Balanchine had some timeless advice:
Some people think that only ballets about puppets, such as Petrushka and Coppélia, are good for children. They are, of course, but I think you will find that children enjoy almost all good ballet….
Children enjoy ballets without stories as much as narrative ballets. If the ballet company is a good one and the orchestra good, they will love these musical ballets. We must understand that children are flexible; they have more imagination, more feeling for fantasy, than grownups. Grownups analyze….Children are open, freer, not so prejudiced. They have a natural ability to imagine things that ballet sometimes releases. The fascination life has for them is based on enjoying movement and change; ballet, in its idealization of movement, fascinates them. A storyless ballet, simply movement to music, they like almost instinctively. They will certainly like anything that is good, if we only give them the chance.
towards the future
What will be considered “good” in years to come? And what ballets from our own time might still be performed or considered outstanding historically when young children of today are grown up? Writing in 1974, Lincoln Kirstein (co-founder of New York City Ballet) reminded people of the important role music can play in theatrical ballet. His thoughts are still worth considering:
Survival of a ballet seems to depend almost as much on music as dancing. Many ballets earned oblivion by the laxity of their scores; it is more than possible that the eighty-odd ballets of Petipa and Ivanov no longer mounted held choreographic morsels as appetizing as their mere three with scores by Tchaikovsky….But ballet will continue to depend on what choreographers make of their aural floor.
notes and further explorations:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8rQyX5RsEM This is the 23-minute version of He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. The entire film is currently available only as VHS.
Extraordinary Minds is a 2011 Kultur DVD featuring Jacques d’Amboise. Recommended!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_C5iUBLL8M This is from the Kennedy Center presentation honoring Jacques d’Amboise, offering scenes from his career.
Though one could ardently wish for better film quality representation of his artistry, yet some were assembled for the DVD Jacques d’Amboise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer (Video Artists International, 2006). It includes excerpts from Apollo, The Still Point, Afternoon of a Faun, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Filling Station, and Stars and Stripes—to a mix of older musical classics plus contemporary art music.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVEeDaWDTHQ This is an excellent introduction about teaching dance to children. It is Jacques d’Amboise giving a lecture/demo to the Bank Street Graduate School of Education in 2013 with assistance from Jerome Korman, musician; Ellen Weinstein, director of National Dance Institute; and Mary Kennedy, one of NDI’s master teaching artists.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfoelvI4mvE This is a delightful program from Studio 5 hosted by Wendy Whelan, interviewing Jacques d’Amboise and his son Christopher, with dancers from New York City Ballet plus a granddaughter of Jacques (Shelby Mann, 11-year old daughter of Charlotte d’Amboise and Terrence Mann).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lefFG2IKea8 This is a brief performance by students of the National Dance Institute, with composer Jerome Korman at the piano, giving life to the letter “C is for Choreographer” for the Muppets on Sesame Street in 2018. The real live choreographer is Duftin Garcia; film made by Benjamin R. Nathan.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhssCCIYK-U The 2020 virtual dance gala of NDI!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJaYKbGM5uM The Other Side of the World. This is a 51-minute film about National Dance Institute, Jacques d’Amboise, and how they went to China for a month in 2004. It documents parts of the Shanghai Children’s Festival, with China’s premier adult dancer Doudou Huang participating. American choreographer Peter Gennaro also added his talents to working with some remarkable Chinese and American children.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvZRDccwSUM This is a 2017 National Dance Institute program, one of “Jacques’ Art Nest” featuring some of their young dancers learning a routine from scratch; two young dancers in a lovely pas de deux to Duke Ellington; Jacques teaching the professional ballet dancer Amar Ramasar an entire dance to a variation from Glazunov’s Raymonda, and that dancer paired with classic Indian artist Preeti Vasudevan; as well as Broadway star Tony Yazbeck—all with live music directed by Jerome Korman. A percussionist and cellist are also featured. Very worthwhile watching! Shows young dancers performing to diverse music, and blending aspects of classic Indian movements with their jazz-based style.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQYfqbRoKIA April 2020 online Jam Session with Jerry Korman playing jazz styles kids at NDI might hear; talks about counts.
NDI also offers live and online workshops geared to teachers, musicians, and dance teachers. For information, click on this link: https://nationaldance.org/ndi-collaborative/
On top of all his activity with the young dancers at NDI, composer-pianist Jerry Korman manages to keep up a professional life performing for adult audiences. For example, he appeared with Broadway song and dance star Tony Yazbeck at one of Lincoln Center’s spaces devoted to jazz, performing a program in the acclaimed American Songbook series. Korman was not only pianist for the event; he also contributed as composer and arranged some well-known tunes such as “I’ve Looked at Life from Both Sides Now.”
It is interesting to note that Tony Yazbeck was nominated for a Tony Award for his leading role in the 2014 revival of On the Town (a Broadway musical originally produced in 1944, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and inspired by the ballet Fancy Free choreographed by Jerome Robbins). So that is one theatrical work which has lasted and can be considered “famous” more than half a century later. For a clip of Yazbeck performing (both singing and dancing) “New York New York” at the Tony Awards, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljo9h5f5Bl8 It should be noted that for the film of On the Town, most of Bernstein’s music was replaced, and choreography was by Gene Kelly.
For an enjoyable sample of the Tony Yazbeck-Jerome Korman collaborations, here is a CD based on one of their live shows. Includes sound of the singer’s tap dancing! https://www.amazon.com/Floor-Above-Me-Tony-Yazbeck/dp/B00ZV0KSRO/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Tony+Yazbeck&qid=1548179309&sr=8-1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khPVGI1gtQQ And here is a preview clip of Tony Yazbeck’s 2019 show, filmed with him suavely singing and dancing around the plaza at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Jacques d’Amboise died on Sunday May 2, 2021. A great loss not only to his family, but also to multitudes of dancers, students, teachers, and audience members. Here are some tributes that were published that week.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/arts/dance/jacques-damboise-dead.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article by Roslyn Sulcas.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/jacques-damboise-dead/2021/05/03/a94d8fe4-2254-11e0-8c82-11d7dab8bc4b_story.html by Sarah Halzack.
Jacques d’Amboise starred in roles created by both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins during his years as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. He described his own performing career in a most enjoyable and informative book of memoirs titled I Was a Dancer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 3rd printing, 2011).
https://www.nextavenue.org/jacques-damboise/ A charming article by former New York City Ballet dancer Nichol Hlinka titled “The Extraordinary Life of Jacques d’Amboise,” dated December 20, 2019.
The book Teaching the Magic of Dance was co-authored by Jacques d’Amboise and Hope Cooke, with photographs by the dancer’s wife, Carolyn George. (New York: Simon & Shuster,1983). Carolyn George died in 2009. In previous years she too had been a member of the New York City Ballet, as a soloist. After marrying Jacques d’Amboise and having a family she worked as an official photographer for the company. Her collection of over 100,000 photographs is now at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
A report about the National Dance Institute when Lee Norris was music director is in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance: Reflections on a Collaborative Art, pp. 75-78.
For its 2018 gala, NDI had a theme of the great rivers of the world, followed the next month by a commemorative celebration of Jerome Robbins’ 100th birthday. For information about their ongoing programs go to http://nationaldance.org/about-ndi/ Five-minute introduction to NDI, with video clips.
https://www.richmondballet.com/mim/about/ Minds in Motion—just one example of the regional children’s dance programs inspired by NDI.
Jerome Korman was interviewed by the author via phone on January 17, 2019.
The quotation from George Balanchine is from Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets , p. 757 in his section “Ballet for Your Children.”
The quotation from Lincoln Kirstein is from the 1994 Dover Publications edition of his book Fifty Ballet Masterworks: From the 16th to the 20th Century, p.28.
https://nationaldance.org/a-message-from-ndis-new-artistic-director-kay-gayner/ In October 2021 Kay Gayner was named Artistic Director to take over the work started by Jacques d’Amboise. She had been involved for many years formerly as Associate Artistic Director.