In the arena of plotless ballets, George Balanchine holds an inimitable place of genius. Through ballets as diverse as Symphony in C, Agon, and Stars and Stripes, Balanchine proved that he could mastermind choreographic offerings by allowing the music to be his guiding muse. But while Balanchine formed a new chapter in dance history through his abstraction and musical architecture, his narrative ballets have sometimes been overlooked. In one act, he could convey a full story using dance as the medium.
The program Short Stories succinctly demonstrates Balanchine's talent for storytelling. From his distilled version of the intensely stirring Swan Lake to the melancholy tale of the The Steadfast Tin Soldier to the razzamatazz of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Balanchine validated that he could draw a dramatic arc through his choreography in a streamlined, 20th century manner. Rounding out the program is Sean Lavery's Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, a graceful scenario based on Shakespeare's play about the inauspicious lovers.
Balanchine fully recognized the popularity of Swan Lake, and, in 1951, choreographed his own take on the Tschaikovsky classic with Maria Tallchief as the Swan Queen and André Eglevsky as her Prince. Using Lev Ivanov's original choreography as a foundation, he fashioned a narrative that focused on the fateful meeting of the protagonists. The idea of the elusive feminine ideal: a common theme in Balanchine's works: permeates this Swan Lake that ends with a tragic sorcerer-induced parting of ways.
As with any Balanchine work, the music drives the momentum. The reconfigured score, blending music primarily drawn from the traditional version's lakeside scenes in the second and fourth acts, stresses the moonlit setting. The corps de ballet, integral to any production of Swan Lake, plays an even more active role here, essentially a physical extension of the Swan Queen's conflicted emotions. Passages such as the Pas de Neuf and Valse Bluette feature detailed, individualized choreography for the swans. Rather than restage a four-act epic, Balanchine chose to compose a uniquely idyllic tribute to the soul of Swan Lake in a single act.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a number of imaginative stories based on the lives of simple characters, such as matchgirls, mermaids, or anthropomorphized household objects. Often his enchanting tales deal with humanity's journeys through morality. The Steadfast Tin Soldier, published in 1838, embodies the issue of eternal love through life's hardships. Balanchine set his ballet to Bizet's Jeux d'Enfants, a miniature composition known for its delicacy and melodic elegance.
Balanchine's eleven-minute pas de deux presents a condensed version of Andersen's story, but one no less touching. On Christmas night, a toy soldier falls deeply for a ballerina doll. In her innocent playfulness and merriment, she falls into the fireplace and burns. Sadly and stoically, the soldier retrieves the little tin heart he had given her and returns to his military unit. This gem of a work would undoubtedly have delighted Andersen, the great children's writer, given that he was also a life-long balletomane.
Musically, Bizet's modest score contrasts boldly with Sergei Prokofiev's stridently dramatic and muscularly orchestrated version of Romeo and Juliet. Lavery's Romeo and Juliet pas de deux mirrors the music in allowing the dancers to swoon rapturously. In this duet, the famous balcony scene from the ballet, the couple enacts the passionate encounter using ballet's language to echo Shakespeare's poetry.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is, in fact, a ballet within a musical, a story within a story. On Your Toes was composed by Rodgers and Hart and premiered in 1936 featuring Ray Bolger and Tamara Geva, Balanchine's first wife, in the leading roles. The plot revolves around the humorous adventures of an ex-vaudevillian who becomes infatuated with a Russian prima ballerina. As the ballerina's boyfriend becomes increasingly jealous, the vaudevillian is placed in the unlikely position of taking over the lead in a ballet titled Slaughter on Tenth Avenue about a man who falls for a mobster's main squeeze.
Balanchine choreographed the original production of On Your Toes, the first musical that utilized classical ballet. It was also the first instance of musical theater using jazz music in a Broadway score alongside standard hits like "There's a Small Hotel." The choreography recalls Balanchine's days in Hollywood, his love of the brassiness of chorus lines, and his lack of condescension toward the popular culture that he happily translated into high art. Slyly, he also parodied some of the gaudier aspects of pseudo-Russian ballet of the period. The slinky moves he choreographed for Slaughter on Tenth Avenue can be seen as a precursor to the choreography of later works like Rubies, Who Cares?, and Symphony in Three Movements.
Like any accomplished creator of short stories, Balanchine gives the viewers well-developed characters, a heightened sense of place, a precipitating event, a climax, and an ending. That he does so in such a short period of time and with such a wide range of subjects is all the more impressive.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.