NYCB’s American Music Festival unfurls from April 30 to May 19 with 25 ballets—many of them revivals not seen in years—set to music by 18 All-Americans. They range from classicists like Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers to contemporary composers still at work, such as John Adams, Nico Muhly, Christopher Rouse, Michael Torke, and Charles Wuorinen.
The virtual red, white, and blue audio backdrop extends to the Spring Gala, May 8, featuring music by George Gershwin, Philip Glass, and John Philip Sousa, among others, and one-night-only performances by guest artists Queen Latifah and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The evening will also showcase two NYCB premieres by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon—a new version of his 1998 ballet Soirée Musicale set to music by Samuel Barber and a new pas de deux to music by Leonard Bernstein and André Previn. “It’s a real compilation of American composers,” says Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins of the three-week festival.
Though NYCB’s repertory is linked deeply to the music of European masters such as Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Brahms, and Ravel, ballets set to American compositions have been part of the Company DNA since 1954 when George Balanchine choreographed Western Symphony to traditional American melodies arranged by Hershy Kay and Ivesiana to the music of Charles Ives, two works that will be danced during the festival.
American music seems a felicitous finale to a festival-filled year at NYCB that has showcased the work of Stravinsky and Balanchine in the fall and Tschaikovsky and Balanchine in the winter. “American music couldn’t be more different,” says Martins, who sat for an interview in his light-filled office in the David H. Koch Theater. “It seemed the perfect way to round out a year anchored by music and to show the public we not only do Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky, but we do this too.”
The timing is also on point. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Company’s first American Music Festival, a monumental effort encompassing premieres of more than 20 new ballets set to American music by such choreographers as Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, William Forsythe, Lar Lubovich, and Paul Taylor as well as NYCB’s Jerome Robbins, Richard Tanner, and Martins. “It was enormous. We had people choreographing in elevators. Everybody thought I was nuts, and I probably was a little bit, but it was exciting,” says Martins, who organized the 1988 event.
Dance festivals built around a theme, such as the music of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, or Ravel, have been a Company specialty since the 1960s. Balanchine oversaw his last festival, celebrating Stravinsky’s centennial, in 1982, a year before he died.
The first American Music Festival was also a visual arts feast. Artworks by ten top contemporary artists—Francesco Clemente, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel, among them—were projected onto a scrim during an overture that played at the beginning of each performance.
With its emphasis on work revived from the repertory, this season’s American Music Festival differs notably from the first. Several ballets included this season, in fact, hail from the 1988 festival, among them Barber Violin Concerto, and Purple from Torke’s Ecstatic Orange both choreographed by Martins. Others, including Tanner’s Sonatas and Interludes set to music by John Cage, and Martins’ A Fool For You set to songs by Ray Charles, will be seen during the season’s final three weeks, when ballets from the year’s three festivals will be performed in repertory with additional pieces.
Creating a festival of Balanchine and American music along the lines of the Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky festivals was more difficult. Balanchine only choreographed a handful of ballets to American music, eight of which remain in the NYCB repertory, including Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Stars and Stripes to Sousa marches, Tarantella to Gottschalk and Who Cares? to Gershwin. “It’s funny if you think about it. Balanchine lived in the US his entire adult life, loved American culture and thought highly of Rodgers and Gershwin. I was always surprised he never got around to doing more ballets to American music,” says Martins, who has included six Balanchine pieces in the festival.
In contrast, Robbins, with deep roots in Broadway theater, embraced American music, often choosing pieces by composers who were his contemporaries. Interplay, Fancy Free and I’m Old Fashioned share a program saluting the centennial of composer Morton Gould. The spare Glass Pieces by Glass, finger-snapping N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz by Robert Prince and Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite also turn up throughout the festival.
But the NYCB choreographer with the most American music on his resume is Martins, who was drawn to American sounds after seeing “West Side Story” on the big screen as a teenager in Denmark. “I was always in love with America, and American music had a different sensibility, a different pulse that just appealed to me,” he says. “I also liked working with music by composers of my generation, rather than delving into scores by Aaron Copland or William Schuman.”
As it happened, Calcium Light Night, the first ballet Martins choreographed, was to the music of Charles Ives for a performance of NYCB dancers at Brooklyn College in 1977. Martins, still a principal dancer with the Company at the time, inherited the score from Tanner, who was too busy to choreograph it. “I had never choreographed in my life, and Richard [Tanner] said, ‘Well, this is the perfect chance.’” The ballet can be seen on an all-Martins program that also features Barber Violin Concerto, River of Light to a score by Wuorinen and Fearful Symmetries with music by Adams, who has been a frequent collaborator for Martins.
In choosing ballets for the current festival Martins’ goal was to have a broad representation of American composers. From Gottschalk (1829-1869) to Muhly (born 1981), composer of the score for Two Hearts by Benjamin Millepied, they span numerous decades and styles. “I wish we could have squeezed in more, including John Corigliano and Wynton Marsalis, but there’s only so much we can do,” Martins says.
Indeed, filling the theater with the “Made in America” sounds of Broadway show tunes, Sousa marches, contemporary classical music and soul is a splendid way to inspire audiences and the dancers alike this spring.
NYCB’s American Music Festival runs from April 30 to May 19
For complete performance calendar and tickets visit: www. nycballet.com/amf