Balanchine & Stravinisky: The Sublime Couple

Classic Arts Features   Balanchine & Stravinisky: The Sublime Couple
Clive Barnes looks at one of the great collaborations between a choreographer and a composer.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. The names run together like vodka and caviar: remarkable separate, sublime together. Yes, Igor Stravinsky, born in Oranienbaum, Russia, in 1882, died in New York in 1971, and George Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg in 1904, died in New York in 1983, must truly be considered ballet's sublime couple.

They could, I suppose, be compared with Tschaikovsky and Petipa in the 19th century (indeed, that is the only relationship between a composer and a choreographer that seems remotely similar), but the differences between Stravinsky and Balanchine and those 19th-century counterparts are probably more notable than their similarities.

The career arcs of Balanchine and Stravinsky ran parallel in space‹Russia, France, the United States‹separated by the time gap more or less appropriate to the difference in their ages. Both were Russian émigrés, rejecting the Soviet regime from which they had defected; and both had ballet careers which started with the St. Petersburg/Paris impresario Serge Diaghilev; and both found creative freedom and success in the American studios of New York City Ballet.

Yet perhaps their greatest link was an aesthetic belief in a certain sparse simplicity, which led Stravinsky to the twelve-tone scores of his last period, and found Balanchine rejecting, or at least downplaying, so much in dance that was not dance itself. In this return to basic principles and bare bones, Stravinsky and Balanchine were catching the zeitgeist of their century on the wing. As a result, Agon is the archetypal 20th-century ballet (not necessarily the best, although it would surely be a player on any conceivable ten-best list, but the most purely typical). Just as, by an almost coincidence, the Tschaikovsky/Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake is the archetypal ballet of the 19th century.

The two men first met on a professional level in 1925, a year after Balanchine, together with a small group of dancers (including Alexandra Danilova), had defected from Soviet Russia and joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Diaghilev, who had recently broken with his choreographer, Léonide Massine, and failed to persuade the modernist Russian choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky to join him, appointed the young and comparatively inexperienced Balanchine‹a disciple of Goleizovsky‹as choreographer to his company. Apart from a few opera ballets, Balanchine's first real assignment was preparing a new version of Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), originally choreographed by Massine in 1920, as a starring vehicle for 14-year-old Alicia Markova.

It is from Markova, largely from the 1995 video showing her re-creating excerpts from the ballet for The George Balanchine Foundation, that we can get the best impression of those Nightingale rehearsals, and this first collaboration between the two great men. And luckily for the art of ballet they got on extremely well‹understanding one another both as artists and artisans. The latter was important, for what Balanchine and Stravinsky had was not simply admiration for one another as creative forces, but also, and equally as important, awareness of one another as craftsmen. Both valued perspiration almost as high as inspiration, and while they took enormous pride in their work and were unusually secure in their creative abilities, neither regarded his work as anything out of the ordinary, except in quality. One made music, the other made dance. It was what they did‹just as woodworking was what a carpenter did, and cooking was what a chef did.

Of course, both would have agreed that there were carpenters and carpenters, and chefs and chefs. Also, right from the beginning of their creative relationship it was clear, from every account, that Stravinsky was the senior partner. He was, after all, about 22 years older than Balanchine, who as an awed young man in Petrograd had created student works to his music. This sense of awe persisted to the end. Lincoln Kirstein once remarked to me, "The only two people Balanchine feels humble before are God and Stravinsky."

This fantastic collaboration‹and unbroken friendship‹lasted until the second (or third, if you count the 1937 Festival given by the American Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House) Stravinsky Festival in 1982, given just after the composer's death, and less than a year before Balanchine's own. It was a collaboration, of course, crowned by New York City Ballet's 1972 Stravinsky Festival, which within the space of an enchanted week offered 31 ballets to the master's music, 20 of them premieres, and eight of those by Balanchine himself, including two masterpieces, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements.

Yet just how much of a collaboration was it? It's a very tricky point. Nominally Stravinsky provided only three commissioned scores for Balanchine: Card Party in 1937, commissioned by Kirstein and Edward Warburg for the American Ballet; Orpheus in 1948, commissioned by Kirstein for Ballet Society; and Agon in 1957, commissioned by New York City Ballet with funds from The Rockefeller Foundation. There was also, far less happily, their ill-fated 1962 experiment for television, Noah and the Flood, an all-round disaster not mitigated by its stage version 20 years later.

Yet these acknowledged collaborations provide anything but the entire story. Of the 29 major ballets (only 28 scores, for Stravinsky Violin Concerto had in 1941 served for an earlier ballet, Balustrade, for the Original Ballet Russe, and two of those scores, Pulcinella and Persephone, were choreographed in association with others), many, and probably most, have that special hand-crafted air that often results from a choreographer and composer working in total unison.

The curious thing is that probably only on Orpheus and Agon did the two really work hand-in-hand, mind-in-mind. Indeed, reading Charles M. Joseph's invaluable book Stravinsky & Balanchine‹which is to be warmly recommended to anyone interested in either artist, let alone both!‹it is apparent that they probably worked as much together on Apollo as on Card Party. Apollo was famously commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and given its world premiere in Washington, D.C., with choreography by Adolph Bolm. Yet it seems that although Stravinsky was certainly concerned with the logistical requirements of the Washington production, from the beginning he also had Diaghilev and Diaghilev's favorite dancer, Serge Lifar, in mind‹and probably Balanchine as well.

The resulting work was an iconoclastic masterpiece‹the first coherent statement of neo-classicism in dance. While in Card Party, which Stravinsky had started primarily as an orchestral piece, and then loaded down with an almost impenetrable (even according to Hoyle) scenario of a poker game, the result was something Balanchine never seemed to get hold of. (Admittedly I only saw it four or five times in London a year after its 1951 revival.) Eventually he did recommend the score, bereft of its formal scenario but under its then better-known name, Jeu de Cartes, to Peter Martins.

However the smooth, effortless manner in which Balanchine's and Stravinsky's sensibilities merged can be evidenced, of course, in Orpheus and Agon, where choreographer and composer often exchanged precise timings‹how long, say, should Orpheus stand or Eurydice disappear‹in the manner of Petipa and Tschaikovsky with The Nutcracker. All the same some of the truly remarkable examples of the Balanchine/Stravinsky partnership are instanced by the many occasions in which Balanchine would work with a pre-existing score. Admittedly, some of the more famous Stravinsky ballet scores he almost ostentatiously avoided. He took up Firebird‹partly I suspect because the Marc Chagall scenery and costumes became available, his company needed a box-office hit, and he could provide a great role for his then wife, Maria Tallchief‹but would have nothing to do with Petrushka, Le Sacre du Printemps, Les Noces, or, curiously perhaps, Scènes de Ballet.

Yet what Balanchine did with existing Stravinsky was indeed often miraculous. Kirstein once quoted Balanchine to me as saying that Stravinsky had told him that with some of his later music he could hardly hear it until the choreography revealed it to him. Flattery between two old friends at the end of a lifetime, perhaps‹there have been worse gestures. But it rings true to a remarkable extent. In 1963, just before (or perhaps just after) the premiere of Variations, set to Stravinsky's Variations for Piano and Orchestra, I vividly recall sitting in Balanchine's apartment while he played a piano transcription of the piece, and, almost in passing, casually describing bits of the action. I thought then, Good God, it is almost as if he had composed this. And, good God, it was.

Clive Barnes is the dance and senior theater critic for The New York Post and the advisory editor to Dance Magazine.

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