A Feat Beyond Certainty: American Composer-Choreographer Relationships

Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring nearly drove its choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky around the bend. Already fragile emotionally, Nijinsky had to deal not only with the violence of the score, with its raw and frighteningly unpredictable tonalities and rhythms, but with infuriated ballet dancers who dug in their heels at working on this monstrosity with the fledgling choreographer. The audience at the ballet’s 1913 premiere in Paris was not much better. Strangely, however, the music became one of the most popular dance scores of the century, even turning up to accompany cavorting prehistorics in Walt Disney‘s Fantasia. And the Stravinsky-Nijinsky collaboration marked the beginning of dance as modern art distinct from the ballet spectacles—the Giselles and Swan Lakes—of the 19th century.

Balanchine never used the score for Rite of Spring, though it fascinated him as a young ballet student in Russia. But his watershed collaboration with Stravinsky was one of the few true, mutually enhancing music-and-dance collaborations in dance history.

The relationship began through Serge Diaghilev‘s brilliant artistic matchmaking. Both Stravinsky and Balanchine were in their twenties when they began to work with the impresario and his lavish Ballets Russes, at first separately and later together. Their partnership proper was born in 1928 with the company’s premiere of Apollo, which told the story of the young god’s birth and his choice of a muse. A simple, luminous signature ballet, Apollo helped establish Balanchine as a neo-classicist.

That designation later helped to characterize and distinguish the New York City Ballet, founded by Balanchine with Lincoln Kirstein. Rooted in the classical technique of his childhood ballet studies in Russia, Balanchine’s whittling-down or distillation of classical ballet incorporated quick, minute awkwardnesses that had never been seen in ballet, the expressive exceptions that proved the rule.

“Who listens to The Rite of Spring with empathy?” the music writer Edward Rothstein asked in 1982. The coolness and distance of much of Stravinsky’s music tends not to inspire passion. Working with the intrinsically dramatic material of the human body, Balanchine could not distance himself from the emotions, however much that fastidious artist may have wanted to.

Stravinsky had moved away from Russian-inspired music toward neo-classicism in 1924. His Apollo score was not composed for Balanchine but the two worked closely together on the ballet. The music, Balanchine said, made him think of a white-on-white painting. He looked back on Apollo as “the turning point of my life.” “In its discipline and restraint, its sustained oneness of feeling, the score was a revelation,” Balanchine said in 1949. “It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I too could eliminate. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be multiple possibilities to the one which is inevitable.”

Working with Balanchine over the years, Stravinsky came to see in dance “the perfect Apollonian principle” that had long guided him. In ballet, he saw “the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the haphazard.” And it was he who first talked of “hearing the music with one’s eyes” in Balanchine’s dances, specifically in the 1963 “Movements for Piano and Orchestra.” The performance of that Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet, the composer said, was “like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.”

Stravinsky acknowledged the long friendship between the two Russian emigrés as one of the most important artistic relationships of his life. It was certainly crucial for Balanchine. Stravinsky recognized in Balanchine an innate musicality that enabled the choreographer to free himself from the requirements of the music—from the tyranny, for instance, of the rhythmic beat—in much the same way a gifted dancer is able to let go of technique and steps, once they are thoroughly retained, and simply perform.

Stravinsky’s early flowering had a great deal to do with Diaghilev’s demand for dance scores. And Balanchine was a choreographer with an unusual degree of musical training. Shortly before graduating from ballet school, he had enrolled in the Petrograd State Conservatory of Music, where he studied for three years and dreamed of becoming a pianist. His first choreographic experiments in Russia occurred, he recalled, because “I loved music and suddenly I wanted to move people to music, to arrange dances.”

Although Stravinsky composed only four scores for Balanchine (“Jeu de Cartes,” “Circus Polka,” Orpheus, and Agon), Balanchine went on to create a huge body of work to Stravinsky scores, some of them for City Ballet festivals in 1937, 1972, and 1982 that were devoted to his music. (Tchaikovsky and Ravel were similarly honored in other festivals.) The 1957 Agon is considered to be one of Balanchine’s greatest masterworks, a dance that evoked the urgent energy of the city that Balanchine worked in and loved, and set the seal on the City Ballet’s spare, clear way of moving.

Their collaborative process was almost comically to the point, according to Balanchine’s biographer Bernard Taper. The two would agree on a subject and the sections into which the ballet and music would be divided. How much music did Balanchine want, Stravinsky might ask, for a specific variation or segment? Coming up with 31 seconds perhaps, Balanchine would be met by Stravinsky’s teasing, “Could you settle for 32?” The composer could be sharp, however, with his protégé. Working on the 1948 Orpheus, Balanchine asked for “about two-and-a-half minutes” for one pas de deux. In this work process, Stravinsky retorted, there was no such thing as “about.”

From A Feat Beyond Certainty: A HyperHistory of American Composer-Choreographer Relationships
By Jennifer Dunning
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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