By Charles M. Joseph
Some partnerships last longer than others. When the visionary Serge Diaghilev first paired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine, the impresario’s Ballets Russes once again showed it was willing to take risks. The resulting 1928 Apollo easily would have earned its landmark status on its own merits even if the composer and choreographer had never worked together on another ballet. But of course they did, time and again. Over the succeeding decades each new collaboration fortified the strength of their partnership. So what was it about Stravinsky and Balanchine’s chemistry that clicked? How did they manage to produce a body of work that remains as vital today as ever?
In acknowledging Stravinsky and Balanchine’s thoroughgoing Russianness, history may still be undervaluing the keystone of their successful working relationship. Their mutual love of theater is directly attributable to a cultural heritage that prized the primitive power of folkloristic and ceremonial traditions. During his earliest years Stravinsky breathed in the vibrancy of St. Petersburg as well as the simple indigenous melodies and rhythms of peasants singing in the fields. Such impressions would resonate throughout the composer’s life. Balanchine fondly recalled the grandeur of rites and religious rituals he witnessed as a child. The smell of incense, the sight of brightly colored ecclesiastical vestments, and the magisterial pomp of high priests processing—such potently sensorial influences were indelibly etched in the choreographer’s memory. Vestiges of such images are immediately apparent in Firebird and throughout Apollo and Orpheus.
Beyond a shared ethnic heritage, both men were avowed classicists. Their embrace of protocol, discipline, and the beauty of order are evident in works as divergent as Danses Concertantes, Agon, and Monumentum pro Gesualdo. Yet their devotion to classicism did not dissuade them from espousing unconventional and often unpopular views about the relationship of music and dance. Stravinsky spoke of a need for dance and music to struggle with one another. Choreography that achieved nothing more than mirroring the music would prove wearisome, he insisted. Instead, the composer urged a pushing and pulling between choreography and music; a jousting that would create a counterpoint of separate but interlocking visual and aural layers.
Balanchine’s view of choreography was even more contrarian. A careful balancing of eye and ear was essential. He constantly aimed to strike a temporal and spatial equilibrium, as in Movements for Piano and Orchestra wherein intricately structured musical and choreographic elements are precisely calibrated and fused. And while Balanchine was quick to praise Stravinsky as “the architect of time,” he himself was no less aware of the structural principles needed to unite music and dance. Never would he allow dance to overwhelm let alone hide the music, especially when choreographing Stravinsky’s works. His unapologetic commitment to illuminating the composer’s score as a first priority was unprecedented. For many, it was also profane. As one respected critic persisted, ballet music should provide nothing more than unobtrusive aural scenery. Elevating a musical score beyond its secondary role as background accompaniment would diminish dance’s expressive power. Heretical or not, the insightful Balanchine’s less-rather-than-more approach to dance matched Stravinsky’s often complex music with seamless perfection.
Such unorthodox views are no doubt partially traceable to an early crossover exposure to each other’s discipline—a formative exposure that established a mutual sensitivity to the other’s art. Given his father’s status as a celebrated operatic singer/actor in the Mariinsky Theater, the young Stravinsky encountered the beauty of ballet early on. He attended rehearsals at the Mariinsky, learned the five basic positions of ballet, and quickly came to appreciate the physical demands and stamina required of dancers. His earliest letters disclose a growing interest in ballet and theater as much as in music. Even into his later years, a very physical Stravinsky would dance certain passages for Balanchine and his dancers to demonstrate what he had in mind. For Balanchine, it was music that completely charmed him long before fate eventually led him to dance. He studied music intently from the inside out. A fluent pianist, Balanchine also composed, familiarized himself with multiple instruments, and pursued music theory more rigorously than many realize. His archives disclose his considerable skills in transcribing complicated orchestral scores for piano reduction. Perhaps the Russian designer Pavel Tchelichev was not far from the mark in quipping that Balanchine was a musician first and a choreographer second. His comprehensive grasp of music allowed him to engage Stravinsky on a level that no other choreographer could. So broad was his knowledge that Stravinsky grandly decreed, if one wishes to choreograph successfully, then like Balanchine, one must be a musician first.
Rather unemotionally, both men described creating ballet as the shaping of time and space. But one should not misconstrue such a seemingly abstract characterization as a sign of dispassion. Those who were close to them could feel their intensity and fervor. Moreover they delighted in the simple ethic of work. It fulfilled them. While intellectually curious about most anything, in their hearts Stravinsky and Balanchine were craftsmen. They were doers; invigorated while they were working and impatient when they were not. Boundlessly energetic, neither man was willing to wait for inspiration to intercede. Stravinsky’s self-portrayal as a composer ferreting out ideas like an animal foraging for food may seem disappointingly unromantic in shunning the Muse, yet it is a fair assessment of how they worked. Make no mistake: it was the active process of “inventing” (to use the composer’s word) that exhilarated them more than anything. Each new work presented a fresh problem to be solved. Once the solution emerged in the form of a finished ballet, their interest immediately turned elsewhere.
Their shared histories, working methods, and artistic beliefs, were buoyed by an abiding respect, a mutual sense of humor, and both men’s genuine affection for one another. Taken together, these ingredients created a cohesion that would sustain an enduring partnership as well as a life-long friendship. Their active collaborations ended several years before Stravinsky’s 1971 death. But even posthumously the composer’s music inspired Mr. Balanchine, as made unmistakably clear the very next year with the historic 1972 New York City Ballet Stravinsky Festival. Brilliant new ballets including Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, Symphony in Three Movements (all performed again this fall season in the same hall as they were premiered) confirmed just how extensive the span of the composer and choreographer’s legacy was. Indeed, that legacy continues to thrive. If longevity is a factor in measuring the significance of great works of art, then the Stravinsky/Balanchine repertoire surely meets such a criterion. In every way, these ballets have gone the distance in proving extraordinarily durable. And like all masterpieces, they beckon us to return to them regularly so that we may continue to unveil their timeless treasures.
Charles M. Joseph is Professor Emeritus at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. The author of four books on Stravinsky’s life, his most recent volume entitled Stravinsky’s Ballets, was recently released by Yale University Press.
Image: Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library