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Variations on a Solo

Originally choreographed on Paul Taylor, the Variations solo from Balanchine's Episodes returns to the stage

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This winter, NYCB is reviving a dance that hasn’t been performed by the Company since 1989: Variations, the solo comprising the fourth movement of Balanchine’s Episodes, first set on Paul Taylor in 1959 and presented now in tribute to the late, great choreographer, and Peter Frame, the late NYCB dancer who performed the solo from 1986-1989. The history of this solo, and the ballet surrounding it, is more complicated than that of most ballets; we outline and explore that history in more depth below. 

The story of Episodes begins with Balanchine’s introduction to the music of Austrian composer Anton Webern, a student of Arnold Schoenberg and a key figure in the Second Viennese School. Webern is best known for his utilization of twelve-tone techniques in his music; most famously developed by Schoenberg, “twelve-tone” refers to a style of composition that assigns each of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale equal representation and weight, preventing the piece from being in any specific key. Webern’s work in particular has been celebrated for, among other aspects, its influential concision, in part a result of his more schematic and non-thematic approach to composition. For the listener, the resulting music is by turns intellectually stimulating and aurally demanding; unfolding in weighted silences and searingly spare, atonal snippets, his compositions often develop an inherent sense of suspense. 

"This kind of music, which Mozart and Stravinsky have also written, is like a rose—you can admire it deeply but you cannot inject your personal feelings into it.”

George Balanchine


It is this very openness, both in sound and in lack of any particular theme, which seemed to appeal to Balanchine who, once introduced to Webern’s work by his frequent collaborator Igor Stravinsky, found it intrinsically well-suited to choreography. In an oft-quoted passage from his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Balanchine described the way Webern’s music “...fills air like molecules: it is written for atmosphere. … This kind of music, which Mozart and Stravinsky have also written, is like a rose—you can admire it deeply but you cannot inject your personal feelings into it.” As a tribute to the composer, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein (the latter of whom shared Mr. B’s affection for Webern’s unique oeuvre) decided a ballet should be choreographed to Webern’s orchestral works, and that this offered an opportunity to collaborate with Martha Graham. 
 
As realized, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call that first incarnation of Episodes from 1959 a collaboration; the titans of what were considered “warring schools” of dance at the time didn’t so much as work together on the final piece, but rather divvied up the available material and presented two separate dances that could stand as solidly on their own as together—and as they would ever after, following the premiere performances. 

Graham choreographed Part I, a moving realization in modern dance vocabulary of Mary Queen of Scots’ thoughts approaching the moment of her execution, with Graham in the role of the doomed monarch and four NYCB dancers included in the ensemble. In dramatic costumes by Karinska, Mary steps away from her throne to revisit the key episodes which led to her dark destiny; she runs to, then rejects, her power-hungry lover, Bothwell; then she confronts her soon-to-be murderess, Queen Elizabeth of England, in a “courtly tennis match” which Mary inevitably loses. Climbing back into her royal robes, Mary’s throne transforms into a scaffold, and thus her bloody end is delivered.

"If only we could locate those five minutes on the universal calendar, we would have the philosophical turning point of human history.”

John Martin, The New York Times

Part II began after a short intermission, with five movements choreographed by Balanchine to works spanning Webern’s output from 1911-1941. The first was an ensemble dance for four couples to Symphony, op. 1; followed by a pas de deux to Five Pieces, op. 10; then a new couple in a pas de deux accompanied by four ballerinas and danced to Concerto, op. 24. The fourth movement was the solo choreographed on Paul Taylor, then a member of Martha Graham’s company, set to Variations, op. 30; and the ballet concluded with the Ricercata for Six Voices from Bach’s Musical Offering for an ensemble finale. Notably, Five Pieces, the Concerto, and the Ricercata were all heard in New York for the first time at these performances of Episodes at New York City Center. 

With his half of the 1959 version of Episodes, Balanchine achieved a sort of creative zenith in his manipulation of the forms of classical ballet to decidedly “neo” ends. Brimming with unique contortions and brazenly new combinations, and devoted to treatments of the ballet dancers’ bodies that were wildly unexpected and entirely non-narrative, Episodes II, as it was to be called following the premiere, was both shocking and, for some, disturbing, as is reflected in the ballet’s critical reception. John Martin, the influential contemporaneous dance critic for The New York Times, wrote with some degree of flabbergast that following the short intermission, Episodes entered a world of “logic without reason,” where dancers “have become essentially an organization of bones and muscles,” and “uniformed instruments for design. … If only we could locate those five minutes [of the intermission] on the universal calendar, we would have the philosophical turning point of human history.” 

Thus, Graham’s modern half of Episodes hearkened to the heritage of costume drama and historical narrative, with courtly characters and “rich orchestrations” [read: non-12-tone music], while Balanchine’s ballet, despite being constructed from the more established dance tradition, was as boundary-breaking as ever, with costumes limited to black-and-white leotards and positions and steps that advanced wildly beyond his own already very avant-garde work. Both halves were celebrated on Episodes’ premiere, and perhaps this juxtaposition, and its surprising nuances, served best to bring the mastery of the two creators into high relief.

An excerpt from George Balanchine's Episodes

In his initial reactions to the ballet, Martin seems at particular pains to stretch his descriptive prose in time with Balanchine’s innovations in his reaction to Taylor’s solo, describing it as “Marvelously performed, spiritually hideous, humanly void and null, it gives us the ultimate psycho-electronic pulp.” Balanchine seemingly intertwined the language of his own neo-classical choreography with the alphabet of Taylor’s modern-dance-trained body, resulting in dance unlike any other and uniquely tuned to the abilities of this specific dancer. Taylor himself described the challenges he faced in the process of creating the solo with Balanchine, saying, “It hurt to do. I had to do special stretching exercises to get into some of those positions. … And the music—there was no melody. It was very broken. It just sounded like something gone berserk.” When Taylor asked Balanchine what the “subject” of this solo was to be, the choreographer famously responded, “Is like a fly in glass of milk, yes?” 
 
Following the premiere, NYCB performed Balanchine’s half as Episodes II, without Graham’s portion of the dance, for three seasons. Taylor later recalled to The New York Times that Balanchine described his performance as “tasty,” and apparently so delectable that Balanchine invited him to begin learning title roles in NYCB’s repertoire—to essentially join the Company. Taylor declined, deeply invested in pursuing his career in modern dance. Beginning in 1961, NYCB’s performances of what was from then on referred to as just Episodes no longer included the solo; as Lincoln Kirstein wrote regarding Taylor’s departure, “...there was no one remotely capable of replacing him. … Balanchine’s furiously contorted solo for Paul Taylor was a statement of such extreme virtuosic perversity in its angular deformation that it almost seemed an insult to a splendid physique.” To all appearances, the solo had been relegated to history.

Then, in 1986, Taylor returned to NYCB for the express purpose of reconstructing the infamous, insect-like solo on a member of the Company. After attending classes and becoming acquainted with the dancers, he selected Peter Frame, then a soloist, and the difficult work began. With no recordings of his original performances, Taylor relied solely on his recollections and extensive notes (including stick-figure drawings) he’d made while creating the solo with Balanchine. Frame learned from Taylor in Taylor’s studio, which, unlike the typical ballet rehearsal space, did not include a mirror, and required Frame to “feel” the solo in his body, rather than seeing himself enacting it; and just as Frame had to become adjusted to this modern-dance environment, Taylor adjusted the solo as he recreated it on Frame’s ballet dancer’s body. Rather than a one-to-one, perfect recreation, the solo, in a sense, came alive, a true re-creation.
 
Frame would go on to dance the Variations solo in NYCB’s performances of Episodes through 1989, just prior to his retirement from the stage in 1990. NYCB continued to present Episodes but from then on, the solo was no longer included, and it seemed exiled, again, to a life lived only in the past. 

Until 2014, that is, when Frame was invited to reconstruct the solo on several dancers at Miami City Ballet. As he recalled at the time, “When I was first presented with the solo, I had only ten days to learn it before performing. Luckily for these men, after I taught it, they would have plenty of time to integrate the 8-minute solo; digest the intricacies of the steps; learn the sounds of the challenging Webern score—challenging, since there are no counts; and then become accustomed to dancing in bare feet.” One of these dancers was Jovani Furlan, at that time a soloist with MCB. The experience of learning the Episodes solo left a lasting impression on Furlan, who describes Frame as a mentor, teacher, and guide; “He really wanted to nurture [dancers’] humanity, the way they approached dance with their humanity.”

In the transfer of the dance’s knowledge from Frame to Furlan, a sort of sympathetic magic occurred that transformed Furlan from student into teacher—because as fate would have it, Furlan joined NYCB as a soloist in August 2019, just in time to recreate the solo on its original stage, and to share that process with guest artist and former Paul Taylor dancer Michael Trusnovec. With just two weeks to prepare before joining Trusnovec in the studio, Furlan found that his body “remembered” the solo. Like Taylor and Frame before them, and Balanchine and Taylor before them, Trusnovec and Furlan worked together to again recreate this unique solo. Watching recordings of Frame’s performances from 1986 and 1989 and comparing the differences they observed therein, they recognized that even in Frame’s three years of dancing the solo, changes had been made; for Trusnovec what was distinctively “Taylor” about the movements—whether originally choreographed for him by Balanchine or not—had found its way to the surface, leading him to question whether it was the “real,” original solo after all. 

The enigmatic nature of Variations lies in this mystery inherent to its interrupted flow from past into present as much as in its groundbreaking, unusual choreography. The contemporaneous audience of the 1959 premiere remarked on the “inhumanity” of the piece as a whole—Episodes was experienced as a parable on the failings of humans to connect, the sense in which they collide, interact, and fall apart like fast-moving atoms (in a reflection of Balanchine’s admiring description of Webern’s music), often with an intensity, passion, and violence that seems to reverberate in the tension of the choreographed poses. Ironically, the transfer of this very non-human solo has required a deep intimacy between teacher and inheritor—a moment of shared humanity in the face of the choreography’s complexity, which cannot help but shine out from the twists and tangles of its performance. 

Guest artist Michael Trusnovec in the "Variations" movement of Balanchine's Episodes

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