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An Inter-American Affair

Initially commissioned in 1941, Estancia is an international ballet 69 years in the making

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By the late 1930s the United States government’s interest in the spread of fascist ideology to those countries neighboring its own neutral shores achieved an actionable pitch; though physical combat had yet to reach the Americas, the cultural front was ablaze with films, newspapers, other print publications and more, the products of the robust propaganda machines of Germany and Italy. In an effort to counter the fascist advance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s state department established the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), with then-businessman Nelson A. Rockefeller acting as the Coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Relations for Latin America. As his title suggests, Rockefeller’s role was to pave the way for investment in Latin America, fostering business relationships through cultural exchange. More specifically, beyond traditional intelligence-gathering, the activity funded by the OIAA was intended to oppose totalitarian messaging with expressions of non-political, Pan-American unity, in keeping with Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” rhetoric of the time. 

The OIAA sent such cultural luminaries as Orson Welles, Bing Crosby, and Walt Disney to the southern climes, tasked with acting as goodwill ambassadors and propagating the Pan-American message, with varying degrees of success. Along these lines, the OIAA funded a tour of Latin America by the American Ballet Caravan in 1941. Performed by dancers from American Ballet, which had just concluded work for Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood under Balanchine’s direction, and the Ballet Caravan, a small touring company headed by Lincoln Kirstein, the tour called for a display of “American dance,” intended to impress upon neighboring nations the U.S.’s artistic mastery while fostering a non-political approach to the artform, an effort very much in line with Kirstein’s own goal of developing a purely American form of ballet with Balanchine. Along with Americana favorites like Billy the Kid, set to the Aaron Copland score, the program featured a number of newly choreographed works, including two now-classic ballets from Balanchine: Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial—the latter known today as Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. Both remain mainstays in the repertory. 

During the company’s stop in Argentina, Kirstein caught a performance of composer Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 1, Panambí, a Stravinsky-reminiscent ballet that essentially transfers the Firebird to Latin America. Based on a romantic legend from the Guaraní Indians, a tribe from northern Argentina, Panambí represents an early instance of Ginastera’s efforts to develop a uniquely Argentine sound. Kirstein was so taken by the ballet, he decided on the spot to commission a new work from Ginastera, with sets by painter Horacio Butler, to be choreographed by Balanchine upon their return to the states. This was part and parcel to Kirstein’s view of the OIAA project as a real opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, rather than purely delivering US propaganda to the Latin American countries he and the American Ballet Caravan visited—and, again, a chance to further develop the purely American, non-Russian ballet he’d envisioned for his and Balanchine’s dreamed-of Company. In a way, the Kirstein-Ginastera partnership would seem to be the ultimate expression of Pan-American unity, in that both men were driven by a nationalist vision such that bringing their respective projects together would result in a uniquely blended product; yet the apolitical motivations of the OIAA may have been out of line with Ginastera’s reasoning for wishing to develop a specifically Argentine sound.

Kirstein’s commission called for a five-scene ballet in one act, “based on Argentine country life." Inspired by the American Ballet Caravan’s performance of Billy the Kid and its portrayal of the American west via the mythic figure of the cowboy, Ginastera turned to his own country’s “cowboy,” the gaucho. In particular, Ginastera looked to Martín Fierro, José Hernández’s 1873 epic poem, often referred to as the “Argentine Don Quixote” for its prevalence and lasting status as a cultural touchstone for the country. In two volumes, the poem narrates Fierro’s origins as a rancher in the Argentine Pampas, or lowland plains; conscripted to fight against indigenous peoples in the historical “Conquest of the Desert,” Fierro is mistreated by military leadership and eventually escapes. He returns to his ranch only to find it completely deserted and barren. A fugitive without a home, Fierro wanders the countryside, singing and dueling, “haunted and hunted on the vast plains.”

Ginastera’s score for Estancia (or “Ranch”) is peppered throughout with short excerpts from the poem, sung and occasionally spoken by a male soloist; his plaintive, indignant cries interrupt the narrative and imbue the score with the gaucho’s loneliness amidst the expansive untrammeled countryside, his lifestyle banished to obsolescence by encroaching urbanization. That same urbanization can be heard in the more mechanistic rhythms and clipped tempos of movements like “Los puebleros” or “The townsfolk,” interspersed with the lush, earthier sounds that capture the life of a thriving ranch and the romance of sundown in the Pampas. Much of the score moves at the lively cadence of the malambo, a regional “competitive all male folk dance,” heard most explicitly in the concluding “Danza Final,” often referred to simply as “Malambo.” 

“Whenever I have crossed the Pampa or have lived in it for a time, my spirit felt itself inundated by changing impressions, now joyful, now melancholy, some full of euphoria and others replete with a profound tranquility, produced by its limitless immensity and by the transformation that the countryside undergoes in the course of a day,” Ginastera says of Estancia’s inspiration. Appropriately, the ballet presents a simple narrative that unfolds over 24 hours, yet captures the essence of life on the Pampas. A man who’s grown tired of the fast pace of city life escapes to a ranch, where he witnesses the hard work and simpler, natural rhythms of rural life, and finds himself falling for a beautiful cowgirl. Though initially suspicious of the urban encroacher and the interfering townspeople who come to tempt him back to town, the object of his affection is eventually won over when she sees him tame a wild horse. By sundown they’re officially an item, and come the following dawn, the city boy joins the vibrant activity of the ranch.

Unfortunately, the rather dire financial circumstances of the time, Kirstein’s support for the war effort, and the eventual drafting of a significant number of the American Ballet Caravan’s dancers prevented Estancia’s premiere in New York. Though Balanchine eventually secured approval by Argentina’s Teatro Colón, where he served as the maître de ballet for a single season in 1941, to stage Estancia with Butler’s set designs, the ballet didn’t appear on that theater’s stage until 1952—and with choreography by Michel Borowski and sets by Dante Ortolani. In the meantime, Ginastera presented excerpts of the score as a four-movement suite in the concert hall; the music was wildly successful, winning several awards for the then-young composer. Aaron Copland, who was also traveling in Latin America on the OIAA’s dime in 1941, met Ginastera in Buenos Aires and was immediately taken with him and his work, writing in his diary, “There is a young composer here who is generally looked upon as the ‘white hope’ of Argentine music.” Though Estancia failed, at the time, to establish the “Pan-American unity” Kirstein sought via the commission, it did contribute significantly to the international recognition of Ginastera, and the development of a uniquely Argentine sound in classical music.

Such would be the conclusion of Estancia’s history with regards to the New York City Ballet and its founders, were it not for 2010’s Architecture of Dance: New Choreography and Music Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Then-Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins commissioned five new ballets to be choreographed in collaboration with Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who would design the scenography for each of these works. Though initially imagined as a single architectural structure that would perhaps shift or adapt to the five new ballets, Calatrava found through working with the individual choreographers that each dance required its own, unique set design. 

An excerpt from the finale of Christopher Wheeldon's Estancia

The resulting designs for Estancia are beautiful, cinematic backdrops that capture the green expanses of the Pampas, providing a romantic stage for the unfolding narrative. Interestingly enough, the sets are somewhat similar to the original designs by Horacio Butler. Butler’s sketches, which were featured in the recent MoMA exhibition “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” show a backdrop of a fairly open landscape, with scattered livestock, a windmill and small red building in the background, and an open blue sky. In addition to this expansive representation of the rural setting, Butler designed potential stage elements, such as “Herd cut in silhouette on wheels,” likely intended to cross the stage like a herd of cattle at some point during the performance. Designs also included a carriage transporting a couple, pulled by a horse on wheels. Both Butler and Calatrava capture the “limitless spaces” Ginastera described with their sets; designer Carlos Campos’ costumes for the 2010 premiere contribute to the sense of rural and urban worlds colliding, while his horse bodysuits for some of the dancers answer to the movement represented in Butler’s wheeled designs.

The similarities shouldn’t be entirely unexpected: choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, in setting Estancia, chose to work with Ginastera’s 1941 story. On first encountering the score and learning that Balanchine had never come around to choreographing it, Wheeldon described Estancia as “terrific, uplifting music,” saying “I’ve got to do a ballet to this.” Wheeldon sticks to the five-movement structure and the tale of city-country romance as outlined by Ginastera; finding that the narrative required further elaboration, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli was hired to complete the libretto, rounding out the international crew behind the creation of this unique ballet. 

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