In his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine writes of Maurice Ravel that “The composer has always meant a great deal to me,” and with good reason: Balanchine’s engagement with the composer’s works corresponds to a number of significant moments in his career. At a mere 21 years old, Balanchine had just moved to France when he was invited by Serge Diaghilev to join his celebrated Ballets Russes; his first assignment as a choreographer for the troupe was L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, with a libretto by Colette and set to music by Ravel. The 1925 premiere in Monte Carlo was the first of many stagings of this particular work by Balanchine, who returned to the music throughout his career, including, notably, setting it for the first performance by Ballet Society, the predecessor to NYCB, in 1946.
The second-to-last time Balanchine staged L’Enfant (prior to a 1981 recording for PBS’s Dance in America) was for NYCB’s 1975 “Hommage à Ravel.” Modeled on the wildly successful Stravinsky Festival three years prior, the two-week celebration of the so-called (and so-disputed, by Ravel) impressionist composer included performances of a number of repertory ballets, as well as premieres of a whopping 16 new works, all set to selections from Ravel’s oeuvre. Then-ballet master Jerome Robbins contributed the choreography for four pieces: Une barque sur l'océan (“A Boat on the Ocean”), set to an excerpt from Ravel’s Miroirs; the sweet, delightful Ma mère l'Oye (“Mother Goose”); Chansons madécasses (“Madagascan Songs”); and Concerto in G, or as it is now known, In G Major.
Born in 1875 to a relatively free-thinking couple in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, Maurice Ravel began his formal musical education at the age of seven and was admitted to the preeminent Conservatoire de Paris at 14. There, Ravel first experienced the conservative institutional opposition that would plague his career through the first decade of the twentieth century—though it should be noted this hostility was not without a degree of cultivation on the young musician's part. Around 1900, with Manuel de Falla and Igor Stravinsky, Ravel and a number of his French colleagues formed a rebel band of composers under the nom de guerre “Les Apaches,” or “hooligans,” united by their embrace of new Russian music and support for Claude Debussy’s iconoclastic Pelléas et Mélisande. Stravinsky would remain a steadfast advocate of Ravel’s work after the French composer’s death; incidentally, in his Thirty Years, Lincoln Kirstein wrote of NYCB’s Ravel festival, “After Stravinsky, there was no other contemporary composer available whose body of work, as a whole, could serve as a possible source for repertory.”
At the conclusion of the first World War, Ravel had achieved a degree of international success and was considered by many to be France’s greatest living composer, with increasingly well-received performances of a number of his orchestral and other works, including revivals at the Paris Opera of his Daphnis et Chloé and L'heure espagnole. He embarked on a four-month-long tour of North America in 1928, conducting performances for the definitively French fee of “a minimum guarantee of $10,000 and a constant supply of Gauloises cigarettes.” His noted keenness for American culture included an enthusiastic embrace of the jazz he encountered on the stages of Harlem and Greenwich Village, a lasting influence that can be heard in one of his final compositions, his Piano Concerto in G Major of 1931.
With the bracing crack of a whip, the Piano Concerto opens on sparkling arpeggios from the piano accompanying a playful melody first heard on the piccolo. Bubbling entrances from the woodwinds follow, then a brassy solo trumpet and a few glittering taps of the triangle, and the first movement cascades forward into a dramatic, sudden withdrawal, with the languorous piano and bluesy solos that follow immediately recalling George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Ravel was an acknowledged fan of the American composer’s work, though he named Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns as the Concerto's progenitors—and the former’s influence is particularly evident in the delicate adagio. An exhibitionist work that sets “pyrotechnical demands” to and requires an exceedingly dexterous performance of the pianist, Ravel embraced descriptions of the Concerto as perhaps less than devastating; as he said in a contemporaneous Daily Telegraph interview, “I believe that a concerto can be both gay and brilliant without necessarily being profound or aiming at dramatic effect.”
Robbins’ choreography celebrates the score’s playfulness in the first and third ensemble movements, with chic, jazzy steps for a corps of ten dancers. For the central adagio movement, Robbins choreographed a romantic pas de deux for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, marked with unique moments of hesitation and ambivalence that perhaps reflect the turbulence in Robbins’ personal life at the time. It was the first ballet Robbins set for Farrell, who had just returned to the Company following a four-year absence spent dancing with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century (Robbins would, eventually, choreograph a second work specifically for Farrell, much later in their respective careers: 1985’s In Memory of…). Farrell’s return was received with excitement, and she danced featured roles in several ballets throughout the Ravel festival; of those performances, Kirstein wrote, “Like other powerful artists she invests her own mystery, an enclosed alchemy of power, vulnerability, the control and conscious manipulation of tension. When she dances it is not only a body in motion but an apparatus analyzed and directed by operating intelligence. It is as if some sort of radium slumbers but is always present and ready in her corporal center; when ignited, it glows white heat.”
Writers Anka Muhlstein and Louis Begley, in a tribute to Robbins, note that In G Major contains “...the qualities that mark Robbins’s genius: limitless empathy for the American scene, an irrepressible and unpredictable sense of humor.” Yet at the time of the festival, reviews of Robbins’ contributions were decidedly mixed. Coinciding as the performances did with a series of upheavals in Robbins' personal life, as well as a certain lingering self-doubt rarely absent from his legendary career, the choreographer experienced a period of crisis following the festival. Escaping the many pressures of the city and the artistic demands of both NYCB and Broadway, Robbins traveled to France for the Paris Opera’s premiere of Concerto in G, or as the French referred to it, En Sol.
Robbins was immediately taken by artist Erté’s costume and set designs for En Sol, with bright, colorful accents on the dancers’ leotards and wave patterns repeated throughout that give the ballet an irresistibly summery feel. A Russian emigre best known for works that regularly donned the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in the early years of the twentieth century, Erté trained as a ballet dancer under Marius Petipa’s daughter before finding his artistic calling, and often noted the influence dance had on his creations. At the time of En Sol’s premiere, Erté was experiencing a late-career resurgence in popularity due to the Art Deco revival of the 1970s. Perhaps it is the confluence of early-twentieth-century pop culture referents that makes Erté’s designs for En Sol so successful, or perhaps it is the artist’s unique familiarity with ballet as a former dancer himself; in any case, Robbins had the costumes and backdrops imported for future performances of In G Major, and they are still used in New York City Ballet’s production today.