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A Dance Without Plot

The story behind The Four Temperaments, Balanchine's seminal non-narrative work


Beginning with its 1946 premiere on the opening program of Ballet Society, a forerunner to New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments announced its choreographer’s commitment to innovation. A five-movement work subtitled, per Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, “A Dance Without Plot,” the piece combines the familiar classical ballet technique of the choreographer’s training and European background with the jazzier, modern dance-inflected movement that would come to represent his particularly American take on the art form, as proclaimed by NYCB’s co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. 

By its initial performance by the newly-formed NYCB in 1948, The Four Temperaments had lost none of its ability to shock, with its inverted gestures, rapid-fire transitions between contrasting positions, and a combination of serious, vigorous dance with sustained elegance that gave it a sort of ruthless quality—and all for aesthetic effect, rather than narrative locomotion or explication. The ballet marked a historical moment in the introduction of Balanchine’s singular take on the plotless work, and in the development of his unique style; writing for The Boston Globe in 1968, Margo Miller encapsulates what The Four Temperaments reveals of its choreographer’s gifts: “Balanchine speaks perfect ballet. But he is like the foreigner who, though at home in a host tongue, knows the color value of mispronouncing and misaccenting, of running two languages together… He makes a kind of dance bestiary and like the great draughtsman he is, he doesn’t show the sutures.” 

The Four Temperaments began life as a piece of music Balanchine commissioned in 1940 for use at a social gathering. He would host musicales and have musicians play new or lesser-known works for his guests, over refreshments; as the choreographer put it, “I had a nice apartment, two pianos, and friends.” He requested a new piece for piano and strings from composer Paul Hindemith, who had just settled in America. At the time, Hindemith’s neoclassical, contrapuntal music and sexually suggestive early operas had led to condemnation from Nazi officials. Following his inclusion in the Degenerate Music exhibition of 1938, Hindemith and his wife, who was of partial Jewish descent, emigrated to Switzerland before coming to the States. Hindemith’s composition for Balanchine eschewed the traditional tempo marking headers for its five movements, instead finding organizational inspiration in ancient medico-philosophical theory; the resulting work, titled “Theme with Four Variations (According to the Four Temperaments),” was initially performed in concert in 1941.

Hindemith’s source material dates to the earliest approaches to medical thought. Hippocrates, a Greek physician whose lifespan is thought to be approximately 460 to 370 BC, has been credited with introducing the theory that illnesses and death were tied to natural causes, rather than the workings of fate or celestial beings. Though it is fair to say that his work, and that of his followers, steered the sciences in a formative direction, much of Hippocrates’ thinking has been unsurprisingly disproven or significantly reformulated. One such since-debunked theory is that of humorism, an important precursor to the concept of temperaments as represented in Hindemith’s musical notations.

Ask la Cour in an excerpt from The Four Temperaments

In a treatise called On the Nature of Man, Hippocrates outlines humorism as it relates to medical diagnosis: “The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile [the four humors]. … Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed.” Thus any illness could be tied to an overabundance of one of these four humors, likely caused by the sufferer’s environment or behavior, and could be treated via diet, hygiene, etc., intended to reestablish humorous equilibrium.

Writing and experimenting in the 2nd century CE, Galen, a physician, surgeon and philosopher of the Roman Empire, further developed this theory to apply to temperaments, or personality types. In his treatise On Hippocrates’ The Nature of Man, Galen writes, “Sharpness and intelligence are caused by yellow bile in the soul, perseverance and consistency by the melancholic humour, and simplicity and naivety by blood. But the nature of phlegm has no effect on the character of the soul.” He went on to tie each humor to a season, phase within an individual’s life, one of the four elements, an internal organ, and qualities which could be addressed via diet and behavior, thus expanding humorism into an all-encompassing theory of the body within its environment. His schema, though tellingly basic in its treatment of the complexity of human life, is not, however, counterintuitive; for example, Phlegm is said to correspond to winter, old age, water, and the brain and lungs, and an overabundance of this “cold and moist” humor would lead to a phlegmatic, or apathetic temperament. (Though the word “phlegmatic” is still in synonymous use today, it should be noted that according to current thinking, “Phlegm” as it was then understood does not exist, and does not correspond to “mucus,” as it does now.)

This and resulting theories, along with their use in medical practice and home remedies, persisted with little substantial change through the mid-19th century. Though some refutations of Galen’s work appeared much earlier, these mostly focused on his anatomical theories (which were hampered by his time period’s regulations against dissection of human remains). Mention of the humors and temperaments pepper Victorian-era literature, particularly in references to the use of herbal remedies like so-called “apophlegmatisms,” or medications that were chewed to absorb and expel excess humours; tobacco, for one, was considered a powerful apophlegmatic, notwithstanding the damage it might do to one’s teeth to gnaw on it. 

Versions of the four temperaments theory continue today. For example, in his 1978 book Please Understand Me: An Essay on Temperament Styles, American psychologist David Kiersey introduces the “Kiersey Temperament Sorter,” a questionnaire used to better understand the self and the behaviors and working styles of others. Though made use of by the human resources departments of many major institutions and corporations, including the U.S. Air Force and Coca-Cola, Kiersey’s categories can easily be made to align with the temperaments as conceptualized by the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers mentioned above. 

Tiler Peck in an excerpt from The Four Temperaments

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, spurred on by a 19th-century etching of the four temperaments which he and his companions found quite humorous indeed, Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote his own musical treatment thereof—his Symphony No. 2. Though not particularly well-received—it was considered more of a musical illustration of the temperamental concepts than a proper symphony—it provides an interesting and preceding example of a composer’s engagement with this persistent theory. In the rather detailed program notes accompanying the piece, Nielsen writes of the fourth “Allegro sanguineo—Marziale” movement, “I have tried to sketch a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him, that fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother. ...and even if the music turns to minor, his cheery, rather superficial nature still asserts itself.” This rather rosy-cheeked temperament can be heard in the boisterous melody played by the strings and bounding timpani as the movement opens, with optimistic trumpets and uplifting strings carrying the music through to a bold and buoyant concluding march.

So, how does this compare to Hindemith’s approach? According to Balanchine, “Although the score is based on this idea of the four temperaments, neither the music nor the ballet itself makes specific or literal interpretation of the idea. An understanding of the Greek and medieval notion of the temperaments was merely the point of departure for both composer and choreographer.” Whether to take this explanation at face value is up to the interpreting listener. In any case, a ballet set to Hindemith’s “Theme with Four Variations (According to the Four Temperaments)” was initially included on the 1941 South American tour program for Kirstein and Balanchine’s American Ballet Caravan. The ballet was to be called “The Cave of Sleep,” and artist and frequent Balanchine-collaborator Pavel Tchelitchew submitted set and costume designs featuring deeply saturated colors and graphic representations of the human nervous system, sketches of which are included in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The ballet was likely abandoned due to the tour’s underlying political mission of bringing a uniquely American art form to South America to counter the proliferation of Axis propaganda then flooding the area. Though Joseph Goebbels himself called Hindemith an “atonal noisemaker,” the composer’s original nationality and partial acceptance by the Nazi government would nonetheless have been considered problematic at the time.

In 1946, the composition received its ballet debut as the score to Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, with set and costume designs from Swiss-American surrealist Kurt Seligmann. In keeping with the artist’s captivating if unsettling oeuvre, the costumes were extravagant, literal (in surrealist terms) expressions of the temperaments, with dramatically oversized clothing and vibrant colors. In a way, he was a perfect fit for the interpreter of Hindemith’s music, as Seligmann’s own theories about existence coincided rather neatly with Galen’s comprehensive system; as the artist wrote, “If all is one, there cannot be a separation between man, the stars, and the invisible. There cannot be anything contrary to the world’s harmony.” Though undeniably works of art on their own, these designs neglected to take dancers’ needs into account, with mittens that complicated partnering, clanging breastplates that collided in the midst of performances, and difficult-to-maneuver, highly distracting headdresses. Audiences, dancers, and choreographer alike found Seligmann’s work to be at cross-purposes with the contemporary, demanding movements of the ballet; as a result, from 1951 on, The Four Temperaments has been performed in practice clothes and without a backdrop.

Balanchine describes the ballet as follows: “The Four Temperaments is an expression in dance and music of the ancient notion that the human organism is made up of four different humors, or temperaments. … Greek medicine associated the four humors and temperaments with the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—which to them composed the human body as well as the world.” Taking as it does a theory of bodily, universal equanimity for its inspiration, The Four Temperaments’s movement interestingly demands a controlled exploration of physical imbalance or incongruity. Arthur Mitchell, who originated the lead role in the “Phlegmatic” variation of NYCB’s staging, says of the challenging choreography: “...you had to keep the rhythmic thing going with your feet, while the body is supposed to be loose, boneless. ...To get the accents with the feet and retain fluidity in the body—that was the challenge.” Through just this kind of avant-garde combination of classical movement and unexpected positions, of the familiar and the wildly new, Balanchine planted a flag in the ballet fundament; unsurprisingly, The Four Temperaments remains a major work in the NYCB repertory to this day.

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