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Visual Music

A Look at Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto


“When I choreograph Stravinsky’s music, I am very careful not to hide the music. … As in modern architecture, you rather should do less than more.”

—George Balanchine

George Balanchine set ballets to the works of composers as varied as the master of Russian Romanticism Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky to the early American modernist Charles Ives, and always with a commitment to celebrating the score; yet the composer to whose music he most frequently and, it may be said, most successfully choreographed ballets was that of Igor Stravinsky. Beginning with their meeting in 1925, when Balanchine was commissioned by impresario Serge Diaghilev to choreograph Stravinsky’s 1914 Le Chant du Rossignol on the Ballets Russes, their relationship was one of friendly and uniquely fruitful interpretations and collaborations. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, a work which represents both a creative zenith within his own career and a pinnacle of neoclassical achievement for both choreographer and composer.

In the summer of 1931, Stravinsky was commissioned by his publisher of the time to write his Violin Concerto in D as a showcase for the young Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. Reticent to compose for an instrument he didn’t play, Stravinsky was encouraged by friend and fellow composer Paul Hindemith, who pushed him to use this supposed deficiency to his advantage. As such Stravinsky treated the compositional process as a true collaboration between himself and Dushkin: Stravinsky would outline various chords and musical flourishes, inquiring from the soloist whether they would be possible to achieve; Dushkin would then provide technical solutions, such that certain passages of the music required original postures and approaches from the violinist.

The piece’s compositional structure is also unique to the concerto, with the soloist and orchestra frequently on equal footing, rather than the standard approach which relegates the role of the orchestra solely to that of background or support and assigns bravura flourishes and cadenzi only to the soloist. Like Balanchine, Stravinsky insisted on the primacy of the music itself to that of any soloist or “star.” Yet the technical challenges posed by the work result in a true virtuoso concerto as the composer had intended—in keeping with Balanchine’s oeuvre on this front as well.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Balanchine had been struggling to maintain a creatively-rewarding practice, choreographing for the silver screen and various short-lived ballet companies in the US, when he was commissioned by Colonel Wassily de Basil to create a work for his touring company, then known as the Original Ballet Russe. The group had scooped up a generation of young European dancers left adrift by the dissolution of the “original” Ballets Russes, including Roman Jasinski, Paul Petroff, and Tamara Toumanova, the last of whom Balanchine had first worked with when she was just 12 years old. These three dancers would perform the lead roles in Balanchine’s first work set to one of Stravinsky’s concert pieces (rather than a composition written specifically for dancing), the Violin Concerto in D; the resulting ballet, Balustrade, premiered in 1941, with Dushkin reviving the solo and Stravinsky conducting.

So-named for surrealist artist Pavel Tchelitchew’s set design, primarily composed of a low-standing railing and posts suggestive of a balcony in an intimate evening scene, Balustrade’s striking costumes, also designed by Tchelitchew, were certainly evocative—though of what in particular is somewhat hard to pinpoint. As gleaned from the artist’s sketches and a few publicity photos, the two male leads were dressed in skin-tight black from forehead to toe, including bedazzled turtleneck and cap, and the female lead’s diaphanous dress, mesh-trimmed and bicep-high satin gloves, and antenna-like headpiece were similarly adorned in jewels and sparkling tentacles. Unfortunately these remarkable looks and the work’s choreography are lost to history, as Balustrade was performed only three times and never revived.

Balustrade’s abstract, plotless construction was unprecedented in the Original Ballet Russe’s repertory, and the critical response was accordingly one of surprise and, in some cases, outright dismissal. In a contemporary review for the New York Herald Tribune, dance critic Walter Terry wrote:

There is no story to Balustrade; it is only a scene pervaded by a mood. Perhaps it is a dream, a fantastic dream that is peopled with unpredictable figures which move as they will through moods of passion, acquiescence, gayety and low humor. From the point of view of dance construction, Balustrade boasts ingenious movements welded together without a hitch. Perhaps you will find that it weaves a spell of fantasy, or perhaps you will find that its odd movements are just plain zany, but however you look at it, Balustrade is first-rate entertainment.

At the time, American dance criticism was torn by a deepening divide between two ballet trends. One side was epitomized by English choreographer Antony Tudor’s work, rich with psychological representations that resisted classical formalism, using traditional steps only to indicate “stuffiness” or an inhibited quality in a character being performed; much of Balanchine’s choreography, on the other hand, prioritized formal experimentation and “pure dance” to the exclusion of narrative or character development, qualities that would come to define the neoclassicism for which he would be most famous and highly-regarded later in his career.

Despite Balustrade’s ill-fated debut, Stravinsky was exceedingly pleased with Balanchine’s approach; in his Dialogues and a Diary, he wrote, “Balanchine worked out the choreography as we played my recording together and I could actually watch him imagine gesture, movement, combination, composition. The result was a dance dialogue in perfect coordination with the dialogues of the music.” The connection between choreographer and composer initially established in their works for the Ballets Russes was thus thoroughly cemented, and would result in a number of momentous works, crowned by 1928’s Apollo, 1948’s Orpheus, and 1957's Agon.

Over the years, whether they were in the midst of a collaboration or living and working on opposite coasts, Balanchine and Stravinsky remained close friends. When Stravinsky passed away in 1971, Balanchine almost immediately decided to celebrate the composer’s legacy with a festival, scheduled to begin in June the following year, on what would have been Stravinsky’s 90th birthday. Unprecedented in scope and ambition, the week-long Stravinsky Festival featured three dozen works, 30 of which were ballets, including eight newly-choreographed works by Balanchine; one of these premieres, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, would mark the choreographer’s return to Stravinsky’s 1931 composition Violin Concerto in D, and would become perhaps Balanchine’s most beloved of his own works.

In his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Balanchine writes, “What I did then was for then, and what I wanted to do to this same music for our Stravinsky Festival at the New York City Ballet represented more than thirty years’ difference. The dancers were different and I liked the music even more.” By 1972, Balanchine’s output had vastly expanded to include definitive approaches to beloved story ballets, widely celebrated homages to the Russian ballet tradition, and the near codification of a neoclassicism entirely the choreographer’s own. Beginning with a rigorous foundation in classical footwork, Balanchine’s choreography increased the speed of execution and abandoned the preparatory steps generally preceding virtuosic steps, “to approximate more closely the rhythmic demands of music,” per Balanchine biographer Don McDonagh. This approach established the primacy of the score to the choreographer’s work and allowed for entirely new combinations, arrangements, and unmatched formal experimentation.

This uniquely Balanchinian neoclassicism finds definitive expression in Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The ballet pairs the opening Toccata movement with bounding, expansive individual entrances from its four lead performers—Karin von Aroldingen, Kay Mazzo, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Peter Martins in its 1972 premiere—each accompanied by a quartet of corps dancers, and all clothed in black and white rehearsal clothes. To the interior Arias, Balanchine sets two starkly contrasted pas de deux. Critics and audiences alike have often interpreted these as rather torrid representations of romantic or sexual pairings, though Balanchine never indicated as much to the dancers as he created the work on them; regarding the “meaning” of these movements’ choreography, Balanchine characteristically referred to the music as the sole progenitor of the steps and interactions and positions: “Some people, though, see in these pas de deux only pure man-woman relationships: ‘The woman didn’t have any guts, the man wasn’t sexy enough.’ This isn’t my business.”

The final, Capriccio movement finds the entire cast onstage in a “folk dance that has been computerized,” as McDonagh writes—a “hoedown” that never stops moving, with each individual sometimes in concert and sometimes in contrast with the others, in accordance with the concerto’s unique structure. Critic Nancy Goldner, in a contemporary review, writes, “It is the most visual music composition Balanchine has ever choreographed, and to do it he had to discombobulate bodies and manipulate the ensemble to a degree he has never attempted before.” A unique work championing a musical masterpiece that remains amongst the most treasured and highest regarded of the choreographer’s output, Stravinsky Violin Concerto’s challenges and pleasures are newly experienced by each generation of Company dancers who perform it.

“As nuanced and as epic as Stravinsky Violin Concerto is, I didn’t realize it was so until I began intently watching it as much as I could whenever it was performed,” says Principal Dancer Taylor Stanley. “There are so many layers to this ballet, between its folkloric gestures and abstract, yet entirely sensible musicality, it became almost like required reading to me after a while, and I watched in order to notice all of Balanchine’s hidden choreographic nods and ideas.

“My first time learning and performing this ballet was with former Principal Dancer and current Repertory Director Rebecca Krohn during a summer season up at Saratoga Springs,” Stanley recalls. “We were coached by the legendary and sublime Karin von Aroldingen, the Aria I originator, who I had watched develop a very special relationship with Rebecca around this role and others during my initial years in the Company. It was also my only time getting to work with Karin, so stepping into this pas de deux as Rebecca’s partner came with as much thrill and excitement as focused responsibility. Their combined knowledge, poise, and experience with this pas de deux in particular made for such a rich and memorable time, both learning the role and performing it. As I made my SPAC debut, from the moment I pranced backwards out onto the stage in my first entrance through to the ballet’s final tableau, I was beaming with excitement and felt I had finally understood the layered genius that is Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”

“Having been in the studio with original dancers of Stravinsky Violin Concerto has been a gift that I will never take for granted,” adds Principal Dancer Ask la Cour. “I have already had the pleasure and been fortunate enough to share and pass on the brilliant wisdom from the wonderful, spirited Balanchine ballerina, Karin von Aroldingen... to the next generation. There is a saying, ‘You don't own the part, you only borrow it,’ and I was lucky to ‘borrow’ my part in Stravinsky Violin Concerto for as long as I have and to share many great memories of it with all of my partners and colleagues."

“One particular memory from the studio is that of von Aroldingen, who would always demonstrate the majority of steps full out, back bends and all, to the female leads, often with the male leads partnering her,” la Cour says. “This only goes to show how infectious Balanchine's choreography and musicality is—and who knows, maybe I'll still be trying to find my way on stage and into the studio when I'm in my late 60s like so many before me. You simply can't help yourself!”

“The role I dance in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the Aria II ballerina, was originally created on Kay Mazzo,” says Principal Dancer Sterling Hyltin. “She shared with and taught me an incredible amount of insight into Balanchine and his technique when I was her student at the School of American Ballet. I find that dancing this role with my utmost precision, energy, and thoughtfulness is my way of giving back to her for all she has given me as her student.”

Stanley similarly cherishes the unique demands of this ballet: “I enjoy this role so much because of its rewarding balance between focused technical execution, intense physical exertion, and just letting the body swell to the music and explore its most extreme ranges,” he says. “The score for Aria I rises and falls, shifting the mood every so often as the two dancers perform controlled partnering sequences, sharp contractions, and staccato-like passages, amounting to this really interesting and contrasting pattern of tension and release. A tricky moment comes at the end of the pas de deux when one dancer holds the other in a promenade arabesque. That person then flips onto their partner’s shoulder and leans into an extremely slow assisted back walkover. It takes a certain kind of stillness and control, especially at the end of the tiring duet, to make this moment read as effortless. It is both a complex and seamless finish to a very mysterious pas de deux.

“I think one of the most special parts of this entire ballet, though, is the finale,” Stanley continues. “It’s full of joy and playfulness, with countless moments to acknowledge and connect with your peers. A single downbeat in the score unifies the cast near the end of the ballet as we crouch forward, then charge downstage with arms bursting wide open towards the audience. Balanchine’s signature ‘stag’ jump has us suspended in the air all at once, a breathtaking image for the viewer. As the music builds, we swiftly glide in and out of the wings, ‘do-si-do’ in pairs, and catch the final note in that famously simple pose, and there is truly no better feeling. It’s an exhilarating finale in so many ways, and absolutely one of my favorite ballets overall to dance.”

la Cour concurs: “It has been one of my absolute favorite ballets to perform at NYCB, especially because it's fun for everyone involved and the finale ties everything together so well, I would often be on a high for hours afterwards. I like to consider myself capable of moving fast and musically, but at times being 6'4” can prove challenging, especially when the tempo is in New York City Ballet/Balanchine's spirit. Luckily I come from the Danish Bournonville tradition with lots of quick footwork and have been able to manage.”

“I daresay that I have always related to Stravinsky Violin Concerto as I would to the most delicious of three-course meals,” adds Hyltin. “The opening feels like an appetizer of sorts. All the dancers involved introduce the strong notes of this work’s neo-classical vocabulary to the audience. Following the opening comes the two famous Arias. They are the heart or the meat of the emotion in this piece. Finally, the grand finale feels like a bacchanal of energy, flavors, and smiles. The dancers get the artistic version of a sugar rush. So many of the ballets that we dance at New York City Ballet are completely and utterly wonderful, but Stravinsky Violin Concerto’s finale encapsulates pure joy like none other. There is simply nothing else like it.”

A celebration of his neoclassical composer counterpart, filled with unique, signature choreography that only he could create: Stravinsky Violin Concerto is unquestionably one of Balanchine’s crowning achievements. Of course, in typical Balanchine fashion, that’s hardly the point. “Stravinsky never wrote Balustrade; he wrote Violin Concerto,” Balanchine wrote at the time of the ballet’s premiere. “The ballet should be announced as what it is. Then the musicians can come, the young people who love music and who want to hear the composition can come—they’ll know what they’re getting. They don’t have to look at the ballet if it bores them, they can just listen to the music. And that’s fine with me, that’s wonderful.”

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