I was the only witness when Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine were working together in the creation of two masterpieces, Agon and The Flood. That said, let me partly disqualify myself. One would have to be Russian, as well as speak the language, in order to understand the exchanges, at the creative level, of these two twentieth-century colossi. I satisfy neither requirement. At the time of Orpheus (1948), they conversed in Russian almost exclusively, rarely slipping into English, and then only out of consideration for the frustration of onlookers such as myself. By the time of Agon (1954-1957), both artists had become fully effective in English, notwithstanding Balanchine’s tendency to omit verbs and the ends of sentences, and Stravinsky’s heavily accented but maddeningly macaronic vocabulary. By the time of The Flood (1962), the English of both was resourceful, fluent, original, and not quite correct. But of course verbal language was not their principal means of communication. Stravinsky could articulate musical thoughts at the piano, and Balanchine choreographic ones through movement and gesture.
Balanchine persuaded Stravinsky to expand the Orpheus pas de deux, which not even Diaghilev would have tried to do. So, too, Balanchine convinced the composer to repeat the prelude to The Flood near the end, thereby changing its theology as well as its dramatic shape. How different was the relationship in 1937, when Stravinsky obliged Balanchine to jettison part of his choreography for Jeu de cartes. But by all accounts the composer treated his young collaborator imperiously then, having only that one proof of his genius, Apollo. But Jeu de cartes, which has no slow music, no adagio pas de deux, and therefore no love interest, did not, I think, inspire Balanchine.
Balustrade (1941) marks the rebirth of Stravinsky’s appreciation of the young “ballet master,” as he wished to be called. One wonders if any grouping, step, movement from it survives in the retitled Violin Concerto of 1972. Stravinsky also praised Balanchine’s choreography for Danses concertantes (1944), but was less than enthusiastic about Eugene Berman’s set and costumes, even after the artist had simplified them to the composer’s specifications. It does not matter that both ballets were concert pieces, like all of Balanchine’s later Stravinsky repertory. The change in the relationship came with Orpheus, in which, before a note had been composed, the two artists together plotted the scenario and dance numbers. By coincidence, Stravinsky’s full realization of Balanchine’s musical gifts came during the Orpheus rehearsals. On April 20, 1948, eight days before the premiere, Stravinsky and I heard and saw him conduct Tchaikovsky for Ballet Theater: in tempi, feeling, phrasing, flow, refinement, the performance of a lifetime, utterly unlike anything even Stravinsky had ever experienced. Balanchine could have, but fortunately did not, become a “great maestro,” being content to remain what he so perfectly was.
The Agon collaboration was much closer. By this time, Balanchine had become the composer’s co-creator, an equal partner from conception to execution …