One afternoon in New York City, George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky were sitting at the piano working together on a new ballet. Stravinsky inquired how long one of the dances should be, and Balanchine responded, “Oh, about two-and-a-half minutes.” Stravinsky shot back, “Don’t say ‘about,’ there is no such thing as ‘about.’ Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between? Give me the exact time, please, and I’ll come as close to it as possible.” Balanchine later commented that their work together often centered on such negotiations about time: “When I know how long a piece must take,” Stravinsky explained, “then it excites me.” As if to underscore the point, Balanchine would answer critics prodding him to say what a ballet was “about” with a quip: “about twenty-eight minutes.”
“About twenty-eight minutes” was more than a clever riposte; it amounted to an artistic creed. Both men thrived on limits and scoffed at romantic notions of “inspiration.” Stravinsky was adamant that his music be accurately “transmitted” and not “interpreted” by “megalomaniac” musicians more interested in spilling their souls than in the notes at hand. Similarly, Balanchine cautioned his dancers against “acting” or “emoting”; they were to restrict themselves to clear, musically precise execution of steps. Sweeping theories and “fancy” critical interpretations did not interest them. “Horses don’t talk,” said Balanchine. “They just go!”
Stravinsky and Balanchine shared other things as well. Both were born in Saint Petersburg: Stravinsky in 1882, Balanchine in 1904. Stravinsky’s father was a bass singer at the Maryinsky Theater, and the young Igor spent his childhood immersed in the theatrical life of the Imperial capital. Balanchine studied at the imperial Theater School of Ballet and, like Stravinsky, spent long hours watching the grand productions of the Imperial Court and Theater. Both were brought up in the Russian Orthodox faith and remained lifelong practitioners. Both settled in Europe in the wake of war and the Russian Revolution, and moved to America in the 1930s: Stravinsky eventually settled in Los Angeles and Balanchine made his home in New York, where he founded and directed the New York City Ballet from 1948 until his death in 1983.
Balanchine was an accomplished musician, and the two men were often seen bent over a score. Stravinsky was also well versed in classical ballet, but their collaborations revolved primarily around music. For each, music was the “floor” without which there could be no dance: “The composer creates time,” said Balanchine, “and we have to dance to it.” As such, Balanchine revered Stravinsky and deferred to him willingly. He once recalled their first meeting: “It was 1925. It was like meeting a cardinal. You’re not nervous—I was nervous when I met Ginger Rogers—but here I wanted the truth. Stravinsky was the greatest comfort I ever had.”
Balanchine transformed classical ballet from a lyrical, romantic, fairy-tale art into a gripping, sharp-edged, plotless drama of pure movement, and Stravinsky …