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Geniuses Together

1.

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’s music led him to some of his most innovative choreography. The two men collaborated on many ballets, including Apollon Musagète, Orpheus, and Agon, and after the composer’s death in 1971, Balanchine choreographed others, among them Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements, to existing Stravinsky scores. The Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets make up a stylistically distinct oeuvre, which to this day exemplifies twentieth-century modernism in ballet.

Charles M. Joseph has written the first book about their collaboration. Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention is both a history and a detailed analysis of the work, particularly Apollo (1928), Agon (1957), and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972). I once heard Joseph, who is a musicologist and Stravinsky scholar, give a lecture in which he analyzed sections of Agon: he sat at the piano and moved deftly between musical passages and explication. He took the work apart like a poem, and the result was fascinating. So his book has raised high expectations.

Joseph is good on the music. He guides the reader through Stravinsky’s copious musical drafts and revisions, offering interesting ideas about why the composer added, shifted, or discarded material. He shows, for example, how Stravinsky transformed and integrated what Joseph calls “compositional vocabulary” from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins into his own Violin Concerto. His close attention to Stravinsky’s sources and methods consistently illuminates the music while opening the discussion onto broader historical and aesthetic questions.

When he turns to the dances, however, Joseph seems lost. He insists that Balanchine and Stravinsky were “full of theatricality,” and that to see them, as many critics have, as mere “formalists” is a mistake. Yet though he girds his analysis of the dances they created with history, reviews, and interviews with dancers, Joseph’s account is no less formal: he dissects ballets in painstaking detail—note by note, step by step, phrase by phrase. But he fails to show how the dances hold together and never pierces to the dynamic or “theatrical” core of a ballet.

In the end, his book gives us little sense of the character of this great collaboration or the spirit of the ballets. The Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets were fragile and complicated creatures, and behind the steps and notes lies a body of ideas, beliefs, and artistic ambitions. Indeed, Stravinsky and Balanchine’s radical aesthetic grew out of a deeply religious, classical, and humanist view of art.

2.

The roots of the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaboration stretch back to 1890, and the St. Petersburg première of Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa’s great ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet, based on Perrault’s seventeenth-century fairy tale, was a lavish full-length spectacle, replete with special effects: multicolored fountains, lilac bushes, rotating sets, and a detailed reproduction of the great palace at Versailles, with Apollo ascendant to the tune of “Vive Henri IV!” in the final apotheosis. It paid homage to the French Grand Siècle: to aristocratic grandeur, classical symmetry, the court origins of ballet, and the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

In 1915, at age eleven, George Balanchine made his stage debut at the Maryinsky Theater as a cupid in The Sleeping Beauty, and it was the magic of this ballet that first prompted him to devote his life to dance. In 1921, Stravinsky worked with Diaghilev to reconstruct The Sleeping Beauty in London; seven years later in Paris, when Balanchine and Stravinsky created their first important ballet, Apollon Musagète, they turned again to The Sleeping Beauty. Apollon Musagète was their ode to the French seventeenth century.1

But Apollon Musagète was also a radical departure. It had no “story” or lavish effects. Rather, it was a balletic essay structured as a series of tableaux: Apollo’s birth, his tutelage by the muses of poetry, mime and dance, and his reascent to Parnassus. It was pristine, lyrical, and spare—“White,” as Balanchine himself described it, “in places white on white.” Like Stravinsky’s music, its movements were classical but also unmistakably modern, bent, turned in, and weighted to the floor.

One of the things that separated Apollon Musagète from The Sleeping Beauty was the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky and Balanchine met “through” Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and the French seventeenth century, but only after each had embraced revolutionary ideas and aesthetics. To understand the radical beauty of Apollon Musagète, we must know what Stravinsky and Balanchine each brought to Paris in 1928.

As a young musician working in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, Stravinsky fell under the spell of Diaghilev’s “World of Art” movement. Frustrated with the social agendas of nineteenth-century realism, Diaghilev and his contemporaries set out to create a new, “authentic” art. For many of them, the 1890 production of The Sleeping Beauty marked a critical turning point. It was, Alexander Benois later explained, “what I seem to have been waiting for since my earliest childhood.” “That evening,” rhapsodized Léon Bakst, “my vocation was decided.”2

Ballet promised to fulfill one of the group’s greatest ambitions: to create a new synthesis of dance, music, and painting, a Gesamtkunstwerk. The idea was Wagnerian, but with an important twist: they staked their future not on opera, but on ballet—Russian ballet. Diaghilev and his collaborators were convinced it held the seeds for a great artistic revival. Many of the artists who worked with him had close ties to the pre-revolutionary Russian arts and crafts movement, and shared its nostalgic desire to “collect” and capture the whole life of the Russian folk in artifacts, icons, and images.3 But their ambitions were also tied to the work and writings of a young choreographer, Michel Fokine.

Fokine was trained at the Maryinsky Theater and had worked with Petipa, but in the early years of the twentieth century, he rebelled. Ballet, he said, was hopelessly “confused.” It was historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers were ridiculously “straight-backed.” Where, he asked, were the lilting, bending fig-ures so prominent in painting and sculpture? And the corps de ballet, arranged in sharp geometric configurations, was absurd—since when did crowds of peasants line up and dance in perfect synchrony?

Ballet, Fokine insisted, must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev’s: a ballet, he said, must “have complete unity of expression.” It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa’s French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of that place and time. In keeping with these ideas, Fokine began choreographing essay-length ballets organized around particular themes: Les Sylphides was a series of tableaux in the French Romantic style, and The Dying Swan was a study of frailty and resistance for a solo dancer.

In 1909, when Diaghilev organized the first European tour of the Ballets Russes, he brought in Michel Fokine as chief choreographer and hired the young Igor Stravinsky to work with him on a new ballet, Firebird. Stravinsky shared Diaghilev and Fokine’s vision. “I love ballet,” he wrote to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in 1911, “and am more interested in it than in anything else, for the only form of scenic art that sets itself, as its cornerstone, the tasks of beauty, and nothing else, is ballet.” “What interests me,” he later said, “is choreographic drama. …Opera is falsehood pretending to be truth, while I need falsehood that pretends to falsehood.”

Fokine and Stravinsky went some distance to making a new “choreographic drama” in Firebird (1910) and Petrouchka (1911), and Stravinsky continued this work with Vaslav Nijinsky in The Rite of Spring (1913). Ironically, however, these ballets turned increasingly away from the classical vocabulary: they had to. In Fokine and Diaghilev’s historicist aesthetic, classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. The music for Stravinsky’s early ballets often drew on Russian folk themes, and Fokine and Nijinsky accordingly took their choreographic language from folk idioms and “primitive” forms.4

  1. 1

    Toward the end of his life, Balanchine’s thoughts returned to The Sleeping Beauty. He was planning to mount a new production.

  2. 2

    Alexander Benois, Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet (Putnam, 1941), p. 124; Bakst quoted in Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 164. Benois and Bakst designed many of the Diaghilev productions.

  3. 3

    See Richard Taruskin’s pathbreaking study, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra (University of California Press, 1996), Volume 1, pp. 487–497. See also Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Metropolitan Books, 2002), p. 265.

  4. 4

    André Levinson, Russian critic and committed classicist, called Fokine’s work “the path of ballet’s suicide on the public stage.” See his Ballet Old and New (Dance Horizons, 1982), p. 48.

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