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Dancing Balanchine's Late Modernism

Mira Nadon in George Balanchine’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Photographer: Erin Baiano. Courtesy of the New York City Ballet.

Amongst the diverse offerings of New York City Ballet this winter season, an intriguing cross-section of Balanchine/Stravinsky neoclassical ballets stretching from 1944 to 1972 were programmed. Provocative pairings and insightful performances increased our understanding of the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration. For the inspiring work of this season, credit goes to the dancers who rediscover, animate, and realize before our eyes this distinguished repertoire and its importance, doubtless a weighty responsibility. But credit must also go to coaches Suzanne Farrell and Rebecca Krohn, among others, whose collaboration with the dancers has been particularly productive.

Danses Concertantes is a good place to start, as it was choreographed in 1944, though reworked by Balanchine in 1972. Despite the choreographic update, the costumes and set by Eugene Berman are the originals and suggest a self-reflexive theatricality wherein a number of familiar choreographic strategies are placed in a period perspective à la Pergolesi and eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte. Hence, this ballet becomes a rather unique kind of hybrid. It is Baroque in that its modernist neoclassicism is framed theatrically to highlight the gesture of artifice. But it is also period-based neoclassicism in several senses: of the eighteenth century visually; of the 1940s in its conception of the neoclassical as modern; but also of the 1970s in its revamped choreography. Its vocabulary emphasizes constant play between turnout and turn-in, showing what this does to the hips of both men and women in their small prances, emboîtés, assemblés, and quick lunges. The choreography sets itself this formal task while Berman’s costumes, drop curtain, and painted cyclorama maintain the aura of self-conscious theatricality while flirting with being simple entertainment. Harrison Ball and Brittany Pollack distinguish themselves in their light-hearted and comedic virtuosity of the male and female leads.

Two works that for some time have been paired—Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960) and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963)—have gone from being subtly interesting to truly arresting. In Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Stravinsky evokes the Renaissance musically, whereas Movements inhabits a dissonant modernity. The choice this season to cast the same lead couple in both short works allows them to be experienced as a diptych rather than as short, disparate works. Two different couples alternated performances. With Teresa Reichlin and Ask la Cour (February 1st), we had courtliness as abstraction, and a kind of Spanish baroque severity of gesture and gaze: they brought out the modernity of the early modern. La Cour averts his gaze in the initial tableau whereas Reichlin looks directly at him defiantly. Their physical relationship takes courtliness to a level of formality that suggests form rather than manners. Her wavy lateral sink into his arms, however, brought mass to the more prominent line of modernist aesthetics. With Adrian Danchig-Waring and Mira Nadon (February 22), Gesualdo is more elegiac, but Movements is executed with a more daring attack. The premiere of Nadon introduced a different plastique to this work. Held aloft by Danchig-Waring, she took on the suspended quality of a Calder mobile floating in space. She also allowed herself to give her full weight, including that of her head, to a supported promenade. In both casts sustained eye contact between performers has clearly been emphasized, creating one long phrase out of what otherwise would be short interludes.

In 1959, George Balanchine collaborated with Martha Graham on Episodes. Graham’s contribution, Mary Queen of Scots, is not in the NYCB repertoire, but Balanchine’s contribution is still on offer. With Episodes Balanchine veered toward radical abstraction, or, as it was called then, non-objectivism, whereas since the 1940s Graham had been more involved with emotionally dramatic choreography.1 Dance critic John Martin had spent the 1930s defending modern dance’s abstract qualities as something that had to be apprehended through the viewer’s bodily empathy with the dancer’s body (metakinesis), in the absence of any intellectual analysis. But Martin came up short with Balanchine’s non-objectivism in Episodes, which he found dehumanizing:

                     [When Balanchine] abandons all reference to dramatic situation or human emotion,
                     there seems  to be a schism. He abandons, [indeed, almost all reference to the
                     human body as well, and his dancers become essentially an organization of bones
                     and muscles subject to the manipulation of an astonishingly creative choreographic mind.2

The dehumanizing effect may have resulted from Balanchine’s choreographic response to his selection of Anton Webern’s Symphony Opus 21 and Concerto Opus 24, scores that differed markedly from those of Stravinsky in lacking what Balanchine called “pulse” by focusing on understated qualities of sound itself.3 Webern’s minimalist approach to composition invoked an intensified choreographic formalism on Balanchine’s part, despite the gendered associations of the balletic conventions within which Balanchine worked: the woman en pointe supported by the attentive male dancer. Balanchine’s response to Webern was to eliminate all courtliness and manners from the partnering and, more importantly, to reduce the flow between movement phrases to a minimum.4 This was the outcome of the encounter between his balletic formalism and Webern’s minimalist score. The result for a choreographer whose method is to follow the lead of the music was to sacrifice some of the balletic conventions he was known for—leading him into highly experimental iconographic territory. David Michael Levin claimed in 1973 that Balanchine had eradicated poise in ballet to arrive at modernist grace. Levin described grace as the dancer’s transformation before our very eyes “into a purely optical reduction of corporeal mass.”5 This entails a certain disembodiment of the spectator, who then perceives grace as a suspension of the temporal and spatial conditions of her own spectatorship. I believe, however, that in the case of certain later works to Stravinsky, the composer’s musical dissonance opened Balanchine’s formalism to a kind of psychological introspection that cannot be read in formal terms alone. This was already at work in Episodes.

Viewing Episodes this season and in previous seasons, I am struck not by its dehumanization but, to the contrary, by its expression of indifference in male-female relationships. The result is to read the relationships as superficial and supercilious.6 In other words, since there is no convention of facial expression grafted onto the choreography but instead an intentionally impassive visage, the abandonment of flow in articulating the main couple’s movement sequences becomes a marker of emotional indifference between them. The work with Webern remained a unique experiment in many ways, but I cannot help but think, in light of this season, that it opened the door to sparks of expression, in spite of its uncompromising formalism. In this sense, I would like to develop the idea that what we might call Balanchine’s non-objectivist psychological ballet was born in 1959 and that it led, by the Stravinsky Festival in 1972, to several works definitive of what I would also call Balanchine’s late modernism. Why are the effects of coaching and dancer experimentation showing up particularly in the repertoire of the 1960s and 1970s? Despite the general idea that there was no space for emotion in his ballets—a feeling highlighted in John Martin’s review—something mutated in the wake of Episodes, or even because of it.

One of the major offerings this winter was Stravinsky Violin Concerto (originally composed in 1931). Balanchine choreographed Le Balcon to this score in 1941, but the choreography for Violin Concerto (its original title) was entirely new in 1972. The music of the first and last sections is lively, buoyant and extroverted, which may have determined the Russo-Hungarian and Georgian folk dance elements in the ballet’s last section. But the cheerful or mock-cheerful tone in quintessential Stravinsky neoclassical style frames two duets whose tragic mood asserts a stark contrast. Aria I and Aria II appear to be danced behind closed doors in harrowing intimacy whereas Toccata and Capriccio suggest the sociality of a group dancing in public space.

In Aria I the two dancers are frequently connected by both hands. The intense concentration of Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring on timing and counterbalance produced a growing dramatic tension between them. As Rebecca Krohn, previous interpreter and coach of this duet, explained to me in a recent interview: “The intensity of the gaze comes from the inner push and pull. There are parts where you are facing your partner, and you are coming in and out or circling around each other. I’ve talked with the dancers about the connection. It should feel like a rubber band between two people: the farther you pull away, the more tension there is.”7

As with most of Balanchine’s choreography, the duets speak to and with the music, generating arresting movement to its dissonances. In this sense, sound and motion relay one another intermittently. “You have to know every single note, like a puzzle you put together,” said Krohn. The music appears to go directly into the body, obviating the need for the representation of subject matter danced to the music. Often thought of as the choreographer’s achievement, it is actually the dancer’s achievement. Krohn testifies to the artistic challenge this poses for the dancer who articulates the Balanchine/Stravinsky repertoire, and to the importance of expert coaching in this process. “If the dancer doesn’t have the right instincts,” she remarked, “it can fall flat, or look like they’re just doing steps and not really speaking the language of the piece.”

In Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Balanchine developed obedience to the score—indicated by the composer’s name added to the ballet’s title—into a paradoxical form, an apparent oxymoron: the objectivist psychological ballet. As Maria Caligari and Bart Cook explained in an interview, Aria II was a poem to Stravinsky’s wife Vera.8 Balanchine seems to have included this autobiographical dimension in his choreography. This, for me, is definitive of his late modernism: a psychological significance—one might also say a tragic dimension—emerges from a formalist approach to the musical score wherein the choreography of Aria I not only corresponds to rhythm but reflects dissonance psychologically.9 Aria II is less demonstrably dissonant and is the choreographic analysis of the ups and downs of a relationship containing both devotion and regret. In this sense, the second duet introduces a neo-romanticism. The protagonists of Aria II escape the alienation experienced in Aria I, although the final moment of envisioning together the past (or is it the future?) is ambiguous, as he covers her eyes and prevents her from seeing.

It is not surprising that Balanchine’s experiments with choreographing histories of subjectivity in the context of his musical obedience to Stravinsky are still provocative, particularly when the dancers continue to experiment profitably with its possibilities. In Aria II, Lauren Lovette supported by Joseph Gordon (January 23rd) engaged in melting transitions that allowed weight and gravity to contrast with angular shapes. At times, Lovette relinquished the visual definition certain held shapes require, thus implying a willing or unwilling metamorphosis. This was highly significant to the analysis of the relationship. Such significant detail can only be provided by dancers, perhaps with the help of a movement coach, in seeking a balance between performing a distinguished repertoire and keeping it alive. Here, Balanchine’s dictum “just dance the steps” seems no longer to be wholly operative.10 No matter how a choreographic poetics positions the dancer in theory, only the dancer can fully manifest its aesthetic import in practice. While taking orders worked fifty years ago, enacting a retrospective understanding by the dancer seems to be necessary today.

As the tragic duets conclude and the carefree group dance begins, I wonder what relation they have to each other beyond the fact that Balanchine was just obeying the music. This season, however, something has definitely changed in the Capriccio section, which finally led me to make sense of this transition. The music of the last moments contains unexpected shifts of rhythmic structure, a jagged modernist primitivism that references Rite of Spring with a pounding pizzicato quite different from Stravinsky’s whimsical beginning. Joseph Gordon seemed to be calling our attention to the pagan turn in the music by adding a downward thrust to the hop step used throughout Capriccio, thus making fully apparent the musical reference to Rite of Spring. In the next performance, this approach had been adopted by the entire cast and the effect was powerful. This is an instance where the dancer’s response to the music solved what was for me a choreographic conundrum.

This season the dancers found their way to uncover unique features of Balanchine’s late modernism in the compound entity of form and emotion. Consequently, what I am seeing across these performances is greater yielding to gravity and the assumption of weight where appropriate to expressive effect. And, while this sounds like a small thing, it is also taboo in the narrative of objectivism over decades of defining Balanchine’s work. However, it now appears paradoxically to actually be a key to portraying the meaning of these works, years after their original creation. We want the ballets to be recognizable in a historical sense, but new interpretations inevitably have to be living within them to sustain the vitality of their meaning over time. Such is the dancer’s work.


Please click here to watch Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto (New York City Ballet, 1978).

MARK FRANKO'S The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: French Interwar Ballet and the German Occupation is due to be published by Oxford University Press in June 2020.


[1]Dance historian Gay Morris claims that, by the 1950s, Balanchine outdid Graham in choreographic modernism. A Game for Dancers: Performing Modernism in the Postwar Years, 1945-1960 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2006). See, especially, Chapter 2: “Ballet’s Challenge.”

[2]John Martin, “Ballet: ‘Episodes’ Bows. Graham-Balanchine Work Arrives” in The New York Times (May 16, 1959), 24."

[3]In Stravinsky’s music,” wrote Balanchine, “the dance element of most force is the pulse.” “Balanchine on Stravinsky,” in The Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet (New York: Eakins Press, 1973), 21.

[4]Here I would argue that what David Michael Levin called “the cherished essence of classical ballet, its syntactical treasures” as manifested in formalism, were in fact breached by the formalism of Episodes. See David Michael Levin, “Balanchine’s Formalism,” in What is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism edited by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 124.

[5]Ibid., 137.

[6]Part of the reason for this perception is that I worked with Paul Sanasardo. Sanasardo was a careful observer of Balanchine, and his choreography of the late 1950s and early 1960s extended these experiments further, in my view, by exploring vanity and self-absorption in heterosexual relationships. See Mark Franko, Excursion for Miracles: Paul Sanasardo, Donya Feuer and Studio for Dance (1955-1964) (Wesleyan University Press, 2005).

[7]Interview with Rebecca Krohn, February 14, 2020. All further quotes are from this interview. Krohn learned “Aria I” from its originator, Karin Von Aroldingen and danced it for the last time in 2017, at her farewell performance."

[8]Bart Cook & Maria Calegari discuss Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” HET Nationale Ballet. YouTube video.

[9]Balanchine has acknowledged his relationship to Stravinsky as one of obedience to the score: “Stravinsky’s strict beat is his sign of authority over time; over his interpreters too. A choreographer should, first of all, place confidence without limit in this control.” The Stravinsky Festival, 21.

[10]Ibid., 45.


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