Vail Dance Festival: A look ‘UpClose’ at two artistic giants |

Vail Dance Festival: A look ‘UpClose’ at two artistic giants

Erica Sheftmannewsroom@vaildaily.comVAIL CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

When George Balanchine met Igor Stravinsky in 1925 at the introduction of the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, it was the beginning of what would become, over the next 40 years, one of the most important artistic partnerships of the 20th century, and indeed, of all time. In 1971, following Stravinsky’s passing at the age of eighty-nine, Balanchine proposed the idea of a festival – or rather, a “party” – in Stravinsky’s name, to take place in June of 1972 and mark what would have been the composer’s ninetieth birthday. This was the “Stravinsky Festival,” and on Tuesday, July 31, the Vail International Dance Festival celebrates the 40th anniversary of this landmark event, with an UpClose performance featuring excerpts from the Stravinsky-Balanchine canon performed rehearsal style by the dancers of New York City Ballet MOVES, with accompanying insight and commentary from NYCB ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, and Vail Festival Director Damian Woetzel.

In 1934, as George Balanchine was working on what would become the first ballet he would choreograph in America, Serenade, Igor Stravinsky was asked by the press about whether he personally saw a future for ballet. Stravinsky replied, with characteristic frankness, “There is not a great deal of good ballet music. Either it is sunk in the dance or it is irrelevant to it as a rule. Music and dance should be a true marriage of separate arts, a partnership, not a dictatorship of the one over the other.” Stravinsky couldn’t know then how just how much he – in partnership with George Balanchine – would help transform the scope of ballet music forever. By 1963, after over three decades collaboration, the great masters’ work was completely intertwined, with Stravinsky now writing of Balanchine’s choreography for his ballet Movements for Piano and Orchestra, “Balanchine has joined the score to the body of my music far faster than it could ever get there by way of the concert hall…To see Balanchine’s choreography of the Movements is to hear the music with one’s eyes…The choreography emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware.”Balanchine similarly expressed his belief in the essential relationship of Stravinsky’s music to his choreography and to contemporary dance itself, remarking at a 1972 Stravinsky Festival press conference, “Stravinsky is who is responsible for anything we are using in music… He made musique dansante…There are men who say there is no time, no space. But Stravinsky made time – not big, grand time – but time that works with the small parts of how our bodies are made. Probably dance would stop if we didn’t have Stravinsky.” The beginnings of their partnership took place under the aegis of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes troupe, and yielded Apollo, one of the most important ballets of all time, created in 1928 to an existing Stravinsky opus. Scores commissioned especially for Balanchine would happen in America, where the young Harvard graduate and nascent arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein had brought Balanchine in 1933, with the aim of establishing an American classical ballet tradition. Ironically, Kirstein’s personal vision of a national American dance style “bred from basketball courts, track and swimming meets and junior proms…” was to come to fruition most brilliantly by two Russian migrs. The work that Balanchine and Stravinsky produced together was an expression of the idiom of their adopted country: form and content could be separate entities, the movement could be released from any specific emotional narrative, and the dance could be at once independent from the music, and subservient to it. Most importantly, in Balanchine Stravinsky found someone who shared his understanding that a choreographer must first and foremost be an organizer of rhythms. Both understood dance as a simple expression of time and space, and both had a common view of the primacy of music. “When I choreograph to Stravinsky’s music, I am very careful not to hide the music,” Balanchine wrote. “I sort of subdue my dances. They’re always less than the music. As in modern architecture, you rather should do less than more.” Balanchine’s deference to music as the superior art was also reflected in his professional and personal relationships with Stravinsky. A friend observed, “The only time Balanchine loses that air of calm, complete authority he has is when he’s with Stravinsky. Then he’s like a boy with his father. The two can respect each other’s opinions, be gay and playful together, work together – but they never forget who is the father and who the son.” While choreographing Orpheus, Balanchine told Stravinsky that the duet between Orpheus and Eurydice should take “about” two and a half minutes, to which Stravinsky retorted, “Don’t tell me ‘about.’ It’s either two minutes and twenty, thirty, or forty seconds; no more, no less.” Trust, spontaneity and even fun grounded the partnership. In 1941, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus made Balanchine the unusual proposal of choreographing a ballet for its famous troupe of elephants. Balanchine turned immediately to Stravinsky and told him he needed a polka. “For whom?” Stravinsky asked. “For some elephants,” Balanchine replied. “How old?” “Very young.” “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.” Circus Polka: For A Young Elephant was written by Stravinsky in 1942, and performed by fifty ballerinas and fifty elephants in pink ballet tutus, led by the great Indian elephant Modoc and Balanchine’s wife, principal ballerina Vera Zorina. The score has stayed in the New York City Ballet’s repertory to this day, first re-choreographed by Balanchine for a 1945 performance by students from the School of American Ballet, and again by Jerome Robbins for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, as a showpiece for very young ballet students and an adult ringmaster, played by Robbins himself at the premiere.

The Kirstein-Stravinsky-Balanchine triumvirate was one of the most extraordinary collaborative triumphs of the twentieth century. For Kirstein, Apollo was the jumping-off point: it was the ballet which confirmed the significance of the revolutionary symbiosis of music and dance generated through the Balanchine-Stravinsky partnership. “Apollo was actually my start in musical education,” he wrote in a letter to Stravinsky. “It was a door through which I passed into the music of the past, and out of which I heard the music of the present and the future. Apollo gave me confidence in the line of the academic classic dance, and on it our school has been founded.” Balanchine, too, looked upon Apollo as the “turning point” of his life: “In Apollo, and in all the music that follows, it is impossible to imagine substituting for any single fragment the fragment of any other Stravinsky score…Each piece is unique in itself, nothing is replaceable…I examined my own work in the light of this lesson. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing…to the one that is inevitable.”Apollo was the first in what is known as the Greek Trilogy of masterpieces created by Balanchine to Stravinsky’s music. The second was Orpheus, based on the myth of Orpheus and Euridice. It premiered in 1947 to a Stravinsky score commissioned by Ballet Society, the precursor to the New York City Ballet, which was officially founded in 1948, in no small part due to the success of Orpheus. As Kirstein described it, it was a performance of this work that led Morton Baum, chairman of the executive committee of the City Center of Music and Drama, to invite Ballet Society to become its permanent ballet company: thus New York City Ballet was born. And the work continued. On the very night Orpheus premiered, Kirstein set pen to paper writing Stravinsky to request a third ballet to be added to Apollo and Orpheus. It took almost a decade, but that ballet was Agon, premiering in 1957, and completing the trilogy with what is considered one of the finest works of art created in the 20th century. Before Agon, one other Stravinsky-Balanchine ballet was to make the New York City Ballet into the powerhouse of American dance: Balanchine’s version of Firebird, with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall and the legendary Native-American ballerina Maria Tallchief in the lead role. The score, originally written in 1910 for the Ballets Russes, made Stravinsky famous and delivered on Diaghilev’s wish to create the “first Russian ballet.” Balanchine’s 1949 version on the other hand, using only a suite drawn from the full-length score, made American dance history. Tallchief’s electrifying appearances as the Firebird were landmark occasions for the New York City Ballet and brought it global renown. Agon, which means “competition” in Greek, took the insistent, frenetic pulse so associated with Stravinsky’s earlier works inspired by Slavic folklore and pagan traditions, like The Rite of Spring (1913), and evolved it into a reflection of a whole spectrum of Western inspirations, particularly ragtime and jazz. Agon is perhaps the most characteristic and celebrated example of the fifty-year partnership. At its premiere on December 1, 1957, the curtain opened on a bare stage with a horizontal line of four men across the back of the stage, facing away from the audience and clad in practice clothes in a simple black and white palette. The dancers moved with an almost mechanical speed and precision, yet the choreography was also characterized by a devoutly American, jazzy syncopation, which evoked New York City’s Beat Generation. Balanchine’s choreography was ingeniously intertwined with Stravinsky’s punchy twelve-tone music in a radically modern and athletic manner. In the work’s central, abstractly sexual pas de deux, the man manipulated the woman’s limbs, twisting them and forcing them into extensions which pushed all conventional boundaries. Three months after the crisis over desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, Balanchine had chosen for his leads the Caucasian ballerina Diana Adams, and a black dancer, Arthur Mitchell. New York’s City Center was filled with an audience of artists and intellectuals that included Marcel Duchamp and Edwin Denby, who said that audience members came out into the lobby after the performance giddy, “their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne.”

The 1972 festival was unparalleled in its sheer all-or-nothing ambition. The event was a seven-day powerhouse retrospective of over thirty ballets created to Stravinsky scores. It allowed the New York City Ballet to look back across a broad span of Stravinsky’s career before 1970, from the lost Sonata movement of 1904 through the Ballets Russes-era Firebird (1910) and Pulcinella (1920) to Danses Concertantes (1944), with premieres by choreographers including Jerome Robbins in addition to Balanchine himself. On opening night, the orchestra played “Happy Birthday,” and the curtain opened on the 1908 Stravinsky ballet Fireworks. Kirstein and Balanchine toasted Stravinsky with, as customary in Russia, a shot of vodka. The centerpiece of the occasion, however, were the eight new works created by Balanchine. Three of these are considered to be among his greatest masterpieces: Duo Concertant, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Symphony in Three Movements. The Balanchine ballets premiered at the Stravinsky Festival broke new ground in a collaborative partnership which had already made history. The opening of Symphony in Three Movements is perhaps one of the most iconic in all of neoclassical ballet: a long diagonal of women covers the entirety of the stage, lined up in perfect symmetry in identical arabesques. As Stravinsky’s first chords sound, the women swing their arms violently in large circles, plunge forward, and thrust their arms in front of them. The first section is a kaleidoscopic explosion of bodies in motion, as the army of women – wearing only tights and leotards -wind themselves into little balls and then unfurl themselves into explosive jumps and lunges. At the last moment of the ballet, the entire stage freezes, and Stravinsky has the last word. The Stravinsky Festival tradition was reprised by Balanchine once more ten years later, in 1982, to celebrate the centennial of Stravinsky’s birth. In total, Balanchine set twenty-nine pieces of Stravinsky’s music, five of which were commissions (like Agon) and nine of which were substantial re-workings of earlier settings. Soon after the 1972 Festival, Balanchine was interviewed about Stravinsky. “I did not come to understand all of his music immediately,” he said. “Now when I think about Stravinsky, I see that he did everything right, while I often went astray…Now it’s easy to say, ‘Stravinsky? A genius!’ Well, I knew that sixty years ago, when it wasn’t so easy to figure out!”Erica Sheftman trained at the School of American Ballet for 10 years and recently graduated from Harvard University, where she studied Russian history and literature. This is her third year writing about the Vail International Dance Festival. Email comments about this story to

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