Balanchine: the choreographer who put the music first

Sarah Kirkup Mon 3rd April 2017

A Balanchine ballet will change forever how you hear a score you thought you knew. As 'Jewels' returns to the Royal Opera House, Sarah Kirkup explores the choreographer’s unique musical outlook

Artists of the Royal Ballet perform Emeralds (photo: ROH 2017/Alastair Muir)

Artists of the Royal Ballet perform Emeralds (photo: ROH 2017/Alastair Muir)

When the choreographer Marius Petipa entered into a collaborative relationship with Tchaikovsky, starting with Swan Lake in 1877, ballet music was transformed. No longer merely serving as an accompaniment to the dance, the ballet score was now highly symphonic in structure and orchestration; it was also essential – a catalyst even – to the narrative unfolding on stage. Less than a century later, choreographer George Balanchine’s relationship with Stravinsky would have similar, groundbreaking results. 

The pair first met in 1926 and a lifelong friendship – fuelled by a deep mutual respect of each other’s art – soon developed. Although the two men officially collaborated on just four occasions (most significantly Agon, 1957, produced during Balanchine’s tenure as ballet master for New York City Ballet), the choreographer was inspired to use Stravinsky’s music more frequently than that of any other composer. For the central act of his triptych Jewels - the world's first plotless full-length ballet which now returns to the Royal Ballet, 50 years after its premiere in New York - Balanchine took Stravinsky's Capriccio for piano and orchestra and reinvented it; as Charles Joseph wrote in his book Stravinsky and Balanchine, in 'Rubies', Balanchine captured perfectly Stravinsky’s 'neoclassic adaption of the jazz with which the composer was so enamoured during that period’.

But throughout his career, Balanchine was inspired by other composers too - particularly Tchaikovsky, whose Third Symphony is a flawless match for the grand classicism of imperial Russia displayed in 'Diamonds', the third act of Jewels. He also experimented with French composers - again, we see evidence of this in 'Emeralds', the opening act of Jewels, where two Fauré scores evoke the lush romanticism of a French forest. But no composer was ever chosen ‘by accident’; as Balanchine said in 1972, referring to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Delibes, it was to composers whose writing had a musique dansante quality that he was most drawn: ‘They made music for the body to dance to. They invented the floor for the dancer to walk on.’ It wasn’t just instinct that led Balanchine to particular composers, though. He was able analyse a score to judge its ‘danceability’ because he was a bona fide musician himself.

The son of a composer, Balanchine was born in 1904 in St Petersburg. Alongside his ballet studies, he began piano lessons at the age of five and also enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music, where he studied piano and music theory, including composition, harmony and counterpoint. During the Revolution, he played the piano at cabarets and silent movie houses in exchange for bread. This invaluable training meant that when Balanchine began choreographing (he created his first work in 1920), he could converse with living composers at an unprecedented level; he could also make his own piano reductions of orchestral scores. 

Balanchine’s attitude to music was, and remains, fairly unique among choreographers. Such was his respect for the score that he appeared to prioritise it over the movement: ‘The composer is able to give more life to a bar, more vitality and rhythmical substance than a choreographer, or a dancer,’ he said. ‘The choreography will never be able to achieve such precision in the expression of movement as the composer through sound effect.’ Bestowing such worth on the music naturally had a direct effect on the movement he employed: ‘Usually choreography interferes with the music too much,’ he said. ‘When too much goes on, on stage, you don’t hear the music. I always do the reverse.’ Indeed, Balanchine’s love of music sometimes led him to ‘block out’ the choreography altogether, as Leon Goldstein, a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, recalled: ‘Mr B used to urge people to come to the ballet to the listen to the music and to regard the ballet as a concert…He didn’t always watch his dancers from his seat in the audience. Sometimes, he sat there with his eyes closed, listening intently to the music being played by his ballet orchestra.’

Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in Rubies, from 2013 (ROH/Bill Cooper)

Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in Rubies, from 2013 (ROH/Bill Cooper)

When a Balanchine ballet is performed, it’s not just the dancers who enjoy it – the musicians do, too. As Pavel Sorokin, who is conducting the current run of Jewels at the Royal Opera House, says: ‘He had wonderful musical taste and totally understood the meaning of music for the audience. That is why his choreography and the music he chose are always ideally matched. When the choreography respects the music, it’s always wonderful for any conductor. It’s a pleasure me for to conduct his ballets.’

One aspect of the score that Balanchine was particularly adamant should be respected was tempo. This is because, for him, time (and rhythm) in music was fundamental to him as a choreographer: ‘Music puts a time corset on the dance,’ he said. ‘A choreographer can’t invent rhythms, he can only reflect them in movement.’ (In this sense, it’s little wonder that the strong underlying pulse and driving momentum of Stravinsky’s music were attractive qualities to Balanchine). As Leon Goldstein reflected, ‘Mr B allowed no concessions in tempo for his dancers, and there were no fluctuations in the music to adapt to any difficulty in the choreography. The music completely ruled the dance. In answer to dancers’ protests, Mr B would tell the orchestra, “Don’t listen to them. Play the correct tempos and they will get it right.” We did – and they did.’ So many ballet conductors will say that compromising on tempo is an unavoidable aspect of music-theatre collaboration, yet with Balanchine it seems that the score can be followed to the letter: ‘All his tempos are logical and “symphonic”,’ Pavel Sorokin agrees.

But it wasn’t just the tempo that Balanchine felt should be adhered to – it was every one of the composer’s intentions: ‘I believe that music for the ballet should follow the composer’s directions as to tempo and dynamics and phrasing…In my ballets, I never leave out parts of the original music, I never change tempi or in any other way disturb the continuity or shape of the music.’ In fact, this wasn’t always the case, as can be seen in the music for Jewels. For ‘Diamonds’, Balanchine removed the entire first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony. And in ‘Emeralds’, he ‘cobbles together’ two disparate scores by Fauré – the incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock. Then again, as Sorokin argues, ‘In the Third Symphony, the movements are not connected to each other – they are all unique – so I don’t see a problem here.’ As for the Fauré, Sorokin believes that this ‘“mixing and matching” sounds absolutely natural, as if the music is all from one piece’. 

If all the evidence so far points to a choreographer who regularly, and willingly, sacrificed movement for music, the truth is that the two art forms ultimately formed an equal partnership. While the music was always the starting point, the movement which followed interpreted the music (though Balanchine disliked this word), often to thrilling effect. In ‘Rubies’, for example, against Stravinsky’s quirky, jazzy soundtrack, Balanchine’s dancers tango, prance and cakewalk around each other, feet flexed, conveying the essence of the music and taking it to another level. Some of Balanchine’s works are almost literal visualisations of the music – for example, the first movement of Symphonie Concertante (1945), where Balanchine echoes the sonata form of Mozart’s score, or Movements for piano and orchestra (1963), whereupon Stravinsky was compelled to write: ‘To see Balanchine’s choreography is to hear the music with one’s eyes.’ But at the same time, Balanchine didn’t want the synthesis of music and dance to be effortless, and wrote in 1935 of the essential ‘struggle between music and choreography’ which should, nevertheless, eventually lead to ‘being together’.

Watching a Balanchine ballet, you’re likely to learn something new about a score you thought you knew inside out – which is surely the point of great choreography. As Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times, the best choreography is ‘like a danced music-appreciation lesson, guiding the audience through a score, revealing its subtleties and secrets’. Even conductors have been enlightened by Balanchine. As Canadian Genevieve Leclair of the Boston Ballet Orchestra said about Serenade (1935, to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings), ‘I heard breaths in the music that I had never heard before, and it all made sense.’ Sorokin, meanwhile, is enjoying conducting lesser-known Fauré and Tchaikovsky in this current run of Jewels. ‘The music for his ballets is always interesting,’ he says. ‘We’re not used to hearing Fauré, or indeed Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, in concert. They’re not “hits”. But thanks to Balanchine, we have the opportunity to hear these masterpieces more often.’

Jewels is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, until April 21, and there is a live cinema broadcast, worldwide, on April 11. For more information, visit the Royal Opera House Website. The video below shows Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae rehearsing 'Rubies' from Jewels with Patricia Neary, at The Royal Ballet.

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