Drawing on extensive new research, Charles M. Joseph discusses the Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets against a rich contextual backdrop. He explores the background and psychology of the two men, the dynamics of their interactions, their personal and professional similarities and differences, and the political and historical circumstances that conditioned their work. He describes the dancers, designers, and sponsors with whom they worked. He explains the two men’s approach to the creative process and the genesis of each of the collaborative ballets, demolishing much received wisdom on the subject. And he analyzes selected sections of music and dance, providing examples of Stravinsky’s working sketches and other helpful illustrative materials. Engagingly written, the book will be of great interest not only to music and dance historians but also to ballet lovers everywhere.
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Read an Excerpt
Stravinsky & Balanchine
A JOURNEY OF INVENTION
By Charles M. Joseph
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2002 Yale University.
All rights reserved.
Commonalities and Contrasts: A Meeting of Minds
Choreography, as I conceive it, must realize its own form, one independent of the musical form though measured to the musical unit. Its construction will be based on whatever correspondence the choreographer may invent, but it must not seek to duplicate the line and beat of the music. I do not see how one can be a choreographer unless, like Balanchine, one is a musician first.
When I choreograph Stravinsky's music, I am very careful not to hide the music. You see, usually choreography interferes with the music too much. When too much goes on on stage, you don't hear the music. Somehow the messy stuff obscures the music. I always do the reverse. I sort of subdue my dances. They're always less than the music. As in modern architecture, you rather should do less than more.
In reviewing the 1972 Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet, Andrew Porter wrote in the New Yorker that ballets like Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Orpheus, and Agon seemed "almost to flow from a single mind; an entity called Stravinsky-Balanchine." No conjoining of two artists' names was ever more appropriate. Beginning with their initial meeting in 1926, a binding covenant quickly developed, a union that would connect them personally and professionally for the rest of their lives. In Balanchine's eyes, Stravinsky was a colossus, the "Orpheus of the twentieth century." Along with Mozart and Tchaikovsky, no composer inspired him more. Even as a young ballet student at the Imperial Theater School in Petersburg, Georgi Balanchivadze was immediately drawn to Stravinsky's vibrant music. By the time of his death in 1983, he had choreographed many of the composer's most important works. The powerful pulse of Stravinsky's music flowed relentlessly forward, begging to be placed into physical motion, to be visualized, to be danced. Even through those electrically charged Stravinskyan moments of silence that so powerfully jolt the music's continuity, "life goes on," Balanchine remarked. No matter what the piece, the genre, the instrumentation, the choreographer declared that "every measure Eagerfeodorovitch ever wrote is good for dancing."
What was it about Balanchine and Stravinsky that jibed? In the eyes of both artists, music and dance were simple, elegant expressions of the manipulation of time and space. And as drearily antiseptic as such an unemotional depiction may at first appear, theirs was a passionately shared conviction in the timeless order of beauty. For both men, the ancient Pythagorean notion of beauty as "the reduction of many to one" provided a beacon. Moreover, order furnished a sanctuary, a controlled environment within which reason prevailed. Stravinsky found that the process of ordering musical elements was perfectly natural for hima periodic and habitual practice in which he happily engaged. Nor was Balanchine about to "sit and wait for the Muse." Both men were makers, craftsmenmanual laborers, as they thought of themselveswho needed to put things together. The act of assembling a composition or ballet ("God creates, I assemble," to invoke a famous Balanchinian aphorism) was exhilarating, and certainly more gratifying than the final product. Or, to put it the other way around, the work that resulted was closer to a byproduct, a residue of the process itself. "I care less about my works than about composing," the composer declared. Similarly, finished ballets for Balanchine seemed largely irrelevant. His attitude is reminiscent of many creative artists: "I truly do not care about a book once it is finished," offered John Steinbeck. "The line of books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses." For both Stravinsky and Balanchine, it was the thrill of the chase that mattered most.
Both men also recognized the elemental force of musical and physical motion. It was this sense of propulsion that drove their preoccupation with the boundaries of time, or "temporality," as they referred to it. "Music is a chronologic art [which] presupposes before all else a certain organization of time, a chrononomyif you will permit me to use a neologism," the composer remarked, Balanchine's analogy was even more cosmological: "We are representing [the] art of dancing, [the] art of body movement, in time, in space. It is the music, it is really time more than the melody, and our body must be subordinated to timebecause without time, dance doesn't exist. It must be orderit's like a planet. Nobody criticizes the sun or moon or the earth because it is very precise, and that's why it has life. If it's not precise, it falls to pieces."
Boundaries were liberating, not constrictive. They provided a primary catalyst, first to jump-start one's thinking, then as a shaping influence in sculpting a work's final version. Freedom born of boundaries is hardly a new notion. "No sooner do I form a conception of a material or corporeal substance," Galileo observed in 1623, "than I feel the need of conceiving that it has boundaries and shape." Likewise, throughout his life Stravinsky emphatically claimed that his powers of imagination were unshackled by imposed confinements. Balanchine, too, dealt with whatever set of impediments he faced. "A dog is going to remain a dog, even if you want to have a cat; you're not going to have a cat, so you better take care of the dog because that's what you're going to have." As Violette Verdy recalled, Balanchine did not try to transform or force a situation. "He accepted what he had to deal with ... and gladly dealt with the conditions offered to him."
Order, precision, boundaries, time and space, the inerrancy of motionall these abstractions were channeled through both men's razor-sharp visual acuity. For the composer, visual impressions were often indelibly recorded, as he once remarked, "on the retina of my eye." From his earliest childhood memories of a red-shifted country peasant making the most earthy kind of music to his 1947 viewing of a Hogarth exhibit he happened upon in Chicago (which inspired his 1951 opera The Rake's Progress), the composer was deeply touched by painting, sculpture, and especially architecture. These visual arts came alive for Stravinsky as each unfolded in its own rhythmic motion. The bridge to ballet was a short one. As the composer's biographer Mikhail Druskin suggests, "Is not this the reason for Stravinsky's long affection for the ballet, with its 'graphic' purity of movement, and especially for classical ballet?for his interest in rhythmic accentuation, which translates the gestures of mime, becoming thereby a 'speaking gesture'?"
Likewise, Balanchine was capable of conjuring up eye-appealing geometric patterns with the deftness of a skilled draftsman. He not only saw things clearly, but his visual horizon was unusually wide. He possessed both the eye and the ear to discern far-reaching musical-choreographic relations others could easily miss. Moreover, this visual sharpness encompassed a keen sense of temporal perception. He understood the visual rhythms of a structure, in the same way an architect does, and he matched them convincingly with underlying aural patterns. His sense of space, and of how space should be apportioned in sonic and visual terms, was unparalleled.
Both men were in some ways uncomplicated, in others elusive. Their stubborn refusal to be pegged neatly as a certain kind of artist surely strengthened their personal bond. It would be terribly misleading simply to categorize the composer and choreographer as formalists (as so many analysts wrongly do) if by that term we mean an excessive adherence to the belief that only design matters. Both were more than conceptualists, formalists, abstractionists, or constructionistsall tidy pigeonholes they considered nothing more than rigmarole. Both needed to roll up their sleeves and root up ideas with their bare hands (like a pig snorting truffles, to paraphrase one of the composer's descriptive images from his Poetics). Although Stravinsky, in particular, was prone to a kind of cerebral, circumlocutory doublespeak, he, like Balanchine, proudly considered himself a blue-collar artisan (fig. 1.1). The composer's portraiture of the hunt for new ideas captures his and Balanchine's approach: "A composer improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about. Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out.... So we grub about: in expectation of our pleasure, guided by our scent, and suddenly we stumble against an unknown object. It gives us a jolt, a shock, and this shock fecundates our creative power."
Above all else, both men were theater artists; and both were themselves full of theatricality. While Balanchine could create some of the most exquisite, breathtaking choreographic images ever staged, he could also be downright funny, even sillyan entertainer or "circus man," as he once unapologetically described himself. Stravinsky, who could sermonize with the best of them in defending his often-embattled works, also had an impish, vaudevillian side. The theater was deeply etched in his heritage, and he skillfully utilized the stage as a forum in a way few musicians ever achieved. For Balanchine, the elasticity of dance was broad enough to embrace a spectrum of brilliant colorscolors that few other choreographers were capable of envisioning.
Their unique success as collaborators appears all the more extraordinary given that Stravinsky routinely voiced harsh dissatisfaction with the librettists, costumers, set designers, painters, and producers with whom he worked. When it came to getting what he wanted, he could be inflexible, intimidating. Choreographers, like conductors, constantly came under fire. Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, and Bolmat one time or another all close Russian colleaguesfell from his grace. Almost every joint venture the composer undertook resulted in an uneasy alliance, owing not only to the complex and frangible nature of collaboration itself but also to the composer's rigorously imposed standards and hidebound attitudes. Yet his compositional productivity was wrapped tightly around the necessity of collaboration, and consequently there was a constant search for partners who were equally inventive and sympathetic yet willing, ultimately, to accede to his carefully thought-out vision. As a young, untested composer, his earliest ballet collaborators had forced him to make too many concessions, and he resented it. He was not about to make the same mistake.
In reviewing the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring, Jean Cocteau commented that the ballet failed primarily because the music and movement were parallel; they lacked internal "play." Consequently, the ballet missed the interchange of dance and music that such an overwhelming, groundbreaking artistic work demanded. For Cocteau (and Stravinsky, too), the parallelisms of The Rite were, rightly or wrongly, perceived as no more than redundancies. Balanchine was the first of the composer's collaborators gutsy enough to sidestep the hazards of simple choreographic imitation. He refused to accept this mimicry as the equivalent of genuine musical-choreographic unity. Such ersatz correlations provided too superficial a solution to Stravinsky's musicdynamic music demanding an equally creative counterpart.
Often in vain, Stravinsky persistently argued that music and dance were more disconnected than connected. Indeed, it was from the unexploited potential of such disconnectedness that ballet would draw significant strength in becoming an expressive, independent art form. Efforts to synthesize a ballet's score and choreography through undisguised imitation created no true synthesis at all, both men contended. Such tautology only created an illusory reassurance, leading audiences to believe that in immediately seeing how closely the music and movement were coordinated, they had succeeded in perceiving the work's oneness. But nothing could be further from the truth. Using dance to "interpret" the music was a slippery slope, especially for Stravinsky, whose public views on performers were notoriously chary.
Any form of interpretation constituted a bugaboo. The composer's position was most explicitly expressed in the last of his six lectures, "The Performance of Music," originally given at Harvard University during the 1939-40 academic year and later incorporated into his Poetics of Music. A summary of this last lecture (entitled "Of the Art of Execution" in the printed synopsis distributed to the Harvard audience) holds that there are "two kinds of executants: the mere executant and the interpreter. The former is held only by the obligation to play his part, the latter not only subordinates himself to the necessity of his duty, which is to transmit the music, but must also convey the intentions of the creator. He is the representative of the author; he must be both interpreter and executant; but not vice versa." The duties of a performer were clear to Stravinsky: the "infallibility of the execution [and] the submission to the spirit of the work performed which presupposes a technical mastery, a sense of tradition, a perfection of culture."
Tempo was a favorite target. As his younger son, Soulima (who often per, formed with his father in duo-piano works), recalled, "correct rhythm and tempo relationship" were imperative. Soulima remembered further that his father was "absolutely merciless" when it came to such matters. Above everything, "the pulse should be right.... Function normally and keep the steady pulsethat was his advice." No wonder, as the choreographer's dancers report, Balanchine always came to rehearsal armed with a metronome. He would constantly run to the piano, checking Stravinsky's carefully set tempi. The composer's music was not to be interpreted; it was to be executed. Excessive interpretationalways a concern of the composer's when placing his scores in the hands of otherswould lead audiences astray. After all, Stravinsky implied, it was his music, his thoughts, and should be honored as such. Balanchine understood this, and his fears of overinterpreting a gesture, a role, a ballet were similar to Stravinsky's. He wanted dancers to "transmit" the ballets, as he put itsimply to "dance the steps," in his well-known laconic understatement.
Moreover, the coordination of dance and music at the surface is quite a different matter from a work's substructural coherence. As Balanchine recognized, too effortless a comprehension of what one sees and hears could prove enfeebling: "When you're immediately together," he offered, the stamina of the statement being made is likely to "evaporate." Rather than aiming for an explicit matching of sound and dance, Stravinsky preferred to speak of the push and pull between choreography and musica jousting that would eventually produce a more compelling artistic statement. As he commented in a 1935 article for the Parisian journal Candide, "What are the connections that unite and separate music and dance? In my opinion the one does not serve the other. There must be a harmonious accord, a synthesis of ideas. Let us speak, on the contrary of the struggle between music and choreography." Balanchine agreed, believing that any struggle should, ideally, ultimately lead to "being together," as he put it.
Far more than any other choreographer with whom the composer collaborated, Balanchine employed choreography as a conduit through which to emphasize the message of Stravinsky's music. In some ways it was a jeopardous position. For many, it proved a heretical reversal of tradition, turning the pyramid precariously upside down. But Balanchine remained undaunted. He heeded the composer's belief that stimulation of the eye and the ear demanded careful apportioning; otherwise it was impossible to process meaningfully the mix of aural and visual data the senses were being asked to absorb. Balanchine intuitively understood the psychology of information theory. Thus he was capable of adroitly balancing what could easily become the overwhelming visual stimuli of physical movement.
Excerpted from Stravinsky & Balanchine by Charles M. Joseph. Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
The book is written with exemplary clarity, and it is highly original, enjoyable to read, and genuinely interdisciplinary. There is both a music and a dance readership for it.
( Stephanie Jordan, Roehampton University of Surrey)