Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky.
Conceived, written, and narrated by Stephanie Jordan. New York:
The George Balanchine Foundation, 2002. (VHS: 96 min).
- The history of ballet is populated by works whose choreographies
were neither notated nor filmed. For this reason, sophisticated
analyses of the dialogue between
music and dance in ballet are few and far between. Stephanie
Jordan, the pre-eminent scholar in this nettlesome field,
demonstrated an impressive ability to tease out the relationships
between sight and sound in (primarily) 20th-century ballets.
The works in question may be amorphous and ephemeral, but Jordans
analyses are as accurate and precise as architectural blueprints.
In a recent lecture bearing the subtitle Ghost Stories,
Jordan traced the lengthy genesis of the Divertimento
from Le Baiser de la Fée, a ballet featuring
choreography by George Balanchine and music by Igor Stravinsky.
a nimble academic primer involving live performance, probed
one of the central questions in modernist aesthetics: the
in dance and music between narration and abstraction.
- Music Dances, an educational video addressing the entire
history of the Balanchine-Stravinsky relationship, offers a
concise study of the ways in which rhythmic and physical gestures
interact and intersect in seven ballets. Some of these are shown
as performed on stage (by the New York City Ballet, the Dutch
National Ballet, and the School of American Ballet), others
as rehearsed in studio. Products of a self-conscious media age,
the three Greek-themed ballets for which the Balanchine-Stravinsky
partnership is best knownApollo (1928), Orpheus
(1948), and Agon (1957)occupy special places in
the hearts of balletomanes, as do the twenty-six (!) other ballets
that Balanchine based on new and pre-existing Stravinsky scores.
Throughout the video, which Jordan narrates, she intimates that
Balanchine was less concerned with preserving fixed versions
of his works than Stravinsky. His choreographies lived and evolved,
his décors were simplified, and his female dancers slimmed
down. Jordan also intimates, however, that Balanchine had a
profound influence on Stravinsky. The two artists stoked each
others creative furnaces, leading to the invention of
music that sounded like dance and, conversely, dance that looked
- How did this synaesthesic exchange occur? Jordan, who maintains
a reserved, thoughtful presence on camera, begins her pedagogical
exposé with several examples of how Balanchines
choreography visualizes Stravinskys music.
These include runs sur la pointe above pizzicato strings,
even- and odd-numbered entrechats to even- and odd-numbered
beat patterns, body contractions on low chords,
and so forth. Jordan suggests that Balanchines choreography
more often responds to aspects of meter and pitch than to dynamic
and texture. Jennifer Tinsley, Peter Boal, and Kathleen Tracey
prove the point with studio demonstrations accompanied by the
pianist Nancy McDill and violist Gabriel Schaff. (Tinsley, to
my mind, steals the show, moving with streamlined grace through
Balanchines patterns.) Jordan next explains the rudiments
of twelve-tone composition, though not serialism, as well as
the aesthetic premises of (Stravinskian) neoclassicism. Though
the point is not made explicit, the viewer learns that Balanchines
visualizations of twelve-tone collections tend to assume geometric
shapes, with some pitches maintaining pride of place over others.
In the choreography for Movements for Piano and Orchestra
(1963), for example, Balanchine assigns the corps de ballet
pitches 1-5 and 8-12 of the governing collection, and the female
soloist pitches 6-7 [View
excerpt from Movements]. Once struck, the twelve pitches
fade away, but the dancers hold form at the sides and the center
of the visual frame. The music stays in the eye rather than
- Henceforth, the discussion becomes much more complex, with
Jordan using charts and diagrams to demonstrate the differences,
rather than the similarities, between Balanchines and
Stravinskys approaches to meter and rhythm. Visual sequences,
she makes clear, can have one more or one less beat than musical
sequences, accents can be inserted and deleted, and transitions
can be pared away. Jordan reveals that while Balanchines
choreographies tend to begin with Stravinskys music, sooner
or later they leave the music behind and find
their own form. The supreme example of dance-music interaction
comes in Balanchines 1972 choreography of Stravinskys
1931 Violin Concerto, a ballet that elevates the concept of
audio-visual counterpoint to an eye- and ear-taxing level of
intensity. Jordan charts the motion of groups of dancers in
and out of sync with the music, in and out of sync with each
other, and finally in and out of sync with the music and each
other at the same time. Visual canons are tucked inside musical
canons. Concluding her analysis, Jordan notes that the Violin
Concerto was as far as Balanchine ever went in the
direction of multi-system choreography. The artist
perhaps realized that phrases, whether visual or musical, tend
to lose definition when expanded and contracted too often.
- Towards the end of Music Dances, Jordan moves beyond
pedagogy to address broader conceptual concerns. She points
out, for example, that in choreographing Le Baiser de la
Fée Balanchine eliminated transition sections from
the music, thus transforming a relatively early Stravinsky score
(1928) into a late Stravinsky score. (The cuts were made after
the composers death.) The bulk of the discussion centers
not on this ballet, however, but on Agon, with special
attention paid to the Bransle Gay for solo female
dancer and the concluding Pas de deux. The original
and revised versions of the first of these numbers [View
Bransle Gay excerpt] bears witness to the invention
of a capricious echappé in second position followed
by a plié sur la pointe. This striking physical
gesture is accompanied by an equally striking musical gesture—an
eleventh-chord in the low register, sounded by the hitherto
unheard harp and strings—but the former is seen before
the latter is heard. Balanchines choreographic novelty,
in short, is misaligned with Stravinskys musical one.
At this juncture, Jordan clarifies how the dialogue (or, more
precisely, the Olympic contest) between dance and
music in the Bransle Gay has evolved over time.
In some performances of the work, one finds the music outshining
the dance; in others, the opposite seems to be the case. Jordans
comparison of the 1957 and 1960 versions of the Bransle
Gay, with the video version made in 2001 witnesses an
increase in technical precision on the part of the solo performer
and a tightening, rather than a loosening, of formal constraints.
Though the internal elements of this hypnotic work can be shuffled
around, the external structure proves unassailable.
- The Pas de deux from Agon constitutes a
fitting conclusion to the video, marking, as it does, a famously
sensual and seamless integration of sight and sound.
Wendy Whelan, who performs with Albert Evans on Music Dances,
points out in her interview with Jordan that physical gestures
are literally pulled out of acoustic gestures. In
doing so, she implies that the choreography is somehow an extension
of the music and, more profoundly, that space is somehow an
extension of time. Suzanne Farrell, also interviewed on the
video, adds that the Pas de deux has nothing
to do with a man or a woman, but everything to do with the quality
of the movement. Terpischore, the Muse of Dance, would
blanche at the eroticism of some performances of the work. What
Whelan and Evans offer on the video, however, is a jewel of
- Music Dances is both a superb educational primer and
an engaging theoretical treatise, one that touches on the ontological
frailty of ballet both as a performed and recorded medium. Jordan
assesses the dance-music dialogue in discrete sections of Balanchine
and Stravinsky's ballets; in doing so, she takes them out of
context. The outcome of her analyses, which involve seeing and
hearing examples two or three times in succession, is a sectional
reading of sectional works, a visualization of visualization.
The repetitions are essential for following the argument; indeed,
at times one wishes that Jordan lingered longer over her examples
to consider not only the ways in which music and dance fundamentally
interact, but also the ways in which they fundamentally diverge.
Though music and dance move in and around each other, they inhabit
different expressive realms, different expressive worlds, and
this difference merits bearing in mind when comparing and contrasting
meters and phrase lengths. In narrative and non-narrative ballets
alike, the distinction between the two media can be as concrete,
or as illusory, as that between the conscious and the unconsciousness,
the natural and the supernatural, signification and symbolization.
- Time—both actual and oneiric—is the essence of
ballet, and time is the essence of this video. Just as pendulums
marked an advance over verges and foliots in traditional clock-making,
Balanchine and Stravinskys audio-visual counterpoint marked
an advance over the lockstep motion and four-square phrasing
typical of older (narrative) ballet. The subtlety of this dialogue
becomes manifest in the insert about Apollo, where Jordan
reports that Calliope, the Muse of Poetry, manages to show
Stravinskys notes but also the rests
in between them.
Jordan, Stephanie.Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée:
Ghost Stories. From the Mariinsky to Manhattan: George
Balanchine and the Transformation of American Dance Symposium.
University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor. 31 Oct. 2003.