La Bayadere

Choreography: Marius Petipa

Music: Ludwig Minkus

Debut: Marynsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia 1877

View video clips from the 2002 Marynsky revival of Petipa’s 1900 version

La Bayadere is a typical example of classical ballet containing every requisite cliché. Set in an unspecified era of a “long-ago” version of India as imagined by 19th century eastern Europeans, the story features the bayadere (temple dancer) Nikiya whose pure, committed love for the warrior Solor is met with betrayal. Loyal Nikiya is thrown over for a rich and beautiful princess (Gamzatti) who then kills her via snakebite. Nikiya takes awhile to die, dancing fiercely before collapsing to the floor. Realizing his fickle behavior has brought about his true love’s demise, Solor is deeply regretful. He smokes some opium and hallucinates all of Act III.

Act III, the “white” act, is one of the most famous classical ballet excerpts and is often performed independently as a full-length ballet. Solor has a vision of Nikiya in The Kingdom of the Shades. Petipa’s iconic procession of 32 shades (spirits) as they gradually enter the stage in a zig-zag pattern is an all-time great moment in ballet history. The repeated series of steps is brief and simple, like a classroom combination. It is passed on – through the line of dancers, from one to the next – just as ballet tradition itself is passed on through the generations, from one dancer to the next.

The final action takes place at Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding, where the gods avenge Nikiya’s murder by burning the entire temple down, killing everyone within. Despite his recently unheroic behavior, Solor is joined with Nikiya in death.

Along the way are plentiful variations by cheerful, dedicated slaves and townspeople. Most offensive are the dancers, usually children, who appear in blackface to portray natives at the nuptial celebrations. A golden idol appears for a virtuosic show of the male danceur’s skill. The royal couple performs a joyful pas de deux in Act II, as though half the action of the ballet were not yet left to occur. And, of course, Gamzatti does an impressive series of fouetté turns – a must in any classical ballet!

I have seen La Bayadere in several live performances but rented a copy of the 2008 Kirov (Mariinsky) production for the purposes of this post. This interpretation cuts the final act, closing the curtain on Solor still in his Kingdom of the Shades hallucination. Bayadere is a long ballet and features several beautiful dances. Highlights include the variations at the betrothal ceremony, as well as Nikiya’s writhing, tortured dance that immediately follows. The golden idol is always a big hit and, of course, the exquisite precision of Act III, which conjures the other-worldly atmosphere of Solor’s dreamlike state.

Although Petipa defined in many ways the aesthetic of modern ballet, a large part of the storytelling in his model relies on an elaborate vocabulary of pantomime, which dominates Act I. Unlike many of today’s ballets, more abstract in nature, Petipa ballets require an accompanying synopsis. Otherwise, the plot would be almost entirely lost on most viewers.

The plot represents much of what I love and hate about classical ballet. It makes very little sense and is heavy on the ridiculous. Setting is unrealistic in the senses of both time and place. Justice, throughout, is highly questionable. After all, the torment of the lovers overshadows the needless suffering of the slaves and natives, as well as that of the wedding attendees who end up being collateral damage. The ballerina represents everything pure and good. She remains elusive to the hero, who is attributed with honor but who is weak and fickle.

Would this scenario work in a contemporary setting? Our innocent young heroine goes away to college and falls in love. He loves her, too, but gets drunk and associates himself with sorority girl at a mixer one night. Tragedy ensues…

Perhaps the themes of Bayadere and other ballets of its kind – love, loyalty, betrayal and death – are better portrayed in a more ethereal setting, where they are felt in a loftier manner. Still, I can’t help but long for a relevance in ballet that is achieved in other art forms today such as music and film.

Additional resources

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At Midnight

Choreography: Eliot Feld

Music: Gustav Mahler

Debut: American Ballet Theatre (ABT), 1967

Eliot Feld Ballet Company, “At Midnight” – 1976

Critics agreed that At Midnight was an important moment in ballet. Reviewers describe it as if it weren’t choreographed or danced, but rather that it was an overall experience of great art. From these descriptions, the dancer-choreographer seems to have transcended his art, if only briefly.

At Midnight got its name from the first of Mahler’s “Five Ruckert Songs,” to which it is danced. The five songs (only four are used in the ballet) were based upon poems by Friedrich Ruckert but the action of the ballet does not echo the poems’ content. The motto of the ballet was actually drawn a quotation from Thomas Hardy: “In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say “See!” to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply “Here!” to a body’s cry of “Where?” till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome, outworn game.” The ballet’s themes of love and alone-ness are expressed in the passing movements of the dancers, as well as in the rich atmosphere of the music and stage.

Anna Kisselgoff declared At Midnight “a landmark ballet, poetic in its depth but accessible to everyone on its theatrical level. She praised Feld in her 1991 review for The New York Times: “Theatricality was always a strong element in Mr. Feld’s early works, and “At Midnight” is a perfect example of atmosphere created by spatial composition, music, dramatic lighting (by Allen Lee Hughes) and decor (a dejected figure painted by Leonard Baskin).”

As has been the case too many times in my brief endeavor with this blog, I am unable to unearth images or videos of this ballet. Even reviews and other commentary are scarce on the internet. Perhaps the lack of accessibility to Feld’s work today is in part due to his failure to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the world of great ballets. According to Tobi Tobias for New York Magazine: “At Midnight, created in 1967, and the 1971 Theatre. Both are rich works — original, intelligent, and full of feeling — that promised a distinguished future for their choreographer. Some 30 years after their making, we have seen this undeniable talent continually dissipated in pieces that are childish, gimmicky, and obsessive. What happened?”


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Pause: NYCB with Balanchine at The Kennedy Center

I attended a performance at The Kennedy Center on April 5th by the New York City Ballet, one of its three mixed repertory programs of Balanchine black and white ballets that the company brought to DC from New York. The evening altogether was satisfactory but by no means thrilling. As good as these ballets are, they’re the same old, same old from NYCB.

Monumentum Pro Gesualdo

The all-Stravinsky evening began with Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, originally debuted in 1960. Although its aesthetic is typical of Balanchine – black and white practice clothes, clean lines and precision – the piece is somewhat restrained compared to his other works. There is far less actual dancing in the ballet than we expect from Balanchine, with what feels like a lot of walking and posing, beautiful as the posing was. The transitional walking between each movement was made painfully awkward by the clacking and squeaking of pointe shoes on The Kennedy Center’s unprepared Opera House stage. (Kennedy Center: please ask Lincoln Center how to solve this disturbing problem!) The piece exudes classicism and, like the score, which is less unpredictable than most of the composer’s music, it feels controlled and tame by comparison. It was a gentle introduction to an evening of more exciting works.

Movements for Piano and Orchestra

After a brief pause, the evening continued with Movements for Piano and Orchestra, which has accompanied Monumentum since 1966, when Balanchine chose to pair the two for performance. This second piece was filled to the brim with the clever playfulness that we know and love from Balanchine’s choreography, as well as the weird twists on classical movement reminiscent of Bob Fosse’s iconic, appealingly awkward style. The abstract, neoclassical dancing echoes Stravinsky’s score, which is characteristically sparse and dissonant. Stravinsky told Balanchine that this piece could have been called “Electric Currents.” Balanchine said, “Nothing gave me greater pleasure afterwards than Stravinsky’s saying the performance ‘was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.'”

There’s always something interesting going on in this piece and you feel that, if you watch one grouping of dancers, you’re surely missing something cool from another grouping. That’s the intellectually and visually stimulating choreography that makes Balanchine’s work so fascinating.

Check out an excerpt and an interview with NYCB soloist Rebecca Krohn.

Duo Concertant

The third and final piece before the first intermission was the lovely Duo Concertant, choreographed for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival and performed Tuesday by Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay. A sentimental piece, Duo highlights Balanchine’s reverence for Stravinsky and for music in general as the essence of dance. The musicians – pianist and violinist – play onstage as the dancers listen, waiting at the piano for their inspiration to dance. The dancers take their cue from the musicians, whose playing seems to fill the couple with exuberance and joy.

Fairchild is a gorgeous dancer, rounded and soft but engaging and agile. Her womanly figure was well suited to the romance of the piece and it is always refreshing to see a ballerina of her caliber who looks like a woman rather than a little girl.

There was an embarrassing moment when the ripping sound of Finlay’s shoe sliding on the floor as he knelt in adoration at his partner’s feet sucked the romance right out of the air. (Darn you, Kennedy Center! Fix your floors!)


The second act Tuesday was Balanchine’s Apollo. Perhaps I am simply spoiled rotten, having recently seen a recording of Heather Watts as Terpsichore, because even the live experience couldn’t live up to the heartbreaking beauty of that 1989 performance.

The excellent Sterling Hylton, an all-Balanchine ballerina, danced the role of Terpsichore on Tuesday opposite Robert Fairchild’s Apollo, with Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller as Polyhymnia and Calliope. Aside from a jolting stumble toward the end of the ballet, Hylton’s Terpsichore was competent. Peck and Scheller were charming in their respective characters’ roles. Fairchild was an earnest Apollo.

The performance, though, did not have the ethereal beauty of the earlier recording. Individually, the dancers could not compare to their predecessors and, as a cast, they lacked a certain quality of familial cooperation that was touching in the video.

Symphony in Three Movements

Symphony in Three Movements was an exciting final act. The ballet featured a cast of about 30 in a large-scale, fast-paced spectacle of black and white (and pink!) clad warrior-dancers. Yes, the score is more than faintly warlike, and the troops of dancers prancing and darting across the stage lends a tribal feel to the ballet, especially in its closing tableau, which resembles a totem of some kind. The dancers seem like warriors only in the sense of their strength and determination, though, and not in any sense of aggression or antagonism.

The male dancers’ airborne jumps juxtaposed with their darting, scissoring leaps were splendid and the highlight of a night that featured very little male dancing overall. Among the cast were several ballerinas with “normal” female figures (we should all be so “normal!”), which was encouraging, especially in the wake of recent criticism over NYCB’s Jenifer Ringer’s healthy weight. They outperformed one of the lead ballerinas (in a pink leotard), whose stick-thin physique did nothing to compensate for her stick-thin performance.

Check out excerpts by Miami City Ballet

Additional resources

Washington Post review of Tuesday’s performance by Sarah Kaufman

Danceviewtimes review of Tuesday’s performance by George Jackson

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Pause: Ballet in Washington, DC

This recent article by Sarah Kaufman for The Washington Post speaks so clearly what I have long felt about the dearth of new and interesting ballet in Washington, DC that I felt I should share it here.

Unfortunately, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, DC’s premiere venue for dance performance, perpetuates the belief that the era of ballet is over by hosting the same companies in the same repertories season after season. Yes, the classics sell tickets. I’d like to believe, though, that season ticket-holders and newbies alike would support new companies and new ballets if they were featured in our city.


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As Time Goes By

Choreography: Twyla Tharp

Music: Joseph Haydn

Debut: Joffrey Ballet, 1973


Calling all Tharp fans! Please share your thoughts on “As Time Goes By” or Tharp’s work in general. This blogger has historically reserved her theatre-going for performances of classical ballets and is at a loss to express an informed opinion on more modern pieces such as Tharp’s. Several critics compare Tharp’s choreographic contributions to those of acclaimed, female, classical choreographer Bronislava Nijinska in their “tribal, primitive” expressiveness. Do you agree?

As Time Goes By, a somewhat early work of Tharp’s that she created for the Joffrey Ballet, blends classical and modern dance in new ways. The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce describes the piece as “a study of classical dancing…In much the same way [as Nijinska], Twyla Tharp is moving toward a new quality of plain speech in classical choreography.”

The piece is brief (only 15 minutes), abstract and plotless. Set to the third and fourth movements of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F Sharp Minor, entitled “Farewell,” it begins as a solo and evolves into a larger ensemble piece with loose, complex groupings, entrances and exits. Mirroring the music, which diminishes from full orchestration down to just two violins, it concludes in there is a gradual elimination of dancers until only a single man remains. His solo continues as the curtain drops.

Croce concludes in her 1973 review that “As Time Goes By is not a pretentious enough ballet to make people feel that they have witnessed a heroic new undertaking in choreography,” but affirms that, despite the lack of “gloss,” “appeal for attention” and “careerism” in her work, Tharp was “the herald of a new age.”


Additional resources

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Choreography: Robert Joffrey

Music: Crome Syrcus

Debut: City Center Joffrey Ballet, 1967

March 1968 Time Magazine cover featuring “Astarte.”

Read the story

At the time of Astarte’s debut, the Joffrey Ballet (then known as City Center Joffrey Ballet) was a fledging company, created just two years earlier in 1965. From the start, the Joffrey set out to redefine classical ballet, presenting edgy new works that drew new audiences in the midst of an experimental 1960s America.

Astarte, named for the Eastern Mediterranean goddess of  love and fertility, takes place in a disco-esque setting complete with strobe lights, acid-rock music (an original score by west coast rock band Crome Syrcus) and projected video content. A young man, spellbound by the atmosphere, emerges from the audience in a trance, strips to his briefs and allows himself to be sexually conquered by the powerful love goddess on stage. After about a half an hour of brutally intense dancing, the goddess disappears and the young man exits backstage onto the street, still virtually naked, as if emerging from the disco into the light of day.

“From its first sensational performance Astarte was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike. It placed the Joffrey in the unique position of being a classical company with its eye on contemporary American culture…never had a classical company in America used a complete rock score, plus state-of-the-art visual effects (Dance Magazine, August, 1994, Christian Holder).”

Even if it were possible to obtain a copy of a performance for my viewing, I can’t imagine that such an experience could compare to the live presentation, particularly in a 1960s setting when so little comparable work was extant. I wonder if Astarte would hold up today as a “good” ballet…would the choreography, stripped of the novelty of the “wild, whirling riot of sight and sound (Time Magazine)” to which we are now so accustomed, stand on its own? Doubtful, but we are in debt to the Joffrey for its furtherance of American dance.

Robert Joffrey said, “I look upon ballet as total theater. I want to attack all the senses. I want my dancers to express my thing, the now thing, good or bad.” Even today, the Joffrey Ballet can be depended upon to produce original works that somehow capture the exuberant spirit of our culture.

Additional resources

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Choreography: George Balanchine

Music: Igor Stravinsky

Debut: Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, 1928

Video clip: Houston Ballet performance of Apollo in Saint Louis, Mo.

As my brother once put it, “if Agon is the apex of Balanchine’s choreography, Apollo is the inception” and, indeed, it seems odd to be reviewing Apollo after Agon if only because it is the seed of what later developed more extremely. That is not to say, however, that Apollo is simply a means toward an end. It remains one of the best and most important, enduring ballets.

First presented as Apollon Musagete during Balanchine’s early days with the original Ballet Russes, Apollo (shortened from the longer title in the 1950s) is the first of Balanchine’s great, lasting choreographic successes. Its creation was the first of many collaborations between the choreographer and his lifelong mentor Igor Stravinsky.

The “story” of the ballet is minimal. It depicts Apollo’s birth (an opening scene at times present and at others cut from the performance), his interplay with the three muses (Calliope, muse of poetry, Polyhymnia, muse of mime and Terpsichore, muse of dance) and his ascendant return to Mount Olympus (also cut from some interpretations).

Despite the plot’s simplicity, Balanchine writes in his summary for Apollo in “101” a detailed play-by-play of the intricate choreographic detail of the entire 30-minute ballet. It’s clear that this work was near and dear to him, and it’s understandable why that is so. Apollo represents the choreographer’s own first moment of self-discovery. In fact, the story – the young god first realizing his own strength of talent as an artist – is an allegory for Balanchine, just 24 years old in 1928, discovering his power as a creator and developing his unique vocabulary as an artist.

Apollo is one of those ballets that I have seen many times, particularly during my summer in Saratoga; NYCB performed the piece several times in the two weeks throughout which I attended performances. I was bored by the repetition at the time but today am envious of that opportunity. I have just watched the ballet, an NYCB performance from 1989, on videotape, which is lovely but not quite the same as the live experience.

As Balanchine’s ballets are so often described, Apollo is pristine. Balanchine’s inventive, neoclassical steps evoke an entirely classical setting but small, intimate gestures are recognizable to the modern viewer: playful, lilting jumps on pointe, the swimming lesson that Apollo gives to Terpsichore, the chariot race…simulations that convey an idea without resorting to simple mime. In just a single scene, we watch Apollo awkwardly take up his calling as god of music, obtain mastery and self-possession as a mentor to the three muses and humbly assume his godly stature. The humanity of the god, and of his three muses, is what shines through for me. It’s an interesting interpretation of an immortal being and reflects, I think, Balanchine’s own ascent to artists power.

Additional resources

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Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan

Music: Bronislav Martinu / Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Opinion on Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and on “Anastasia” in particular, varies significantly.  Lauded by some as an innovative maverick, MacMillan is dismissed by others critical of what they deem to be his overly-theatrical ballets that fall short of true success. In “Angels,” Homans claims that MacMillan’s tenure at the Royal Ballet of “heralded a sharp decline in aesthetic and technical standards, but above all in the sustained commitment to high art that had underpinned” the company.”

The controversial MacMillan sought to redefine ballet, from a charming, escapist art form to a medium for taking on serious, often violent, subjects. Not surprisingly, he met with some resistance. Ballet companies, wishing to attract conservative, opera-loving audiences in the early 1960s, objected to MacMillan’s heavy-hitting real-life subjects, which included the Holocaust.

Homans is harshly critical of MacMillan’s “one way forward: down into the depths of his own damaged personality and dark obsessions…he sacrificed his talent to an obsessive desire to make ballet something it was not…brutal and realistic.”

It was in 1967, during his tenure at the Berlin Ballet, that MacMillan first created “Anastasia” as a one-act ballet. Based on the story of Anna Anderson, who proclaimed herself the Romanov princess Anastasia and sole survivor of the Bolshevik’s assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the ballet is indicative of MacMillan’s interest in real-life, as well as psychological, subjects. MacMillan re-staged “Anastasia” for the Royal Ballet a few years later, extending it into a three-act performance. The ballet recalls the princess’s early life when her family remained in power and then depicts Anderson in a Berlin asylum, suffering from dementia and tortured by recollections of her so-called past.

In her review of American Ballet Theatre’s 1985 production for The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff writes, “In 1967, when he directed the Berlin Ballet, [MacMillan] was experimenting with expressionist forms that he has since made more complex. Obviously the choreographer himself felt the need to develop his material further…The full-length ”Anastasia” worked primarily as spectacle. The one-act version of the same title is a distilled dance-drama that does not distill enough. Nonetheless, it too has an undisputed theatricality.”

Kisselgoff summarizes the core of the ballet: “…the action is a phantasmagoria of scenes related to the Romanovs. Flashbacks or projections of a mind that fantasizes? Sir Kenneth claims not to sympathize with Russia’s royal household, the Romanovs, but with a woman who suffers, believing she is a Romanov.”

Despite its intriguing subject matter and praise for some choreographic moments, the ballet is often described as dance-theatre, in which even the greatest performances (Lynn Seymour originated the role; Cynthia Gregory reprieved it with success) cannot overcome its “problems.” Since a 1994 DNA test revealed that Anderson was not, in fact, the late Tsar’s daughter, according to reviewer Jenny Gilbert for The Independent, the ballet has ceased to be relevant. “It’s a problem ballet, and that’s not going to change…It’s still the same ballet, with the same dramatic strengths, the same compositional flaws, but the world’s position has shifted while the work stood still.”

At the time of publication of “101” in 1989, the mystery of Anastasia had not yet been solved and many entertained a fascinated belief that Anderson was, indeed, the princess who somehow survived her family’s murder. It’s a wonder if the authors would still have included “Anastasia” in their list of great ballets, had the truth then been known. Would Balanchine still find value in a true-events ballet, despite the facts of the story having been disproved?

I would venture to guess not. Anyone endeavoring to document the great works of our time, I believe, would use criteria that stood the test of time – and even of truth. In fact, Balanchine concludes his section on “Anastasia” with this quote from The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce, who praises MacMillan’s ballet, “not so much because of what it achieves but because of what it attempts…[MacMillan] produced a personal fantasy about a global cataclysm entirely from nothing…[his] taste, musical instinct and technical skill place him first among those British and European choreographers whose careers began in the fifties.”

Additional resources:

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Pause: NYCB at Lincoln Center

I visited New York City for the long holiday weekend and caught the Saturday matinee of NYCB at Lincoln Center. It was a nice afternoon.

First on the program was Benjamin Millepied’s (yes, of Black Swan and Natalie Portman fame) “Plainspoken.” It was a decent start to the performance, though not a piece I will long remember. Aside from a beautiful pas de deux in the penultimate movement, the choreography was not exceptional. It was enjoyable – a colorful, energetic and at times playful piece – but not amazing. The overall sentiment I discovered in researching reviews of this piece (see additional resources) seem to echo this feeling; that Millepied is good but not as good as his fame would seem to indicate. Millepied is an interesting study in contemporary culture, in which crossing over to popular culture is the best formula for success. I wonder if this was always as true or if we really have made “pop” our preeminent goal.

Christopher Wheeldon’s miraculous “After the Rain” was next. I first saw this piece about a year ago, also in New York. A crowd pleaser, this ballet is guaranteed to wow you every time.

Part I is moody and precise. Three couples dance against a backdrop of what looks like a wet window pane. They stab and dart their ways around the stage, as if they are raindrops themselves. The audience is immediately drawn in. The choreography is exciting, with something new and unexpected at every turn. Part I recedes as the sun rises on Part II. The minute, magnificent Wendy Whelan reappears with her partner (originated by Jock Soto, it was Craig Hall this weekend) in a pink, sun-drenched desert world. She is tiny and naked-seeming in her translucent pink leotard, hair loose. Her partner is broad and strong. They move slowly, deliberately and with tenderness, like a couple feeling its way back to life after a time of tremendous difficulty. The audience follows their every move, in suspense, in the grip of the touching beauty of each moment. It’s a ballet not to miss.

Following a too-long discussion by NYCB Music Director Faycal Karoui of the score for the next piece, came Peter Martins’ “Mirage.” Karoui’s discussion was interesting but not well suited to a venue as large as Koch Theater. My fellow Fifth Ring (aka. nosebleed) onlookers were quickly disengaged, playing games on their cell phones. The main point to understand, I’m afraid, was that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interesting score for “Mirage” was sure to overshadow the accompanying dancing we were about to see. I have to assume the purpose of the discussion was primarily to allow time for the rigging up of the giant “thing,” which was to be the only scenery for the ballet.

“Mirage” was the low point of the performance for me. Santiago Calatrava’s enormous “spoked, double half-circle creation spreading it ‘wings’ and quietly responding to the interacting couples below” was distracting, though not to any negative effect, since the dancers below it were endowed with practically no interesting choreography. In a piece that seemed never to hit full swing but rather to continue on and on in monotonous, repetitive movements, the NYCB dancers seemed to waste their energy. As bad as it was that I fought sleep throughout the beginning, it was a far worse indicator of the ballet’s quality that I consciously allowed myself to nod off toward the end, figuring I should rest up for the fourth and final piece.

Martins’ “Hallelujah Junction,” to John Adams’ score by the same name, was the perfect remedy for my lethargy. Fast, elegant and virtuosic, the ballet’s only flaw was that it ended too soon. The dancers – four women in white, four men in black and a leading trio consisting of a couple in white and a male soloist in black – echoed and accentuated the witty banter in which two pianos upstage were beautifully engaged. Principal Sterling Hyltin is the perfect Balanchine ballerina and she executed each step with energy and precision. Soloist Daniel Ulbricht charmed and impressed as the man in black, a fiery but elegant contrast with Robert Fairchild’s grace as the man in white.

Additional resources:

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Pause: Massine

As I near the end of Garcia-Marquez’s “The Ballets Russes (BR),” I feel compelled to dedicate a posting to the choreographic contributions of Leonide Massine, choreographer and lead dancer at Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russes from its inception in 1925 until his departure from the company around 1940.

In her book, Homans dedicates only brief passages to Massine but his tenure as choreographer at de Basil’s company produced many ballets, several of which are important and none of which are covered in “101.”

Most ground-breaking were Massine’s three symphonic ballets, controversial at the time for their use of “serious” symphonic music as ballet scores as well as for their general plotlessness. In creating them, Massine set an important precedent for contemporary ballet.

Massine said of his symphonic ballets, “I am firmly of the opinion that there is more to dancing than conveying a legend, story or fairytale, and more than simply a display of virtuosity. I believe that the harmonious form of the human body is capable of creating dynamic and graphic shapes to coincide with a symphony, in a way that is as convincing and significant as the symphony itself.”

Les Presages original video clip

The first of Massine’s three symphonic ballets was Les Presages, created in 1933. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the ballet “possessed a deep level of symbolism as well as a quality reminiscent of German expressionism…expressionism as the projection of subjective tension between the individual and his environment, the tragic opposition between the subjective will and the objective rigidity of the confronting world…man’s struggle against destiny (BR).”

Les Presages tells an allegorical story in four scenes, corresponding to the four movements of the symphony.  Its characters are abstract and universal (Action, Passion and Fate, for example, are some of the main roles, a popular character-naming practice in expressionist theatre at the time) as opposed to personal or individual. Each character dances as an expression of a particular musical theme, becoming a visual representation of the music. The choreography was a unique and successful blend of classical ballet and modern dance.

Massine introduced several additional new choreographic ideas in Les Presages. The pas de deux in scene 2, for instance, was neither strictly classical (a vehicle for showcasing the dancers’ technique) nor entirely romantic (a vehicle for furthering the telling of the plot). This was the “first modern romantic pas de deux (BR),” adherent to the overall theme of the ballet but also self-sufficient as a performance piece unto itself.

Also, characters that made appearances throughout the ballet re-entered the story in the final scene, a plot-development technique copied many times over. At the end of scene 2’s pas de deux, Massine originated the “presage lift” or “press lift,” commonly used in ballet ever since.

Despite its many shocking new elements, Les Presages was received with great enthusiasm. Massine “achieved a work of forceful movement and color, distorted spatial relationships (many of his group patterns looked chaotic at the time) and an ambiguously erotic and violent feeling (BR).” The ballet marked the beginning of a revolutionary approach to dance as an art form capable of conveying content and meaning of its own, much in the same way music had always done.


Reception for Massine’s second symphonic ballet, Choreartium, just months after Les Presages premiered, was much more divided. Whereas choreographing a ballet to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was daring, Massine’s choice of Brahms’s Fourth for Choreartium was, to many, sacrilegious.

Perhaps the subject of the ballet added to this perception. In Choreartium Massine departed even further from the “story ballet” and delved deep into the abstract. The ballet had no plot, no time, no place. No name or characterization was assigned to any role. Female dancers were assigned roles depicting the more delicate phrases; males embodied the bolder themes. The resulting work is a truly abstract ballet, in which dancers demonstrated the music’s juxtaposition of the masculine and feminine through physical movement alone. In this way, Massine’s abstraction surpassed even that of Balanchine at the time, whose Apollon Musagete (or, Apollo, addressed in the next posting!), though plotless, still evoked a familiar subject.

Critic Arnold L. Haskell saw the value of this new approach. He said, “…Choreartium goes to show that a setting is only needed for those lacking in imagination.” He sees “birth and triumph of pure dance” in the ballet.

Although at first a skeptic, music critic Ernest Newman became Massine’s fiercest defender: “Far from disputing the position that you cannot ‘interpret’ a symphony in choreography, I go further, and say that you cannot interpret any music whotsoever in choreography. An interpretation, a translation, implies saying the same thing in other terms than the original; and it is obvious that the specific thing that music has to say can never be said in any other terms than those of music. All we can get, as between music and ballet, is correspondences, parallelisms; our gratification comes from seeing something going on on the stage that runs in harness with the sequences of shapes and moods in the music.”

The controversy in the dance and music worlds over Choreartium solidified Massine’s status as an avant-garde artist.

Symphonie Fantastique original video clip

With Symphonie Fantastique (1936), Massine took a dramatic step back from the abstraction he attained in Choreartium. Choosing Berlioz’s romantic symphony by this name meant adopting the composer’s pre-written program. In selecting program music for his ballet, Massine aimed to capture both the psychological aspects of the story with the abstract setting. Symphonie Fantastique tells the hallucinatory story of The Young Musician whose unrequited love for The Beloved results in his attempted suicide by opium overdose. “The libretto’s extreme romantic symbolism presented the world as a metaphor for the tormented human soul (BR).”

Massine succeeded in conveying the intense emotion of the story through his choreography, which closely followed the musical cues of Berlioz’s score. He employed the idee fixe (a recurring melody that Berlioz used to represent The Young Musician’s obsession) to accompany each appearance of The Beloved onstage, although he did not create a choreographic equivalent to the repetitious phrase. He also gave each dancer a unique set of steps for each musical phrase.

Despite the controversy over Massine’s continued use of existing symphonies for his ballets, Symphonie Fantastique was deemed a success by audiences and critics alike. Newman said, “One feels, indeed, that had Berlioz had a choreographer like Massine ready at his hand it would have been in some such form as this that he would have planned to have his work presented.”

Not only did Massine contribute greatly to the repertory of ballets as the premiere choreographer in 1920s and 1930s Europe, he made lasting contributions to the advancement of ballet as an important art form. His constant search for new methods of expression led to musical vehicles and choreographic techniques that have endured throughout the last century.

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