Archives for category: Ballet

His audiences were not there to watch a story, or to see forms and ideas taken from life. That was anathema to a man who created over 400 largely plotless ballets, many now lost. Instead they were expected to “see the music, hear the dance”. He did not translate words into dances; for him ballet was its own language – seen, heard and felt on its own terms.


Balanchine was an innovator, a revolutionary. He respected the laws and traditions of ballet even while he broke them. He took Imperial Russia with him when he left for the West; from the rituals of his religion the Russian Orthodox Church, to the Russian writers he read and re-read, his background informed the formal elegance he brought into his ballets. Only he could have created a style of dance that was recognisably classical while thoroughly modern.

Balanchine was born in Imperial Russia, ensconced in all its grand traditions, majesty and aristocratic elegance. At 13 this seemingly eternal world collapsed, replaced by a Soviet one he grew to despise. He trained at the Maryinsky, and was part of a group of dancers permitted to perform abroad with the Ballets Russes. He defected and made a name for himself as a choreographer of the Ballets Russes. The American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, impressed with his choreographic style, asked Balanchine to help him found an American ballet company. When cajoled into returning to the USSR for a tour in the 60’s he became so ill he had to leave. The reality of the USSR did not live up to the Russia that lived in his imagination. The Imperial world of his youth, that so closely informed his choreography, was gone. His religion, his family, and the culture he valued, destroyed. The Soviets, for their part, were more interested in confirming the superiority of Russian-style training than in his innovations.

When the American School of Ballet opened in 1934 the only way for Balanchine to go was, of course, the Russian way. His co-workers were Russian, the language was Russian and the school, later the company also, was run like a miniature Imperial court –  Balanchine, as Tzar, had absolute authority. Devotion and an almost military like discipline was expected of his dancers, all of whom were trained to respect ballet as a set of ethical principles: hard work, precision, humility. He created his own breed of dancers, moulded according to his own ideals and trained in the technique he envisioned, something he could never have done had he stayed in Russia. For example, a pre-Balanchine arabesque had the hips squarely in front with the leg raised behind. Balanchine opened the hips and extended the line, so that it looked not only more beautiful but also dynamic, more a movement than a pose. He demanded precision and clarity; a pointed foot could not be a centimetre out, and endless hours could be spent repeating tondus until every one was precise, all unnecessary movement cut.

Ballet, he said, was tied to fashion, the look of an age, and as such he did not like to revive or remake old ballets. He would always reference the past where necessary, evoke old styles – such as the French in Symphony in C – and he would use old music, from Bach to Tschaikovsky, but he would never dwell on the past.

He equally rejected narrative ballet. “Must everything be defined by words?” He once complained. So while some dances had a plot, none had a story. Symphony in C captured the essence of the French style without relying on sets or costumes to spell it out. Dancers could hide behind a story, and particularly behind sets and costumes, he felt. His dancers were expected to be fully present and thinking, never acting, therefore such things were part of the superfluous, and cut.

Agon (1957) was perhaps his most completely abstract ballet. He called it his “ballet machine”. The stage setting was simply a blue backdrop, the costumes (in what is now considered quintessential Balanchine style) just practice clothes. The movement is at times unlyrical, the dancers catching then departing from the beat. There is constant movement onstage, the choreography is unusual, rhythms shift abruptly, 4 male dancers start and end the ballet – as opposed to the traditional female corps – and the dancers themselves are utterly exposed. There is not even the slightest shred of story or meaning for the dancers or indeed the audience to hide behind. There is only the here-and-now immediacy of the dance.

Nevertheless, Balanchine did not unleash his vision all at once on the USA. Serenade (1935), his earliest work in the USA, is a lush romantic ballet. He also made sure to produce American ballets, such as Western Symphony (1954) which both celebrated and poked fun at the Old West.

The Russian who never lost an ounce of his Russian-ness seems on the surface an unlikely fit for the task of creating a new American ballet tradition. But in Balanchine they found someone who understood ballet inside out, and so knew where to bend and break the rules and where to reinforce them. He had seen others, such as Lopukhov,  try and fail to reinvent ballet. He had witnessed the emergence of modern dance in the West. His strict disciplined technique rooted the new American ballet unquestionably in the traditions of ballet, and his modern style, given free rein in the more liberal USA, combined to found something entirely new: modern ballet. To critics looking for message or meaning in his work Balanchine said “to make the beautiful more beautiful.”  He was unequivocal in this. He firmly but gently detached ballet from story and shifted appreciation from subjective to objective. He remade ballet, gave it its own language, detached from narrative – something to be understood on its own terms.

His New York City Ballet continues to grow from the strong foundations he set, and is rated one of the top in the world. His style, spread by former pupils, has influenced companies across America. His legacy outlives him – his ballets are performed by companies all over the world, including the Maryinsky, where in a sense he has returned home at last.

At a time when ballet was reduced to pretty spectacle, and modern dancers were striking out on their own to create a new dance language, a few talented innovators knew ballet had the potential to rejuvenate. Premiering in 1909, the Ballets Russes gave ballet a bigger shake-up than anyone could have anticipated.

Nijinsky as the Faun

Where ballet had waned in popularity in Europe, Russia had incubated it, nurturing talented dancers and choreographers who by the 1900’s wanted to convey real emotion and meaning within the framework of classical ballet. Diaghilev, for whom the term ‘impressario’ was invented, gave them the forum they needed by combining some of the finest Russian dancers of the day like Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky with innovative choreographers like Mikhail Fokine, and transplanting them to Europe, free of the strict Imperial atmosphere. Working with and modern composers like Stravinsky, and modern artists like Leon Bakst for set and costume design, every aspect of the Ballets Russes challenged the preconceived ideals of classical dance.

These ballets were expressive, and rejected both the standard 3-act structure and use of the corps-de-ballet. Petroushka, for example, is divided into 4 parts, The Firebird into two, and both ballets are about fifty minutes long. For all their innovation, however, it was the dancers who brought life to the ballets, dancing with superb technical ability but also expressive power. Anna Pavlova danced with passion and fire. Vaslav Nijinsky seemed to hover in the air as he leaped, and portrayed characters with true emotional depth. European audiences had seen nothing like them before.

Before long, Nijinsky would turn his talents to choreography. For his two more famous ballets, L’Apres Midi d’une Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) he found inspiration in ancient Greek art. The simplicity and rigidity of the figures influenced his movements which today still look unusual – side-on with weighted postures and asymmetrical gestures. The classically-trained dancers found it difficult. The lightness of ballet was replaced with a barefoot heaviness and they struggled to keep their feet parallel. The short ballets took hundreds of rehearsals to get right. Difficult music required the dancers to count aloud throughout; Nijinsky even resorted to stamping his feet offstage to keep the dancers in time with each other.

For Nijinsky emotion was the originator of movement, not aesthetic – another departure from traditional ballet. Nijinsky he wanted to create “for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience”. But it was so new, so shocking, that the audience revolted.

L’Apres Midi d’une Faune was first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 29, 1912. The unballet-ness of the ballet was difficult enough for the audience to take, but the sexual references led to outrage. The plot is simple: a faune plays with seven maidens. When they leave one drops her scarf, which he picks up, spreads on the ground and lowers himself onto, a movement many considered obscene and mimicking of masturbation. Newspaper Le Figaro condemned the ‘vile movements of erotic bestiality’.

Sacre created an even bigger scandal. It lasted only six performances, premiering at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. Stravinsky’s discordant experimental music was unlike anything audiences were accustomed to. The plot, an unflinching portrayal of sacrifice in pagan Russia, was unpalatable. Everything about the choreography was raw, harsh. The movement was reduced, stripped bare of flourish; more like gesture springing from emotion. It contained repetitive motions of walking and stamping in order to evoke the primitive setting and reflect the score.

Many took the ballet to be a mockery of art. Its opening night in Paris caused a near-riot, which began even before the curtain was raised, during the opening music. The audience jeered and whistled and catcalled so loudly they drowned out the orchestra. Fights broke out. The orchestra played on despite having things thrown at them. The dancers danced on despite the sounds of both the orchestra and Nijinsky off-stage keeping time being drowned out by the rioting audience. The police were called in. Some critics called it “coarse” and “brutal” while others were intrigued.

To Diaghilev scandal meant tickets. Indeed the second night sold out. Scandal gave his company greater publicity and in turn greater profits. But while the Ballets Russes enjoyed continued success Sacre did not and they never performed it again. Over the years it has been revived and re-choreographed many times all over the world. Despite the initial revulsion, Stravinsky’s score, and the themes of ritual and sacrifice have kept drawing choreographers and audiences back.

Nijinsky was dismissed from the company in 1913. Though he choreographed again his work never attained quite the same infamy. The Ballets Russes had made their mark on Europe. Movement had become released from the restrictions of Classical ballet and in turn become more expressive. Ballet had returned as a relevant art form in Europe.

We can thank the Romantics for ballet as it appears to us today. In the 18th century ballet was characterised by, among others, elaborate costumes, abstraction and the use of gesture, and its appeal was limited to the Royal courts of the day.

The Romantic era was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the Age of Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution was a period of development which saw massive changes in the way people lived and worked. The Enlightenment was a movement which focussed on science, reason, and rationality. Cities were spreading, people were leaving the countryside, and scientific reasoning had taken over from superstition and religious dogma.

Romantics, in their attempt to escape industrialism and urban sprawl, idealised and romanticised nature. Imagination, not reason, was considered the best quality of the mind. Romanticism affected every area of life from politics to education, and was most noticeable in the arts. In every art form it is associated with freedom from the restriction of traditional ‘artificial’ rules. German painter Caspar David Friedrich said “the artist’s feeling is his law”, an expression typical of the Romantic movement. Themes included folk art, emphasis on emotion and imagination, embracing the exotic, untamed nature and the aesthetic appeal of nature.

The Romantic era in ballet is considered to have begun in 1827 with La Sylphide, the story of a young man visited by a fairy. Many Romantic ballets focus on themes of the supernatural, exotic places, and the conflict between man and nature, reality versus fantasy, good and evil. To take La Sylphide as an example, main characters include a fairy – the sylph – and a witch. It is set in Scotland, considered an exotic location to the French court of that time. Finally, while the young man, James, cannot join the sylphs world, she cannot live in his either.

Tied in with these themes is the evolution of the dance language itself. The ballerinas portraying fairies, sylphs and willis needed to characterise a floaty, unearthly being. They moved and balanced on their toes and wore lighter, shorter, skirts. They stuffed cotton wool in their shoes and darned the toes to give support in their attempts to achieve a sense of weightlessness.

Technical proficiency rose during this era, as with the shorter and lighter costumes women were able to perform more elaborate and difficult movements. This included greater leaps, in order to portray lightness. The removal of masks and headdresses allowed the face to become more expressive. To achieve the required ethereal look arms became softer, more rounded. A forward tilt to the body also developed, adding to the willowy look.

Celebrated ballerinas of the era embodied the Romantic ideals. Fanny Essler was famous for her dramatic and sensual dancing. Carlotta Grisi premiered the role of Giselle. Fanny Cerrrito was famous for her lively style. Lucille Grahn was most famous for her portrayal of La Sylphide, which was in fact choreographed for Marie Taglioni. Taglioni was famous for her lightness and lyricism. Four of these five (Fanny Essler declined) danced the Pas de Quatre, a divertissement, choreographed in 1845 by Jules Perrot, considered to be the epitome of the Romantic dance style. They were some of the first international dance stars. Ballet became wildly popular throughout Europe in the 1830’s and 40’s and the celebrated ballerinas were the film stars of their day.

Within a few decades ballet had changed utterly. What we consider characteristic of ballet had developed. The short light dress, dancing en pointe, strong storylines with themes of good versus evil, supernatural elements, ever greater leaps, the illusion of weightlessness, sensuality and dramatic performance are all part of our conception of ballet today.

Most particularly, men were all but removed from the stage. In ballet’s earliest days women were not allowed to perform. Now they were preferred.  As fewer men were required to perform, fewer studied ballet, leading into a downward spiral of men’s participation in ballet.

All his led George Balanchine a hundred years later to say, “Ballet is woman…he is not the King but she’s the Queen.”