Dance Machine

Charles Joseph
Stravinsky & Balanchine: A Journey of Invention
(Yale University Press, 2002)

Countless studies have been written about the composer Igor Stravinsky; the scholarly industry devoted to his work is as fawning and fetishistic as those surrounding Joyce or Picasso. The hook in Charles Joseph’s Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention is its deep focus upon the collaborative negotiations between Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine, a working partnership yielding at least two major masterpieces of the ballet of the 20th century, Apollo and Agon.

Cover Image. Courtesy of Yale University Press.

The young, ambitious Balanchine came into contact with an already famous Stravinsky on Le chant du rossignol (1925), a ballet suite condensed from an opera begun before the sizzling early years of the Ballet Russes (1910 - 1913), which put Stravinsky on the map internationally. The catalyst in bringing Stravinsky and Balanchine into one another’s confidence, both personally and aesthetically, was Serge Diaghilev. When the impresario’s haughtiness and cynicism began to repel Balanchine— in the last lean years of a passé Ballet Russes— he turned to Stravinsky, who had himself fallen out with Diaghilev for business reasons. In addition to his skills as a promoter, Diaghilev, we learn from Joseph, was also an accomplished composer and arranger, and annoyed a workaholic Stravinsky with his strong-arm editing of Le chant to suit his demands as a huckster of spectacle, hawking exotic pyrotechnics to a trendy Parisian public in love with shock. Joseph conjectures that this was an intimidating project for Balanchine, the up and coming dancer and choreographer, whose first rehearsals on the ballet involved the use of a piano reduction cut for pianola, with an autocratic Stravinsky personally cranking the handle of the mechanical piano. According to Joseph, the composer had developed a reputation for his occasionally tyrannical exactitude in matters of metronomic execution, and so Balanchine found himself choreographing an already very difficult piece, now pumped from a machine with an inhumanly precise sense of meter and tempo, and a composer banging his knee, yell-counting to the awed and perhaps slightly terrified dancers.

From Stravinsky’s enthusiastically anachronistic self-immersion in the symmetries of classicism, via the pastiche of Pulcinella and the synthetic, one-act opera buffa Mavra, emerged his next collaboration with Balanchine, the shimmering, diaphanous Apollon Musagetes (1928). It is with Apollo that the two artists first forged a piece of work that achieves Stravinsky’s early words of encouragement to Balanchine: “eliminate … limit … clarify … reduce.” The composer referred to Apollo as his ballet blanc; he considered the austere translucence of the string orchestra to approximate white hues, together with the balanced consonance of the harmony which sounds, at least in spots, as if it could be played entirely on the “white” portion of the keyboard. Joseph insists that the work is a crucial one in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, not only for its deliberate departure from the explosive Dionysian daring of previous “Stravinsky-esque” scores— the special-effectsy show stoppers L’oiseau de feu, Petroushka, Le sacre du printemps, and Le chant du rossingnol, the rattling miniatures L’histoire du soldat, Renard, the weird jazz of Ragtime and the Ebony Concerto, the arid, Debussean Symphonies d’instruments à vent, the tilting, racing Octet, and the brutal, percussion-driven masterpiece Les noces— but for the light the ballet sheds on the overlapping careers of the composer and the choreographer. It is not simply that Apollo is the first proper collaboration between the two artists (Le chant du rossignol was more a division of labor designed by Diaghilev) but also that the planar harmonies capture both the measured introspection of a contemplative man in middle age (Stravinsky at 46), and the clearly ascending arc of a young rising star (Balanchine at 25). Such an aesthetic-architectonic parallax is borne out in the juxtaposition of the score’s calmly exquisite string layerings and the bold bodily grammar of Balanchine’s angular choreography, for whereas Stravinsky paused to soberly assess, Balanchine impulsively stretched himself toward the new.

Joseph chooses to explore these innovations of theme and design through the prism of the ballet’s rather dismal reception at its American premier (the ballet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for the Library of Congress in 1928), the first such premier of a major work by a major composer. We also learn that the ballet’s much-adored string orchestra arrangement was at least in part the result of “spatial strictures” at the Library of Congress. Stravinsky had prepared a score that included parts for piano and harp (Apollo’s lyre was to be heard in the harp), but discovered, through a tangle of correspondence with the director of the Library Congress’s music division Carl Engel, that the orchestra pit in the library auditorium could not physically accommodate this instrumentation, and so ingeniously reduced his design to an all-string orchestra, replacing Apollo’s lyre/harp with a lilting solo violin.

Diaghilev’s death in 1929 scattered the extended family of the Ballet Russes, and sent Stravinsky and Balanchine on eclectic parallel paths until their next major collaboration, a ballet based on the playing out of a hand of poker. Jeu de Cartes (1936) contains some of Stravinksy’s most scintillating orchestration, as well as a preoccupation with neo-classical pastiche become so chronic, it has degenerated into the baldest of melodic quotations. Whether the gimmicky graftings of Ravel and Rossini into the fabric of the orchestration were designed to please an American concert-going public with a short attention span, or if these excerpts were merely, as Joseph suggests, the compositional germs from which the early sketches of Jeu de cartes derive their first motivic starting points, and which Stravinsky, in an act of compositional defiance as scandalous as anything in Le Sacre du Printemps, simply decided to leave it untransformed, is not really the issue. For the ultimate effect is of a rich timbral flesh pockmarked with little prankish gags, and so Jeu de cartes succeeded in aggravating those American critics for whom Stravinsky represented a jaundiced Eurocentrism in the arts, and whose greatest achievements were the novel pageantries of the bygone Diaghilev era.

The real centerpiece of Joseph’s book is the “third chapter” of the Greek triptych which begun with Apollo (and continued, in 1948, with the muted and hovering Orpheus): the proto-serial Agon (1957). Joseph uncovers the origins of Agon in the typically eclectic Stravinskian obsessions of the moment: the hyper-compressed twelve-tone miniatures of Anton Webern (star pupil of Stravinsky’s tinseltown “rival,” Arnold Schoenberg), the Choralis Constantinus of Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac, 17th century manuals of French court dances, and the modernist verse of T. S. Eliot. The Webernian strand of this research is the most discernable in the ballet; from the sputtering fanfare’s first needling jackhammers, Stravinsky’s lines in Agon are cracked up to the point of nearly breaking apart. The radical polarization of pitch sets and the wide bands of silence housing the notes work together like a magnifying glass for heightening the ballet’s brittle arabesques. This splattered, pointillistic orchestration is, Joseph is anxious to point out, derived from the instrumental layerings Stravinsky had been studying in the classical French dance manuals. Thus we learn that the memorably fractured mandolin lines are the transformed echoes of an antique lute, which, along with the obvious (almost comic) use of castanets in the famous Bransle Gay section of the ballet, generate a timbral index linking 17th century aesthetics with the post-tonalities of 1957—what Joseph pithily summarizes as a fusion of “Josquin’s world with the world of the serialist.”

What is noteworthy about Stravinsky’s switch to dodecaphony in Agon—a gear shift Joseph hyperbolically calls “a turn of historic proportions”—is not so much the shock it gave the world of modern music (Stravinsky had been, up until this piece, one of the last major compositional strongholds against the growing orthodoxy of serial technique), but rather the fact that these first tentative experiments with the tone row were as “fresh and facile,” to use Joseph’s words, as any new Stravinsky work up to that point. That he maintained his utterly unique sense of pulse and color within the rigidified parameters of a music that in other hands is often only about control (see Stockhausen and Boulez) is further testament to the force of Stravinsky’s originality.

Even in the case of Agon’s scabrous serialism, Balanchine was intimate with the tiniest substructural details of the score. Upon examining a piano reduction used for rehearsals, Balanchine— perhaps with the distant memory of his first collaboration with Stravinsky on Le chant du rossingnol in mind, and the mechanical precision of the pianola— commented that Agon “[is] not a chest of drawers. It is closer to an IBM electronic computer. It is a machine, but a machine that thinks.” Balanchine’s metaphor was more thematically rich than perhaps he (or Joseph) realized, for if a ballet about the agonistic tension of opposites, and the dynamism and conflict inherent in binary structures is a “computer that thinks,” this “thinking” must proceed as an ongoing transaction of those most rudimentary of binarisms, zeroes and ones. The techno-digital vocabulary initiated by Balanchine made good spin for critics eager to praise the work after its premier, for it was less than a month after the launch of Sputnik, and the dawn of the “space age.” Reviewers seized on this coincidence to pronounce the work’s sleek angularity “futuristic,” and even went so far as to say that it challenged the “laws of space and time.”

Joseph is at times over-eager in his relentless detective work on the gestation of Agon (he devotes two fat chapters to the tracing of the score’s genesis, and another to the choreographic assembly), as when he spends many pages fretting over the stick figures Stravinsky threw down on loose leaf paper for Balanchine one afternoon at his Hollywood home in the summer of 1955. He goes so far as to investigate the tear perforations, and to speculate over possible missing notations, at one point referring (in a footnote) to a facsimile of this incomplete document (reproduced in the Christopher Ramsey edited tribute to New York City ballet) as “beautiful.” To describe a composer’s hastily scribbled notations jotted while working through the compositional hurdles of an as yet unformed ballet as “beautiful” is to be so blinded by the aura of the famous artist as to find anything he leaves behind as somehow of some magical aesthetic worth. Perhaps Joseph would also be interested in Stravinsky’s discarded bubble-gum wrappers?

That said, one of the real treasures of the book is the glimpse it gives of émigré European artists bringing their continental (that is, “high brow”) sensibilities to an American entertainment industry driven more by marketing concerns than the codified prestige of old world cultivation. Thus we get to listen in on Stravinsky negotiating with Hollywood execs over film and television score rights, and Balanchine coaching Broadway dancing girls (he spent his time in New York “between Broadway and the Met,” in Joseph’s phrasing), all the while fielding Lincoln Kirstein’s over-eager up-starting about Greek trilogies and “serious” American ballet. The American Kirstein wanted to be another Diaghilev, but his idols wanted a piece of the American dream. While Arnold Schoenberg remained locked in an L.A. bungalow, churning out forbiddingly complex pieces (with co-exile Theodor Adorno up the block writing in crypto-aesthetico-philosophical German of the composer’s heroic aesthetic triumph over the dangerously vulgar products of the “culture industry”), Stravinsky, and especially Balanchine, remained genuinely open to the new possibilities of film, the musical, jazz, and the Brill Building tunesmiths.

Throughout the book, we are continually reminded that Balanchine was a musician’s choreographer, whose gestural grammar was always designed to compliment and illuminate—rather than “imitate” or “illustrate”—Stravinsky’s sound worlds. One leaves Joseph’s study with the conviction that Balanchine’s impeccable musicianship was the most important factor in the two artists continued mutual interest in collaborating together on new works. If at times Joseph’s prose unfolds like one of the bumpier passages from the pen of the composer he worships, it almost never obscures the sense of the writing: that Igor Stravinsky’s music—and here, particularly the pieces given internal illumination through the restless physical designs of George Balanchine—defines the aesthetic sensibilities of the 20th century.


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven