Absolute Music, Absolute Dance

Balanchine Stravinsky NYCB 150429 IMG_1031_edited-1The composer creates time, and we have to dance to it.
George Balanchine

I haven’t been to the ballet “proper” in decades. I think the last time I went to the New York City Ballet wasn’t so very long after George Balanchine had died. This week, while down in New York City, I spotted that the New York City Ballet had a Balanchine Festival going on. For the one I could get to, the music was all Stravinsky (Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements).

The ballets in the festival are Balanchine’s “black and white,” or “leotard,” ballets. No sets, no narratives, just music . . . and dance. The dancers in the videos speak beautifully to the specifics, so all I’ll say is this: if you are in the vicinity of New York City—or anywhere where it’s possible to see these ballets—just do it.

Listening List

On Spotify

On YouTube

NYC Ballet’s Megan LeCrone on Agon

NYC Ballet’s Sterling Hyltin on Symphony in Three Movements


For more on Agon, click here.

For more on Symphony in Three Movements, click here.


Credits: The quotation at the head of the post is attributed to Balanchine by several sources, one of which is indicated at the link shown.

12 thoughts on “Absolute Music, Absolute Dance

    1. shoreacres

      One of my friends, a writer and blogger from St. Louis, was a great fan of Eliot. Before her death, she sent me this article, which adds some interesting detail about the St. Louis background of Eliot’s work. Though the review didn’t mention it, I assume the biography notes the importance of the Mississippi, too. I always had assumed it was the Thames that was the “strong, brown god” of the “Four Quartets,” but not so.

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        That’s a good article. I’ve heard of artisans and partisans but never St. Louisans. And of course I had no idea of the contributions T.S. Eliot’s father and grandfather made to St. Louis. When I visited the city in 2008, I was impressed by the restoration of Union Station, which was once the largest and busiest not just in the country but in the world. I wonder if the train station was built with bricks from the Hydraulic Press Brick Company (which still exists, I see, but no longer makes bricks).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres, steve: Great article! It’s always interesting to be reminded of St. Louis vis-a-vis T. S. Eliot. I wonder what he would have thought of the arch . . .

  1. David N

    What a treat to get pure Balanchine and Stravinsky all in one programme – GB features in many triple bills here, and always makes the other works look conventional in comparison. The master – that match with Stravinsky was made in heaven. Curiously we’ve just had Bernstein’s Fancy Free score performed by Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra – made it sound very Stravinskyan.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Afterward, I was trying to recall why exactly I’d stopped attending the ballet, and I think it may have had a lot to do with what you write about other works alongside. I don’t mean to be sweeping about this, as there is no doubt a huge swath of interesting dance I’ve been missing out on, but Balanchine really was revelatory–and I so agree that the combination with Stravinsky was a match made in heaven! I subsequently learned, as you likely already know, that Balanchine also choreographed to Webern (part of Episodes, another “leotard” ballet)! He wrote of Webern’s orchestral music that it “fills the air like molecules; it is written for atmosphere. The first time I heard it… the music seemed to me like Mozart and Stravinsky, music that can be danced to because it leaves the mind free to “see” the dancing. In listening to composers like Beethoven and Brahms, every listener has his own ideas, paints his own picture of what the music represents…. How can I, a choreographer, try to squeeze a dancing body into a picture that already exists in someone’s mind? It simply won’t work. But it will with Webern.” http://balanchine.com/episodes/ BTW, on the subject of Stravinsky, last week I also saw the Jonathan Miller production of The Rake’s Progress. Have you seen it? I loved the production. Gerald Finley was Nick Shadow, and he was wonderful–I thought the whole cast was terrific. I have some question marks about it as an opera, but I’m very glad I was able to get to it. It’s performed only rarely, even though it’s a favorite of Levine’s (who conducted).

      1. David N

        Balanchine’s Webern I must see! Of course, the later part of Agon is Stravinsky moving towards the Webern ethos. Such a fascinating score, a history lesson in ballet music.

        I’d be interested to know what your question marks are re The Rake’s Progress. The only one I can think of is its inappropriateness to the vasts of the Met – it’s a Glyndebourne piece, like the Mozarts. But Levine loves them all and conducts them well. You encouraged me to get out the 2003 Met recording, and it’s pretty good. The last scene should break the heart – I totally reject the idea that Stravinsky was cold.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Oh, interesting: Agon was actually what made me think to see whether Stravinsky may have choreographed to Webern! On The Rake’s Progress, bear in mind I had no acquaintance with the opera before attending it at the Met, so my response is definitely of the “first impression” variety writ large. I thought the production, performances, and the music itself were absolutely tops, and I really don’t understand why this isn’t performed more often. This is terribly literal-minded of me, but what gave me pause had to do with the plot. Now, I don’t expect a lot from opera plots, but I had trouble getting a fix on the intention here–the plot seemed to careen between farce to tragedy. The Rake’s taking up with Baba the Turk seemed to me completely unfounded. (Even Stravinsky had his doubts. According to Robert Craft, he “had reservations about the characterization of Baba the Turk and Shadow’s arguments for Rakewell to marry her, which he thought specious, abstract, and more likely to baffle than to convince an opera audience.”) The grave scene fell flat for me, too, despite wonderful performances from Finley and Appleby. I DO agree that the last scene was heart-breaking, and beautifully played and sung by Appleby and Claire. I don’t mean, either, to overplay the aspects that gave me trouble–maybe not as powerful and affecting as a Britten opera, but this was a great night at the opera, to be sure.

          PS: I thought this was a very thoughtful, well-informed review, by the way: http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2015/05/mets-superb-rakes-progress-touches-the-mind-and-heart/.

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