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Stravinsky and Balanchine: A
Journey of Invention
Charles M. Joseph
One of the most fertile partnerships in all of ballet wasn't seen on
stage, but was danced behind the scenes - the collaboration of composer Igor Stravinsky
and choreographer George Balanchine. Both Russian artistic emigres to the West,
together they defined neoclassical ballet throughout the 20th century by forging an
amazing creative bond that spanned 50 years and resulted in the creation of 30 ballets.
As Charles M. Joseph shows in his fascinating study Stravinsky and Balanchine:
A Journey of Invention, both were also great showmen.
It is rare that an author can describe, in meaningful ways, the
dynamics of the creative process, especially given the complexities of such a legendary
pair. But Joseph, professor of music at Skidmore College and a Stravinsky scholar (Stravinsky Inside Out), vigorously captures the Stravinsky -
Balanchine chemistry. He takes them out of the genius box and examines
them as real people, with private lives and problems, successes and failures.
There are protracted sections of musical theory which, it must be said
for lay readers, can be a challenge to digest. Joseph might have considered having
this text in the endnotes or an appendix assessable for those students and scholars with
this particular interest. But, after such stiff introductory passages, he quickly
moves to the meat of things, focusing on the collaborators similarities and
differences, as well as their methods of collaboration.
The chapters that deal with impresario Serge Diaghilev, with whom both
creators worked, separately and together, during the declining years of The Ballets Russes
in the late 20s, are captivating in drama and detail. Joseph is aware of the myths
and inaccuracies surrounding Diaghilevs legendary company, some even propagated by
Balanchine and Stravinsky themselves. He skillfully dissects the frequently difficult
personal and professional relationships of these three major egos.
The backstage sexual imbroglios, particularly the influences of the
openly gay subculture Diaghilev nurtured in the company, are recounted without
melodrama. Indeed, under the demanding impresario, both Stravinsky and
Balanchine detached themselves, bonding as outsiders, with what Joseph characterizes as
the impresarios "politically volatile and often pernicious arena of
In 1928, Balanchine and Stravinsky made the groundbreaking Apollon
Musagete (later simply Apollo) and Joseph deftly moves from the
vernacular of a musicologist to the trench warfare of the goings on backstage in the
ballets creation. From there, the structure of the book follows each of their
subsequent collaborations. "To understand the ballets long voyage, several
fictions must be swept away." Joseph writes.
The author works every angle of the seminal creation of Apollo
- from its history in Greek mythology to the lost history of its premiere in the U.S.
Particularly rich is the description of its initial disastrous critical reception and its
ascension as a masterpiece for both creators, indelibly fixing the ballets
neoclassical imagery to the world of ballet.
Joseph finds the musicology of Apollo as interesting as the
drama of the ballets creation, again slowing the book. Contrast his dusty
technical points with the engrossing circumstances surrounding the dance world after
Diaghilevs death and the decline of the Ballets Russes. Balanchine was working
all over the world, including Broadway and Hollywood, while Stravinsky was embroiled in a
career crisis in the classical music world that was starting to turn on him.
Joseph chronologically works through the Stravinsky - Balanchine canon
- the ballets, side-works, and the evolution of Balanchines model company, New York
City Ballet. Their greatest achievements in dance - Orpheus, Agon, Firebird,
the Rubies section of Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto are
dissected, some given more attention than others. Flash portraits of the dancers,
composers, performers and musicians that were in their orbit, are vividly drawn, not the
least of which is Josephs fascinating portrait of the American Diaghilev, the
legendary Lincoln Kirstein.
There is even comedy in the chapter about an ill-conceived symphonic
theater piece that was broadcast by CBS in 1962 called The Flood, sponsored by
Breck Shampoo's Golden Showcase. It was designed to bring the artists to a wide
audience in the U.S., but instead exposed both Stravinskys commissioned score and
Balanchines fragmented choreography to public, critical and professional
Joseph is authoritative throughout in a richly detailed volume that
will add to the substantive literature of both men and their work. It is both a
distillation of their careers and a vital revisionist history of two of the
master-builders of the modern aesthetic.
- Lewis Whittington