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 Diaghilev’s 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 impresario’s "politically volatile and often pernicious arena of Diaghilev’s empire."

In 1928, Balanchine and Stravinsky made the groundbreaking Apollon Musagete (later simplyApollo) and Joseph deftly moves from the vernacular of a musicologist to the trench warfare of the goings on backstage in the ballet’s creation. From there, the structure of the book follows each of their subsequent collaborations."To understand the ballet’s 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 ballet‘s neoclassical imagery to the world of ballet.

Joseph finds the musicology of Apollo as interesting as the drama of the ballet’s creation, again slowing the book. Contrast his dusty technical points with the engrossing circumstances surrounding the dance world after Diaghilev’s 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 Balanchine’s 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 Joseph’s 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 Stravinsky’s commissioned score and Balanchine’s fragmented choreography to public, critical and professional ridicule.

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

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.