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"Balanchine Variations"

By Nancy Goldner

by Reviewed by Leland Windreich

September 2008

Nancy Goldner, dance critic for the Christian Science Monitor and the Philadelphia Enquirer, saw her first Balanchine ballet in 1949 when she was a first-grader.  Her intense relationship with the then year-old New York City Ballet has continued to this day without a break as she has observed, studied, analyzed and relished Balanchine’s glorious output of dance creations.  In recent years the Balanchine Foundation sent her on a lecture tour of cities in America where the master’s works were performed by resident ballet companies or touring ensembles.  Her lectures dealt with twenty ballets, and she has compiled them into this delightful collection of spirited, stimulating program notes.

Goldner is friendlier than most dance critics, and she respects her reader with her sharing of impressions and ideas.  There’s surely no other writer who has had her vast experience as a witness. In dealing with each ballet she explores the historical origins of the piece—the time, place and circumstances of its creation, its structure and style, its relationship to the total Balanchine catalogue, the essence of its choreography, the special elements which distinguish it from the others, the unique quality and shape of its movement. 

It becomes clear that Balanchine did not carve his work in stone, and in reading the studies, which cover an era from 1928 (“Apollo”) to 1978 (“Ballo della Regina), one sees his changes and alterations in many of the ballets that he made over the years.

“Serenade” (1934) continues to be the signature work of City Ballet.  Yet it has been expanded with the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s music in 1941 (eliminated in the debut version);    distribution of its principal female roles has changed as well.  Democratic sharing among a handful of soloists was abandoned when he set the ballet on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo which preferred a star turn and a principal dancer took on the lead in all three movements.

Many of his narrative ballets were abridged over the years.  As he moved away from story-telling to the presentation of pure dance, he eliminated the poignant prologue to “Apollo” when Baryshnikov took on the role and inherited a plotless suite of dances to perform.   With “Le Baiser de la fee” he reduced the work to a musical suite and abandoned the complex narrative.  Political correctness influenced his change of a dance for blackamoors to a harlequinade in “Sonnambula.”  The emergence of new dancers with special technical skills influenced his decision to make drastic changes in much of his choreography.

There are probably five versions of “Concerto Barocco” and as many for “The Four Temperaments.”  Ballet directors who restore his work,  such as Francia Russell for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, invariably reproduce the versions as they existed at the time of their activity at City Ballet.

The look of his works have undergone various metamorphoses as well.  “The Four Temperaments,” created in 1946 with a fiendishly ornate collection of surrealist costumes, was ultimately redesigned in a format of austere black and white practice garb.

“Serenade,” originally performed by dancers in short tunics, is now danced world-wide in long white tulle.  “Concerto Barocco,” which was created with elaborate neoclassical costumes, has been seen subsequently with black bathing suits and eventually white tunics.  Each, we’re told, gave a different quality to the presentation.

Goldner relishes the stylistic achievements of each ballet and sheds light on the issues that they portray.  She points out elements of African-American dancing in many of his works, showing the influence of indigenous elements derived from the milieu of his new country.  She reveals the continued respect he observed for his European origins and particularly his Russian beginnings, which are represented fully in such ballets as “Theme and Variations” and “Diamonds.”  And we see the fusion of the classical, academic foundation with the piquant digressions conveyed in his Americana

ballets, such as “Western Symphony” and “Square Dance.”

This fetching little volume offers a splendid analysis and appraisal of a large body of George Balanchine creations in terms of their art, craft, significance and influences.  It will serve as a guidebook for appreciation of those pieces currently gracing regional ballet repertories and those now represented on film and video.  Sharp and sensitive photos by Costas illuminate the text.

University Press of Florida, 2008.  144 pp.  illus.  ISBN: 978-0-8130-3226-9.  $24.95

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