by Linda Besant, Oregon Ballet Theatre Historian
[Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine in rehearsal while working on Agon in 1957. Photograph: Martha Swope.]
George Balanchine made 40 ballets to the music of Igor Stravinsky—the two are considered to have been among the most fertile and brilliant teams in performing arts history. The fruits of their creative partnership are as important to ballet as Lennon and McCartney to song.
Serge Diaghilev introduced Balanchine and Stravinsky in 1925, launching their life-long friendship. Balanchine was 20, Stravinsky was 42. Both were Russian expatriates, and found great comfort in sharing their common language and background. In Bernard Taper’s biography of Balanchine, a friend observed,
“The only time Balanchine loses that air of calm, complete authority he has is when he’s with Stravinsky. Then he’s like a boy with his father. The two can respect each other’s opinions, be gay and playful together, work together—but they never forget who is the father and who the son.”
They were intellectual soul mates too.
“Both Stravinsky and Balanchine had Apollonian instincts; they favored order, structure, clarity, and restraint,” wrote Larry Lipkis. “Moreover, both were well read in the classics, and both were intensely interested in each other’s discipline (Balanchine was an accomplished pianist and conductor); thus, their friendship and creative partnership flourished in a felicitous meeting of minds and temperaments.”
Balanchine called Apollo, choreographed to Stravinsky’s score in 1928, “the turning point in my life,” describing what he learned from Stravinsky’s music.
“In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could, for the first time, dare not use all my ideas; that I, too, could eliminate. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be myriad possibilities to the one possibility that is inevitable. In studying the score, I first understood how gestures, like tones in music and shades in painting, have certain family relations. As groups they impose their own laws. The more conscious an artist is, the more he comes to understand these laws and respond to them. Since working with Stravinsky on this ballet, I have developed my choreography inside the framework such relationships suggest.”
“From Stravinsky, Balanchine said, he also learned the trait of being satisfied with what one had made, once it was done,” wrote Bernard Taper in his Balanchine biography. “Stravinsky used to say his own model for this attitude was God, who on the days that he created lovely flowers and trees and the birds of the heavens was satisfied, and who was also just as satisfied on the day he created crawling insects and slimy reptiles.”
[Balanchine and Stravinsky in the studio while working on Agon in 1957, with Francia Russell, Christopher Stowell’s mother, in the foreground. Photograph: Martha Swope]
We are lucky to have photographs and film that let us glimpse the witty, old-world camaraderie that Balanchine and Stravinsky shared. This story, also from Taper’s Balanchine biography, illustrates their interactions. In 1946, while working on Orpheus,
“Balanchine went to Hollywood, where the Stravinskys now lived, to work out the conception and plan of the ballet. He arrived in time for Stravinsky’s sixty-fourth birthday, bearing as a gift a choral acrostic he had composed on the name “Igor” to a Russian text that in translation went: ‘Name day and birthday! Guests, noise, and excitement! Get high on Grand Marnier! Don’t forget a glass for me!’ Stravinsky studied Balanchine’s composition, then took a sheet of music paper and transcribed it, correcting the harmony. At the top he wrote, in English, ‘Birthday choral tune by George Balanchine harmonized by Igor Stravinsky Hollywood, Calif. June 18, 1946.’”
Anyone wishing to delve deeply into the Balanchine/Stravinsky opus can check out Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention, where author Charles M. Joseph wrote,
“The ballets they forged together stand as one of the most extraordinary collaborative triumphs of the twentieth century… No one balanced Stravinsky better than Balanchine,” whom Stravinsky called ‘the perfect collaborator.”
Take a minute to watch Stravinsky and Balanchine working together in this charming 3 minute gem for the true Stravinksy-Balanchine geek. In it, Balanchine and Stravinsky are going over the score together, then rehearsing with Suzanne Farrell; followed by short clips of Stravinsky at several times in his life, including meeting President and Mrs. Kennedy.
You can see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s company premiere of Balanchine’s homage to Stravinsky, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, during our spring program, Chromatic Quartet, in the intimate Newmark Theatre.
Balanchine: A Biography, Bernard Taper. Pgs. 219-222.
Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine, Edited by Francis Mason. P. 22.