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Vail Dance Festival Vol. 2 No. 5 - 800 Words on 8 Balanchine Ballets 

Updated: Mar 31

800 Words on 8 Balanchine Ballets*

*commissioned for the Vail Dance Festival

This summer, the Vail Dance Festival is celebrating the master choreographer, George Balanchine. One of his celebrated works, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, was featured on opening night. Audiences got an inside look at some more of Balanchine’s most enduring ballets on the UpClose program, where Festival Artists were coached by Artistic Director Damian Woetzel and Balanchine-ballerina Heather Watts. Jennifer Homas, author of Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, joined the conversation, sharing historical context and excerpts from her acclaimed book. And more Balanchine works are on the way during the International Evenings programs, some of which I'll be writing about in my next post. In the spirit of this year's Festival, below you'll find 8 Balanchine ballets described in 100 words or less —a challenging task when some of the ballets are nearly 100 years old and could have whole books written on them!

Apollo (1928)

Music: Igor Stravinsky

Balanchine choreographed Apollo for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. It is Balanchine’s oldest work still performed today. The lead dancer is Apollo, the god of music and dance. In this ballet he is depicted as a young god who is developing his authority. Three female dancers are the muses: Terpsichore, muse of dance; Polyhymnia, muse of mime; and Calliope, muse of poetry. Apollo presents each of them with a symbol of their art. To Terpsichore, a lyre; to Polyhymnia, a mask; and to Calliope, a scroll. They each perform a variation demonstrating their gifts.Terpsichore is chosen as Apollo’s favored muse.

Photo: Serge Lifar & Alice Nikitina. Sasha, 1928

Prodigal Son (1929)

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Prodigal Son was the last ballet Balanchine choreographed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The libretto, written by Boris Kochno, was based on the biblical parable of the prodigal son. The obstinate son sets out, desperate to leave home. He is initiated into a sinister group of men with whom he drinks and partakes in an orgy. The long-legged Siren seduces and subjugates the prodigal son, dominating his inexperience with her size and acrobatic beauty. The drinking companions eventually rob and humiliate the son, leaving him with nothing. In the final scene, the prodigal son struggles to crawl home, repenting to his father who accepts him into his arms.

Photo: Serge Lifar & Felia Doubrovska. George Hoyningen-Huene, 1928

Serenade (1934)

Music: Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky

Serenade was the first ballet that Balanchine choreographed on American soil. He began the work just a few months after the School of American Ballet was formed. Without a company yet, he used students to create the masterwork which still represents the genesis of American ballet. Serenade makes use of typical classroom exercises to create exciting patterns on stage. The opening sequence begins with 17 women standing with their feet together in a parallel position. As the music strains float out over the audience, 34 pointe shoes open in unison to a turned out first position, and thus, American ballet was born.

Photo: Serenade premiere at Warburg Estate 1934

The Four Temperaments (1946)

Music: Paul Hindemith

The Four Temperaments was choreographed for the first program of Ballet Society, (predecessor of the New York City Ballet). With a bit of extra money he had, Balanchine commissioned Hindemith to compose a work for piano and strings that he could play at home while entertaining friends. Rather than using titles like, “Allegro” or “Presto” for the four variations, Hindemith used the titles “Melancholic,” “Sanguinic,” “Phlegmatic,” and “Choleric.”  This was based on the medieval idea that humans contained varying levels of the four humors which dictated a person’s temperament. The idea was merely a point of departure for both composer and choreographer and did not function as a basis for narrative.

Photo: Maria Tallchief. George Platt Lynes, 1946

Agon (1957)

Music: Igor Stravinsky

Agon contains twelve movements made for twelve dancers and represents one of the closest collaborations between Balanchine and Stravinsky. The title Agon is the Greek word for “contest,” however each of the musical movements are named after French court dances such as saraband, galliard and bransle. Balanchine, known for choreographing his ballets quickly, spent a prolonged two weeks experimenting, changing, and perfecting this ballet. Requiring precision timing and containing moments of precarious tension, the work is devoid of story but rife with wit. The work can be viewed a “contest” which showcases young, spry dancers competing in exercises of agility and speed.

Photo: Arthur Mitchell & Diana Adams. Martha Swope, 1957

Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960)

Music: Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux is an eight-minute showpiece. The music comes from the third act of Petipa’s Swan Lake; it was composed and added after the rest of the music for the ballet was published. Because of this late addition and its exclusion from the officially published scores, the excerpt of music was lost and forgotten for about 70 years. In 1953, the music was re-discovered in the archives of the Bolshoi Theater in Russia. When it came to the attention of Balanchine, he obtained permission to choreograph to it.

Photo: Violette Verdy & Conrad Ludlow. Martha Swope, 1960

Divertimento Brillante (1967)

Music: Mikhail Glinka

In 1967, Balanchine choreographed a ballet to four pieces of Glinka music. The four movements included: Polka, Valse Fantaisie, Jota Aragonese, and Divertimento Brillante. He titled the ballet Glinkaiana, after the composer, which happened to be the only unifying factor between the pieces. By 1969, three movements from Glinkaiana were eliminated and Valse Fantaisie began to be performed on its own. Divertimento Brillante was originally the “glittering showpiece” finale danced by Patricia McBride and Edward Villella but it is now seldom performed. It was revived by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2007, and it was performed in Vail in 2016.

Photo: Patricia McBride & Edward Villella. Martha Swope, 1967

Who Cares? (1970)

Music: George Gershwin

Who Cares? is both the name of this ballet, and the name of a song by George Gershwin. Back in 1937, the two Georges worked together in Hollywood on The Goldwyn Follies. In 1970, Balanchine had a book of Gershwin songs, arranged as Gershwin had played them in concert and given to him by the composer. “I played one and thought, ‘beautiful, I’ll make a pas de deux.’ I played another, just as beautiful, I thought, ‘a variation.’ And then another and another, and there was no end to how beautiful they were.” 1 The completed ballet contains 16 of Gershwin’s tunes that inspired Balanchine.

Photo: Karin Von Aroldingen & Jacques d'Amboise. Fred Fehl, 1970


1. Reynolds, Nancy. 1977. Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet. 1st ed. New York: Dial Press. (affiliate link)

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