Choreographers have long known that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is great for dancing. George Balanchine, whose repertoire of dances shows that his musical taste was quite eclectic, said he considered Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 the best example of that musical form ever written. And some music historians consider the six-movement chamber piece to be one of the 18th-century composer’s greatest works.
It’s unusual for a choreographer to set more than one ballet to a piece of music, but that’s what happened when Balanchine decided to revive his 1952 Caracole, which he had set to Divertimento No. 15. Instead of restaging that ballet as planned, he ended up creating a new one that derived some of its movement from the earlier piece. Since its premiere in 1956, Divertimento No. 15 has been a much-loved, crystalline example of the neoclassical Balanchine repertory. San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, who brought it to his dancers and audiences for the first time in the 2007 Repertory Season, calls it “a jewel.”
The divertimento is a light musical form that dates back to the late 1600s but reached its zenith in the 18th century. Typically composed for small chamber groups, divertimenti were intended to accompany social functions, such as parties and banquets, often held outdoors. Originally Divertimento No. 15 was staged with a white-trellis set, which made it seem “like a private garden party,” says George Balanchine Trust repetiteur Elyse Borne, a former ballet master with SF Ballet who staged it for the 2007 Repertory Season. The women’s classical tutus and the men’s princely tunics lend the work an air of formality. The pace is nevertheless robust, not refined, with an unmatched number of men (three) and women (five) making for constant pairings and re-pairings, groupings and regroupings. In the second-movement theme and variations, one dancer after another tosses off a solo variation, each coming fast on the heels of another and each with a distinctive personality. Not until the fourth movement, the adagio, does the pace slow, only to build again to a lively finale.
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 (choreography
Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo © Erik Tomasson)
Like its chamber music score, Divertimento is small in scale. The eight principals share the stage with an equal number of corps de ballet women, and only in the first and last movements are all of them onstage at once. Though the choreography’s intricate patterns and the violin line’s delicacy give the ballet a filigreed quality, there’s strength and verve in the dancing. The men do series of pirouettes and slice through solos with brisés; the women sparkle in piqué arabesques and embellish their lifts with languid beats. “It looks much simpler than it is,” Borne says. “The music is like crystal, and the dance is the same.”
Part of Divertimento’s appeal is its intimacy, and that quality is best appreciated from a relatively close vantage point. But like many Balanchine ballets, it gives audiences in the theater’s upper tiers the added pleasure of admiring the choreographer’s brilliant use of space and the geometric precision of his movement patterns and groupings. According to Tomasson, that kind of spatial awareness is one of the hallmarks of good choreography.
For Borne, Divertimento has particular meaning: It was the last work she danced before she retired from the stage. “It’s such a gift to dance. Everyone gets a moment to shine, even the corps, in little solos and demi-solos,” she says. For that reason, it’s important to her that the dancers enjoy it. “It’s a treasure, not just for the audience but for the dancers. It’s like a spiritual experience.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
George Balanchine, prolific choreographer that he was, found inspiration in the world that surrounded him, past and present, from classicism to kitsch. And in 1952 he made Scotch Symphony, a ballet that draws on multiple sources at once: a visit to Scotland, the Romantic ballet La Sylphide, and German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), minus its first movement. In Balanchine’s inimitable way, he melded military imagery, Scottish traditional dancing, the symphony’s lyricism, and the concept of a mystical sylph into a delightful, one-of-a-kind ballet.
Scotch Symphony premiered at New York City Ballet on November 11, 1952, with Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky as the leads. The seed for the ballet was planted during New York City Ballet’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival, where Balanchine observed military performances combining pipers, drummers, and dancers doing traditional reels. He sandwiched the heart of his ballet, a classical pas de deux reminiscent of the set-in-Scotland La Sylphide, between two lively movements of Highland-tinged, virtuosic dancing as precise as those military spectacles. Rounding out the ballet’s Scottish character along with the music, written after Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829, are kilts, feathered hats, and tartan sashes.
It’s difficult to say whether Balanchine was influenced by Philippe Taglioni’s original 1932 La Sylphide or the 1936 Royal Danish Ballet version by August Bournonville. “Balanchine never talked about sources,” says Nancy Reynolds, director of research for The George Balanchine Foundation. “Tallchief, the original sylph, never ventured a guess.” However, in the early 1930s Balanchine served as guest ballet master at the Royal Danish, where Bournonville’s technique is preserved, and San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson sees a strong Bournonville influence in the pas de deux.
During his long career at New York City Ballet, Tomasson danced Scotch Symphony many times, primarily with Patricia McBride. Although SF Ballet had performed it in 1966, “we hadn’t done it since I had been here,” Tomasson says, “and I thought, why not? I loved dancing it. And it’s nice to show something that our public has maybe never seen.” Another reason it appealed to him, he says, is that it shows yet “another side of Mr. Balanchine. Sometimes we forget how many ballets he did. Some of them maybe weren’t the most sophisticated, but to him it was all just dance.”
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony (choreography
by George Balanchine ©
The George Balanchine Trust; photo © Erik Tomasson)
In planning an all-Balanchine program Tomasson always looks for contrast, both choreographically and visually. So for Program 7 “you have Divertimento No. 15, which is this beautiful pale blue with yellow,” he says. “And then you get Scotch Symphony—red, kilts, the black costume for the guy. So there’s color. And then you go back to the purity of black and white [for The Four Temperaments].”
Staging the SF Ballet production was Maria Calegari, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, who describes Scotch Symphony as “an homage to classicism” and then adds, “It’s just fun!” She thinks one reason Balanchine created this ballet was to give Tallchief a role worthy of her classicism. “[The role] calls to mind all the old great ballerinas—[Anna] Pavlova, [Alexandra] Danilova, who helped create [Balanchine’s] Coppélia,” says Calegari. “There’s lots of footwork for the ballerina. And the principal man, in true classical ballet fashion, is the ardent lover. And then [Balanchine] brings his incredible musicality.”
The ballet’s heart, a long adagio pas de deux, has both light and dark sides, “happiness and passion,” according to Calegari. As in La Sylphide, the ballerina entices her man, but this isn’t a simple love duet. Referring to two occasions when a phalanx of kilted men picks up the ballerina, sending her into the man’s arms in an illusion of flying, Tomasson draws a parallel to the Romantic era: “I think to [Balanchine] it was the illusion of the Sylph flying through this Scottish countryside, a sort of ethereal floating. Because in La Sylphide the Sylph is in a tree and she leans out—it’s that old-fashioned theater—like she’s hovering in the air.” In a sense, then, the men substitute for the tree, “creating the illusion of weightlessness” for the ballerina, he says. Asked if the moment could be read as the ballerina throwing herself at her love, Tomasson smiles. “Just like the Sylph,” he says.
Leave it to Balanchine to integrate Highland styling into classical ballet steps and make the blend look completely natural. Much of the dancing is fast, and none of it is easy. Along with the second-movement pas de deux, Calegari notes “the incredibly difficult solo passage for the [female] soloist in the first movement. And the girls who are learning it are wonderful.” But what makes this ballet challenging is more than the steps and the styling. “It isn’t easy to work on an early Balanchine. You have to honor that and bring something to it, emotionally and physically,” she says. “And there’s the historical context, the reflection on history, which we lose every day in our society.”
Scotland, says Calegari, has “something magical about it,” and that’s the real reason to dance—or watch—Scotch Symphony. “It’s got that magic in it,” she says, “and it’s beautiful.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
For many balletgoers, a stage filled with bodies in simple practice clothes and with dancing marked by precision and logic means one thing: a dance by George Balanchine. But what they may not know is that the first time that now-recognizable look appeared onstage was in 1946, with the premiere of The Four Temperaments.
In the 1940s Balanchine was hard at work changing the face of ballet in America. The stripped-down, black-and-white, abstract Four Temperaments was a landmark work in depicting classical technique without the decorative trappings that had been de rigueur since the 1800s. That spareness, combined with the satisfaction offered by symmetry, order, and structure, gives the ballet its timeless appeal; it’s as striking and contemporary as it was roughly 60 years ago. It’s hard to imagine what it was like with its original costumes—body-obscuring garb commissioned from artist Kurt Seligmann by Lincoln Kirstein—or what its future might have been had Balanchine not rejected them for a more streamlined look.
The ballet is set to Theme and Four Variations “The Four Temperaments,” written by Swiss composer Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) for piano and string orchestra. In 1940, purely for his listening pleasure, Balanchine had commissioned a score from Hindemith, who was then teaching at Buffalo University. Six years later he decided to use that score, based in neoclassicism but in a more expressive style, for a new dance he was making for the fledgling troupe Ballet Society. The composition had been intended for a late-1930s ballet by Leonide Massine, to be based on paintings by Brueghel; Hindemith had already completed part of the score when the collaboration ended. Years later, with Balanchine’s commission, he approached the music anew, abandoning the Brueghel theme for one based on the four humors of the body.
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (choreography
George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo © Erik Tomasson)
The idea of balance in the body as a prerequisite for good health dominates the media nowadays, but the concept is an ancient one. The structures of both score and ballet are based on the idea that different personality traits are associated with the body’s four humors— black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. Balanchine took the idea that body and being are connected a step further: In his ballet, physicality and emotion are one. The three themes and their subsequent variations convey and explore four contrasting emotional tones.
Using those expressive variations as structure, Balanchine took classical steps to unfamiliar extremes. Jutting hips, turned-in legs, stabbing pointes, hieroglyphic arms—all now familiar in neoclassical ballets—were groundbreaking in 1946. “It’s definitely a pivotal stylistic landmark,” says Bart Cook, a repetiteur with The Balanchine Trust who staged The Four Temperaments for the 2012 Repertory Season. Along with “the turning in, the hips out, the thrust, the use of the tombé [a ‘falling’ step from one leg to the other],” Cook says the ballet was innovative in its use of “the theme and variations idea. I think this is a really grand example of that.” He points out that Time magazine chose The Four Temperaments as the single dance work in its “Best of the Century” recognition in December 1999.
Cook, whose roles at New York City Ballet included Melancholic, describes his job as “waking the artists up to what they’re doing.” Technical proficiency is a given; his main thrust, he says, “is the music, because I think that’s where all the ideas for the movement came from. I like to make sure they’re interpreting the music exactly how I saw that Balanchine wanted it. I try to pass on how he illuminated it for me.”
Though it’s not a large-scale ballet, The Four Temperaments leaves a big imprint, in part because of the drama of the finale, when a lineup of dancers comes voguing downstage. (Balanchine revised the finale in the 1970s when the ballet was filmed for Dance in America; some 30 years later it is still called the “new finale.”) “It looks monumental,” says Cook. “The architecture, the use of the groupings, is fantastic.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola