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Ashley and Goldner Remember Balanchinespeaking of "Concerto Barocco"


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#1 Jack Reed

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 02:29 PM

Merrill Ashley and Nancy Goldner spoke to the audience for Ballet Chicago's Remembering Mr. B program on 30th October at the Dance Center of Columbia College here. Here are some of their remarks before the performance of Concerto Barocco:

Nancy Goldner: Mr. B. did not shy away from humor among the many kinds of ballet he made. Stars and Stripes doesn't make political statements. ... It's about American athleticism... 2/4 march and classical ballet. ... As Merrill says, one musn't go into the region of caricature, it must be pure and with a touch of humor. There was a little scandal in the press about using Sousa. "Outrageous." Balanchine said, "I like Sousa. Sousa makes me feel good."

With Bach, in contrast to Sousa, no one got upset. Made in Spring 1941, Concerto Barocco premiered in Rio de Janiero in 1942. It was prepared for a touring company. Balanchine had no permanent company; if he got a job with one, fine, but he spent a lot of time on Broadway and Hollywood. The six-month touring company was concocted by Lincoln Kirstein, and the tour was intended to give Balanchine some time with the same dancers; Kirstein thought Broadway and Hollywood were terrible. It was conceived of as a good-will effort, helped by Nelson Rockefeller, and called American Ballet Caravan.

We don't have any diaries of the tour except Kirstein's, about getting stranded in the Andes by a blizzard for two weeks; at one point they had to return to Washington, D.C.; in one country, all the girls under eighteen were arrested, got out of jail, went to the theatre and danced Barocco.

Merrill Ashley: They had to dance to wind-up Victrolas. John Taras said Balanchine had a recording with Menuhin. Balanchine liked the tempo, but the Victrola would run down and Taras would have to crank it up again.

NG: Contrast the hardships of the time with the purity and eternal values of Concerto Barocco. Choreographers need stability, money, etcetera to do their best work. Or did they? Another ballet from this time is Ballet Imperial. What did choreographers need?

MA: Some do their best work first. Jerome Robbins did Fancy Free, Peter Martins did Calcium Light Night, the best they did, I think. Maybe they need hardship.

In Concerto Barocco, there are places you hear the rhythm... It starts in fifth, very important for him. Theme and Variations does, too. Arabesque, passe', walks on pointe, but he used them another way, with a jazzy twist sometimes, by making the dancers bend a lot. In Petipa, you stay vertical. Balanchine put in movements and gestures to make dancers bend. He made it more American.

NG: In the beginning, you see him playing with tendu.

MA: Balanchine had a wonderful sense of humor... It's easier if you have names for the steps, where you stop and go back: The chicken step, the trouble step, lampshades, grasshoppers, butterflies. These names make it more distinctive.

Balanchine often goes against the time signature; it creates unusual accents. I don't know any other choreographer before Balanchine who did that. He heard the music differently, and he liked surprise so the audience doesn't know what's coming. In the third movement, the girls arms, when they're hopping on pointe, move, some on three, some on four, and when you get to twelve they're together.

NG: He put some things in the early section so he could make a big thing of it later.

In the adagio for the man and woman, the ensemble is always extremely involved with what's going on. Balanchine makes a community of dancers on stage. Every time she is lifted, the ensemble responds, four times, more each time. Acknowledging that the ballerina and her cavalier are coming through: "Yes, what you're seeing, we see too. Yes." Small things have significance.

Something else: This dance has a seamless feel to it. But right in the middle, Balanchine stops as the man walks off and the two women walk on and they go back to the beginning, and they do this interlinking promenade. It's a disruption. It's not abrupt. I think it's a radical and dangerous moment in the structure. I think the opening measures are repeated and repeated and at this moment he chooses to show it.

MA: It was an honor to be in the corps, it used the senior members of the corps, and they never leave the stage; and they don't stand at the side doing nothing but get a tired arm or leg from holding one position [audience chuckles]. You feel special. ... Doing the principal gives a special feeling, a feeling of weightlessness because you're lifted so often. I don't talk about being in heaven very much, but dancing this ballet I felt I was in heaven. I thought I was going to burst out of my skin with pleasure.

#2 carbro

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Posted 20 July 2005 - 08:28 PM

Jack, thanks for posting the link to this "chat." I'm responding here to bump it up.

Aha! The secret of the arms in the hops! I never "got" that before -- it's so fast!

Barocco is my favorite ballet, period. Watching a great one feels like heaven :) , so I can only imagine what it feels like to dance.

#3 drb

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Posted 21 July 2005 - 11:11 AM

Aha!  The secret of the arms in the hops!  I never "got" that before -- it's so fast!


<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Thanks for bringing this back, Carbro. I've not been lucky with Barocco on my subs in recent years. It has seemed 'flat', so different from what it was in Mr. B's time. Probably unlucky casting? Could you recommend current dancers who've made it work for you?

#4 carbro

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Posted 21 July 2005 - 11:21 AM

I actually boycotted Barocco for quite a few years, because every time I saw it, it looked deader and deader, and I left the theater angry and sad. The principals were okay, but the corps was downright morose.

Then, two years ago it opened a program that I very much wanted to see, so I set my jaw, prepared to be insulted, and was most pleasantly surprised. Whelan and Somogyi were perfectly matched and understood the ballet, their roles and their relationship to each other, but the ensemble also looked like the ballet meant something to them, though perhaps not as much as Merrill says it did to the women of her generation.

It was wonderful having the ballet back! :shake:

#5 Gina Ness

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Posted 21 July 2005 - 12:08 PM

I had the opportunity to dance several Balanchine ballets when I danced for SFB during the 70s and 80s. One of my favorites to dance was Concerto Barocco. I danced both the corps (if you can call it that!) and second principal. I much preferred dancing the corps because they are on stage for the entire ballet. The "chicken step" is in the first movement when the corps does a combination that has a dip of the body, knee turned in and tucked up towards the chest, and arms raised behind like wings...It was such a completely satisfying ballet to perform. I loved the music and the intricacy of the choreography to the music. I remember thinking at the end of the ballet (the first time I performed it) that I had just danced a complex mathematical formula! I was quite proud of myself for getting through it considering we learned it in one week and performed it the next! (It premiered for us in Fairbanks, Alaska, fortunately....we worked on it, of course, much more before its premiere in San Francisco)

P.S. Rereading the initial post again...I noticed the comment about Petipa style being "upright" and the more modern American style having lots of "bending"...This is SO Lew Christensen, too! Up, down, up, down...I always thought in working with Lew that this was important to him, as well. Interesting....

#6 Amy Reusch

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Posted 22 July 2005 - 09:35 AM

Okay, I try to resist asking these questions because the funny descriptive words are usually meant just as mnemonic device to help the dancers rather than for any viewer trying to understand the work... but... what was the "trouble step"?

#7 Gina Ness

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Posted 22 July 2005 - 12:01 PM

I only remember the reference to the "chicken step" during Barocco rehearsals. I wish I could tell you, but I don't know or remember what the "trouble step" is. These references were usually just used as take-up points during rehearsals as in: "Let's take it from the chicken step." I wonder if the above references (trouble, lampshades, etc.) are all from Borocco or possibly from some other ballets, as well. Maybe someone else will tell us! I'd like to know what all of them are, too. :beg:

#8 Paul Parish

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Posted 23 July 2005 - 12:00 PM

There's a trougble step in 4 t's (I think) -- it's in Choleric, in the section with the ballerina and 2 other girls....

WONDERFUL name....

in Barocco's adage, some people call hte linked-hands section the snail. It's my favortie thing in the whle ballet.

The coolest thing about hte adage is the way so much of it is built on hte folk-dance figure "thread the needle" (where a line of people go under an arch) and other "sewing" figures, as when hte ballerina tombes between bobbins or is lifted between (or over) them....

I'm with Carbro, this is my favorite ballet of all time.....

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 July 2005 - 12:28 PM

I have an (unproven) feeling that "trouble step" is a movable nickname at NYCB. There's a "trouble step" in Mozartiana, and Ashley referred to a step as the "trouble step" in a Ballo coaching session. I think whatever is the trouble step in that particular ballet gets the nickname!

#10 vrsfanatic

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Posted 23 July 2005 - 01:14 PM

There is a "trouble step" in many Balanchine ballets. Specifically, if I recall correctly (having just worked as a rehearsal mistress for Barocco last spring. Sorry no notes with me since I am currently not at home), in the 3rd movement, the "trouble step" occurs traveling from downstage right, diagonally to upstage left, a series of ballonnes and piques in arabesque, setting up for the last formation to end the ballet.

There is also a "mad step" which is a charmer.

...I noticed the comment about Petipa style being "upright" and the more modern American style having lots of "bending"...This is SO Lew Christensen, too! Up, down, up, down...


FYI...I heard a number of years ago the Ashley/Goldner discussion of Serenade. There was also a reference to the upright Petipa ballets versus the American style having lots of bending. The study of Vaganova includes an incredible amount of bending in the middle and upper levels of study which lead me to think that perhaps the lecturers are not so well versed in the actual workings of Petipa to make such a comparison of the two approaches to choreography. Balanchine training and choreography, IMO, has a much more rigid usage of the body in schooling than Petipa performed by Russian ballet companies and Vaganova schooling. Choreographically, Balanchine employed the usage of what was considered acrobatics during the time of Petipa. The development of ballet in the 20th century has given us a more vast range of usage of various dance forms within ballet. :unsure:

#11 Gina Ness

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Posted 23 July 2005 - 08:29 PM

That was interesting, vrsfanatic. Even if they are comparing pre-Vaganova Russian training to more "American" style, I remember a lot of bending (certainly not rigidly upright) in combinations from my teacher, Anatole Vilzak (Graduate of the Mariinsky and Russian star of the Diaghilev Ballet). Paul, I love the "snail" section in the second movement, too. I'm just getting a flash for the "mad" step! vrsfanatic...Is it that combination in the first movement (step front points with opposition upper body twist then backward hops in arabesque changing eventually to step back in fourth lunge)? :) I know I remember some combination being a "mad step" now and was trying to remember which one! Sorry if this is a silly question, all...My last rehearsal for Concerto Barocco was some twenty years ago! :o

#12 vrsfanatic

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Posted 23 July 2005 - 11:14 PM

Yes, the "mad step" is in the 1st movement, upstage corps in 2 straight lines moving into center and out again counting in 4s and 5s with a sequence of rond de jambes en dedans with tendus, with the head and body and arms in opposition to the working leg, followed by a sequence of 4th arabesque, coupe. Very interesting mathematically. Funny thing about it though, I remembered it much better when I was performing the ballet, many moons ago, but to figure it out again after at least 30 years to help students perform it with logic..it took me a while! :)

...Even if they are comparing pre-Vaganova Russian training to more "American" style, I remember a lot of bending (certainly not rigidly upright) in combinations from my teacher, Anatol Vilzak (Russian star of the Diaghilev Ballet)...


The pre-Vaganova/Imperial Russian training of the Balanchine generation of Russian dancers is what was developed into Vaganova Methodology. The contemporaries of Balanchine, L. Lavrovsky and P. Gusev did become the ADs of the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky ballets. Vaganova was actually a generation before Balanchine. Dancers such as K. Sergeyev and I. Belski kept the training in the Vaganova school in accordance to the development of the choreography in the theatre. The same can be said for the Bolshoi Academy, however I am not well versed enough to address the Bolshoi Academy. If you are able to get a hold of a copy of Tarasov's The Training of the Male Dancer, this subject is addressed beautifully in the introduction.

I do regret that I was not able to have a conversation with Ashley or Goldner regarding their opinions, however it was not the time or place. Hopefully, one day I may be able to have a conversation with one of them. I keep thinking maybe I just misunderstood.

:o


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