03/02/07 - balanchine on broadway

In today's excerpt - George Balanchine (1904-1983), one of the 20th century's foremost choreographers and one of the founders of American ballet, whose work formed a bridge between classical and modern ballet. Born in Russia and already established as a preeminent choreographer in Europe, he was recruited to New York and, with a determination to build a new American ballet vocabulary, immersed himself in all things American, including Broadway:

"[I]n April 1936, came the show that put Balanchine squarely on the Broadway map, as well as changing the nature of dance in musical comedy. It was 'On Your Toes', score by [Richard] Rodgers and [Lorenz] Hart, directed by George Abbott, and starring (who else?)Tamara Geva and the great hoofer Ray Bolger (later to become know to the world as the Scarecrow of Oz). This was the first show to integrate the dance into its story line, paving the way for Agnes de Mille's 'Oklahoma!', and (at Balanchine's insistence), the first to credit the dance maker as the 'choreographer.' And it was a smash hit. The first-act highlight was the parodic La Princesse Zenobia, ballet—a takeoff on the outmoded orientalisms of Scheherazade. But the real showstopper was the second-act Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, in which the hero (Bolger) has to go on hoofing and hoofing and hoofing to avoid being assassinated by a thug hired by a rival danseur.

"It must have been the participation of Balanchine that inspired Richard Rodgers' irresistible music for Slaughter, and Rodgers paid generous tribute to Balanchine's talent and professionalism. To begin with, Rodgers was to say, he was nervous about working with a Russian ballet genius, anticipating all the high drama that the show itself would parody. 'I expected fiery temperament. ... I was scared stiff of him. I asked him ... did he make the steps and have music written to fit them, or what? He answered in the thick Russian accent he had then, 'You write, I put on.' ...

"He was certain what he wanted but sometimes stood still as if listening to inner music, visualizing dance movements. There was no sign of rapid re-creation of preconceived ideas, but the unfolding of steps and patterns born at the moment from inner impulses. ... He was calm, he guided people, he never raised his voice or lost his temper. ... He always seemed to have a solution to a problem, and conspiratorially pointed it out, never offending anybody but, rather, producing sighs of relief. The mastery of his craft made him flexible, so that if something didn't work out either in choreography or concepts, he simply changed it.

"Richard Rodgers commented on the same phenomenon: 'With most other choreographers I've known, it was like asking them to give up some of their living flesh if they were told that, for one reason or another, one of their dance numbers wouldn't work. But Balanchine would just take it in his stride and cheerfully produce on the spot any number of perfectly brilliant ideas to take the place of what came out.' "


Robert Gottlieb


George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2004by Harper Collins Publishers


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