When we think of George Balanchine’s collaborations with Igor Stravinsky one tends to think of the geometrical shapes and neoclassical cool of those ballets. We think of the diagonal army of girls that opens Symphony in Three Movements, or the aggressive four corners entry of women in Agon. They do grand battements as if they’re going to war. This is the aesthetic so associated with Balanchine’s black-and-white Stravinsky ballets.

Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand in Aria I
© Pacific Northwest Ballet

Recently, however, New York City Ballet streamed a performance of Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto from its archives. The one benefit of this global pandemic is the high-quality streams offered from ballet companies around the world. After watching this performance of Violin Concerto, I realized how different this work was compared to his other Stravinsky neoclassical works.

Stravinsky Violin Concerto was actually not the first time Balanchine created a ballet to this music. In 1941 Balanchine choreographed for the Ballets Russes a ballet called Balustrade to the same music. Edwin Denby’s Dance Writings and Poetry has this to say about Balustrade (p. 53):

Balustrade is danced to Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, music that seems to me easy to go along with from the rhythmic side. The choreography too is easy to go along with from the rhythmic side, as it is full of references to our usual show dancing, the kind you see anywhere from a burlesque to a Hollywood production number. I noticed two elements, or “motifs": the upstretch on the downbeat, and one knee slipping across the other in a little gesture of conventional shame. The first, syncopated element Balanchine enlarges into the liveliest and lightest ensemble dances; the second element, one of gesture, he elaborates into a long acrobatic trio in which all sorts of “slippings across" are tried – of legs, of bodies, of arms – and this trio ends by a separation, the girl looking reproachful, the boys hanging their heads in shame. How strangely such a concrete moment tops the abstract acrobatics before it – a discontinuity in one’s way of seeing that is bridged by the clearness of placing and the sureness of timing.

Denby also mentioned “elegant but annoying” costumes: “Though they have imagination and a sort of super-Hollywood pruriency, the materials are such that after the first minute or so they look like a wilted bunch of rags cutting the line of the body at the knee, obscuring the differentiation of steps, and messing up the dance. And the trio costumes look too publicly sexy; they take away from this erotic dance its mysterious juvenile modesty.”

By the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, Balanchine’s leotard aesthetic had been well-established and expected. It seems as if nothing remained of the original choreography. On the surface, Violin Concerto doesn’t differ from the usual Balanchine paradigm for black-and-white ballets. The curtain goes up and the dancers are wearing the familiar black leotards. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto starts and a female stands in a line with four men. There are some generically kicky, spiky moves. Throughout the Toccata the men run, the women prance. This does not look like anything abnormal. It looks comfortably within the confines of Balanchine’s neoclassical, Stravinsky opus.

It’s in Aria I and Aria II where Balanchine turns one’s expectations on its head. Both Arias are compelling depictions of male-female relationships. Aria I’s motif is the woman trying to break free from the man. Maybe the most famous moment is when the ballerina does a knee-touching arabesque penchée with her back facing the male danseur. Even when the danseur is carrying the ballerina, her legs are paddling away from him. She is partnered by him but she never appears to need or want him. At one point the ballerina does some quick yoga backbends to avoid contact with him. She also does a gymnastic-like back walkover away from him. This is the least romantic pas de deux Balanchine ever created. Every romantic cliché is rejected. In the streamed performance Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley were able to convey a feeling of being hostile strangers perfectly.

Aria II is the exact opposite of Aria I. It’s probably the most overtly sexual pas de deux Balanchine ever created. The male and female dancers are constantly interlocking limbs as the slow, languorous music plays. The ballerina buckles at the knees and the danseur straightens her out again. He slowly rotates her body several times while she is leaning at such an angle that she will fall over without his support. The woman kneels on the floor, but her arms reach out to the man. He takes her hand. He cradles her head in his neck. Finally, he puts his hands over her eyes. She is leaning backwards and completely submissive.

Balanchine’s dictum “ballet is woman” is often really “ballet woman does not need man”. In this pas de deux, the woman both needs and wants the man. If there’s any echo of Balustrade in Violin Concerto it might be in Aria II – there is indeed the “slipping across of legs, of bodies, of arms” in the later choreography. Aria II is unusual in Balanchine’s black-and-white Stravinsky canon in that it is traditionally danced by a petite woman and a much taller man. The original cast was Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo. In the streamed performance, Aria II was danced by Ask La Cour (the tallest NYCB principal) and Sterling Hyltin (one of the shortest company members). Their height difference gave the duet a childlike, Lolita-ish air.

One repeated criticism of Balanchine’s depiction of women is that the females tend to remain aloof, in their own bubble. There isn’t anything in the Balanchine oeuvre like the ecstatic reconciliation duet between Titania and Oberon in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream or the rapturous balcony scene in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Sexual fulfillment is not usually part of a Balanchine pas de deux.

Maia Makhateli and Jozef Varga in Aria II
© Dutch National Ballet

Aria I and II in Stravinsky Violin Concerto are the closest Balanchine came to really studying the male and female sexual relationship. There’s such a huge contrast between the two Arias that one can’t help but feel that Aria I is about a broken relationship and Aria II is about an intensely sexual, needy union. They are two sides of the coin. The fact that these two extremely explicit duets are tucked into an otherwise typical, geometric black-and-white ballet is one of the reasons Stravinsky Violin Concerto was considered the masterpiece of the Stravinsky Festival. This is what kept the Balanchine-Stravinsky partnership fresh over the time span of over 50 years – Balanchine’s continual ability to create, and then erase, expectations.

After these two competing arias, which sentiment wins out? The finale of Stravinsky Violin Concerto makes it clear that Balanchine chooses love. The Capriccio is one of the most joyous, folk-inflected finales for a choreographer known for his happy, allegro-filled finales. They could be dancing at a large wedding. The corps and soloists actually high-five each other.