I have long been fascinated by the ballroom ballets of George Balanchine. Le Bal, a work from 1929, was his first attempt in this genre that he continued to explore through out his long career. These ballets, including La Sonnambula, La Valse and Davidsbündlertänze, seem to be dance as envisioned by a surrealist or romantic poet and in this sense they are radically different from the cool and austere masterworks like Agon and The Four Temperaments that we usually think of when we think of Balanchine. Sometimes referred to as ‘Le Bal Noir’ ballet or The Black Ball ballets the above works which form the core of the corpus of the genre share some distinctive traits beyond their ballroom setting: undercurrents of something tragically wrong, bereavement and loss, ill-fated relationships, and destiny as indifferent and fickle.
In many ways, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty anticipate the genre of ‘le bal noir’ – with Rothbart and Carabosse as agents of fate who make the party go terribly wrong. Yet, in these ballets as in all things 19th Century, conflicts are resolved, in one way or another, by the end. Many believe that Balanchine, whether consciously or not, modernized the genre by letting narrative points remain uncertain and leaving plot questions unanswered. To him, these works were not about happy endings or even tragic ones, but rather suggesting philosophical and human complexities through irresolution.
Many of the characteristics we associate with ‘le bal noir’ is present in other Balanchine works that do not fall obviously into this category – most notably in the first three movements of his 1966 work Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (I first saw it in the mid 1990’s). [The first movement of this work also reminds me of the lavish finale of the 1937 Fred Astaire/ Ginger Roger musical, Shall We Dance, where Fred dances with dozens of masked Gingers before the real one reveals herself. How intriguing it is to think about the influence that Astaire and Hermes Pan had on Mr. B and his exploration of the genre.]
In fact, watching numerous performances of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet at New York City Ballet over the years led me to obsess on Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25 to which the ballet is danced. However, Balanchine chose to use Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 transcription for orchestra for his choreography as oppose to Brahms’ 1861 original scoring. I remember wondering – why on earth would Balanchine not use the original score and why would Schoenberg choose to transcribe and orchestrate Brahms? Schoenberg gave the following reasons for his decision: “1. I like this piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted [for] once to hear everything, and this I achieved.”
The sheer beauty and sonic colorations of the opulent Schoenberg orchestration might be one of the elements that attracted Balanchine. The other might be that the work was to be his first new abstract ballet at City Ballet’s large new home at Lincoln Center since it’s move from the much smaller City Center. And because Balanchine often said that chamber music was not suitable for large ballets, “too long, with too many repeats, and are meant for small rooms”, Schoenberg’s large scale arrangement was perfect for Balanchine’s 55 dancers ballet and the big stage of The New York State Theater.
Although the Balanchine ‘le bal noir’ ballets were created in the 20th Century, the setting always referenced a late 19th Century European ballroom or salon. These are elegant sophisticated rooms, manifestations of the maturation and loosening of the strict mores governing social interaction between men and women at the end of the 19th Century. The introduction of the waltz earlier in the century had changed everything. Social dances done by couples before this time were danced with almost no physical contact, hands barely touching. The waltz by contrast was done with a couple in a close embrace, the man with his hand around the woman’s waist, continually spinning around the room. To a society where close physical contact in public with a member of the opposite sex was objectionable, this intimate, suggestive ‘waltz position’ shocked and was considered scandalous. By the end of the century while the sight of men and women dancing in a locked embrace was no longer shocking, the atmosphere of the room was probably still titillating and charged with undercurrents of sexual energy and desire.
Think of these late 19th Century ballrooms as a kind of social platform where complex personal dramas, charged relationships, distortions of memory and time, societal anxieties, anticipative excitement about, or despair facing impending change might play themselves out. These rooms were a place where the two previous centuries of European culture and its societies converged and were distilled into a single iconic image – elegant embracing couples spinning gracefully in a beautifully chandeliered room. It is in this setting, with all of its suggestive history and psychological implication, that Balanchine places his players/dancers for his ‘le bal noir’ dances.
For Balanchine perhaps it was also a nostalgic location – a place he yearned to return to, somewhere that had faded away and was gone. Like Europe, that soon was to be enveloped and engulfed in the chaos of the onslaught of World War I, this ordered, constrained and highly charged place was about to explode and disappear forever. And by the time the Roaring Twenties rolled in, these places robbed of their mystique, existed only as memory, as longing. The element of persistent and strong desire for a return to a place that exists only as memory is what gives the Balanchine ballroom ballets their fragrance. The faint smell of perfume from beautiful women lingers in the air, enshrouding the space with a desire to return not only to their arms but also to the past in which those arms belonged.
In 1991 with the creation of my ballet Dance at the Gym for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater I too began to explore this same territory but in an American context. In many ways the mid-20th Century Friday night dance in the high school gymnasium had become an Americanized and democratized everyman or ‘everyteen’s’ version of the European ballroom. If nobody realized it before, certainly by the time Jerome Robbins created his “Dance At The Gym” sequence from West Side Story the gym dance or sock-hop had achieved iconic stature and was indelibly inscribed in the public’s imagination as the place where the period’s stories, relationships, and social challenges were being acted and danced out. Following Dance At the Gym, over the next 15 years, I made five pieces that explored the unique power generated by intimate interactions in public spaces where social dancing occurs such as ballrooms and high school gymnasiums. In 1993 saw the creation of my La Valse, Act 2 from Bristle which is set in a European style ballroom as was the 1997 Fin de Siecle (for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), the 2005 Longing (Cincinnati Ballet), 2006’s Le Bal Noir (Koresh Dance Company) and my second gym dance, Motown Suite (2006) for The Joffrey Ballet. All sought to capture the mystery, drama, and theater of this unique social ritual of public social dancing – couples dancing together publicly while simultaneously creating a quite, private, personal, and imagined place to connect.