It was exciting to take part in the Balanchine legacy by rehearsing and performing his magnificent works, and by working with his former dancers Victoria Simon and Elyse Borne. Because I am new to ballet history, including many of the key works and personalities, working with these wonderful women and watching the ballets come to life in the studio inspired me to read some of the early reviews of Serenade, Agon, and Stars and Stripes. I took the following information from the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Daily Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times (all citations come from the NYT unless stated otherwise). Enjoy!
- “The American Ballet Company, organized in October, 1933, will give its first New York season at the Adelphi Theatre beginning Feb. 28…” (7 Feb 1935).
- “Edward M.M. Warburg is the director of the company, George Balanchine, the ballet master, and Alexander Merovitch, the booking manager” (22 Feb 1935).
- “The outstanding event of the week is, of course, the first New York season of the new American Ballet, which makes its bow on Friday night at the Adelphi Theatre, after preliminary trials at Hartford and Bryn Mawr” (24 Feb 1935). The ballets scheduled for opening night were Serenade, Alma Mater, and Errante. The principal roles in Serenade were to be danced by Charles Laskey, Elena de Rivas, Heidi Vogseler, and Katherine Mallowney.
- New York Times critic John Martin had reservations about Serenade—“It is a serviceable rather than an inspired piece of work.”—but he was very favorable towards Balanchine’s Reminiscence, set to music by Godard, which he described as “the real delight of the evening”. The review ends with a warning that “The only thing that such a thoroughly promising and attractive young group needs to guard against at the moment is too attentive an ear for applause” (2 Mar 1935).
- In his review on March 10, 1935 Martin, otherwise critical of the young company, described the American Ballet technique as “clean and simple and has the dignity and purity of the classic style at its best. There is nothing overly pretty about it, no flopping hands or marshmallow softness.”
- The American Ballet Ensemble performed Serenade in their Metropolitan Opera House debut on February 9, 1935; and “This terpsichorean invention was greatly to the liking of the large audience, which greeted it with prolonged applause” (10 Feb 1935).
- “Marie-Jeanne [Pelus], who danced the leading role of Serenade when it was produced by the former American Ballet a few years ago, will appear in that ballet as guest artist for two performances [with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo]” (Christian Science Monitor, 14 Oct 1940). She was one of Balanchine’s favorites and the first American ballerina to perform with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
- The Chicago premier of Serenade was given by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on December 27, 1940. Cecil Smith, critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune, called it “a modernized Les Sylphides, with a franker element of romantic love, costumes of classical influence in place of billowy tulle, and steps and patterns characterized by a typically crisp, accentuated, slightly geometric Balanchine style.” He added that “the form of the dancing achieves an exceptionally satisfying symmetry. The relation of the dance figures to the music is marked both by a sensitive feeling for musical phraseology and by an interesting refusal to let the choreography be too greatly enslaved by the regular measurement of Tschaikowsky’s music.” Mia Slavenska received a wonderful review for her turns, leaps, and “a new depth of sentiment and poetic fantasy in her movement and in her facial expressions.”
- I think it is very interesting that the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed Serenade on the same bill as the Nutcracker and Poker Game on January 3, 1941. What a combination!
- Isabel Morse Jones wrote after a Ballet Russe performance that “Serenade is a ballet of classic simplicity. The group formation and the accent of figures against sky-blue nothingness proved effective…. Youskevitch, the sensitive artist, and the illusive Mladova, phrased their melodic passages with taste and musical feeling” (Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1941).
- In 1942, the Ballet Russe performed Serenade with the Nutcracker and Massine’s St. Francis.
- Claudia Cassidy wrote that “It is a beautiful ballet, strong, fluid and rippling in long diagonals and curves as supple as the bodies of the dancers. Its emotion is like Tschaikowsky’s own, a little moonstruck, intensely personal, wrapped in the sable of its own melancholy” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 20 Oct 1943).
- John Martin must have softened towards Serenade by 1944: “This charming and characteristic little work was created for the quondam American Ballet in its very beginning and as a result it has about it predominantly the qualities of youth. It should accordingly be an ideal piece for the present company [the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo], which has youth as one of its outstanding virtues” (15 Apr 1944).
- Then, on September 14, Martin wrote that the ballet “is for the greater part of its length one of Mr. Balanchine’s happiest creations, and when it is presented with the youth and spirit which pervaded it last night its virtues become especially apparent.” I wonder if widespread enthusiasm for the work finally swept Martin off his feet, or if he was finally satisfied with the quality of the performance.
- “It was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the New York City Ballet…. Stravinsky will conduct the European premiere in Paris next October. Two-thirds of the score of Agon was composed in the summer of 1954…. It was completed on April 27, 1957—an important date in Stravinsky’s life, for it was the 50th anniversary of the first public performance of any of his music…. At 75 he is still as prone to experimentation and the exploration of new resources as when he startled the world with his first major work, Firebird, at 28…. He is one of those composers who, like Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner and Debussy, periodically ‘freed’ music” (Albert Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times, 9 Jun 1957).
- “It will be seen first in a special preview on Nov. 27, when the entire house will be taken for the benefit of the March of Dimes. The first regular performance is set for Dec. 1. The music was commissioned for the New York City Ballet in 1954 under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation” (1 Nov 1957).
- For the premiere, “Principal roles will be danced by Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Todd Bolender, Roy Tobias, Barbara Walczak, Barbara Milberg, Jonathan Watts and Arthur Mitchell” (24 Nov 1957). On November 28, following the premiere, John Martin wrote that they danced “magnificently…. [A]nd they all deserve some kind of Congressional medal.”
- John Martin also wrote that “There is no man alive who, after one contact with it, can tell you what there is in it, for it is complex, ingenious and fantastically off the beaten path formally. But there is nothing fuzzy or turbid about it, and even at first sight you can get from it all you can possibly absorb, and be teased into having a wonderful time while you are at it…. Mr. Balanchine in a program note has compared it to ‘an I. B. M. electrical computer.’ ‘It is a machine,’ he says, ‘but a machine that thinks.’ But he is wrong, for not even the I. B. M. has yet attempted a machine that deals in high wit. Agon certainly does” (28 Nov 1957).
- Balanchine described the collaboration with Stravinsky as “a precise collaboration which combines sound and gesture, using every division of time, both silence and sound” (1 Dec 1957). Stravinsky said that “His plastic realization matches my architectonic music.”
- Margaret Lloyd from the Christian Science Monitor wrote this: “But there is no agony in the ballet [“agony” is one of the meanings of the word “Agon,” in addition to “protagonist,” “struggle,” and “contest.”], unless it be in the dancers’ struggle to master the intricate steps. And no sign of contest, either, except, perhaps, in each individual’s effort to outdo himself” (7 Dec 1957).
- Now, back to John Martin: “Agon is the kind of work that on the face of it is ‘highbrow’…. What it achieved was instead a rousing popular acclaim” (2 Feb 1958). He added that the point of departure is “a set of old social dances in a midseventeenth-century French dance manual…. Ancient courtliness has simply been disintegrated and reassembled in a new set of dimensions. It is full of comment and humor; but it is in no sense a satirical or a funny work by nature or intent.”
- On November 26, 1960, Martin called Agon “deeply humorous and incredibly difficult…and it no longer holds terrors for anybody.” The performance he was reviewing was danced by “Diane Adams, Melissa Hayden, Carol Sumner and Francia Russell and Arthur Mitchell, Richard Rapp, Edward Villella and Jonathan Watts.”
Stars and Stripes
- The premiere was scheduled for January 2, 1958, according to the New York Times (1 Nov 1957).
- “The fourth work of the season, Stars and Stripes, proved to be a knock-down-and-drag-out riot” (2 Feb 1958).
- “The first Stars and Stripes of the season had Violette Verdy in the second movement, dancing it adorably, and with plenty of comment. Here is Balanchine in another mood—an American, but definitely American mood. Indeed, what with his drillings and drum-majorettes and Sousa marches and sensational pas de deux, all he has omitted are a cheeseburger and a glass of chocolate milk” (1 Dec 1958).
Jared Oaks is Rehearsal Pianist/Music Librarian/Conductor for Ballet West.