January 12, 2011

It's All About the Music: "Symphony in C"

Vanessa Zahorian, Balanchine's Symphony In C. (Choreography by George Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust) ©Chris Hardy

          Full disclosure time: Balanchine’s Symphony in C is one of my all-time favorite ballets. The music is danceable, the choreography is a masterpiece, the costumes are elegant, and there are so many lead and minor soloist parts that over a couple of performances, you are sure to see your favorite dancers in the spotlight. For the 2010-2011 season, San Francisco Ballet has scheduled Symphony in C for Program 2 (February 3 to 11).
50 Years New
            The 2011 season marks the fiftieth anniversary of Symphony in C at San Francisco Ballet. But the association between this work and San Francisco goes back even farther — way back to October 11, 1948, at the birth of the newly renamed New York City Ballet — former SFB Artistic Director Lew Christensen performed the role of male principal dancer in the symphony’s fourth movement at the fledgling company’s inaugural production.           
            The work’s world premiere, however, was the year before with the Paris Opéra Ballet while Balanchine was guest ballet master. (The U.S. premiere occurred in spring 1948 when Balanchine staged it for Ballet Society, the precursor to City Ballet.) Originally called Le Palais de Cristal, the ballet’s four movements initially correlated to individual gemstones, and the costumes were designed accordingly. When Balanchine brought the work to New York, he simplified the costumes, changed some of the choreography to showcase his existing dancers’ strengths, and shelved the gemstone concept (which would make a reappearance in 1967 with Jewels). Today, most companies perform the 1948 City Ballet version with black-and-white Karinska-inspired costumes; the original, though, is still in the Paris Opéra Ballet repertoire.

The Ballet
            A large work, the plotless ballet serves as a visual illustration of the music, separating into four movements, each with a different lead couple and corps de ballet, demisoloists in two of the movements, and a large corps — a total of forty-eight dancers. The ballerina in the first (and longest) movement is on an aerobic treadmill for ten minutes, dazzling with off-balance movements and small quick steps (petit allegro). Solo variations for the lead couple feature tons of pirouettes for the ballerina and difficult beats for the danseur.
            The second movement shifts to a slow tempo (adagio), and the ballerina follows the sensual and haunting melody carried by the oboe, entrusting herself to her partner who supports her in deep, elongated penché arabesques. The third movement picks up the pace again, as grand jetés and nonstop relevés rule the stage. The principal couple, two soloist couples, and the corps do a dance version of the 100-yard dash, with the corps at the end brought to its knees.
            The fourth movement finale keeps the momentum going. The ballerina in the fourth lead couple engages in a pirouette and fouetté fest; the lead danseur and two male soloists answer with a grand jeté exhibition. The ballet ends with all the couples and the entire corps de ballet joining in the coda, speeding along to the virtuosic cello solo before coming to an abrupt, breathtaking stop.
            Like most of Balanchine’s work, the ballet derives its momentum and character from the musical themes. It is also one of the Balanchine works that is actually two ballets — one for the people in the orchestra, and a completely different work for the folks in the upper balconies.
            Balanchine was a master at understanding the beauty to be found in choreographic geometry. The corps moves in intricate patterns attached to, yet often separate from, the work designed for the lead dancers and other soloists. If you are booked for an Orchestra or Dress Circle seat, consider going a second time this season, and this time sit in the Balcony or Balcony Circle. You will be amazed at what you see.

The Music
            The Symphony in C Major by George Bizet is an early work by the composer, who is mostly known today for his operas Carmen and The Pearl Fishers. Said to be written as a bit of homework when he was a seventeen-year-old student at the Paris Conservatory, the symphony remained hidden for many years. It was unearthed in 1933 at the Conservatory, when it was found in some archives donated to the institute’s library. First performed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1935, it is often reported that Igor Stravinsky, his frequent collaborator, first introduced Balanchine to the score.

But I’ve Already Seen It
            Recently, I’ve heard some people wonder why they should see a ballet for the second, third, or even twentieth time. The simplest reason: To see someone else dancing the part or parts. It’s like going to a baseball game because you want to see a different athlete play shortstop or see your team play a particular team. Every performance is different. And a change in the lineup can really alter the game.

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