It may still be cold in Toronto and New York but the National Ballet of Canada and the New York City Ballet are completely hot! These two companies recently participated in the international salute to San Francisco Ballet as part of their 75th anniversary celebratory season. Both performances were amazing. The National danced Matjash Mrozewski’s A Delicate Battle (2001), while City Ballet brought George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant (1972). Although the two works are very different, they share a neo-classical approach to dance, specifically in the unique relationship between music and movement.
But, why is the combination of dance and music such a big deal? It seems pretty standard in the performing arts. However, what makes the neo-classicists different is not that they use dance and music together but how they do it. They believe that music and dance are collaborative and exist as interdependent variables. Each is significant on its own, but a specific combination of the two provides incredible strength and effectiveness to performance. With neo-classical ballet, you can actually see the music in the steps through the coupling of musical motifs and choreographic motifs. Also, punctuating steps are used to accent specific places in the music score. The music is built right into the movement, rather than simply being an arbitrary accessory to unrelated steps and sequences. A Delicate Battle and Duo Concertant were perfect examples of this neo-classical union, resulting in an intricate fugue and a complex concerto.
The opening sequences of A Delicate Battle perfectly matched the chosen musical composition by J.S. Bach, the king of the fugue. In fugal form, a subject is introduced and occurs multiple times throughout the piece. Mrozewski was able to apply this musical structure in his choreography. In A Delicate Battle, the recurring theme included a developpé to the front ending with each dancer holding his/her foot, followed by a lunge to the side, finishing with a flat footed turn in passé. Just like the musical fugue that accompanied the dance, each performer started these movements at different times, layering the piece with the same polyphonic texture that was present in the music. A second characteristic of a fugue is its continual motion. Other musical structures have specific places where the music comes to a definite stop at several points in the piece, whereas a fugue moves forward until the composition is over. The first section of Mrozewski’s piece did exactly that. The seven dancers were in constant motion until the music finished. As the final chord sounded, the dancers posed facing upstage as a piece of material that had been suspended above them was released. The beauty of that visual and audible moment was breathtaking; there were multiple gasps of surprised delight from the audience.
Unlike fugues, concertos have two parts: soloists sections, where individual instruments are featured and ritornellos, when the entire group of artists perform together. A concerto goes back and forth between these two. Balanchine’s Duo Concertant is classical concerto form, with his interesting combination of musicians and dancers as the group of artists. Duo Concertant starts with a beautiful Stravinsky musical duet interpreted by Arturo Delmoni on the violin and Cameron Grant on the piano. The two dancers in this piece are simply standing at the piano listening to the amazing music, which represents the initial solo sections of the concerto. Then, we have the first ritornello where the dancers join the musicians and all four perform as a group. Just as would be expected from the neo-classical master, George Balanchine, the steps fall right in to the music. As the musicians played syncopated patterns against each other, the dancers also performed syncopated temps levéé leaps. Then, just as in any traditional concerto, there was another solo section. The dancers stopped and listened as the solo musicians were featured again without any movement or choreography. A second ritornello followed, where again the audience saw the cohesion of music and movement. Robert Fairchild performed brilliant staccato sissones, corresponding to detached musical sequences in Stravinsky’s score. He was so amazing that it was like watching the ghost of Jacques d’Amboise, a famed Balanchine dancer. This constant interplay between solo and ritornello was absolutely delightful, and a truly inventive interpretation of concerto form.
I wouldn’t say that the neo-classical approach is the only way to establish a clear relationship between music and movement in the performing arts. But, there is something special about watching choreographic steps and music patterns which reflect each other. It is satisfying and complete. It is not the only way, but I would go so far as to say that it might be the best way.