Ballet in the Neoclassical Period

Neoclassical ballet is a 20th century style that takes from its Russian predecessor and uses traditional ballet vocabulary but is less rigid than classical ballet. The dancing in neoclassical ballet is usually done at more extreme tempos and more technical, as well. The focus on structure is a defining characteristic of neoclassical dance. George Balanchine is a notary figure of neoclassical dance. Balanchine deconstructed the ballet technique, ridding the performance of dramatic sets, stories, tutus and anything else that would take the focus away from the technique and virtuosity of the dance.

George Balanchine is responsible for bringing ballet to America. He began dancing at age and eventually danced under Sergei Diaghilev. The Ballet Russe left Russia and became the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, which Diaghilev asked Balanchine to join. In 1943, Balanchine linked up with Lincoln Kirstein in London, England. Balanchine moved to New York and formed the Ballet Society, then The School of American Ballet, which trained dancers to become professionals. Eventually, Kirstein and Balanchine went on to form New York City Ballet. Balanchine is also known for his deconstruction of classical ballet.  Using only blue CYC and strip lighting, Balanchine focused on the technique and virtuosity of dance. Balanchine believed that the thinner the body was, the more line-oriented the dance could be. His concept of a dancer’s body replaced financial elitism with physical elitism. Ballet movement was increased and higher legs and defined angles were created.

“Apollo”, cited as the first neoclassical ballet, was presented for the first time in 1928. Choreographed by George Balanchine, the story featured the neoclassical style that Balanchine was famous for, the deconstruction of classical ballet. The story centers around Apollo, the Greek god of music who is visited by three muses, Terpischore, muse of dance and song, Polyhymynia, muse of mime, and Calliope, muse of poetry.


In the 1930s, some Russian dancers immigrated to America and settled in New York City. One of these, George Balanchine, started a new era of ballet with works that focused on conveying an emotion or idea rather than a story. The purpose of these “plotless” ballets was to use movement to express the music and to illuminate human emotion and endeavor. He was extremely prolific and his popularity spanned the mid-1900s.

George Balanchine’s Jewels is a quintessential Neoclassical ballet: a plotless piece in three acts. Even without a plot, though, it still tells a story. Each act portrays a different era in the history of ballet. The first act, Emeralds, features music by French Romantic composer Gabriel Urbain Faure, long and flowing skirts, soft lighting, and an elegant mood. The second act, Diamonds, features music by Russian composer Tchaikovsky, full tutus, crisp movements, and precise technique. The third act features music by Igor Stravinksy, fiery and striking movements, and a seductive tone. It was first performed in the New York State Theatre in New York City on April 13, 1967, by the New York City Ballet.

Jewels was first performed in the New York State Theatre in New York City on April 13, 1967,  by the New York City Ballet. It was choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Gabriel Urbain Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, and Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky. This reproduction was performed by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Opera Garnier in Paris in 2005, with original choreography by Balanchine and design by Christian Lacroix.

The New York Scene: America’s Century

Balanchine and the Making of Jewels

If George Balanchine drew deeply on tradition and the past, he also created radically disjunctive dances that broke sharply with anything that had come before. The two were not mutually exclusive: Balanchine’s most classical dances had a radical edge, and his most revolutionary dances were always rooted in classical forms. Nowhere was this more appar­ent than in Agon (1957), created in close collaboration with Stravinsky. It was a pathbreaking ballet, but it had none of the rebellious bile or satirical edge long associated with the avant-garde. Agon did not at­ tack tradition; it changed it from the inside.

Balanchine and Stravinsky’s work together stretched back to Apol­lon Musagete (1928) in Paris, and the two artists knew each other well. Stravinsky was twenty years older than  Balanchine, who had long looked to the composer as a mentor and father figure. But although they belonged to different generations, they shared a common past: like Balanchine, Stravinsky had grown up in St. Petersburg at the Im­perial Court and the Maryinsky Theater, and he too was Russian Or­thodox. He had come to western Europe in the wake of war and the Russian Revolution, and moved to America in the 1930s (he eventu­ally settled in Los Angeles). Stravinsky was well versed in ballet, but their collaborations revolved primarily around music, and the two men were often seen bent over a score. “Stravinsky made time,” Bal­anchine once said, “not big grand time-but time that worked with the small parts of how our bodies are made.”

Agon was conceived as the third part of a Greek trilogy that in­cluded Balanchine and Stravinsky’s Apollo and Orpheus (1948). Like Apollo, which looked to Boileau, Agon began with a seventeenth-century text: in this case, a dance treatise by the ballet master Francois de Lauze, Apologie de la danse. Lincoln Kirstein sent a copy of de Lauze’s  work to Stravinsky with a note explaining Balanchine’s idea for a bal­ let in which “the dances which began quite simply in the sixteenth century took fire in the twentieth and exploded.” Notably, the edition that Kirstein gave to Stravinsky was a modern one, which appended scholarly notes as well as excerpts of text and music by the Abbe Mersenne, the priest, musician, and contemporary of Descartes and Pascal whom we met in the seventeenth century, where classical ballet began.

Like his Renaissance predecessors, Mersenne was fascinated by the ways that “measured” music, poetry, and movement might be combined in an integrated spectacle. In Italy such inquiries led to the first operas; in France, as we have seen, they led to the ballet de cour. Court dances were strictly defined by rhythm and musical form (bransle, saraband, gaillard) and comprised small, precise, elegant steps, many of which remain integral to classical vocabulary today; they are the building blocks, the essential how-to-get-from-here-to-there transi­tion steps that are the choreographic fabric of Agon. Ballet was also, as de Lauze was careful to point out, an ethical code: “the science of be­havior toward others.” It was respect, manners, breeding. This was an idea that had, for so long and in so many ways, resonated with Balan­chine.

Stravinsky marked his copy of de Lauze extensively, and referred to it and to Mersenne while composing his score. Indeed, as the scholar Charles M. Joseph has shown, his annotations demonstrated his keen interest in period discussions of meter, rhythm, scansion, and the affin­ity between musical, poetic, and dance forms. In addition, Stravinsky seems to have paid close attention to scholarly speculation about the religious and pagan origins of various baroque dances, such as ring dances with witches circling the devil. All of this was projected for­ ward: Agon was rhythmically complex and shifted midstream to a twelve-tone scale. We know less about the sources of Balanchine’s dances, except that he and Stravinsky worked together closely on the ballet – they met at Stravinsky’s home, and the composer later at­tended rehearsals, where the two men animatedly discussed the chore­ography.

Balanchine had assembled a loyal and interesting group of artists and collaborators, many of whom stayed with him for decades and through uncertain circumstances. Now he was getting older and (like Robbins and Tudor) his tastes did not easily mesh with the 1960s. Ballet everywhere was changing and becoming more melodra­matic or being pulled into the fast current of youth-culture fashion.

In 1959 the Bolshoi Ballet arrived from Moscow and the American press was overcome by their confident,  bombastic style. Then came the star partnership of Rudolf Nureyev and  Margot  Fonteyn.  They drew vast crowds, and their tremendous success seemed to signal the victory of exactly the kind of hype and ego Balanchine hated. By the late 1960s, the cultural  landscape  had  become littered  with postmod­ern and hippy ballets: in 1968 Joffrey’s psychedelic Astarte made the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed  dance “the most inventive and least inhibited of the lively arts.” Dancers, it said, were no longer limited by stale conventions  but could “writhe on the floor like a snake on the make.” Closer to home, the blockbuster success of Jerome Rob­bins’s Dances at a Gathering led some critics to wonder (a bit hastily) if Balanchine’s time was over. His personal life, moreover, was difficult: still married to Le Clercq, he fell passionately and agonizingly in love with Diana Adams and then with Suzanne Farrell, neither of whom would have him in the ways he wanted.

The New York City Ballet was changing too. The company’s growing success, along with its increased funding and move to Lincoln Center in 1964, meant that the old loyalties and close-knit spirit were fading. Farrell, who joined in 1961, belonged to a new generation of dancers. Thanks in part to SAB, this “new breed” (as Newsweek later hailed the younger cohort) had more consistent training and did not always appreciate what they saw as the intense theatricality and eccentricity of their aging peers. And indeed, they looked and moved differently. Their dancing was smoother and more honed, but also more openly sexy and rebellious. Balanchine thrived on the change: A Midsummers Night Dream (1962), Don Quixote (1965), and the three-act Jewels (1967) were the proof. But even here he pushed against prevailing cultural fashions and took his cue from classic texts or-in the sensational, hip-thrusting, and syncopated “Rubies” section of Jewels (to music by Stravinsky)—from American jazz-age chic. Rubies was danced by Pa­tricia McBride, who performed the angular and wildly off-balance choreography with playful and ironic ease.  By comparision, Astarte was predictable and conventional.

Yet there were also signs of fraying. Electronics (1961), to a taped electronic score, reportedly featured dancers in black and white un­derwear with lots of cellophane and d’Amboise and Adams rolling on the floor in a tight embrace (the ballet has since been lost). Metastaseis and Pithoprakta (1968, also lost), with music by Iannis Xenakis, pre­sented Farrell with hair down and loose-limbed in a fringed bikini and Mitchell crouched bare-chested in shimmering black pants. What had been strict and taut in Agon was here becoming undone. With Farrell in particular, Balanchine used this undoing to further expand ballet technique, and her dancing was ever more mellifluous and dar­ing. But in 1969 she married a fellow dancer her own age; Balanchine was so devastated that he fell into a deep depression and fired them both. She would return, but their work together was suspended. Two years later Igor Stravinsky died.

Stravinsky’s death,  however,  inspired  Balanchine to one of his greatest achievements yet: the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, a tour de force unmatched in the history of ballet. In eight intensely anticipated performances, the New York City Ballet mounted some thirty-:one ballets to music that spanned the composer’s life, including twenty­ two world premieres by seven choreographers-ten by Balanchine himself-and several important revivals. The sheer scope and creative force of the undertaking was breathtaking, and many of the ballets Balanchine created for the festival remain classics today.

The Plot of Jewels

Jewels is unique: a full-length, three-act plotless ballet that uses the music of three very different composers. Balanchine was inspired by the artistry of jewelry designer Claude Arpels, and chose music revealing the essence of each jewel. He explained: “Of course, I have always liked jewels; after all, I am an Oriental, from Georgia in the Caucasus. I like the color of gems, the beauty of stones, and it was wonderful to see how our costume workshop, under Karinska’s direction, came so close to the quality of real stones (which were of course too heavy for the dancers to wear!).”

Each section of the ballet is distinct in both music and mood. Emeralds, which Balanchine considered “an evocation of France — the France of elegance, comfort, dress, perfume,” recalls the 19th-century dances of the French Romantics. Rubies is crisp and witty, epitomizing the collaboration of Stravinsky and Balanchine. Diamonds recalls the order and grandeur of Imperial Russia and the Maryinsky Theater, where Balanchine was trained. Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp have written: “If the entire imperial Russian inheritance of ballet were lost, Diamonds would still tell us of its essence.”

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924), was Maurice Ravel’s teacher, and his life and work bridged the eras of Romanticism and Impressionism. He wrote piano and chamber music as well as incidental music for plays such as Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock; he composed operas and many songs set to the words of French poets of the late nineteenth century, especially Verlaine.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), born in Russia, is acknowledged as one of the great composers of the twentieth century. His work encompassed styles as diverse as Romanticism, Neoclassicism and Serialism. His ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes included The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Apollo. His music has been used in over 30 ballets originating with New York City Ballet from 1948 through 1987, including Danses Concertantes, Orpheus, The Cage, Agon, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Rubies, Symphony in Three Movements, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat, Concertino, and Jeu de Cartes.

Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (1840-1893) studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, where Balanchine later studied piano in addition to his studies in dance. Tschaikovsky is one of the most popular and influential of all romantic composers. His work is expressive, melodic, grand in scale, with rich orchestrations. His output was prodigious and included chamber works, symphonies, concerti for various instruments, operas, and works for the piano. His creations for the ballet, composed in close partnership with Marius Petipa, include Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Storytelling Copyright © 2021 by Pamela Bond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book