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Square Dance


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 20 July 2002 - 07:19 PM

We've been talking a bit about Square Dance on the "NYCB Casting Crisis" thread and I thought I would give the ballet its own thread. It's a notable work in many ways, and from a particularly creative season for Balanchine; 1957-8 brought us that ballet, Agon, Stars & Stripes and Gounod Symphony.

I'm quoting myself from a posting here about a NYCB performance in June '01. Please add your thoughts on the ballet!

Like a few of Balanchine’s ballets, Square Dance is a ballet that was made in parts over time.  There is the ballet that was created for Patricia Wilde in 1957, a ballet done with an actual square dance caller and with Western costuming.  For NYCB’s revival in 1976, Balanchine removed the caller and the costumes and inserted a grave solo for Bart Cook that altered the character of the ballet irrevocably.  We may have lost the novelty and some of the raison d’être of the original version by paring the ballet down to its skeleton, but the benefit is a similar one to the removal of costumes from The Four Temperaments.  There are no distractions to our focus.

It should come as no surprise (though it does anyway) when one pares away the novel trappings of Square Dance to reveal the skeleton as a classical ballet of purity and mastery.  Balanchine dropped the parallels to American folk dance and we see instead the heritage of the music itself, the Italian Renaissance.  The ballet is laid out in symmetry as pure and orderly as Palladian Architecture, but pared down. In intent, music and casting (six couples and a lead couple) its resemblance is now to another distillation of the Italian Renaissance, Monumentum pro Gesualdo.  The western couples at the grange hall have metamorphosed into a court of young dukes and princesses.

In both ballets, Balanchine keeps the partnerships stable; if a dancer switches partners it is only to return.  This stability is part of the unearthly beauty of Square Dance; stability, symmetry and unison.  It was Balanchine’s mastery of how to use choreography in unison that impressed me the most in this viewing.  Unison is used for effect; it builds excitement through its power and focus.  The eye sweeps the stage and sees but one movement, refracted and multiplied.  It can have a military effect because of the association with soldiers marching in formation.  (Think of the Rockettes) If overused, it seems almost fascistic, recalling the phrase “marching in lockstep.”

Balanchine’s gifts as a choreographer lay in his taste, which was as acute as a chef’s.  He knew his seasoning and when enough was enough.  Square Dance uses unison not for visceral excitement but for clarity of focus, you get to see the step until you can see the step.  But the ballet never becomes dense or monolithic.  The vocabulary is kept clear, open and simple; with the exception of the gargouillades that are the centerpiece of the women’s dance, there are few furbelows.  Steps are done with a single voice or antiphonally.  The leading man or woman dances, then their companions, or the men do a step in unison and the women respond with one of their own.  And at the point when you’ve seen the step enough, the  stage is split into mirror images on the right and left and the picture changes.  What makes Square Dance so viscerally satisfying is that you can see it.  It’s a ballet to train your eyes the same way the Vivaldi or Corelli train your ears.



#2 Calliope

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Posted 21 July 2002 - 03:01 AM

It's one of my absolute favorites. It's one I try to bring people to see to explain to them why it is I love ballet. Usually they get it after that too.
Like Barocco, it's all about the music and the steps, and the relationship the dancers have to and with each other.
I'm probably in the minority, but the only part I don't like is the man's solo. It slows down the pace for me too much. But I do adore seeing Peter Boal doing it.
It's a shame they don't perform it more often and with Margaret Tracey gone, I hope they carefully recast it.

#3 tempusfugit

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Posted 21 July 2002 - 12:04 PM

Calliope and Leigh, thank you both for eloquent appreciations of Square Dance. I concur absolutely. wondered if anyone has read the interview with Wilde where she says that originally the ballet was so hard (fancy that) she could barely get through it, and that then they didn't give it for a while and when it was revived she was several years older and feared the worst. however, she found that with the NEW MAN'S SOLO:) :) it was in fact easier for her than it had been. apparently the small breather was a huge help. only have one slight quibble with Leigh: surely you weren't thinking of the ballerina part as being "without furbelows"? grin. not only gargouillades but the incredible enchainement near the end...Calliope also makes the point that Square Dance, impossible as it is, is supposed to look FUN . Wilde looked as if it were the most delightful bagatelle and she warmed up with it every day before breakfast. :)


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