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Farrell Fan

Balanchine ballets by any other name

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Many of Balanchine's most evocative works are known simply by the titles of their scores: Divertimento No. 15, Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Kammermusik No. 2, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, Robert Schumann's

"Davidsbundlertanze," and so on.

In contrast, there are the ballet titles of Antony Tudor -- Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies, Dim Lustre, The Leaves are Fading, etc., and some of Jerome Robbins's -- Dances at a Gathering, Antique Epigraphs, Interplay, The Cage, etc.

I'm not saying the Balanchine works need other titles -- clearly they don't -- but it might be amusing to think up alternate titles for those listed above (or any others) ala Tudor, Robbins, or even William Forsythe.

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One or two of those you list began life with other names -- an earlier, slightly different version of Tch. Piano Concerto Number Two was Ballet Imperial, and an earlier, very different ballet to the music of Mozart's Divertimento Number 15 was "Caracole." And Symphony in C -- one of the "and so on.." in Farrell Fan's list -- was in its first (again, slightly different) incarnation, Palais de Crystal.

Presumably deleting picturesque names for his ballets was, for Balanchine, comparable to reducing costumes to leotard and tights, not just an appeal to the centrality of music but a way of asking people to look as directly as possible at the dancing...(?)

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I think to try and keep people from using a title to decide what the dance was "about". He seemed to distrust decriptive titles - his comment on changing the name of Ballet Imperial to Piano Concerto No. 2: "Nothing's Imperial anymore, except the Hotel Empire. [An at that time rather down at the heels hotel right next to Lincoln Center]"

Titling a ballet is indeed a difficult thing, because people reasonably expect the title to reflect the content of the ballet. And often, one simply doesn't want to be pinned down that way - one of dance's great virtues is the ability to mean many things all at once. Titling the work by its music is one way out.

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I think, also, it has to do with the change in aesthetic from expressionism to postmodernism. The ballets with titles mostly date from the pre-War era (Night Shadow, in addition to Ballet Imperial). And besides, he was right that nothing was Imperial any more. "Imperial" didn't suit the dancing style of the 1970s.

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An apposite title can also help the audience to focus on the choreographer's intention, assuming he has one, without necessarily straitjacketing the ballet into one concept. "Ballet Imperial," for example, guides the audience to what Balanchine is getting at, without overexplicitness; Piano Concerto No. 2 is a cumbersome blank, IMO. (And he did tell Merrill Ashley that the ballerina was "royalty.")

In my more suspicious moments I think naming the ballet after the music can be a cop-out for some, inoculating the choreographer against charges of "Well, he called the ballet Such-and-such, but nothing we see on stage expresses Such-and-such....."

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I share your suspicions, dirac -- it's one of the less appealing elements of postmodernism. "I'm going to show you 400 slides of little yellow flowers two of which may actually be good -- of course, each of you will choose a different two, and so I, as the artist, would never dream of picking my own favorites." (This was the approach of a former photographer boyfriend of mine. Pick two, pick three, but pick something, I'd say.)

In one of those ballet novels from the 1970s, the author combined what were, in the popular imagination, the worst characteristics of Tudor and Balanchine into its principal choreographer. The wittiest part of the book was that he named the ballets "Koechle listing 549" (Sorry -- I'm sure that's misspelled, blowing the joke, but it's the man who catalogued Mozart's music, giving that "K. number" to each composition.)

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