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Balanchine working with dancers in THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET

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the scan below shows what a photo print would look like of a recently acquired negative strip with Balanchine, Villella and other dancers, perhaps Deni Lamont and maybe Carole Sumner, amid preparations for performing, and perhaps filming, THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET, described by the Balanchine catalogue as follows:


Music: By George Frederick Handel (from the Royal Fireworks Music, 1749, and Water Music, ca. 1717). Book by George Lewis; underlying ideas in the organization of the sequence of scenes suggested by Dr. Arthur Upham Pope.

Choreography: By George Balanchine.

Production: Scenery, costumes, and lighting by Esteban Francés. Scenery executed by Nolan Brothers; costumes executed by Karinska.

Premiere: April 13, 1960, New York City Ballet, City Center of Music and Drama, New York. Conductor: Robert Irving.


the catalogue entry also notes the filming of excerpts for OMNIBUS in '61, which this photo may specifically document.

one excerpt from the film, showing the segment called: "Scotland: The Four Lairds of the Isles and Their Lady," with Diana Adams, and 4 men (to the Water Music), which, subsequently, in 1976, was reworked as the Royal Canadian Air Force variation in Union Jack, is included in BALANCHINE, the 1984 PBS biography film, released later by Kultur.

post-848-019719400 1310150590_thumb.jpg

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rg, do you have any ideas about why (or how) this ballet got dropped so quickly? It seems to have been mostly forgotten when the company considered reviving it only a few years later.

I just checked Duberman's biography of Kirstein. I had not recalled that this was the production that led Eddie Bigelow and Betty Cage to mortgage their country houses, and Kirstein to do the same for his Manhattan home.

Their risk-taking paid off: Figure was widely hailed as a masterwork, with even the notoriously rigorous critic B. H. Haggin praising its "richly varied invention.

Robert Garis, Haggins' friend, has said that this was the ballet that made him aware of Verdy's potential for greatness, something he felt was fulfilled in Liebeslieder Walzer later that year.

My own memories are dim. At that time, my love of ballet was focused on Balanchine's leotard ballets and I wasn't really interested in what must have struck me (erroneously) as an 18th-century pastiche.

i recall a LOT of dancing, possibly even a little too long and over-rich for my blood. The brilliant colors and rich costumes were especially striking in contrast to the City Center theater itself, a drab, shabby, slightly dingy place in 1960.

The Handel music was probably known by heart by most people in the audience. I have read that Balanchine thought this particular music was glorious for ballet. He recycled some of it in Union Jack. However, the familiarity (over-familiarity?) of the score may have worked against the ballet.

I've often wondered whether Figures was simply too much for the audience to absorb ... or want to repeat. This was certainly the feeling that many -- myself included -- experienced several years later with Don Quixote.

It's possible that even Balanchine may have lost interest in Figures and wanted to move on. He created Liebeslieder very soon afterwards. Requiring fewer resources than Figures, the leaner Liebeslider made an even greater impression on stage. For me, to be honest, Lliebeslieder wiped out memories of any number of impressive ballet productions I had seen before, Figures included.

You must be right in identifying Carol Sumner in the photo. She did dance in this section, though not at the premiere. Haggins' Ballet Chronicles has a photo of Villella, Suki Schorer, and Susan Borree in Figures. Both women dark haired. Sumner was a blond, as is the woman in your photo.

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i have no sense of why FIGURE/CARPET met the fate of oblivion.

i haven't checked REP IN REV. i wonder if there are any clues there.

i don't recall any extensive writings by or conversations w/ Croce on the ballet.

yet another ballet lost in the sands, no pun intended, of time.

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I checked out John Martin had to say at the historical New York Times site. This was written during Martin's pro-Balanchine period which began with "Agon."

Martin positions "Figure in the Carpet" within "what historians will one day call [City Ballet's] international relations period." These eight ballets included Argentina (Taras/Ginestera); Brazil (Moncion/Villa Lobos); Columbia (Balanchine/Escobar); Cuba (Balanchine/Orbon) Mexico (Contreras/Revueltas); Uruguay (d'Amboise/Toscar). Balanchine had also "made a present of an half dozen of his ballets to several European cities through the agency of the State Department."

"Figure in the Carpet" was sponsored by the Shah of Iran, Mahommed Reza Pahlevi (whose monarchy had recently been strengthened by certain Western powers interventions). Balanchine had been given the program for the ballet from Persian carpet designs "based on garden symbols, prayers for water fertility and life itself" by the director of the Fourth Congress of Iranian and Archaeology – under the patronage of President Eisenhower and the Shah. "The five scenes signify the desert, the sky, the palace, paradise and finally an apothosis of the carpet itself to Handel’s great fugue. Here there will be fountains on stage pouring forth live water. The ballet lasts for an hour and employs virtually the whole company." (NYT, March 13, 1960)

Martin's review of April 14, 1960 ("Ballet: A Novelty Debuts") probably makes you realize why the ballet was dropped, and why it slipped from Balanchine's – and Bart's – memories. And something as to the why of the short shelf life of many cold war/international relations ballets.

{The work itself} is brilliant in detail but not terribly interesting as a whole. The main difficulty would seem to lie in what might be called its off-stage idealism – a poetic and philosophical literary program that cannot be readily translated into contemporary theatre terms...

What we see are two fairly distinct ballets. The first, dealng with the desert and the weaving of the carpet is in symbolic terms; the girls are costumed abstractly (as sand perhaps?) against an abstract background, and they dance in the manner of a characteristic Balanchine abstraction.

The second ballet is a grand divertissement very much after the pattern of “Aurora’s Wedding.” To be sure, there’s a strong kinship here to the psuedo-nationalistic entrées of the court ballet of a century earlier, but to dance so long a divertissement in the manner and the technique of the court ballet would make for incomparable boredom.

To dance it, however, with the brilliance of the ballet form Petipa onward is inevitably to sacrifice its period style. It is also something of a challenge to do so to the stately and circumscribed music of Handel. A grand pas de deux, with adagio, two variations and coda, all demanding sweep and bravura, taxes even Mr. Balanchine’s creative ingenuity, though he had Melissa Hayden and Jacques D’Amboise to dance it.

Nevertheless, by far the greater number of the individual peices that comprise the work are admirable. In the desert section, Violette Verdy has a superb variation, which she dances superbly, and there are passages for the ensemble that are beautiful and evocative.

In the divertissement section, Patricia McBride and Nicholas Magallanes and four girls dance a splendid and witty Chinese bit; Diana Adams and four boys have an enchanting Scottish fantasia; Mary Hinkson (borrowed from Martha Graham’s company) and Arthur Mitchell do an African twosome that is dashing and stylish; Edward Villella, Susan Boree and Suki Schorer have a fine classical pas de trois...

No doubt the whole thing will shake down with further performances, and possibly it will assume greater point and coherence in the process.

It debuted with "Pas de Dix" and "Stars and Stripes," and completed the season with "Episodes II" and Robbins' "Fanfare."

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Martin's review of April 14, 1960 ("Ballet: A Novelty Debuts") probably makes you realize why the ballet was dropped, and why it slipped from Balanchine's – and Bart's – memories. And something as to the why of the short shelf life of many cold war/international relations ballets.

I wonder if Balanchine's disappointment that Adams, and then her replacement Kent, were unable to dance the pas de deux - something D'Amboise mentions in his new autobiography - is another reason Balanchine initially lost interest in the work. But D'Amboise does write that "Balanchine used to suck the thumb of delight looking at the choreography" he'd created for it. DAmboise also mentions that the fountain malfunctioned during the premiere and the water valves had to be turned off for subsequent performances.

I've looked through all my dance books too - Haggin, Garis, Croce, Denby, and various memoirs - and it's surprising so very little mention is made of a work which sounds so ambitious.

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"Figure in the Carpet" was mentioned by several former dancers in the series of talks at NYU in the year following Balanchine's death, moderated by "Uncle" Francis Mason. All of the dancers who had been involved said that not only Balanchine, but most of the dancers had forgotten so much of the choreography that revival would be impossible. They also expressed regret about that, because they said it was very beautiful. I say "several," but cannot remember who they were, and my notes are packed away.

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