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Symphony in 3 Movements at SFB

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Watching Symphony in 3 Movements during SFB's London season, I was astonished by their interpretation of the first movement. When I've seen it before (NYCB, Birmingham RB) it's been tense, aggressive, even menacing - but SFB does it far more cheerfully. Lots of smiles from the corps and soloists, a general air of college kids playing around. I looked it up in Repertory in Review and it sounds from that as if it was done unsmilingly in the early performances.

How do other companies do it? Has NYCB's version always been edgy?

(I'm not criticising SFB, as it worked quite well done this way, I was just rather taken aback!)

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Interesting question. Is there anyone on the board who saw the 1972 Stravinsky Festival performances? I didn't see Symphony in 3 Movements until the late 1970s and I don't have a clear memory. A general impression of power, but not aggression or menace. (I am by no mean saying this is right, just a poor memory of an impression by a then-neophyte.)

I thought there was a bobby-soxer element to the ballet, vague references to the period of the score. I loved it when SFB danced it in D.C. last year and though I didn't think it cheerful, I did think they looked -- deliberately -- like kids and, now that you mention it, had an odd sense that it made the ballet more a period piece. It didn't bother me. (I loved the structure of the ballet. I hadn't seen structure clearly back in the 1970s, so in a way it was a new piece for me.)

Sorry -- that's a lot of rambles and impressions. I'm sure someone else can do better :)

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Hello - Doug Fullington asked me to look in and post something about Symphony in Three Mvts. I was present for the Stravinsky Festival - playing for much of the new choreography. As I recall, Symphony in 3 was created in 10 days by Mr. B. (I thought that was amazing). He did not stipulate the facial expressions - but it was not meant to be menacing - but definitely full of energy. Since the piece includes so many elements, the expressions tended to match the movement. The principal man in that work was Helgi Thomasson - he was the original. He always had a pleasant expression - sometimes intense also - but not deliberately smiling. Too much smiling wouldn't match the music either - and Balanchine was sensitive to that as well.

I hope this is somewhat illuminating. In general, Balanchine did not care for too much emoting - one was supposed to dance how one felt, and match the mood of the piece but he did not encourage "selling it" as sometimes happens too often these days.

Thanks Doug - for calling this to my attention.

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it's hard to beat the 'source' as it flowed forth from ddianne, but i saw a final dress reh. and the prem. of 'sym in 3' as i recall the exp. was a chilling one as w/ from a force of nature. i don't ever rem. an overabundance of grinning faces in any bal. ballet, truth to tell, in his day. i wonder if the venue could have had something to do w/ jane simpson's 'view' of things, was the proximity to the stage at all diff. w/ s.f.b. vs. her previous nycb or brb etc. experiences? i think ddianne is on the money, no wildly grinning mugs were event nor was any specific, dour/serious 'emoting'.

all the dancers' parts (and the dancers themselves seemed aptly 'driven' by their music, which at times thunders rather forcefully and at others gets more casual sounding. i saw s.f.b. do fine perfs. of the ballet at kenn.cent. and don't rem. an overabundance of bright, smiling faces, so i wonder if the uk perfs. took on a diff. tone for some reason. if ever there was a monument to balanchine's 'just dance the steps' advice it might be 'sym in 3' tho' it still applies to the rest of his canon. it's prob. always good to recall how often when g.b. made a ballet he was stretching/extending what his co. could do at the time and that the dancers, early on, were there, 'reaching' to the new limits, then when what the choreographer accomplished got folded back into the co's technique/expertise a kind of glibness can possibly take over. 'agon' is prob. the best example of a ballet stretching/extending its original cast, thus leaving later, more 'attuned' casts in the position of trying to find the original 'tension' without 'emoting' it. or something.

bottom line: if s.f.b. seemed to cheerily, cheerleading the first mov. of this ballet, something's gotten lost 'in the translation.'

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I wouldn't go as far as 'grinning mugs', but I definitely found the word 'cheerleaders' going through my mind as I watched. Maybe they were just on a collective high for some reason. I don't think it was where I was sitting - roughly the same distance from the stage as I've been before.

The thing that was different, though, was that I was sitting at the far right hand side of the theatre (cheap seats) and I won't do that again for this ballet. When the curtain goes up on the famous diagonal, you see a line of dancers at right angles to your line of vision, looking straight at you - your brain knows it's a diagonal really, but you get nothing like the same impact. (Maybe that's another thread for sometime - which ballets look best from which side?)

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Hi Jane.

Interesting point. I too wondered about the smiling and was very surprised seeing Symphony in 3 as a happy ballet, but that is what it was. They all seemed to be bouncing about so that it looked like a divert almost - and it did bother me a bit, cause obviously that is off.

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Having given it some more thought, the reasons NYCB and SFB look so different in the piece are probably just questions of company aesthetics (?). SFB is used to being more facially expressive and their response to the piece - having performed it for 2 years now - is more relaxed than previously: They have a good time performing it, it's a treat for them to have it in rep and it shows.

I spoke to somebody, who was in it with SFB and this person insisted that they were not given instructions of any kind when the piece was set (by Richard Tanner): certainly not to smile or anything as specific as that.

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My previous viewings of Symphony in 3 movements have also been performances by BRB or NYCB, and I was similarly struck by the different ‘feel’ of the SFB performance at the ROH. Like Jane, I sat at the side – RH side of the stalls circle (seeing the opening diagonal face on). I knew that the alternative was a central view from the back of the amphitheatre, but I thought I would try something else which felt more in contact with the stage for a change. As for the cheerleader aspect, I certainly remember thinking at one moment that it seemed as if a group of girls were jogging their way through an aerobics class; they looked very cheery. When watching BRB performances (or NYCB at Edinburgh last year) I have sat further back, more centrally; able to concentrate on the design and too far away to see much detail of facial expression perhaps, though the faces then appeared more intense.

The various reviewers in the British press seem to have all sorts of reactions to the music, some of them a bit odd, judging by the adjectives they use. The 1st movement began in 1942 as a piece for solo piano and orchestra, inspired by a film on China’s ‘scorched earth’ tactics. The 2nd movement uses music intended to accompany the ‘Apparition of the Virgin’ scene in Werfel’s film ‘The Song of Bernadette’ – Stravinsky was to have provided the film score, but the project did not come to fruition as far as he was concerned. The 3rd movement is said to have been inspired by wartime newsreels. Stravinsky conducted the first performance in New York in January 1946 (he had become an American citizen a month previously). He wrote at the time that the music had ‘no programme’ but that there might be found in it impressions affected by ‘this arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments and, at last, cessation and relief’.

Balanchine of course took the music as he found it, using it without any narrative, and revelling in its complexity and variety, its propulsive drive and its intensity. According to some notes I have found, he said that he wanted his choreography ‘to catch the music and not lean on it, using it instead for support and time-frame...’. Stravinsky, for his part, had declared that ‘in classical dancing I see the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the haphazard… I see in it the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle’. I guess that you can read all sorts of things into this piece, especially given 'that beginning' ("Amazonian Rockettes with attitude" the programme told us!). But nothing should interfere with appreciation of its design should it? - the Apollonian principle.

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I know this was long ago, y'all, but I saw the ballet rather a lot when you were posting these

The smililng SFB dancers... Their default face is to smile; the sweet thing about it is that -- as with the Cunningham dancers -- they smile when they see each other. Maybe in Symphony in 3 they're smiling because they're nearly colliding with each other and acknowledging each other as they race by.

In the first movement, what they're really doing is counting -- the leads in pink have one set of counts (in 5s, I think), the girls in black are I think in 7s, and the gilrs in blue are counting some different meter altogether. Julia Adam told me this (she danced one of hte leads).

They also present a heftier profile than City ballet dancers would-- this rather healthy look could make them look like cheerleaders by comparison to the more haggard creatures one is used to.

(I tried to introduce a smiley here, but it didnt happen......)

I agree, when I first saw the ballet (danced by City Ballet on tour to Berkeley in 1988), it looked like warfare to me - -something about hte first-movement principals made me think of a lion jumping onto a horse's back.... I was very excited and confused by it. SFB made it exhilarating, especially when Lucia lacarra did that manege of pique turns amidst all that hubbub, it was like bumper cars, and it didn't FAZE her....

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