Last weekend I was privileged to see a trilogy of three ballets by the Russian-Georgian genius George Balanchine beautifully performed by the City Ballet of San Diego. Having been a fan of the New York City ballet when I lived there, a ballet he cofounded, I was eager to see his works once again after many years. The pieces performed were “Concerto Baroco,” “Jewels,” and “Square Dance.”
What struck me the most was the way in which Balanchine understood the music. “Concerto Baroco” was performed to the “Bach Double” (a piece with which all Suzuki violin students are familiar). While in most ballets the music serves to underscore or highlight the movements of the dancers, movements that are determined by the choreographer, here, the dancers were the music. That is, the choreography was music-driven, rather than dancer-driven.
Choosing the music for choreography is more than putting a soundtrack to movement; it requires understanding how the dancers will serve the music and vice versa. It requires a deep sense of rhythm, melody, phrasing, and music. It also requires a deep understanding of the body and its abilities, its angles and lines (a very key concept to classical ballet), and also spatial thinking, as dancers do not stand still but move across a stage. Anyone who is a musician can only benefit from training in dance, because dancers are musicians who make music with their bodies. Flamenco and tap dance are great examples of dancers who have to create their own music and rhythm, for the sound of their feet accompanies them.
Choreographers who do not understand music well will only produce a palatable or unpleasant result. Non-experts or non-connoisseurs of dance may not be able to pinpoint what they didn’t like when viewing a ballet dance performance, but they might sense that something was “off.”
Choreography is indeed an underrated and underappreciated art. Let’s continue to look for and support the Balanchines–male and female–of tomorrow.