Three choreographers are recognized in today's world of ballet as the art form's most important and iconic: Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Jiri Kylian. Each has changed ballet's style in his own way, and they have altered what audiences expect to see in contemporary work—modern stories, abstract movement and deeper emotion. The first performance of Ballet West's 2015-16 season, Iconic Classics, brings together works from each of these choreographers (Fancy Free, Symphony in C and Overgrown Path) in a single evening, representing the most classic examples of each choreographer's distinct style.
Robbins was only 24 years old when, in 1943, he began creating Fancy Free, the ballet that, a year later at its premiere, would set him on a fast track to stardom. Robbins' story ballet starts as three young sailors, on shore leave for a night in New York City, enter a bar. Jazzy music—a score created specifically for Fancy Free by the equally young and talented Leonard Bernstein (Candide, West Side Story)—helps set the mood. Friendly antics, and a dance-off, ensue with the appearance of two young women.
The premise for Robbins' ballet wasn't anything new in 1943. With the United States in the middle of the World War II, stories about war heroes proliferated; at the time, almost 30 percent of Hollywood feature films were war-related. And it wasn't unheard of to see dancing sailors at the ballet. The world-famous Ballet Russes had performed Leonide Massine's Les Matelots (The Sailors) in 1925 and, in 1943, the American Concert Ballet performed Mary Jane Shea's Sailor Bar.
What set Robbins' Fancy Free apart from other similar ballets was his unique talent for making dance and story seamless. Better known today for his choreography of Broadway musicals—West Side Story, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof—Robbins knew how to infuse a dance with theatrical charm. "What he does so well—and in such a brief story—is create character and mood," says Adam Sklute, Ballet West's artistic director. "His work has a very spontaneous feeling, but every piece is choreographed. Nothing is left up to chance."
Up until the mid-20th century, American ballet took a back seat to Europe's storied ballet companies. The art form was full of fairies, swans and dying princesses. The story was advanced through mime, and then put on pause so the principal dancers could have their time at center stage. That changed with choreographers such as Robbins and George Balanchine. While Robbins created ballet with real American stories, Balanchine stripped ballet of its conventions: there are no more courts or castles, no more pantomimed stories or exaggerated gestures. Balanchine's ballets were the first popular abstract ballets, created as studies in space and patterning, movement meant to evoke pure emotion. At times, Balanchine went as far as to even abandon traditional costuming, at times preferring tights and leotards over tutus.
Symphony in C epitomizes Balanchine's style and aesthetic. Created for the Paris Opera Ballet and premiered on July 28, 1947, the four-part work—which Ballet West will perform for the first time in its entirety—is one of the most demanding performances in ballet's contemporary repertoire, full of complex footwork performed, often in unison, with great speed and accuracy.
The next year, Balanchine revived the work for his own company, the New York City Ballet, where it was seen by none other than Jerome Robbins. "Robbins was dancing in the American Ballet Theatre when Balanchine first performed Symphony in C in the United States," says Sklute, recounting the meeting. "Robbins was there the night it premiered, and he is said to have called Balanchine's Symphony in C the most amazing choreography he had ever seen." Shortly after that performance, Robbins left the American Ballet Theatre to dance and choreograph for Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, later becoming the company's associate artistic director.
While Balanchine began introducing abstract concepts into ballet's vocabulary, contemporary choreographer Jiri Kylian had completed ballet's conversion into a thoroughly modern art form. When the Nederlands Dans Theater performed Kylian's Overgrown Path in New York City, in 1981, The New York Times dance critic wrote, "The propulsive force, flowing pulse and humane themes of [Kylian's] dances roused the audience to a fever pitch. Was it ballet or modern dance, they wondered?"
Artistic director Sklute was in the audience that night in 1981. He still recalls how affected he was by the brooding performance; the ballet was created as a conversation with composer Leos Janaceck's solo piano cycle written shortly after the death of Janaceck's daughter.
"When it was over," says Sklute, "I could not get out of my chair. This is certainly one of the most important pieces we have ever presented during my tenure with Ballet West."