Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thanks TCM; Ponderings on The Gay Parisian, George Balanchine, and the Development of Neo-Classicism in Dance

Wow, I caught the last half of The Gay Parisian on Turner Classic Movies tonight and was fascinated and somewhat aghast at what I was seeing!

Right away I knew it was no movie musical I had ever seen and shortly I recognized LĂ©onide Massine, being familiar with him from The Red Shoes. I kept thinking the musical number would end but it just continued from one dance to another and clicking the info button on the cable revealed that there was no listing for it (Turner Classics had sandwiched it between Flower Drum Song and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) indicating that is was another interesting short that Turner had turned up.

The piece was costumed to within an inch of its life in a style that, today, could only be considered high kitsch and was full of rapid and sometimes choppy edits. The director was in love with obscuring the frame with just about anything he could place in the foreground; wrought iron metal work, columns, people walking/dancing within a foot or so of the lens. The dancers however, were first rate...Massine doing his typical quirky athletic thing, a woman in a can-can section (yes this dance truly has it all!) doing a few dozen fouettes in the most rapid and violent manner ever seen, yet very well centered.

When it finished and no credits were run I quickly IMDB'd Massine and soon found that it was a 20 minute Warner Brothers release in 1941 featuring The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with Andre Eglevski, Fredrick Franklin, Nathalie Krassovsk, Igor Youskevitch and more.

Turns out, oddly enough, that Warner Brothers had made two 20 minute films with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that year the other being Spanish Fiesta with similar cast and crew but also featuring Tamara Toumanova and Alexandra Danivola; both were choreographed by Massine.

While the film, technically and choreographically, is difficult to watch today (at least it may be difficult keeping a straight face) its a wonderful and rare opportunity to watch some very famous dancers and to ponder the history of dance as popular entertainment and the counter action to that popular entertainment that led Balanchine (no slouch to pop, he choreographed for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and created Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1940) to revolutionize the world of dance in the mid 20th century.

Concerto Barocco an early costumed version.

The year when these two pictures were released, 1941, was also the year that Balanchine created Concerto Barocco a seminal ballet, perhaps the seminal ballet of the 20th century. Balanchine created the piece from an exercise for the School of American Ballet which he founded in 1935 with Lincoln Kirstein and set it on the American Ballet Caravan for its 1941 tour of South America. In it he finally abandons any pretense of story-telling and simply allows the music and movement to amplify one another, a concept now often referred to as neo-classicism.

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis had explored the same basic concpet in Modern Dance starting around 1916 which they called Music Visualization and described (via Wikipedia) as "a concept that called for movement equivalents to the timbres, dynamics, and structural shapes of music in addition to its rhythmic base." Balanchine's revolution was to apply a similar idea to the technique of ballet, breaking it forever from the story-telling tradition in which it was becoming moribund.

This also led Ballet away from the world of popular entertainment (for contrast see the videos of Massine's Gay Parisian below) and into a much more "highbrow" cultural plain. He had begun to make the break from popular entertainment as early as 1928's Apollo, done in collaboration with with Stravinski, denfinatley cracking the mold. With Borocco and the jettisoning of story the mold was shattered. Ten years later he quite literally stripped dance to its essence when he removed the costumes and first presented Barocco in rehearsal clothes.

Today both Ballet and Modern are free to tell stories or not, to amplify the music or use no music at all, to be of utmost seriousness or to appeal directly as popular entertainment (although to me, they seem, like most of the arts, to be awaiting the next great revolution.)

Thanks Mr. B.

The Gay Parisian
part 1

The Gay Parisian
part 2


lyricdancer said...

Maria told us how Balanchine came to use leotard and tights costuming:
They were touring The Four Temperments which had a lukewarm reception. One night, the costumes didn't arrive for the performance so they went on with only their practice attire. The ballet was suddenly a hit and Balanchine never looked back.

lyricdancer said...

BTW. isn't that Maria T. in the photo? I recognize her feet.

Charlie Boy said...


Thought you might enjoy this picture. Your Can can movie had me in stitches literally and figuratively.

Editor said...

Yeah, my wife also thinks its Maria, and CB I DO like that picture!