George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” has all the pomp and circumstance of inaugural parades and Fourth of July fireworks. Yet the U.S. capital’s own ballet company has never staged the brisk, 28-minute work that was the Russian choreographer’s ode to American spirit and industriousness.
That’s about to change. This week, the dancers of the Washington Ballet finally will don the slim, gold-buttoned waistcoats and fluffy tutus in shades of cobalt, cranberry and dandelion to perform “Stars and Stripes,” which Balanchine created in 1958. The work will serve as the centerpiece of a mixed program that runs through Sunday at the Harman Center for the Arts and is part of the company’s new Tour-de-Force series.
If “Stars and Stripes” hasn’t been performed much in recent years, it’s because the expansive ballet requires 27 female dancers, 14 male dancers and a great deal of skill among the corps de ballet, says Sandra Jennings of the New York-based Balanchine Trust. “It’s difficult,” she says.
Along with its size, the defining characteristic of “Stars and Stripes” is its score — marching anthems by John Philip Sousa. The dancers keep pace not with the gentle pacings of Tchaikovsky, but with a drumbeat that sounds unmistakably like the rat-a-tat-tat of ordnance.
When asked why he chose such common music as Sousa’s, the late choreographer unapologetically replied, “Because I like his music.” Balanchine also had a deep affection for his adopted home, to which he immigrated in 1934.
“Balanchine loved America as, I think, only an immigrant can — with an appreciation for its drive and ingenuity,” says Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet’s artistic director. “His ballets are a metaphor for American drive and energy. The pirouettes are much faster, the legs are higher, the technique is more virtuosic.”
“Stars and Stripes,” whose five rapid-fire acts Balanchine dubbed “campaigns,” is no exception. Each campaign is set to a different march, including “Rifle Regiment,” “Liberty Bell” and “El Capitan,” but culminating always in Sousa’s masterpiece “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The piece features unusual formations and, in particular, a striking approach in one of its regiment sections that Webre calls “a fresh-faced approach to men dancing together.”
“Each guy in the regiment has to be like a soloist,” says Jennings, a onetime New York City Ballet dancer who has spent several weeks overseeing the staging of the Washington Ballet production for the Balanchine Trust. “He has to be able to do the kind of steps that are asked of a soloist.”
“The Washington Ballet,” she says, “has a lot of good men.”
But more than 50 years after its creation, will “Stars and Stripes” still hold up?
“Classicism is not dated. ‘Swan Lake’ is not dated. Balanchine is not dated,” insists Webre. “It is of a period. Balanchine, an immigrant, was exuberant and excited about America in the 1950s. So in some ways it’s a period piece, but it’s not dated.”