"Resurrection" is the word that springs to mind as one contemplates, with high anticipation, the return of American Ballet Theatre to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. Starting Tuesday evening, the company begins a round of eight performances that will conclude next Sunday. If it seems an age since the troupe was last on view here, that's because it has been--what with the cancellation of ABT's regular 4-week series this past December due to a lengthy contractual dispute with its dancers, and the dropping last spring of its former "second season" here, the company hasn't appeared in Washington since the winter of 1981.
Upon the settling of the labor dispute (with the dancers making well-earned gains in salary and benefits), ABT and the Kennedy Center were swift to agree on a "consolation prize" for Washington's avid ballet public--a quickie week's visit, making up for as much lost ground as possible. Given the limited time, it was neither feasible nor sensible to bring full-length mammoths; instead, we will be treated to a slew of shorter but new company acquisitions. Most conspicuous among these will be the world premiere of "Follow the Feet" by John McFall, a duet for ABT director Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert La Fosse to Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" (first performance Thursday evening), and a major revival of a George Balanchine ballet, "Symphonie Concertante," to be introduced to the ABT repertory during Wednesday evening's gala benefit. The chronicle of the Balanchine production is indeed a tale of resurrection--the story of the life, death and rebirth of a ballet.
The Wednesday evening gala, moreover, will mark the launching of a vigorous ABT campaign in Washington to recruit new supporters, patrons and audience, as part of the company's long-range plans to build firm constituencies in the prime regional centers it tours annually.
From the backstage standpoint, the most intriguing aspect of ABT's coming fare at Kennedy Center is the reconstruction of "Symphonie Concertante." Over the years, Balanchine has been exceedingly generous with his treasury of ballets, frequently "loaning" them out to companies other than his own New York City Ballet. Ordinarily, the mechanism for such transfer is that Balanchine will assign the task to one of his present or past ballet masters--people like John Taras, Rosemary Dunleavy, Una Kai, Victoria Simon, Francia Russell and others, remarkable individuals who carry large portions of the Balanchine repertory in their heads, as orchestral conductors do with symphonic masterpieces. One of this select band, then, will go to another troupe and "set" the ballet on its dancers, that is, teach them the steps, floor patterns, phrasing and so forth.
The case of "Symphonie Concertante," however, is unusual; perhaps unique. No one remembers it well enough to restage it--not Balanchine himself, nor any of his crew. There's no filmed record of the dance, and it was pre-video. The only remaining artifacts, aside from partial recollections of some dancers who performed in it, consist of a few still photographs, and some vague verbal descriptions. There was, however, a dance score, recorded in the system of choreographic symbolization known as Labanotation (after its inventor, Rudolf von Laban), that lay unnoticed in an archive until recently, and it is to this almost chance circumstance that we owe the present ABT revival.
The story begins in 1945, when Balanchine created a ballet for the students of his School of American Ballet, who gave its premiere at Carnegie Hall. The musical score was Mozart's "Symphonie Concertante" for solo violin and viola and orchestra (K. 364), and this became the title of the ballet. Symphonie concertante was a general 18th-century designation for a concerto, which featured--like the Baroque "concerto grosso"--not one but several solo instruments pitted against a larger instrumental ensemble. Mozart's K. 364, though, is a very special jewel, ranking among those exquisite one-of-a-kind creations, like the Divertimento for String Trio.
Two years later, under the auspices of Ballet Society (one of the NYC Ballet's predecessor organizations), "Symphonie Concertante" had its "official" premiere at New York's City Center, with two of the company's reigning ballerinas--Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil LeClerq--as the principals, along with the cast's lone male, Todd Bolender, supported by six demi-soloists and a corps of 16 women. Tallchief later recalled it as "beautiful--just pure classical dancing and quite difficult," and a number of contemporary critics, among them Edwin Denby, B. H. Haggin and the late Walter Terry, lauded it extravagantly as a new Balanchine masterpiece. There were detractors as well--John Martin found it "perhaps Balanchine's most boring work," and Robert Sabin upbraided its "brittle and empty academicism." Nevertheless, historian Anatole Chujoy, in 1952, was still calling it "a decided hit" and a "favorite work in the repertoire."
All the same, change being the nature of the art, the ballet dropped out of the NYC Ballet programs, and like so many other forgotten Balanchine efforts, might have remained in oblivion thereafter but for a peculiar twist of history. In the late '40s, Ann Hutchinson--a dancer and an expert in Labanotation, one of the founders of this country's Dance Notation Bureau--managed to interest Balanchine in the possibilities of the system; he came to her apartment to take some elementary lessons, and then he invited her and some colleagues to company rehearsals to see what the method might accomplish in the way of trustworthy recording. "Just notate what you can, he told me," she recalled in a phone conversation from her London residence last week, "so I scribbled away, and then explained what I'd been able to capture, and he seemed satisfied. So he commissioned us to notate a series of ballets of his at that time--about a dozen in all, including 'Symphony in C,' and 'Symphonie Concertante' was among them, too. The scores were later kept at the Dance Notation Bureau, and some were even lost--there was no Xerox in those days; the first score for 'Theme and Variations,' for example, got burned up in someone's luggage in a fire in Holland, and the piece wasn't notated again till years later."
More than three decades roll by before the thread picks up, this time with Michael Lland, a former principal dancer with ABT and now one of the company's ballet masters. He'd had training in Labanotation himself, and according to his own account, "I just happened to be down at the Dance Notation Bureau, during our company's New York season last summer, just to buy some notation paper. But while I was there I sauntered through their library; I knew a score for 'Symphonie Concertante' existed, but had forgotten about it, and it occurred to me to see if it might be feasible to reproduce the ballet from this old score . . . It looked quite possible to me, so I got a tape of the music to play for Mr. Baryshnikov, and he was enthusiastic enough to go to Balanchine to ask for permission to reconstruct it."
Baryshnikov was more than enthusiastic. "I had never seen the ballet, of course," he said, "but the music, as Balanchine says, is pure genius, and I spoke with many people who'd danced in it or seen it on stage and everyone thought it was a wonderful idea to try it. I went to Mr. B. and he said, why not? . . . He told me he'd always been very fond of 'Symphonie Concertante.' He said he'd had to compose it very quickly, but was much pleased with the result. So he sent us Gretchen Schumacher, who'd been working with New York City Ballet, to help Michael Lland and the dancers put it together."
Schumacher brings the story full circle, joining its origins to its happy conclusion. A Portland-born dancer, who'd studied at the School of American Ballet and danced herself with ABT for four years in the early '60s, she was already a highly experienced dance notator in the Laban system when, about a year and a half ago, the NYC Ballet asked her to record some of Balanchine's pieces from the 1982 Stravinsky Festival. When Baryshnikov came to Balanchine with his request for "Symphonie Concertante," Balanchine called in Schumacher. "He showed me this score--I could see it was very old--and asked me what I thought of it and said he wanted me to be involved. I took it home, and started to look at it over an after-dinner glass of wine; I got so excited I couldn't put it down until two in the morning--I could see enough to tell it was a beautiful, an extraordinary ballet."
Schumacher started to work on the reconstruction with ABT dancers in mid-November, amid hectic preparations for the company's national tour with Washington the first stop. Sometimes she'd have two hours a day, sometimes up to four. "First I worked with the principals alone (Cynthia Gregory, Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissell), then the demi-soloists, and then the corps dancers; though we'd gone through all the movement completely, we didn't have a full rehearsal with everyone until last Saturday. Usually in setting a ballet I've never seen, I not only study the score but memorize and rehearse it myself--I can get up and dance it, and show the movement to the dancers. In this case, the choreography was so complex and the conditions under which we worked so unpredictable, that wasn't possible. I did study the score intensively, but made no effort to memorize it; I had to demonstrate with the score in one hand. Still, it was terrifically thrilling to see this ballet actually take shape. The choreography is so extremely musical--when I needed to jump from one part of the ballet to another, the rehearsal pianist would guess instantly where to go in the music, just from seeing what the dancers were doing."
And so the ghost has been born again, and will be unveiled to the public Wednesday night. Ballet, the most ephemeral of arts, has its occasional epics of salvation too, and this is one of them.
The Wednesday evening benefit during which "Symphonie Concertante" will receive its first ABT performance also will see the start of an ambitious company effort not only to insure the continued annual presence of the troupe in Washington but to foster its seasonal growth here as well. As executive director Herman Krawitz said this past week, "We're trying to identify a group of people who will be particularly dedicated to ABT, who will support us above and beyond the general support they may otherwise give to the arts. The hard fact is, we cannot break even on the fees we're paid, and so we need to raise money in each community we visit, in many different ways. We're trying to work out ways in Washington that will be unique to Washington, that will not conflict with ongoing fund-raising activity at Kennedy Center, such as their annual Honors affair, and won't threaten any native arts groups--we'd like to enlist their cooperation and be of help to them as well. I can tell you we're working on a new three-year plan at this point, and it puts us in Washington up to our necks--the Kennedy Center is a very high priority for us."
It's easy to see from the statistics just why such an effort is required, particularly in Washington--of all the cities ABT currently tours, including Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco, this is the one with the performance hall of smallest capacity and the lowest potential gross income.
Sharon Patrick, a New York management consultant and an ABT board member who is spearheading the new campaign, puts it this way:
"ABT is a gypsy company, it depends on touring. With ticket prices necessarily lagging behind increasing costs and declining levels of government help, we have to build new bases of support. In Washington, we realize we can't just leave it up to the Kennedy Center, which has its own hands full. So we're looking to corporate sources, particularly among Washington-based corporations, for a group of people we can count on for varying degrees of commitment, and not just in terms of money. We've already contacted a number of such people; after Wednesday evening's performance, an invited group will meet with Baryshnikov and the dancers at a supper party at Nora's restaurant, to see if we can generate some momentum and ideas, perhaps for a major benefit next year. In Miami last year, such an effort resulted in the commissioning of a ballet, which ABT then premiered in that city--that's one example of what can come out of this. The interesting thing about the group we've linked up with so far in Washington is that 80 percent of them aren't affiliated in any way with any other arts organization in the city. We're convinced the support is out there--we just need to find it, and we're determined to do so."
Rounding out the ABT repertory at Kennedy Center will be the Washington premieres of two of last year's productions we missed out on: Merce Cunningham's "Duets" with music by John Cage, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Great Galloping Gottschalk," both to be given opening night at the Opera House. We'll also get to see ABT's first staging of Jerome Robbins' "N. Y. Export: Op. Jazz," with scenery by Ben Shahn, and a new production of Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" with decor by Santo Loquasto, plus a gaggle of varied pas de deux and such repertory staples as "Push Comes to Shove," "Other Dances," "Bourree Fantasque" and the Shades Scene from "Bayadere." CAPTION: Pictue, Patrick Bissell, Cynthia Gregory, & Martine van Hamel rehearsing "Symphonie Concertante", Copyright (c) 1983, Martha Swope