Balanchine’s Ballade Ballade

Merrill Ashley, Ib Andersen – Balanchine’s Ballade, illustration courtesy of The George Balanchine Trust

Balanchine, Russian as the Ballet Russe,
defected with friends yearning for Paris
where Stravinsky and his Firebird seduced
him to choreograph for the genius
Diaghilev. There he joined the restless
musicians, artists, composers who whirled
through the bars, and cafes of Montparnasse–
each one returning to a private world.

Fauré a gentleman who’d paid his dues
read Villon, taught Ravel, and sought justice
for the avant-garde’s dance with modern muse.
Influenced Stravinsky, Ravel, for less
fame and fortune perhaps, yet still he stressed
elegance and composed while he unfurled
a truce between new wave and staid ensconced–
each one returning to a private world.

With “Ballade” Balanchine would introduce
Fauré through his acclaimed Ballade Opus
Nineteen in a series of pas de deux.
Ballerina and Cavalier express
through their fleeting encounters love’s distress,
exquisitely wound in figures that twirled
en pointeen dehors or through pirouettes
each one returning to a private world.

Formal and modern merge and coalesce;
in a surreal attitude shapes swirled
New York and Paris in artistic dress–
each one returning to a private world.

I don’t usually talk about or try to explain my poems. I think you should be able to take them at their face value, serious or silly, plain or incomprehensible, pretty or poignant — it’s yours as you read it to decide. But considering I wrote the articles, I needed one ballade to do the work of two. So I’m breaking my own rules.

This French Ballade, I think, ideally represents the point where the classic merges with the modern as it did in Paris in the early 20th century. In that period the painter who was on this cusp was Cezanne, the composer was Fauré, the maestro/impresario was Diaghelev, the dancer was Nijinsky. After them it was all modern. As I stated in Luminous Cows, taking the cow as a symbol was a point of change from the bucolic to something lit from within by the truly modern artists. Likewise the ballade which started as a dance, then turned into a poetry form, became a serious subject with the compositions of Chopin only to be “modernized” by Fauré. And through Balanchine who had come late to the Ballet Russe, who knew Fauré, who left Paris for New York, was funded, and initiated serious dance in the US, we have a choreographer who reassembled the Ballade in a completely modern way as dance again. Like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors, the French Ballade changes to something different in the hands of modern artists.

I felt as though my poem too, was on the cusp – both old in its form and its relation to the dance, but new in the way it feels like free verse, the rhymes somewhat slanted, the history almost prosaic. Yet it rhymes, it conforms to syllabic count and the refrain describes the actions of Balanchine’s Ballade. I hope you like it.

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24 thoughts on “Balanchine’s Ballade Ballade

  1. This is a very thoughtful and complex piece. I find that there is a real balance between a traditional and more modern form. The language on one hand feels traditional – but the structure, form, and story told definately evolve it from being ‘just’ a ballade (if there is such a thing). I saw a metaphor of the changing nature of ballet- and how naturally over time, as the dance gets taken on by new blood- it naturally must change. This was really elegant and so intricately carved. Very well done!

  2. A lot going on here–both as a work of poetry and commentary. A lot of success on all levels. I love Faure. (Diaghelev and Ballanchine okay too! Ha!) And, of course, Igor. Such an interesting time. I think there were riots after the Rites of Spring, and one audience member drummed on the bald head of the guy in front of him. K.

  3. Yes, and Picasso was in the mix too. Stravinsky was such an artist but I think the atmosphere affected everyone. There was much mixing and mingling and seeing one another’s work and commenting on it. They were talking manifests, color, symbolism, novelty, new ideas, psychology, science, engineering, transportation while trying to keep warm. They met in cafes and each other’s dwellings or studios. The poets made the rounds, scrounging food. It must have been mad times!

  4. no, i don’t like it….i LOVE it gay!! the perfect poem to capture the spirit of this time…i would’ve loved to sit in these bars, and cafes of Montparnasse where art was born and developed and spiraled into new galaxies… what a adventurous time, what walking on the edge as well..what a well of new ideas…and your poem just mirrors this in a masterful way..

  5. This is a form that has really grabbed me gay – i’m working at the moment but i’ve taken notes and shall be trying my hand – what i fine example you have given – rules hah! – meant to be broken – lol
    without rule breaking – no modernism… thank you gay :)

  6. Arron – throw the dishes at the wall, dance a fandango in homage to the Spaniards – Picasso, Gris, Miro. Or try solo steps like Gene Kelly in American in Paris. Poetry is a painting, is a dance, is a production (ah Parade!) a music hall, a love song, a poster, a graffiti, a tattoo of life on the cave of the artist!

    • Oh Anthony thank you for the comment! Actually even though I was a little intimidated by it at first, it’s not too bad if you follow the steps. The trick is finding the refrain and then it seems to fall into place. I was glad not to have to end rhyme. It made it easier to wrap. You should try it. You might find it fun. Brian did!

  7. gay this is awesome…of course i have the ballet hook as well with my wife…but this is so much more than that as well…love how you bring all of this together…art is def mixed in my blood…and i love it when people make those radical leaps of theirs dancing the edge…had to stop in for some inspiration as i dance mine…

  8. I’m so pleased you like it. Your poetry always does things – dances, flies, leaps, turns around twice and lands on a back outside edge. Possibly quad rotates and lands clean on a back outside edge! That’s saying something or maybe too much. I am curiously pleased with this Ballade Ballade and have no idea why. (maybe because the title sounds so gertrude stein) Thank you!

  9. Thank you Caty. Yes I finally get to the dance itself (third act as it were). I painted the scene, and filled in the music before it finally arrived. You can’t have the ballet until the work is done and it was in this way that the Ballet Russe acted as a magnet for painters, poets, and musicians to meet one another slightly off their usual paths. Satie came to Picasso to paint the scenery for The Rites of Spring and then monopolized him, not leaving Stravinsky time to discuss “modernity” with M.Picasso. From what I’ve read there were more dramatic moments among the artists working to prepare the dances than there were in them, although I’m sure the ballets were wonderful. They were written about in the letters of Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson telling the folks in the U.S. about the amazing variety of art in Paris.

  10. All rules aside, I think this is a magnificent piece of work. I’m in awe of the way you have used difficult terms, other languages and a most apposite theme, all within the boundaries of this tricky form. Kudos.

    • Thank you Kerry. It took some considering and thinking but once I found the refrain which is a paraphrase a summation of the description of the dance in the notes to it..I was on my way. I thought how perfectly that describes what artists do. (as well as lovers) is to come together, to commune, to throw thoughts and ideas into a stew on the table, into cups, onto bars, and then return to each one’s private world to make it happen. That set the last rhyme (which was lucky that it worked!) and I set out writing to it more or less.

  11. really nice. i’ve seen some Balanchine productions at the City Ballet, i loved them. I got to see Jewels, for example.

    really nice poem. so hard to write. thanks for sharing.

  12. A difficult poem, complex…and it mirrors a difficult cultural time. What a whirlwind it must have been, with the drums of war on the horizon, the Russian Revolution somewhere in there, and the influx of cultures headed to Paris!

    “and they returned to their private worlds” means to me something different? The art and LABOR of ballet, the consistent sacrifice of body, health, and the exhaustion….the bones for all of this is laid down in returning to the private world of a dancer….where their bodies were broken down and remade into the forms ‘acceptable’ for dance. A grueling discipline, a constant discipline.

    Faure, Nijinsky, Cezanne, Picasso, the Ballet Russe, etc….these are the ghosts of a past that never will be again. The conditions of the world have so radically changed that this possibility does not come again…but what a time of incredible drama, invention, creativity and transcendence.

    Your explanation at the end, Gay, is necessary. We have forgotten these forms, art and what has gone into their making.

    By the way, one of my later belly dance teachers was originally from the Ballet Russe….which speaks to her marvelous form and discipline, and also the the transcendence of discipline from one form to another.

    Elegant, elegant, elegant poem, Gay….complex and like a sound bite of history that has fallen to the mists. You have brought to life, again….. a time of incredible beauty.

    Lady Nyo

  13. This was such a pleasure to read aloud! It sings with turn-of-the-century allusions, with historical vignettes, and walk-ons from literary and artistic personages. It’s like a magic trick, a ballade on a ballade, a prestidigital tour-de-force. And I’m sure – extremely fun to have written. Bravo!

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