You Gotta Know These Ballets
- Appalachian Spring (1944) by Aaron Copland. Copland had several working names for Appalachian Spring while composing it, including House of Victory and Ballet for Martha. The latter name refers to its choreographer, Martha Graham, who took its ultimate title from a line in Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.” Graham’s ballet depicts a group of pioneers in Pennsylvania, including a newlywed couple, building a farmhouse and encountering a Revivalist preacher and his flock. The ballet’s original set was designed by Graham’s frequent collaborator Isamu Noguchi. Because Appalachian Spring was first performed in the Library of Congress, Copland was forced to limit the accompanying ensemble to just 13 musicians. The best-known section of the ballet by far is Copland’s use of the traditional Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in the penultimate section of the suite; the full ballet contains several more movements based on variations on the hymn.
- Billy the Kid (1938) by Aaron Copland. Choreographed by Eugene Loring, this ballet depicts episodes in the life of the title Old West outlaw. Early in the ballet, Billy’s mother is accidentally killed in a gunfight; Billy then stabs the man who killed her. Sections from the ballet include “Card Game at Night” and a “Gun Battle” that features percussion imitating the title shootout. At the end of the ballet, when Billy is resting in the desert, a posse led by Pat Garrett finds and kills him. The story of Billy’s life is bookended at the beginning and end by a section called “The Open Prairie,” which depicts settlers moving westwards. The ballet makes extensive use of cowboy songs, such as “The Old Chisholm Trail” and “Goodbye Old Paint” in its depiction of a frontier town, and features a “Jarabe,” a Mexican dance in 5/8 time.
- The Creation of the World (La Création du Monde) (1923) by Darius Milhaud. A trip to the U.S. inspired Milhaud to write The Creation of the World in 1922. Enchanted by the jazz bands Milhaud heard in Harlem, the ballet shows a heavy influence of jazz and blues, as well as traditional African rhythms; Milhaud omitted violas, substituting an alto saxophone. Choreographed by Jean Börlin and using a set designed by Cubist artist Ferdinand Leger, the ballet aims to depict the beginning of creation according to African tradition: the creator gods Mzame, Mbere, and Nkwa appear out of a seemingly empty void to create animals, plants, and then the first man and woman. The latter then perform a routine based on popular Dixieland dances and conclude the ballet in the tableau “The Man and the Woman Kiss.” [Note: The latter is a title in the ballet, but the score itself only gives numbers to the sections.]
- The Creatures of Prometheus (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus) (1801) by Ludwig van Beethoven. Choreographer Salvatore Viganò asked Beethoven to write the music for The Creatures of Prometheus for a performance for Austrian empress Maria Theresa. In the ballet, two statues come to life; Prometheus then takes them to Parnassus and exposes them to “the passions of human existence.” They learn music from Orpheus, tragedy and comedy from the Muses, and dance from Pan and Bacchus. The ballet’s overture, like Beethoven’s First Symphony, begins with dissonant chords giving way into a lilting melody. Its finale contains a theme Beethoven would use in his “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3) and his Op. 35, the Eroica Variations for piano.
- Daphnis and Chloe (Daphnis et Chloé) (1912) by Maurice Ravel. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev and choreographed by Michel Fokine, Daphnis and Chloe is based on the only surviving work by Greek author Longus. The ballet starts in a sacred grotto, where Daphnis, Chloe, and other youths arrive to give an offering to three statues of the Nymphs. When cowherd Dorcon challenges Daphnis to a dance contest for a kiss from Chloe, Dorcon is humiliated. A group of pirates abduct Chloe and take her to their island, where she is forced to dance for their leader Bryaxis. The god Pan saves Chloe; after reuniting her with Daphnis, Pan is reminded of his own love for the nymph Syrinx. Daphnis and Chloe then reenact Pan’s courtship of Syrinx. The rest of the company joins in a bacchanalian “Danse générale” featuring a wordless chorus. Ravel reworked the music from Daphnis and Chloe into two suites often performed in the concert hall.
- Fancy Free (1944) by Leonard Bernstein. Fancy Free, the first ballet choreographed by American dancer Jerome Robbins, was inspired by Paul Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In!. The ballet depicts the antics of three sailors on shore leave in New York City, where they meet two beautiful women. To determine which one will leave dateless, the sailors hold a dance contest, performing a galop, waltz, and a Cuban danzón. However, the women cannot choose a winner, and the sailors quickly start fighting. The women run away, but the men reconcile and the ballet ends with them crossing paths with another attractive woman and starting to pursue her. Fancy Free’s success catapulted both Bernstein and Robbins to stardom; Bernstein later adapted Fancy Free into a musical and a film under the title On the Town; the musical features the song “New York, New York.”
- The Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu or Zhar-ptitsa) (1910) by Igor Stravinsky. Choreographed by Michel Fokine, The Firebird was the first of several collaborations between Stravinsky and Ballets Russes director Sergei Diaghilev. Prince Ivan, the ballet’s protagonist, captures the mythical Firebird, who pledges a feather to Ivan in exchange for her freedom. Ivan later stumbles upon 13 princesses performing the “Dance of the Golden Apples.” Ivan follows them back to the castle of Kashchei the Immortal, who has enchanted and imprisoned them. Kashchei, whose magic is represented by a recurring descending chromatic motif, sends bewitched monsters to attack Ivan. Ivan uses the feather to summon the Firebird, who uses her magic to make the monsters perform an “Infernal Dance” before lulling them to sleep with a “Berceuse.” While the monsters sleep, Ivan discovers the egg that preserves Kashchei’s power inside a tree trunk and destroys it, breaking Kashchei’s spell. Ivan frees the princesses, marrying one of them in the ballet’s 7/4 finale. Stravinsky created three versions of the ballet suite for a smaller orchestra, which were published in 1911, 1919, and 1945.
- Giselle (1841) by Adolphe Adam. Choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perot, Adam wrote Giselle for Perot’s lover Carlotta Grisi, who danced the title role at its premiere. Giselle, a peasant girl, falls in love with Loys, who is secretly Duke Albrecht of Silesia in disguise. Although Albrecht is engaged to Princess Bathilde, he pursues his romance with Giselle. After playing “he loves me, he loves me not” with a daisy, Giselle is shocked when the gamekeeper Hilarion, who also loves her, presents Albrecht’s sword, revealing Albrecht’s noble status. Unable to handle Albrecht’s deception and knowing he can never marry her, Giselle goes mad, tearing the necklace her mother has given her, and dies of a broken heart. After her death, Giselle’s spirit is enlisted into the Wilis, a group of spirits led by Queen Myrtha. The Wilis corner Hilarion and force him to dance to death; but Giselle stops them from doing the same to Albrecht. Sparing Albrecht, the Wilis let Giselle’s ghost return to rest in her grave.
- The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin) (1926) by Belá Bartók. Based on a story by Melchior Lengyel, The Miraculous Mandarin opens by depicting a large city, with rapid ascending and descending notes on the strings followed by a theme of minor seconds and a brass imitation of car horns. In the ballet, a group of robbers force a girl to dance at the window of their apartment as a “Lockspiel,” or decoy game, to lure in potential victims. After the criminals successfully rob an old lecher and a poor young man, the girl lures a rich Chinese man—the Mandarin—into the apartment; glissandos in the brass mark his entrance. After the Mandarin tries unsuccessfully to capture the girl, the tramps jump on him—symbolized by the repetition of the minor second intervals heard at the beginning of the ballet—and stab him three times, then hang him from a lamp. However, the Mandarin’s body begins to glow strangely. The girl then convinces the robbers to free the man, whom she then embraces, allowing him to die peacefully. The material of the ballet made it controversial upon its 1926 premiere; the mayor of Cologne, where the ballet debuted, had it banned on moral grounds.
- The Nutcracker (Shchelkunchik) (1892) by Peter Tchaikovsky. Now a Christmastime favorite, The Nutcracker was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The plot, based on an E. T. A. Hoffmann story, opens at a Christmas party, where Drosselmeyer gives his daughter Clara a toy nutcracker, which her brother Fritz soon breaks. At night, the living room becomes a battleground between the evil Mouse King and toys and gingerbread soldiers, led by the Nutcracker. Clara throws her slipper at the Mouse King, distracting him long enough for the Nutcracker to kill him. The Nutcracker then turns into a prince and leads Clara into a magical forest where the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” marks the end of act one. In act two Clara and the prince arrive in the Land of Sweets, where they witness dances representing delicacies from around the world, including Arabian coffee and Spanish chocolate, as well as the Chinese “Dance of the Reed Flutes” and the Russian “Trepak.” Mother Ginger has a group of clowns (“Polcinelles”) emerge from her skirt to dance before the orchestra plays the “Waltz of the Flowers” and the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier dance a pas de deux. Finally, the Sugar Plum Fairy dances alone to music that marks one of the first orchestral uses of the celesta.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Robert Chu.