It can be truly said that Balanchine Americanized what had beforehand been a purely European art form, ballet. Reynolds and McCormick state that, “Within the decade, Balanchine and Ballet Theatre began the Americanization of ballet. At the same time, barriers between modern dance, jazz, and ballet started eroding in the popular theater – a process that eventually reached the concert hall and the opera house” (492). The way different dance forms started to intermix during this time was one way that ballet started to become Americanized. The scene was perfectly set for Balanchine to Americanize ballet. Furthermore, Gottschild points out that, “The Africanist presence is a defining ingredient that separates American ballet from its European counterpart…[and] it was George Balanchine…who was the principal Americanizer of ballet” (336). The presence of slavery of Africans in America gave way to there being many Americans of African heritage in the United States and the African culture powerfully influenced America as it grew as a country. Given the strong influence of Africa on American culture, it follows that African culture would also influence American ballet. Additionally, Balanchine worked with Katherine Dunham on Cabin in the Sky, the Nicholas Brothers and Josephine Baker during his tenure on Broadway as Gottschild points out, “…he had direct contact with African American dancers and choreographers and with genres that were highly influenced by Africanisms” (336). So in addition to the way Africanisms inflected American culture, Balanchine also had a lot of experience working with African Americans in the performing arts of dance. Going on, Gottschild states that, “…he introduced to the ballet canon Africanist aesthetic principles as well as Africanist-based steps from the so-called jazz dance repertory. He introduced these innovations into the ballet context while maintaining his grounding in the ballet aesthetic” (336). This is how Balanchine Americanized ballet, he never lost sight of the fact that at the end of the day it was classical ballet that he Americanizing. Balanchine’s choreography is all very clearly still at its roots, classical ballet. Gottschild offers some examples of the Africanist presence in Balanchine’s choreography, “The displacement of hips or other parts of the torso, instead of vertical alignment: leg kicks, attacking the beat, instead of well-placed extensions; angular arms and flexed wrists, rather than the traditional, rounded port de bras” (336-337). These things are elements present in almost all of Balanchine’s choreography and always some of the things that make his choreography so unique. A good example of this is Balanchine’s Symphony in C, where the dancers routinely displace their hips and other parts of their torsos, attack the beat and have angular arms and flexed wrists (From Petipa to Balanchine: Works & process at the Guggenheim). Furthermore, whereas previously these movements would be used for lesser characters, “Balanchine wielded these movements in a decidedly nontraditional fashion and assigned them central significance as movements for principals and soloists” (Gottschild 337). Everyone and perhaps it is most noticeable on soloists and principals, when dancing Balanchine choreography, displace their hips and torso, attack the beat and have angular arms and flexed wrists. Furthermore, Gottschild points out that:
…the underlying speed, vitality, energy, coolness, and athletic intensity that are fundamental to his Americanization of ballet…the radical dynamics, off-center weight shifts, and unexpected mood and attitude changes in Balanchine’s work that create a high-affect juxtaposition of elements uncommon in traditional ballet…he was enticed by what he saw as American qualities of speed and coolness (339).
Balanchine was making something that was different than traditional ballet and embodied the American characteristics of speed and coolness and played with these elements with dynamics, off-center weight shifts and sudden mood changes. Gottschild describes that in fact, “…what Balanchine was exposed to, is the phrasing, counting, and timing that come from Africanist influence in American culture, so native to us that we take it for granted” (340). Africanist elements have influenced American culture so much so that Americans do not understand what they find natural is actually Africanist. It is the Africanist roots in American culture that make up much of how Balanchine Americanized ballet. The Africanist roots in America that Balanchine infused his American ballet with were a part of differentiating American ballet from Russia ballet.
Your are such a good writer! I sent this post with 2 others of your last ones to Grandma Jensen with her Mothers Day gift. Have a wonderful day!! Much love, Mom
Thanks Mom! You rock. 🙂 Happy almost Mother’s Day. xoxo