Perhaps the best-known description of George Balanchine’s achievement as a choreographer is that he made us “see the music and hear the dancing.” Balanchine acknowledged the preeminence of music in his creative process, asserting that “I cannot move, I don’t even want to move, unless I hear the music first.” But it was only in 1941, with Concerto Barocco, that he liberated himself totally from plot, character, and philosophical pretext and created a work which proclaimed unequivocally that the human body moving in relation to music is ballet’s essential concern.
Of this landmark piece, Balanchine himself stated: “The only preparation possible is a knowledge of its music [Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor], forConcerto Barocco has no ‘subject matter’ beyond the score to which it is danced and the particular dancers who execute it.” Masterfully reflecting Bach’s polyphonic structure and development of musical voices—the brilliant interplay of the two solo violins with the chamber orchestra, and with each other—Balanchine’s choreography is as complex and pure as the music itself. But, as many viewers have noted, the ballet is no literal reproduction of Bach’s great score. Rather, it is movement related so ingeniously to the music’s inner workings that it seems an extra line of counterpoint or a partner in a subtle dialogue.
Concerto Barocco was soon recognized as a masterpiece. Choreographed during Balanchine’s free-lance years for a State Department tour of South America, the work was included on the opening night program of the newly established New York City Ballet at the City Center of Music and Drama in 1948 and has rarely been out of that company’s repertory. Concerto Barocco has been in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory since 1977, first in a staging by Melissa Hayden, then restaged by Francia Russell the following year.
Notes by Jeanie Thomas; edited by Doug Fullington, 2010.