In 1940, as George Balanchine told it, having some extra money from his Hollywood and Broadway activities, he commissioned Paul Hindemith to write a small chamber work that could be played during musical evenings at home. The resulting composition for string orchestra and piano, titled The Four Temperaments, pleased him so much that six years later he choreographed it for the opening program of Ballet Society, the direct precursor of the New York City Ballet.
The Four Temperaments was recognized immediately as a work without precedent in choreographic history. It is Balanchine’s first—and phenomenally powerful—announcement of the spare, dislocated classicism that he would employ throughout his career in works such as Agon, Episodes, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto and that would have such a profound influence on the emerging American style. At the premiere, the great critic Edwin Denby recalled that he sat “spellbound by the constant surprise of the dance development, by the denseness and power of the dance images.” Indeed, in writer Arlene Croce’s words, The Four Temperaments“is a messianic work, which conveys to this day the sense of a brilliant and bold new understanding.”
Although viewers have always been teased by the ballet’s division into sections named after the four medieval humors of the personality—Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric—it is perhaps most rewarding to approach The Four Temperaments as a rich choreographic visualization of Hindemith’s score. As dance writer Marsha B. Siegel reminds us: “Balanchine is about form, not about the romantic expressiveness with which most other theater is still involved.” Thus, the music’s subtitle, “theme and four variations,” is also a guide to the ballet’s structure. To the three-part division of Hindemith’s initial theme, Balanchine has choreographed a trio of introductory pas de deux. As those musical themes metamorphose and grow increasingly complex in the four sets of variations that follow, so the elemental dance vocabulary with which Balanchine begins also undergoes seemingly inexhaustible permutations as the ballet evolves. So logical yet so infinitely imaginative is the resulting interdependency of the music and choreography that the work has never ceased to engage and fascinate even the most experienced viewers.
The Four Temperaments has rarely been out of the repertory of the New York City Ballet. In 1978, it was the first Balanchine ballet that Founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell brought to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory and it became an early signature piece for the young Company. According to Russell, it is one of the Balanchine ballets that has changed the most significantly over the years, but, with the blessing of Mr. Balanchine, she has continued to stage it as it was performed when she danced in it. With its unique vocabulary and wealth of wonderful parts for both men and women, through numerous revivals The Four Temperaments has been a favorite of PNB dancers and audiences alike.
Notes by Jeanie Thomas; edited by Doug Fullington, 2009.