Joining the Corps: Balanchine’s Symphony in C at Ballet West’s Iconic Classics


Symphony in C Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust Artists of Ballet West | Photo by Stuart Ruckman

Not many dancers get into ballet with the dream of simply joining the corps, but in “Symphony in C” the corps de ballet is as good a reason as any to join Ballet West’s season opener, Iconic Classics. For those not versed in ballet, the corps de ballet is the largest group which flanks soloists and small groups throughout a particular work. In narrative ballets, the corps helps to move a story along. In “Symphony in C,” a 1940s work by choreographer George Balanchine originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet, the corps serves a primarily visual purpose; large groups of women are consistently framing four female soloists and periodic pas de deux, or dances for two performers, refreshing the scene while breaking down classical ballet formats.

New Yorker magazine critic Arlene Croce spent a good deal of her career finding words for Balanchine’s choreography. In 1975 she got to the heart of the emblematic nature of Balanchine’s objectives: “To make plain to American audiences the dynamics of classical style. In [“Symphony in C”] the dancing grows from simple to complex structures, and every stage of growth is consequentially related to every other. It is partly because of their structural logic that his ballets make such great sense—or such vivid nonsense—to us years after they were completed, but it’s also because such logic isn’t the featured attraction; it’s only the means by which a particular kind of entertainment is elucidated.” Ballet West clearly agrees with Croce’s sentiments, having regularly presented Balanchine. Iconic Classics doesn’t only revive “Symphony in C” but completes it, showing the full ballet after formerly excerpting the work.

Last week, Ballet West presented a rehearsal of the piece with live accompaniment of the Bizet score by Jared Oaks, a frequent conductor at Ballet West’s performances. The new Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre studios, where they performed, are as large as the Capitol Theatre stage, plus wing space, making it possible to take in the full ballet. The setting is sizeable but still more intimate than what audiences typically experience.

The soloists were, as usual, formidable; Emily Adams in particular captures joy through striving, a quality inherent in Balanchine’s work. But it was the corps that continued to draw attention as their power grew with proximity to the material. Artistic Director Adam Sklute persistently suggested that the corps dancers keep thinking about lengthening their backs. From a seat in the house it’s impossible to see how heavy the breathing of the corps is and unlike a soloist who may exit the stage, the corps primarily returns to the sides with their bodies held precisely. The difficulty in this task is easy to overlook which is particularly interesting considering how it is their role that holds the work together, keeping it turning like a kaleidoscope rather than a variety show of smaller acts.

Sklute also gave affirmations to members of the corps who were moving fully off the standing leg, a key characteristic of Balanchine’s work. This gesture is more visible sans costuming and theatrical lighting. Letting an audience in on the complexity of a posture makes the magic of pointe, in which a dancer supports all her weight entirely on the tips of her feet, more visible. Some of this magic may be hidden to audiences who attend the Ballet’s season opener this next week, but they can still consider these moments, opting to let their eyes drift across the action, not needing to be tied to the center. In particular this thought extends to those who find non-narrative ballet inaccessible but who may be persuaded by the sheer difficulty of small moments.

“Symphony in C” isn’t the only work presented in Iconic Classics. In a triple bill, it joins “Fancy Free” by Jerome Robbins and “Overgrown Path” by Jiri Kylian. The programming choices Sklute makes are never easy and in a post-rehearsal discussion he revealed that there are always subtle negotiations between what longtime patrons may expect and what newer audiences may crave. A craving coincides too with Sklute’s common metaphor for a program, a good meal. In the case of Iconic Classics he considers “Fancy Free” an appetizer, “Overgrown Path” a dense main course and “Symphony in C” a concluding hot fudge sundae. To return to critic Croce, she looked at “Symphony” again in the ‘80s and overheard a man in the lobby greeting a companion by saying, “Oh, I couldn’t miss ‘Symphony in C.’ It’s my bread and water.”

Ballet West’s “Iconic Classics,” at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Nov. 6 -14,

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  1. I’ve long thought dance not only the best kept secret in the modern arts, but the one most worth discovering. Thanks to Ashley Anderson for looking at dance the way we look at, say, painting: not as a done deal, but as a work we, the audience, assemble in our minds and bodies. Thanks to her (and her thorough grounding in the literature) we have more and better tools to do this with. I hope she will continue to write such useful and engaging essays.

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